February 24th, 2022. In the Florida House of Representatives, bill HB 1557, officially called the Parents Rights in Education bill, introduced by Rep Joe Harding, is approved. What becomes known to the public as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill outlines rather broadly that education on topics such as sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools across the state for grades 3 and under are to be prevented outright, and discussions in classes grade 4 and up are to be defined as “age appropriate”. It also allows Florida parents to sue schools should they decide what isn’t appropriate to teach their children.
What was incredibly alarming to many was the revelation of the corporate donors. Companies such as Walgreens, Anhueser-Busch, Publix, Duke Energy, and AT&T all contributed. Comcast/NBC, while not the largest donor with $28k (The largest was Publix with $125k), was terribly upsetting, as they owned one of Florida’s top tourist destinations, Universal Studios Florida, who reacted to the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting with their “Love is Universal” marketing campaign, demonstrating their alleged support of the LGBT+ community. Disney, over the course of two years, had donated over $249k to various Florida lawmakers, including Joe Harding and other supporters of the bill, and an extra $50k to Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, alone. And Disney’s response to the passing of the bill that affects so many of their staff at the popular themed resort in Lake Buena Vista? Dead silence.
March 3rd, 2022. After a whole week of deafening and telling silence, president and CEO of the Walt Disney Company, Bob Chapek, finally released a statement. In this statement, he avoided all mentions of the bill directly, and instead asserted that he himself was an ally of the LGBT+ community, and that the greater inclusion of “inspiring content” was going to be a better way of enacting support. You know, the company that has movies like 2020’s Onward, 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, and 2019’s Rise of Skywalker, which feature blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references to non-het characters, perfect for splicing seamlessly out for foreign markets, but still inciting bombastic headlines about “THE FIRST GAY DISNEY CHARACTER EVER!!”. That company.
The blowback was so instantaneous that Disney streaming services executive Michael Paull sent a memo to Florida cast members assuring them that while people were upset, it’s okay because he made a personal donation to the Human Rights Campaign and advised cast members to contact their Employee Assistance Program network to seek out a therapist.
March 8th. The bill passes the Florida Senate. At this point, all it needs a signature from governor DeSantis, who made it no secret he has been in support of the bill.
March 10th. At an engagement in Boca Raton, DeSantis doubled down on his conviction to pass the bill, clearly unimpressed with Disney floundering in their desperate attempt to “both sides” the issue. He accused Disney of being woke and criticized Disney’s practice of making millions off marketing family values while criticizing a parent’s right to choose what their kids should and shouldn’t be exposed to.
March 11th. Chapek took to the public microphone once again. Humbled by the outrage, he announced Disney would pause all political donations, reassess them, and donate at least $5 million to the Human Rights Campaign, and basically grovelled as he apologized to the masses for the company’s silence on the bill.
The same day, a letter surfaced from employees at Pixar that they had been trying to include greater LGBT+ representation in their movies, but unnamed executives bar them from doing so.
Nice try, Chapek.
How we got to this point.
Disney has never been terribly progressive in its practices for human rights. Like all companies, they latch onto progressive movements less as a means to be more inclusive and more to just cash in on a trend to make more money. For the longest time, apologists like me have tried to rationalize the need to appeal to both ends of the political spectrum as a business endeavour, but the longer this goes on, the more it looks like pure disingenuousness on both sides. The LGBT+ community are convinced Disney is too far right and would sacrifice them to the slaughter if given the chance, whereas DeSantis and his ilk think Disney’s too far left to care about parents who don’t want their kids to become gay. As usual, in Chapek’s desperate, desperate attempt to appease both sides, he ended up appeasing neither and lost face completely. And the guy had been in charge of the damn company for only 2 damn months.
