Disney, built on fairy tales and fantasy, encounters the real world

Since its founding in 1923, Disney has stood alone in Hollywood in one primary way: its family movies, TV shows, and fun games, at least in theory, have always aimed everyonewith potential political and cultural pitfalls enthusiastically avoided.

The Disney brand is all about wishing for stars, finding true love, and living happily ever after. In the event that fairytale castles are too subtle, Disney theme parks totally promise an escape from reality with welcome signs that say, “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.”

Lately, however, the ugliness of the real world has been infiltrating the Magical Kingdom. In this hard-partisan moment, both sides of the political divide were bombarding Disney, jeopardizing one of the world’s most famous brands — one that, for many, stands for America itself — as it tries to navigate a rapidly changing entertainment industry.

In some cases, Disney voluntarily waded into cultural issues. Last summer, to applause from progressives and snarls from the far right, Disney decided to issue loudspeaker ads at its theme parks that are gender-neutral, excluding “ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls” in favor of “dreamers of all ages.” But the entertainment giant has also found itself mired in the fray, as with the recent situation over a new Florida law that among many things restricts classroom teaching to third graders about sexual orientation and gender identity and has been described by opponents as a “don’t say jay.”

At first, Disney tried not to side with the legislation, at least publicly, which led one employee to revolt. Disney then decry the bill — only to find itself in the crossfire of Fox News hosts and Florida Governor, Ron DeSantis, who sent a fundraising email to his supporters saying that “Woke Disney” “has lost any moral authority to tell you what to do.” Florida lawmakers have begun threatening to repeal a 55-year-old law that enables Walt Disney World to operate as its own municipal government. (Disney has already been at loggerheads with the governor over pandemic issues such as mandating a vaccine for employees.)

In trying to offend anyone, Disney seems to have lost everyone.

“The mission of the Disney brand has been really clear: to do nothing that might annoy or confuse the family audience,” said Martin Kaplan, University of Southern California Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the University of Southern California Walt Disney previously. Studios Executive. “Fun for all. Nothing is rejected. Let’s all be transformed by the magic wand. But we are so divided today, so fast, that even Disney is having a hard time bringing us together.”

Avoiding socially divisive topics, of course, in itself reflects a certain view of the world. After all, the founder of the Walt Disney Company of the same name was an anti-union conservative. The patriotic spirit of Main Street, USA, is prominently featured in the Disney theme parks. The traditional Christmas story is told each December at Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California with candlelit processions, Bible verses and all that.

The company took until 2009 to introduce a black princess.

But in recent years, there has been a noticeable change. Robert Iger, who served as CEO from 2005 to 2020, pushed the world’s largest entertainment company to emphasize diversity of acting and storytelling. As he said at the 2017 Disney Shareholders Meeting, referring to inclusion and equality: “We can take these values, which we consider socially important, and actually change people’s behavior — make people more receptive to differences, cultures, multiple races, all other aspects of our lives and our people.” .

In essence, entertainment as leverage.

It was Mr. Egger who pushed forward the world’s leading movie “Black Panther,” which had an almost all-black cast and a strong Afrocentric story line. During his tenure, Disney refocused the “Star Wars” franchise around female characters. A parade of animated films (“Moana”, “Coco”, “Raya and the Last Dragon”, “Soul”, “Encanto”) showcased a variety of races, cultures and ethnicities.

The result was, for the most part, one hit after another. But a segment of the Disney audience has fallen out.

“Eternals,” a $200 million Disney-Marvel movie, was “review bombarded” in the fall because it depicted a gay superhero kissing his husband, with online trolls flooding the internet’s movie database with hundreds of one-star reviews. homophobic. In January, actor Peter Dinklage and others accused Disney of trafficking stereotypes by going ahead with the live-action film “Snow White” — until it was revealed that the company was planning to replace the Seven Dwarfs with “digitally created magical creatures,” Which in turn has sparked complaints by others about “erase” people with dwarfism.

Disney executives tend to dismiss such incidents as storms in teacups: They’re trending today, replaced by a new complaint tomorrow. But even mild Internet storms can be a distraction within a company. hold meetings on how to respond and whether to respond; Angry talented partners must be reassured.

As Disney prepares to introduce the streaming service in 2019, a comprehensive review of its movie library has begun. As part of the initiative, called Stories Matter, Disney has added disclaimers to content that the company has determined to include “negative images or abuse of people or cultures.” Examples included episodes of “The Muppet Show” from the 1970s and the 1941 version of “Dumbo.”

