by Sophia Carter
art by Eva Sturm-Gross
[originally published March 25, 2022]
Every first Saturday in June, Disney World’s main avenue — the one leading to Cinderella’s iconic castle— is awash with red. Ever since 1991, park-goers in red t-shirts emblazoned with rainbow heart-shaped Mickey hands have made the pilgrimage to this annual pride event, paying upwards of $179 a night for “Disney’s Gay Days.” Nearly thirty years later, in September of 2020, the park’s “four keys” of conduct (safety, courtesy, show, and efficiency) have been updated, with the addition of a fifth key: “inclusion.” In doing so, the corporation has finally put in writing the welcoming ethos its parks have long capitalized on with events like these.
This “earth-shattering” step towards social justice did not come out of nowhere; indeed, it coincides interestingly with a recent changing of the guard. Several months prior, in February of 2020, The Walt Disney Company made history by replacing its former CEO, a white man named Bob, with a different white man named Bob. Iger and Chapek, respectively, share backgrounds in business, but their reputations are pretty disparate. While Iger boasts nearly fifty years of creative involvement in the entertainment industry, fifteen of which were spent as Disney’s CEO, Chapek began his career at Heinz, and has the persona of a “numbers-oriented, bottom-line-focused businessman” (according to The Hollywood Reporter). Rumors of a tense exchange between the two at Iger’s last appearance during a board retreat sent shockwaves through the entertainment industry; supposedly, Chapek countered Iger’s emphasis on Disney’s creativity saying that the company is now “data-driven.” Inside sources debate the truth of the story, but regardless, it reflects current anxieties about the takeover of streaming platforms and Disney’s aggressive monopolization of entertainment. The political discourse of the last turn of the century is interestingly similar. As monopolies seized control of industries, and political machines like New York’s Tammany Hall swayed legislation, public anxiety mounted. Disney, it seems, has dipped its toes in both pools.
Florida’s HB 1557: Parental Rights in Education, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, “prohibits classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” for kindergarten through third-graders and was approved by the Florida House in late February of this year. On March eighth, it was enrolled, and by July first, if it were to pass, teachers in violation would invite lawsuits against their schools. Disney, which employs 62,000 in the state and makes political handouts to the bill's supporters, declined to comment. Scandalized and surprised, LGBTQ+ allied Disney-fans lead protests imploring Bob Chapek to speak, and speak he did.
In defense of his initial silence on the bill, Chapek explained that he believed becoming a “political football” in the situation would do more harm than good. He did apologize later on, vowing to “reevaluate” the brand’s donation strategy. In a typically Iger-like fashion, though, he harped on the company’s power to drive social change through its “diverse stories” such as Black Panther and Coco, instead of through tweets or lobbying efforts. Despite Disney’s total of $299,126 in political gifts to Governor Ron DeSantis and other Florida supporters of this legislation over the past two years, I think he’s right in a backwards way. When stacked up against box office earnings from films like these, ticket sales on Disney World-hosted “Gay Days” and revenue from Disney pride merchandise, less than three hundred thousand dollars is peanuts. In fact, it seems hard to even calculate the exact profit they make from queer creators, queer fans and “good liberal optics'' in general. Disney's power has always been narrative-driven– its ideological sway over the American public.
Indeed, keeping up progressive appearances, the corporation pulls hardly any weight for marginalized communities, often doing overt damage in cases like these. These days, they seem largely to be focused on backpedaling from past errors which include the portrayal of indigenous people in Peter Pan, the “Siamese Cat” caricatures in Lady and the Tramp, and of course, the horror-show that is Song of the South (the inspiration for the parks’ enormously-famous Splash Mountain ride). The list goes on, but more subtle forms of bigotted messaging are also an issue. From the obvious gender roles imposed through early (and I would argue, current) princess content to their strict portrayal of straight relationships in the vast majority of their stories, compiling an exhaustive record of the more pernicious aspects of Disney’s programming would take hours.
Ultimately, their direct involvement in political issues like HB 1557 is only a symptom of the more subtle, pervasive, and dangerous power they wield. The prison notebooks of Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who was jailed for opposing Benito Mussolini, provide an interesting way to look at this. There, he proposed the concept of cultural hegemony, or the idea that the ruling class of a culturally-diverse society controls populations not through force, but instead by imposing social norms and narratives (Jackson Lears, The American Historical Review). The iconic image of Walt hand in hand with a child-sized Mickey Mouse has for years conjured up the paternalistic role the corporation plays in American pop culture (and increasingly, international pop culture). Its products bring comfort to nostalgic adults, act as virtual babysitters for young children, and above all, spoon feed audiences social scripts.
It's easy to see why Bob Iger was so much easier to swallow as CEO: he channeled Walt by maintaining an easy veneer of benevolence and political neutrality, whereas Chapek has let some of the virulence and “money talk” slip through the cracks. Disney’s role in “Don’t Say Gay” is an affront to basic human rights, as he admitted in his apology letter to employees last week, but more than that, it is a warning. A warning that for dominant entertainment corporations, the goal has always been to homogenize cultural attitudes and lull audiences. It will never be any kind of distinct social change.