Disney, PR, and Erasing History as We Know it.

Celebrity scandals aren’t new. But for the first several decades, if a celebrity like Clark Gable or Mae West or Lauren Bacall were to do something morally questionable, illicit, or just plain abhorrent, it wasn’t really that big a deal. Of course, studio executives may have perspired bullets for a bit before sending out grunts to clean up whatever mess their stars got themselves into, but all in all, no big. After all, stars used to be owned by studios before they went freelance. These studios relied on their chattel – I mean, stars – to bring in money, so if they did anything bad, it was up to the studio to fix it, since God forbid an ingenue would show up onscreen pregnant, strung out, or worst of all…(gasp!) overweight! If you want the full breadth of this kind of terrifying life in early Hollywood, look up Judy Garland’s stories and you’ll never watch The Wizard of Oz the same way again.

But as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Actors, directors, writers, etc. are still human. Movies still define most peoples’ perspective of the world. People of all races, religions, ages, genders, and alcohol tolerance levels still do stupid things. We ordinary shmucky sheeple find ourselves enamored by the lives of wealthy, elitist entertainers who earn kajillions by playing pretend. But what HAS changed is the speed and general interconnectivity in which we receive, process, and respond to when stories like these break.

Our general idolization of Hollywood largely grows out of our own innate envy. And because we humans love scandalous behaviors, it’s all the more delicious to see someone so successful, so affluent, so less-deserving-of-success-because-you-aren’t, tumble from their high horse and bite into a big ol’ slice of humble pie. TMZ has enjoyed gangbuster ratings since 2005 because we love seeing these holier-than-thou Hollywood phonies taken down a peg. Sometimes for good, sometimes for ill, but for the most part, now that actors are free to move about between studios and choose projects, the only person they truly hurt is themselves if they get a DUI, send out racist tweets, get arrested, or recorded during a drunken outburst.

Unless Disney is involved.

Recently, Disney has been enforcing a rather draconian system of penalizing its stars, regardless of their promise of financial potential, to avoid tarnishing the brand with controversial actors. On the surface, this doesn’t sound so bad. I mean, it’s just sound business sense. If you sign up a star to appear in a family-friendly movie, you probably want to steer clear of the actors who get in headlines more for debauchery than their movie roles. However, Disney’s implementation of the policy has become…problematic.

The earliest record I can find that may be of this practice goes back to 1994. The theme park attraction Captain EO, starring Michael Jackson, had been electrifying park goers since 1986, but in 1993, long before it became a well-publicized punchline, Jackson was involved in a molestation scandal that lasted about a year. From 1994 to 1998, the four Captain EO shows shuttered one at a time and all made way for Honey, I Shrunk the Audience. If these closures weren’t tied to the controversy, then Disney executives were probably sighing with relief when the 2005 accusations arose, further tainting the name of the celebrity. But after Jackson’s untimely death in 2009, and the laughs at his expense turned to woeful cries of loss, Disney brought the attraction back for an encore that lasted about five years. At least by this time, he was no longer the creepy-looking weirdo who loved children a little too much, but the genius of music we never appreciated.

In 2002, Jeffrey Jones, whom you may recognize from Amadeus, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Beetlejuice, pleaded no contest to charges of child pornography in 2002. Jones was part of a pre-show at Walt Disney World’s ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter since 1995. However, the attraction was long considered highly controversial due to its intense nature. Apparently, being locked down in a dark room with a carnivorous alien that breathes, drools, and touches guests in the heart of the Magic Kingdom wasn’t as whimsical as Disney had hoped. The attraction closed in 2003 to make way for Stitch’s Great Escape. While there doesn’t seem to be a correlation between Jones’ indictments and the ride closure, it definitely didn’t help.

In 2014, several women came forward to claim the renowned comedian Bill Cosby assaulted them, and as the case went to court and gained national attention, Disney took notice. While Cosby’s only Disney credit is the 1981 comedy The Devil and Max Devlin, his bust was featured at Disney’s Hollywood Studios alongside Walt Disney, Bob Newhart, Mary Tyler Moore, Betty White, and Oprah Winfrey at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame exhibit. In July of 2015, the bronze statue of the disgraced comedian was suddenly and quietly removed from the outdoor exhibit.

In light of the #MeToo movement, several accusations against Pixar Studios and its “Boy’s club” atmosphere became known. But in November, Pixar co-founder, CCO of Walt Disney Animation Studios, and Principal Creative Advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering John Lasseter was publicly accused of numerous sexual misconduct acts, with allegations that claimed not only was this a problem, but a well-known problem, involving minders, according to Variety, who would keep an eye on him. Lasseter announced he would resign in June of 2018, but he’d stay till the end of the year.

In 2018, things REALLY picked up. First was comedian Louis C.K., who was charged with sexual misconduct. He had been called to reprise his role as Max in a sequel to Illumination’s The Secret Life of Pets, but after the allegations, he was removed from the project. But Disney took it a step further. For the hit series Gravity Falls, Louis voiced a monster credited as the “Horrifying Sweaty One-Armed Monstrosity” in the show’s finale. But after two years, it was decided to retroactively cut Louis out and have show creator Alex Hirsch re-dub his lines.

