The Walt Disney Company may be reaching a tipping point in its long and storied history. For over 90 years it has been a bastion of the middle-class American family, enchanting parents and children alike with stories of virtue rewarded, evil thwarted, and love found. In a highly sentimental but powerful fashion, Disney productions have promoted a wholesome ethos of innocence, upright character, honest striving, and kindness with dashes of adventure, romance, and spookiness throw in for good measure. For several generations now, moms and dads have trusted Disney to instruct and inspire their kids. Walt Disney himself, in the face of snickering sophisticates, proclaimed his intent to reach “the child in all of us” with his cartoons, movies, television shows, and theme parks. He vowed famously that he would never present to the public something that he could not take his wife and daughters to see.
Average Americans responded with an enthusiasm bordering on rapture. Beginning during the dark days of the Great Depression and continuing for almost a century, they eagerly imbibed an array of creations — Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, the Silly Symphonies and Fantasia, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. They flocked to Disneyland and Walt Disney World by the millions. They gorged on Disney merchandise, buying Mickey Mouse watches, Cinderella gowns, Davy Crockett coonskin caps, and Frozen picture books by the truckload. Disney became a byword for wholesome family entertainment, and Uncle Walt, with his warm chuckle and encouraging manner, remains a beloved national icon whose image survived his death and guided his successors.
But now that appears to be changing as the Walt Disney Company has become embroiled in political controversy. Over the last few years, the company’s leadership and an outspoken portion of its workforce have embraced gender and racial radicalism, a move that is generating turmoil within the company and raising eyebrows without. In a variety of ways, it is promoting and disseminating the critical race theory program and LGBTQ precepts. Not surprisingly, in an America deeply divided politically, such moves have opened a divide as woke activists cheer and promise support while traditionalists jeer and threaten boycotts.
All of which has brought the Disney operation face-to-face with an existential dilemma. It must ultimately decide whether it endorses the values of the middle-class and working-class families that have always provided the great bulk of its cultural and economic support or embraces the radical values of prosperous elites who have always despised everything Disney symbolizes and likely will continue to do so. This spectacle raises a fascinating question for anyone interested in America’s modern consumer and entertainment culture: what happens when an immensely influential and profitable entertainment enterprise moves to abandon its audience and its legacy for an ideology? How Disney answers that question and resolves its dilemma may well determine the future of one of the hallmark American enterprises of the last century.
Ironies abound in Disney’s current ideological lurch toward the left. For most of its history, progressives have reviled the company as a bastion of American conformity, materialism, and philistinism. In the early days during the 1930s, founder Walt Disney evinced a vague New Deal liberalism as his Mickey Mouse cartoons presented the lovable scamp as a “little guy” who survived all adversity. Outlets such as the New Republic praised “Leonardo de Disney” for this populist style as well as modernist innovations in animation art. In 1941, however, Walt reacted sourly to a bitter labor strike at Disney Studio. Convinced that communists had inspired it, he moved rightward. Publicly, he testified to communist influence in Hollywood before the House Un-American Activities Committee and energized his instinctive patriotism to become a staunch Cold Warrior and defender of American freedoms and enterprise, while privately he evolved into a conservative Republican. Although scrupulously avoiding political positions in Disney creations, Walt shaped his movies, television shows, and theme parks into warm endorsements of family entertainment and the American way of life. The Left took notice, despising Disney for his patriotism, social traditionalism, and runaway success as a capitalist. Disney denouncers flourished in fashionable liberal circles in the 1950s, and then rapidly multiplied in the cultural upheavals of the 1960s when, for radicals, Uncle Walt became synonymous with everything that needed to be changed in America (although special dispensation was granted to counterculture types who loved to get stoned and stumble into viewings of Fantasia or Alice in Wonderland).
The Left’s disapproval of this popular entertainer reached a crescendo in The Disney Version (1968), a scathing critique authored by Richard Schickel, longtime film reviewer for Time magazine. While grudgingly granting Disney an elevated place in America’s “industrial and entrepreneurial tradition,” Schickel summarized his cultural assessment in a passage dripping contempt for both the legendary figure and his popular audience:
His statements were often vulgar. They were often tasteless, and they often exalted the merely technological over the sensitively human. They were often crassly commercial, sickeningly sentimental, crudely comic. They were easy ones to criticize, and, overall, they had little appeal to anyone of even rudimentary civilization. But the flaws in the Disney version of the American vision were hardly unique to him. They are the flaws … almost universally shared by the masses of the nation’s citizens.