Bob Iger, who ran the company from Eisner’s departure in late 2005, retired in December of 2021, handed the reins to Chapek, who at the time was the executive of Disney Parks and Resorts. Iger may not have been adored as Walt was, but his reputation was hardly as bad as Eisner’s later years. A lifelong democrat, Iger was vocal on Twitter when states like Georgia floated controversial bills, threatening to take their business elsewhere if they passed them. He served on Trump’s advisory board until he pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, at which point he resigned in protest. He even considered running for president, but was dissuaded when he thought he’d be an unpopular candidate.
Chapek, meanwhile, took over his Parks and Resorts executive role after running Disney’s Home Entertainment and Consumer Products divisions in 2015. He became renowned among Disney fans and staff for prioritizing I.P. insertion into the parks, particularly with Marvel, Star Wars, and Avatar. Once he was elected onto the board in April of 2020, and while Iger worked alongside him until his resignation, he quickly gained infamy for rushing to reopen the theme parks amid the COVID pandemic, the underwhelming reveal of Avenger’s Campus, the rollout of Disney Genie, adding the $30 Premier Access fee to new releases while neglecting it for Pixar titles, screwing over Scarlet Johansson’s back-end deal for Black Widow, the outlandish pricing and terrible marketing of the Galactic Cruiser hotel, and the filming of 2020’s Mulan in Xinjiang, where signficant atrocities are being committed by the Chinese government on the Uyghur population. That’s not a great track record when you’ve been running a fortune 500 company for almost two years and had your hand held by your predecessor for 21 months.
Disney parks have, for what it’s worth, been working to apply greater effort in representation after decades of controversial decisions, from Pirates’ wench auction to Splash Mountain to the Jungle Cruise’s Trader Sam. On the other hand, they added the fifth key of inclusivity, which…at this point is clearly nothing more than shameless virtue signaling.
Then there’s the Gay Days event, which started in the nineties. Thousands of LGBT+ people with expendable income and a love for Mickey visit the parks every June, and Disney rolls out more and more rainbow-colored merchandise. Again, this seems progressive…until you realize what this does is make Disney more money and doesn’t require any real commitment to supporting them in any meaningful way. And yet, they still get criticism from the right. Remember this article? Chapek doesn’t want to lose either progressives or conservatives…but there is no way of compromising. People like Jonathon VanBoskerck who don’t want to see any gay people depicted anywhere, and people like their LGBT+ fans need representation to feel seen. These desires run contrary to each other, and Chapek’s silence says more than we want to hear.
So as I write this, multiple employees of the Walt Disney Company are walking out. At various company branches. From ESPN to Walt Disney World to Pixar, staff are taking to the streets and many of their respective social media accounts are denouncing Chapek’s actions directly. This is unprecedented.
Why this matters
With the recent release of Pixar’s Turning Red, one of the complaints I’ve heard against its creative choices is that the main protagonist, Mei, is a Chinese-Canadian 13-year-old girl going through puberty. Various critiques, particularly from fellow white male American adults, include the gripe that because Mei is so hyper-specified in her struggles and her identity that it became impossible for them to relate to her.
For now, I’m going to ignore the fact that a person doesn’t HAVE to be completely identical to you for you to get a story, as I saw Turning Red and related to struggles I’ve had growing up on a metatextual level, but what I AM gonna do is point out that cinema has been rich with white male heroes for decades…and my fellow white male cinephiles are complaining that this character is too niche, too unlike them to relate to, so they couldn’t get into the movie. So to those who have this complaint, I say, “WELL GEE HONKIN’ WILLIKERS, MAYBE THAT’S WHAT WE’VE BEEN SAYING FOR FREAKIN’ YEARS, HUH??”
Like…we’ve been inundated with stories about heroes like Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Bilbo Baggins, Tarzan, Luke Skywalker, Robin Hood, Allan Quartermain, Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur, James Bond, and COUNTLESS superheroes…AND YET…when a movie doesn’t star a cisgender heterosexual caucasian male, they get upset about it. It’s like waking up Christmas morning and finding all the presents are for you…but two in the corner are for your sister, and you complain how unfair it is. My point is even when your demographic dominates the landscape of media and entertainment, and this is the reaction, just imagine when you’re not cisgender. Or heterosexual. Or white. Or male. Case in point, Cheryl Dunye.