In March, Roseanne Barr returned to ABC television, continuing her sitcom, Roseanne, as part of Disney’s effort to bank on viewers’ nostalgia for the nineties. Roseanne herself had been in the news off and on due to her controversial attitude and pro-Trump beliefs since her show went off the air in 1997. But Disney’s tepid patience was ripped asunder rather quickly when after only nine episodes and two months into her new show’s run, the comedienne tweeted that Valerie Jarrett, former advisor to president Obama, was a combination of a ape and a Muslim. The show cancelled production immediately and Roseanne has since not handled the firing well, blaming Ambien, Memorial Day Weekend, the liberal media, and most recently, posted a video where she screams “I thought the b-&@$ was white!!”. No word if Disney plans to re-dub all future releases of Home on the Range. That is, if it ever is lucky enough to get one. (Zing!). Ultimately, a spinoff series, The Conners, premiered later that year, excising Roseanne from the show.

Most recently, we have James Gunn. The man who wrote and directed both Guardians of the Galaxy movies has generated a loyal and passionate fan base, especially among Marvel fans. But tweets unearthed from nearly a decade ago from Gunn’s Twitter account reveal jokes about pedophilia and rape, jokes that have since been apologized for, but Disney won’t stand for it. While working on the third installment of the popular franchise, Gunn was quickly fired, leaving fans outraged, demanding everything from Gunn getting re-hired, possibly Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi taking over, and whistleblower Mike Chernovich getting penalized. Even the central cast of Guardians have spoken out, particularly Dave Bautista, who plus Drax.

You may have mixed feelings over these stories. And I don’t blame you. Some are clearly a case of the celebrity screwing up, some of Disney overstepping the line, and some are too fuzzy to call. I think most of us agree there’s a line. While I personally agree the removing of Cosby’s bust and canceling Roseanne were good calls, I don’t think Louis’ re-dubbing was worth the effort and I don’t Gunn should have been fired. But is there any consistency here?

The answer is a profound no. Here are some other controversies where the actors in question have received little to no discipline from Disney:

– Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp have had histories of drug and alcohol abuse. Downey had turned a new leaf by the time Marvel Studios cast him for Iron Man, but Depp fell off the wagon in recent years, exacerbating costs in the recent Pirates of the Caribbean films.

– Miley Cyrus had a fairly clean reputation during her run on Hannah Montana, but not long after she was freed from Disney’s control, she began twerking against Robin Thicke and swinging naked in “Wrecking Ball”. Her television show has been all but forgotten and most don’t realize she starred in 2008’s Bolt.

– Lindsey Lohan got started in 1998’s The Parent Trap, but soon started in several Disney live action films like Freaky Friday and Herbie: Fully Loaded. Right about then, Lohan became infamous for her tabloid scandals, and her roles at Disney made her issues all the more scandalous. Lohan has retreated from the spotlight since, but Disney has made no effort beyond just maintaining distance.

– Mel Gibson is known for many things. Bottom of the list? 1995’s Pocahontas as John Smith. Top of the list? A drunken, racist outburst from a DUI in 2006.

– Britney Spears. Once an adorable singer in the 1990 Mickey Mouse Club alongside Ryan Gosling, Keri Russell, and Justin Timberlake, but in the mid-aughts, Spears was seen as losing her mind, most notably from when she shaved her head in 2007. Of course, the relationship between a Disney and Spears was tenuous at best.

-In 2012, Harmony Korine released Spring Breakers, a controversial independent movie about four young women going to Florida and getting involved in all sorts debauchery: drugs, drinking, violence, and more. The primary reason for the attention the movie gained was due to two of the film’s bikini-clad stars were Disney Channel starlets: Selena Gomez (Wizards of Waverly Place) and Vanessa Hudgens (the High School Musical trilogy). At least Hudgens had finished High School Musical four years prior, but Gomez would continue to portray her character until 2013.

So at what point does it become necessary to try to scrub a relationship? At what point is it salvageable? Hollywood is a brutal landscape for PR representatives and agents who constantly try to make their clients look like decent people.

But can it really be that easy? Hollywood life is front and center to millions thanks to blogs, Twitter, magazines, and TV. Nothing is private there anymore. Now, if I want to look up any and all dirt on any actor and make a case that they’re unfit to portray a character in my PG-rated Disney movie, I can. Not that I want to, but I can. Scary thought, isn’t it?

It gets worse, though. Look back at James Gunn’s situation. It’s bad enough to get fired for something you are apologetic for and have matured beyond. Especially when it was done in 2006, long before anyone could have imagined the Tromeo and Juliet screenwriter would get to direct a D-list Marvel superhero film successfully. Because it is an incredibly slippery slope. Allow me to elucidate.