Such attitudes still prevail among America’s social, academic, and media elite, most of whom continue to scorn Disney as sentimental schlock. Mention of Disney’s merits on a university campus, an Upper East Side cocktail party, or a Silicon Valley soiree is almost guaranteed to prompt among the better sort a fit of eye-rolling akin to the whirling fruit images on a slot machine.
Walt Disney, who habitually referred to himself as “Mr. Average American,” scoffed at such criticism. He was utterly convinced of his support among common citizens and, indeed, middle-class and working-class families provided the lion’s share of support for Disney undertakings from the get-go. Since the early 1950s the class divide in support of the company has become ever more striking and significant. Ordinary families with children, largely suburban and small-town folk, increasingly supplied the primary audience for the Disney worldview. Those who could not afford to take their kids to Europe or Aspen or the Hamptons took them to Disneyland. Those who found art films baffling, politically relevant cinema annoying, and Broadway plays prohibitively expensive made Mary Poppins perhaps the most popular movie of the 1960s. Working parents alienated by the radical feminism spouted by academic ideologues found inspiration in Beauty and the Beast, where Belle struggled successfully to grow intellectually and improve her life. Hard-working citizens turned off by the race hustling of the country’s Al Sharptons and his affluent, radical chic enablers found a kindred spirit in The Princess and the Frog, where Disney’s female African-American protagonist was not a victim but a smart, diligent, attractive, self-sufficient individual who was determined to succeed. Ordinary people grown weary of the mayhem-and-murder, explosion-ridden blockbuster films foisted on them by Hollywood media aristocrats found relief in the rollicking adventure story in Pirates of the Caribbean.
If you doubt the ideological and class divide shaping the reception of Disney, simply note the pattern of many reviews of its films in left-leaning media outlets. One example provides the general picture. One of the most beloved films in the Disney oeuvre, The Lion King, appeared in 1994 and went on to become one of the highest-grossing movies of all time.
Huge audiences responded to this dramatic musical’s story, influenced by Hamlet and the lives of Joseph and Moses in the Bible, of a young lion caught up in a dynastic struggle for power in the Pride Lands. Avenging his murdered father, King Mufasa, young Simba uses the help of his friends to finally overthrow his tyrannical uncle, Scar, and assume his rightful place as king. The Lion King won two Academy Awards and a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy, and in 2016 the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the United States film registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
This mattered little to many progressive-minded critics. Upon its initial release Detroit Free Press columnist Neil Chethik denounced The Lion King as “a fundamentally sexist film” because the female lions were “impotent victims whose only hope is to find a male lion who can save them.” Writing in the Boston Globe, Harvard psychologist Carolyn Newberger deemed the film racist and homophobic: “The good-for-nothing hyenas are urban blacks; the arch-villain’s gestures are effeminate, and he speaks in supposed gay cliches.” Twenty-five years later, upon the film’s re-release, an article in the Washington Post proclaimed, “The Lion King is a Fascistic Story.” “Doubling down on Disney’s historical obsession with patriarchal monarchies, it places the audience’s point of view squarely with the autocratic lions, whose Pride Rock literally looks down upon all of society’s weaker groups — a kind of Trump Tower of the African savanna,” the author wrote. “With the lions standing in for the ruling class, and the ‘good’ herbivores embodying society’s decent, law-abiding citizens, the hyenas transparently represent the black, brown, and disabled bodies that are forcefully excluded from this hierarchical society.”
Given this history, the recent moves by the Disney Company to recast itself in the mold of woke activism is startling. It provides a case study of how, in modern American political culture, a vocal and determined minority can capture cultural institutions and remake them — and in the process, perhaps, commit brand suicide.
The boat moved slowly down the winding waterway of the iconic “Jungle Cruise” ride in Disney World. It was filled with about 30 typical park attendees, including a few young couples but mostly parents and their children. True to the tongue-in-cheek tradition of the attraction, the boat guide made fun of the “dangerous” quality of the adventure, joking about the audioanimatronic hippos, lions, rhinos, and elephants scattered about, marveling at “the back side of water” when the craft went behind a waterfall, and making a self-deprecating quip about his parents’ disappointment when they learned he was using his Master’s degree in English literature to work in an amusement park. A slim, charming young man, he then offered a humorous observation about his boyfriend and their relationship troubles. A few moments later, he made another joke about his boyfriend. It was rather gratuitous and while some of the riders laughed, several sets of parents reacted awkwardly, some exchanging pained looks and a few looking at the floor and grimacing.