“These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now,” the disclaimer reads.

The Stories Matter team specifically flagged other characters as potentially problematic, with findings distributed to senior Disney leaders, according to two current Disney executives, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential information. Ursula, the villainous sea witch from The Little Mermaid (1989), was one of those. The Stories Matter team warned that the dark color palette (lavender skin and black legs) can be seen through an ethnic lens. She is also a “coded queer” character, with behaviors partially inspired by those of a real-life drag queen.

Tinker Bell has been flagged for caution because she is “physically conscious” and jealous of Peter Pan’s attention, according to executives, while Captain Hook may expose Disney to accusations of discrimination or bias against individuals with disabilities because he is a villain.

At least some people inside Disney worry that these sensitivities are going away. One executive expressed concern that looking at artistic creations through a “correct political filter” could dampen creativity.

Disney declined to comment for this article.

All of this comes at a perilous time for Disney, which is racing to remake itself as a streaming giant as tech giants like Amazon and Apple move deeper into entertainment and traditional cable networks like Disney-owned ESPN are slowly fading away. Disney is also dealing with a disturbing change of guard, with Mr. Iger stepping down as CEO in December.

Mr. Egger spoke occasionally on hot political issues during his tenure as CEO. His successor, Bob Tangling (supported by Disney’s board of directors) decided to avoid influencing the country’s political battles. However, Disney lobbyists will continue to work behind the scenes, as they have done with the Florida legislation.

Our Diverse Stories be Our company’s statements — and they are stronger than any tweet or lobbying effort,” Mr. Chapek wrote in an email to Disney employees on March 7. “ears and hearts — will dwindle if our company becomes a political football in any discussion.”

In the Florida case, this approach backfired, first with employee protests and withdrawals and then with a right-wing backlash. Fox News host Tucker Carlson said Disney had a “sex agenda for 6-year-olds” and was “scary as hell.” Tweets with the hashtag #boycottDisney accumulated millions of impressions between March 28 and April 3, according to analytics firm ListenFirst.

Disney executives have long held the position that boycotts have little, if any, impact on the company’s business. Disney is such a giant (which generates nearly $70 billion in annual revenue) that avoiding its products is almost impossible.

But the same broad scope that makes it difficult to boycott Disney also makes it an increasingly visible part of the country’s cultural debates. Hardly a month goes by without any kind of dust, and gender identity and gender are usually the trigger.

Last summer, Disney Junior’s “Muppet Babies” series for children ages 3 to 8, gently explored gender identity. Gonzo donned a gown, defying Miss Peggy’s directive “Girls come as princesses, and boys come as knights.” Out magazine wrote that the episode “just sent a powerful message of love and acceptance to heterosexual children everywhere!” A far-right analyst criticized Disney for “pushing the trans agenda” for children, which led to an online shooting.

Around the same time, some LGBTQ advocates were criticizing Disney for “Loki,” the Disney+ superhero show. In the third episode of “Loki,” the title character briefly confesses for the first time on screen what comic book fans have long known: he’s bisexual. But treating the information in such a flash-and-miss you has angered some prominent members of the LGBTQ community. It’s one word,” said Russell T Davis, a British screenwriter (“Queer as Folk”), during a panel discussion at the time. “It’s a ridiculous, cowardly, and insignificant gesture.”

The fight will undoubtedly continue: Disney-Pixar’s Lightyear, due out in June, depicts a loving gay couple, while Thor: Love and Thunder, arriving in July, will feature a big LGBTQ character.

Last month, when Disney held its latest shareholder meeting, Mr. Tangle was put on the spot by shareholders from the political left and right.

One person called on Disney to commission contributions to lawmakers who have championed bills restricting voting and reproductive rights. Mr. Chabek said Disney gave money “to both sides of the aisle” and that it was re-evaluating its donation policies. (He then paused all contributions in Florida.) Then another representative of the contributor advocacy group took the microphone and noted that “Disney from its inception has always been a safe haven for children,” before turning to homophobic comments and asking Mr. Intertwined “to abandon politicization and gender ideology.”

In response, Mr. Schapke noted conflicting shareholder concerns. “I think everyone involved in today’s call can see how hard it is trying to thread the needle between the extreme polarization of political views,” he said.

“What we want Disney to be is a place where people can come together,” he continued. “My view is that when someone walks down Main Street and walks into the doors of our parks, they put their differences aside and see what they have as a shared belief—a shared belief in Disney’s magic, hopes, dreams, and imagination.”

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