Comedians make a living by making people laugh. Sometimes that involves saying something shocking to trigger a reaction. And ever since Aladdin in 1992, Disney began hiring comedians with frequent regularity. See, I don’t need to remind you all what an incredible lightning-in-a-bottle circumstance it was that Robin Williams’ Genie performance blew everyone away. And even if Gilbert Gottfried hadn’t quite received the same amount of praise, the precedent was set. A comedian voicing a comic side character, riffing whatever pop culture references they could. But what made it work was the talent themselves. Robin Williams was known for his impressions and manic delivery, perfect for a spirit who can transcend space and time who’d been cooped up in a lamp for ten millennia. Iago was a parrot, and a loud, gravelly-voiced comedian fit the bill…er, beak. But if you’ve seen Williams’ standup, you know he doesn’t play to kids. And Gottfried…well, let’s just say he lost his Aflac gig for a reason.

But the runaway success of Genie (and to a lesser extent, Gottfried) has urged Disney to bring about more comedians for roles, whether or not they really fit. The Brooklyn-accented guy from Taxi as a satyr from Greece? The fast-talking Axel Foley as a dragon in China? George Constanza as a French gargoyle? David Spade as an Incan emperor-turned-llama? And as time went on, we got to see other comedians like Cheech Marin (Oliver and Company, The Lion King, Cars), Tommy Chong (Zootopia), Adam Sandler (Bedtime Stories), Sarah Silverman (Wreck-it Ralph), George Lopez (The George Lopez Show, Beverly Hills Chihuahua), Jeff Dunham (Sonny with a Chance), Patton Oswalt (Ratatouille, Kim Possible), Penn and Teller (Toy Story, Fantasia 2000), Larry the Cable Guy (Cars), Tim Allen (Toy Story, The Santa Clause, Home Improvement), Gabriel Iglesias (Planes, Coco), and even one of the most controversial comedians of them all, George Carlin, the man who joked that he hoped Mickey Mouse died from eating tainted cheese, has been in Cars and a direct-to-video midquel, Tarzan II.

But again…have you heard some of these guys’ standup? Some of these comedians are risqué while others are downright vulgar. Once again, this begs the question, where is the line drawn? What makes it okay to have a history of making jokes that are intended to shock, but still provide voice over for a children’s cartoon seen by millions for decades, and when is it not okay? At least Gunn pulled his stunts several years prior to associating with Marvel, but Roseanne was firmly in the spotlight and starring in her brand-new ABC show when she went off the rails. Silverman’s shtick as a wild brat gels with her Vanellope character, but Lasseter completely betrays his endearing, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing, kid-in-a-candy-ship persona by being just another Hollywood pervert.

But it isn’t just about talent, either. This problem goes back a much longer way. Did you know one of the first big hits the company had, 1933’s The Three Little Pigs, had a joke about the wolf dressing as a Jew?

Not that it ever happened, you see. Right, “Fuller Brush Man”, as you work your way through college?

How about those cigarettes removed from Saludos Amigos and Melody Time?

Geez, and people get all mad when George Lucas changes a few things in Star Wars

These instances are just a fraction of all sorts of cartoons where racially insensitive or otherwise objectionable depictions are shown. But only these are the ones where Disney took time to rectify and edit for future viewing. Cannibal Capers is still incredibly racist, Mickey Mouse still holds Donald Duck at gunpoint in Symphony Hour, a school still gets bombed in Teachers are People, Pluto’s first true words are “Mammy!” in 1931’s The Moose Hunt, Mickey in Arabia from 1932 is still…well, I’ll let you imagine what goes on in that one.

Of course, if I’m going to talk about erasing history at Disney, no discussion about it is complete with bringing up Song of the South.

If you read my other article, “Should Song of the South Also be Remade” (link here: https://wp.me/p9CW55-3B), you should know I sincerely love the movie. And if you know about it, you know its handling of the subject matter has been controversial at best. Still, Disney is caught in this terrible limbo where they don’t want to acknowledge the thing, but oh, hey, look at that! It gave the world “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” and Splash Mountain! And look at this, they gotta reference it in every Disney history literature, from the history of the company books to the CD pamphlets to the theme park travel guides.

I guess what it ultimately comes down to is money. Shocker, I know. But really, it’s not as direct as it seems. Disney could make a ton of money by releasing Song of the South, not unlike if they released the original, unedited Star Wars: A New Hope. But because Disney banks on looking like the grand pillar of wholesomeness and family values, they fear they have to wash their slate completely clean. Yet even if they convince the average moviegoer or theme park patron that no conflict whatsoever ever goes on with their products, they still can’t shake the one perspective many a jaded individual carries: the money-hungry corporation that prioritizes profits over quality product.

This is the company that has caused staggering ticket price raises for decades. They flaunt their wealth by buying 21st Century Fox, Marvel, Lucasfilm, ABC, ESPN, the Muppets, and Maker Studios. And as long as Captain Jack Sparrow, Iron Man, the Genie, Vanellope von Schweetz, and Cars continue to make bank, they’ll stay that way. Unless the moral gaffe is deemed that egregious, like with Gunn, Cosby, Lasseter, CK, and Barr, then…maybe that PR is a better consolation prize.

It’s all very messy and confusing. Hopefully we can get a better handle on this in the future, but unless every Hollywood celebrity agrees to forego all things not rated G for general audiences, this seems like something we’ll have to talk about for a long, long time.

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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