Over the last few years, Disney appears to have become one of the most woke corporations in the United States as the company leadership has embraced racial and gender radicalism.
Here is the new world of Disney. It’s true, the company has made modest alterations of its products over the last 20 or 30 years to reflect the mainstream evolution of the country on racial issues, women’s rights, and national/ethnic stereotypes. Disney altered the Pirates of the Caribbean ride to remove scenes of the plundering sailors offering “wenches for sale,” while the Jungle Cruise was changed to remove “negative depictions of native peoples.” The company is now overhauling the Splash Mountain roller-coaster attraction because it is visually rooted in the controversial Song of the South film, which has been attacked as racist since its release in 1948. Disney has added “content advisories” to movies such as Dumbo, Fantasia, and Aladdin warning viewers about racial and ethnic stereotypes they would encounter. Beginning in 1991, the Disney Company even began welcoming a yearly “Gay Day” at Disney World (while not officially sanctioning it) and within the last year has publicly affirmed Pride Month, in Disney’s words, “to recognize and celebrate the contributions, culture, and experiences of the LGBTQ+ community.”
But the assertive, even cajoling, quality of the company’s present political correctness goes much further. Over the last few years, Disney appears to have become one of the most woke corporations in the United States as the company leadership has embraced racial and gender radicalism. In recently leaked videos of staff meetings, the executive producer for Disney television animation gloated that the company had gladly accepted her “not-at-all-secret gay agenda” pushing for trans characters and same-sex kissing in upcoming films. She expressed surprise that Disney so readily agreed to adding LGBTQ elements to shows for young children, saying, “I’d heard whispers, ‘They won’t let you show this in a Disney show’ … but then my experience was bafflingly the opposite of what I’d heard.” The same leaked footage showed the Disney Parks diversity and inclusion manager announcing that Disneyland and Walt Disney World has “removed all of the gendered greetings” at the park because they excluded non-binary and trans individuals — so no more “Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls” to welcome visitors. Another content manager vowed to make half the characters in Disney productions LGBTQ and racial minorities by the end of the year, a proportion far in excess of that in actual American society.
Disney’s “Reimagine Tomorrow” training program for employees, another cache of leaked documents reveal, promotes the precepts of critical race theory. Various training modules urge workers to recognize their own “white privilege” and “white fragility” while contemplating America’s “systemic racism” and “racist infrastructure.” They instruct Disney workers to read and internalize essays warning that since “even babies discriminate” against other races they, like all parents, must dedicate themselves to “raising race-consciousness in children.” The Disney Company has endorsed a “21-Day Racial Equity and Social Justice Challenge Day” where participants fill out a checklist calculating their privilege: “I am white,” “I am heterosexual,” “I am a man,” “I still identify as the gender I was born into,” “I have never been raped,” “I have never been called a terrorist.”
This great wave of woke ideology has recently crested in Disney’s public attack on a new Florida statute falsely described by leftist radicals as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. In fact, the “Parental Rights in Education” bill does not mention the word gay but prohibits “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten through third grade, roughly ages 5 to 9; such instruction in higher grades must be “age appropriate and developmentally appropriate” according to state standards. A Politico poll showed that 51 percent of Americans supported the bill, 35 percent opposed it, and the remainder were uncertain. Nevertheless, woke radicals within the Disney Company threw a tantrum, walking out of the theme parks and studio offices in protest of their employer’s failure to denounce it. CEO Bob Chapek, who opposed the statute but avoided an official company stance, was forced into a humiliating public confession of sin. He issued an apology to employees acknowledging the “pain, frustration and sadness” caused by the his initial tepid response. “It is clear that this is not just an issue about a bill in Florida, but instead yet another challenge to basic human rights. You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down,” Chapek said. “I am sorry.” The Disney Company followed with a public declaration that the Florida bill “should never have passed” and vowed, “Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that. We are dedicated to standing up for the rights and safety of LGBTQ+ members of the Disney family, as well as the LGBTQ+ community in Florida and across the country.” Even retired chairman Bob Iger came out of mothballs to slam the Florida legislation as “a hateful bill” and intone that “It’s about right and wrong.”