Dunye produced, wrote, directed, and starred an independent film in 1996 called The Watermelon Woman. Because Cheryl is a black lesbian, her movie focused on both her trying to track down a supposedly fellow black lesbian from an old movie, as well as her experiences as a young adult in Philadelphia in the nineties, which meant, yes, things like sex and weed usage. The movie was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, and because of this, House Representative of Michigan Peter Hoekstra was yet another politician who tried to defund the NEA. Though he tried to claim he objected to the explicit sex scenes, not merely the gay content, there doesn’t seem to be any statement from him about wanting to financially reprimand Castle Rock Entertainment for making Striptease, which came out the same year. Or even the year prior’s Showgirls.
Film, like all stories, no matter the medium, intend to tap into the human condition. And struggles are not universally understood. As a cisgender, I’ll never know what it’s like crying myself to sleep at night asking God why I’m not a woman. As a heterosexual, I’ll never what it’s like to be disowned by my family because I find men attractive. As a white person, I’ll never know what it’s like living on a knife’s edge every time a patrol car rolls by. As an American, I’ll never have to worry about foreign troops bursting into my home, shooting my family, carting me off without charge, and drone strike my home under the guise of “freedom”. And as a man, I’ll never know the terror in how a simple unattended drink could lead to me passing out, getting raped, watching the rapist get away scot free, get blamed for being raped, and get saddled with a child I never intended to have.
But I’d like to know. Because I rarely see these kinds of stories. And the Hollywood system thinks I don’t want to. Worse, they conditioned us to think these stories aren’t worth our time. Remember for a while we had superheroine movies like Supergirl, Elektra, and Catwoman, and because they were so badly made (because the studios didn’t care), they’d flop at the box office and they’d turn around try to convince it’s really because no one cares about superheroine movies.
Representation doesn’t just matter, it’s critical in conveying struggles others will never know. As a result, we hone our sense of empathy and compassion. Keeping the marginalized on the sidelines because you’re annoyed by their very existence is such as sad, sad way of going through life, if you ask me.
You don’t “become” gay from watching Star Wars movie or a Marvel show, of course, that’s absurd. I don’t “become” transgender because I watched Mrs. Doubtfire. So this whole ordeal is immeasurably stupid. But children are smarter than we give them credit for and they will have questions. And instead of addressing them, they seem to think clasping their ears and shouting “LA LA LA LA LA” will ensure their kids will never stray from the heteronormative lifestyle. Much like how you can prevent a child from having red hair if they never see people with red hair, I guess.
This is China’s fault, too.
I’ve never wanted to say these words, but.. Ron DeSantis did make one good point. (Blugh) Disney doesn’t get to claim a moral high ground making the money they do when the Communist Party of China is doing some pretty reprehensible crap. As I mentioned earlier, 2020’s Mulan was filmed in the Xinjiang province, where the government is committing some horrible crimes against the Uyghur population, from internment camps to forced sterilization. Again, Chapek and the company proper had nothing to say. Yifei Liu, the actress playing the titular heroine, made a statement supporting the Hong Kong police when they were shown violently beating protestors in the 2019 Hong Kong protests. Bear in mind, this is the company that was quick to sever ties with director James Gunn over some old tweets, but with Liu, again, nothing but silence.
As you probably already know, China isn’t just the home of over a billion people, it’s also Hollywood’s most profitable market. Why are so many movies having scenes in China? To appeal to the locals. Why are there fewer comedies and dramas and more action-oriented blockbusters? Because translations are complicated and action is universally understood. Why didn’t 2018’s Christopher Robin play there? Because in 2018, president Xi Jinping got sick of people comparing him to Winnie the Pooh, and thus what isn’t toys made in Chinese sweatshops or the rides at both Disney parks, is straight up banned. And why oh why is any of this relevant? Because in 2015, China outlawed all depictions of homosexual activity in media.