This ideological crusade has aroused bitter complaints from within the company. A few weeks ago, “Disney Employees’ Open Letter in Favor of a Politically Neutral Disney” appeared, asserting, “The Walt Disney Company has come to be an increasingly uncomfortable place to work for those of us whose political and religious views are not explicitly progressive…. Left-leaning cast members are free to promote their agenda and organize on company time using company resources. They call their fellow employees ‘bigots’ and pressure TWDC to use corporate influence to further their left-wing legislative goals.” Even some gay employees challenged the new Disney orthodoxy. “I’m gay and I think any form of sexual education shouldn’t be taught until you’re older and able to understand it,” wrote one. “[The Florida bill] isn’t infringing upon any member of the LBGT community.” Said another, “Let children be children.” Jose Castillo, a Disney staffer running for Congress in central Florida claims a “silent majority” of Disney employees are being cowed by company management. “There is immense pressure to toe the company line,” he says. “However, the reality is that those drawing attention to this issue are in the minority. The Disney cast members who support the parental rights in [the bill] far outnumber those who are protesting against it.” In the new Disney monolith with its overtly ideological approach to entertainment, it seems, there is no place for social traditionalists, ideological conservatives, or even the politically neutral. (READ MORE: The Real Disney Madness)
But internal divisions are the least of the Disney Company’s problems. In Florida, the Republican governor and legislators are threatening to negate the 1967 Reedy Creek Improvement District agreement that allowed Disney to create a fiefdom in the 28,000-acre Disney World, while nationally conservatives in Congress are talking about refusing to extend, again, the company’s copyright over Mickey Mouse, a move that would deal a devastating financial blow. Most importantly, however, Disney’s woke ideological campaign threatens to alienate its core audience, heretofore fanatically loyal but now increasingly skeptical. Common sense suggests that in the present American climate of intense division, brazenly politicizing entertainment guarantees you will make half of your audience angry. In this case, dangerously for Disney, it is precisely the half of the population that provides most of your support. One fears that the company’s leadership, supported by a contingent of outspoken progressive activists in the company, seems bent on following a path toward self-destruction.
As it stands at this current crossroads, how will Disney solve the dilemma it has created for itself and determine its future? Will it maintain its legacy of innocent, uplifting, wholesome family entertainment that ordinary Americans have always supported? Or will Disney follow its recent trajectory and give us princesses with pronouns? Aladdin striding onscreen with an upraised, clenched fist, wearing a BLM T-shirt? The seven dwarfs proclaiming their homoerotic love? Will the company risk jettisoning its support among middle-class and working-class families to gain the approval of woke radicals who actually loathe everything Disney has ever stood for and will never really be satisfied?
Disney’s woke ideological campaign threatens to alienate its core audience.
Such questions asked by Disney devotees should not be misconstrued as mindless bigotry. Skepticism of woke zealotry is not a brief for white supremacy or misogyny or persecution of sexual minorities. In this day and age, despite the hysterical claims of the woke, the vast majority of Americans endorse racial equality and women’s rights, accept gay marriage, and tolerate, even if they do not always actively support, gender nonconformity. They practice a live-and-let-live ethos and simply wish to avoid constant hectoring about structural racism, patriarchal oppression, and homo/transphobia. In other words, they do not want racial and gender radicalism shoved in their face.
Or in the face of their kids. And make no mistake — the Disney dilemma comes down to children. Average parents have always trusted Disney to amuse and instruct their offspring. Now, suddenly, they do not want this beloved cultural institution to indoctrinate, politicize, and sexualize their children at an early age. This is the same issue that is roiling education around the United States, as witnessed in the recent governor’s race in Virginia, school board battles over radical curricula, and deep concern over transgender women competing in women’s school sports. With politicians, Americans vote in the ballot box, and with entertainment, they vote with their feet and their dollars. If Disney continues down the path toward woke nirvana, the outcome of such a referendum does not look promising for the company.
In Fantasia, Walt Disney’s remarkable 1940 film blending animated images with classical music, Mickey Mouse starred in a segment titled “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” He appears as a magician’s assistant who, in his master’s absence, recklessly uses magical powers to ease his labors, only to create a massive whirlpool of floodwater that threatens to destroy everything. Disaster is averted only when the sorcerer reappears and restores order. The fervent social justice warriors in the ascendency at the Disney Company should heed the moral of this story. Mickey’s hubris and rash conduct, like theirs, threatens to brings down the very enterprise that sustains him. In the film, as in most of Disney’s tales, Mickey learns his lesson and all turns out well. In real life, Disney’s decisions might not bring a “happily ever after” ending.
Steven Watts has written several pieces on cultural and political issues for National Review, the Federalist, Newsweek, and the Atlantic. He is the author of eight books, including The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life, and appeared in American Experience: Walt Disney for PBS.