As I pointed out earlier, Disney is perfectly aware of the demands for non-het representation, but how can they do so with both conservative pearl-clutchers in America and draconian Chinese laws breathing down their necks? The answer is two fold: one, to include a character saying or doing something gay-ish. Either show background characters kiss (Star vs. The Forces of Evil), refer to their same-sex S.O. in passing (Onward), place two members of the same sex in a scene where homosexuality can only be implied (Frozen, Finding Dory), or even do a slightly romantic, yet entirely chaste activity like dancing with someone of the same sex (The Beauty and the Beast remake). However, the key is to make these moments short and inconsequential. So in post-production, these scenes are easy to edit without obstructing the flow of the scene. This version gets sent to China, the government approves it, and watch the money roll in.
Two, the “original” version stays for screenings in the United States and other countries where being gay isn’t a crime. However, the marketing and public relations team will orchestrate a campaign in which they will draw attention to the first EVER gay Disney character (They do this a lot). Then, the press picks up on this, and between the hopefuls and the easily triggered, Disney rides the pre-opening hype train. When the movie premieres, no one but Disney is happy. Progressives annoyed Disney put the character in just a tiny moment, and conservatives annoyed Disney’s gone “woke”. But it doesn’t matter because all those ticket sales paid off!
If China lifted this ban tomorrow, would Disney release a movie starring two Disney princes falling in love? Maybe…but not for at least about five years and not for a tentpole film. Maybe for a DCOM or a Pixar DTV project or a Disney XD limited series, but not headlining anything major. Not while right-wing pundits and politicians keep using “culture war” rhetoric as a means whip their base into a frenzy.
What’ll happen next?
My hot take is not terribly optimistic. The best case scenario is Chapek getting ousted by the board of directors, as numerous shareholders and even Iger is no longer on good terms with him, as reports indicate.
This chart reflects Disney’s stock price over the past few years. As you can see, it freaking plunged after the pandemic closed the parks and delayed their film release schedule. Over the rest of 2020, things looked pretty good as he and Iger seemed to steer into the skid, most likely due to the boon that was Disney+ amid the pandemic. While 2021 showed some stability, clearly cracks began to show mere months before Iger’s departure. A lot of the more controversial aspects seemed pile up like the announcement of Disney Genie (August), the widely panned Star Wars Galactic Cruiser hotel trailer that sparked numerous cancellations (December), the outrageous price reveal of said hotel’s experience (August), and the publicized conflict between them and Scarlet Johansson (July). I don’t know what Iger was doing at this point, but already his appointee showed he wasn’t doing so hot.
I’ve heard sources say that Chapek tends to listen to his own inner circle more than any outside influences, and his experience with the home media and consumer products divisions sharpened his focus to branding, and his elitist perspective mean he’s driven by money, not creativity. One one hand, his board of director pals will give him a hundred chances, but they could just as easily turn on him if they lose too much money too fast. It’s too soon to tell, anything could happen over the next two to three years.
While I do blame Chapek for this calamity, I’m not an idiot. Of course Iger won’t return and expecting an idealist progressive taking over the company is laughable. As long as people like DeSantis and Ben Shapiro keep the vitriol alive in their base and China keeps their ban in place, we shouldn’t expect much of anything to change. But what gives me hope is that the landscape is changing in favor of progressives, whether the conservatives like it or not. Selling gay-themed mouse ears was unthinkable back in the nineties, and as cheap a marketing ploy it is, it wouldn’t exist if there weren’t some level of mainstream acceptance. We millenials and Gen Zers are younger, and we statistically are far more accepting of others than our parents were.
For now, make your voice heard. Support the cast members. Withhold your money on your next Disney purchase. Get active in your local politics and make sure your elected officials aren’t going to draft anymore of these asinine bills. Let’s make a difference together.