The wonderfully woke world of Disney: As the governor of Florida goes to war with the entertainment giant over diversity and gender identity, TOM LEONARD asks if the Magic Kingdom can retain its sparkle
Legend has it that Walt Disney had his body cryonically frozen after his death in 1966, hoping that one day — just like his screen princess Sleeping Beauty — he might be revived.
If he came back now, one can only imagine what he would make of his entertainment empire.
The king of squeaky-clean family entertainment would surely be horrified to discover that Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and their fun-loving gang have been shoved aside in an increasingly bitter row over racial and gender diversity, and political correctness.
He’d surely be puzzled why political leaders in Florida — home of the Disney empire’s biggest theme park — are at loggerheads with his company over the education of youngsters on sexual orientation and gender in schools in the Sunshine State.
Uncle Walt might also wonder why Disney World no longer extends its traditional welcome to ‘ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls’.
If he re-watched his 1941 classic Dumbo, he’d surely be confounded by the recently added warning about its ‘negative depictions or mistreatment of people or cultures’.
If Walt Disney came back today, what would he make of his entertainment empire? Leaders in Florida, where Disney World is located, are clashing with his company over the education of youngsters on sexual orientation and gender in schools in the Sunshine State
But what might dismay him most would be to find that Disney executives are so appalled by the ‘dangerous’ colour, sex and gender conformity of many of his beloved characters — even Donald Duck is white, for heaven’s sake — that, if they weren’t such lucrative moneyspinners, they’d happily tear them up and start all over again.
Despite reportedly being a conservative at heart, Disney always did his best to stay out of politics and indeed any sort of controversy, and concentrated on entertaining children.
His Magic Kingdom became one of the most famous brands in the world by providing a cosy escape from hard reality.
However, the 99-year-old behemoth — which generates some £55 billion a year — has pitched itself into the culture wars between Hollywood and its critics over claims it is sinking into an oppressive ‘wokeism’ malaise.
Disney World is Florida’s top attraction. But last Friday, the state’s ruling Republicans stripped the company, which employs 75,000 people there, of the right to govern its vast resort and theme park itself.
The decision ended an extraordinary 55-year-old deal which allowed Disney to control its own water, roads, emergency services and construction.
Now the love affair is over and, say the state’s conservatives, Disney has only itself to blame.
The move is in retaliation for the decision by Disney bosses to publicly attack new legislation introduced by Florida’s governor and possible presidential contender, Ron DeSantis, to ban primary schools from teaching children aged five to nine about sexual orientation and gender identity.
Supporters of the Parental Rights in Education Act say it allows parents to decide when their children are taught about such subjects. Opponents — who call it the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law — say it’s ‘hateful’ and could stigmatise young LGBT people.
New Disney chief executive, Bob Chapek, had decided to stay out of politics when he took over the company at the beginning of this year.
He initially stayed silent when some of his staff demanded that Disney publicly condemn the new legislation.
The best way to fight it was ‘through the inspiring content we produce’, Chapek wrote to staff.
After the law was passed two months ago, he finally condemned it (insisting he’d been privately lobbying against it for weeks), only to be savaged by conservatives. Mr DeSantis, widely seen as the best bet to challenge Donald Trump for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, told supporters that ‘Woke Disney’ had ‘lost any moral authority to tell you what to do’.
Despite being a conservative at heart, Walt Disney always did his best to stay out of politics and steered clear of any sort of controversy, instead concentrated on entertaining children
He also accused Disney of hypocrisy, citing the company’s cruises to the Dominican Republic, which doesn’t recognise same-sex marriage, and how it has long censored its films to please China’s repressive Communist regime.
Meanwhile, LGBT staff at Disney-owned animation studio, Pixar — which made the Toy Story and Incredibles films — accused the parent company of cutting scenes of ‘gay affection’ from productions, leading to a previously censored kiss between two female characters being restored in Lightyear, the forthcoming Toy Story sequel.
Some may wonder why it really matters what Disney bosses think of Florida’s primary school education policy. But the politicisation of education is a ‘hot button’ issue in the U.S.
It’s not just Disney under fire. Last week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, responded to the news that streaming giant Netflix has lost more than 200,000 subscribers, tweeting: ‘The woke mind virus is making Netflix unwatchable.’
Critics may say the problem is that its content is just plain bad, but Netflix is also a company that loves to virtue signal. Last year, it announced it was investing $100 million to improve diversity and inclusion.
It’s already doing pretty well on that score, commissioning colourblind period drama Bridgerton; comedy-drama series Dear White People about black students battling racism, and a forthcoming Lord Of The Rings spin-off featuring black dwarves and Lenny Henry as a hobbit.
Disney characters are being viewed with a different lens than the one under which they were created. Disney executives are so appalled by the ‘dangerous’ colour, sex and gender conformity of many of his beloved characters
Florida is reacting for the decision by Disney bosses to publicly attack new legislation introduced by Florida’s governor and possible presidential contender, Ron DeSantis, to ban schools from teaching children aged five to nine about sexual orientation and gender identity
And Netflix likes to give high-profile, multi-million-dollar production deals to ‘woke’ pin-ups such as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and Barack and Michelle Obama.
Disney executives — whose Disney+ streaming service is one competing with Netflix’s for a mainly young demographic — certainly don’t intend to be out-woked.
Last month — in a desperate attempt to make up for Mr Chapek’s clumsy response to Don’t Say Gay — Karey Burke, Disney’s President of General Entertainment Content, tearfully announced that as ‘the mother of two queer children . . . one transgender and one pansexual’, she wants a whopping 50 per cent of characters in Disney productions to be LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning, intersex, and asexual) by the end of the year.
Another Disney executive boasted in a private meeting leaked online that she regularly made a point of ‘adding queerness’ — such as the odd same-sex kiss in a background shot — to children’s cartoons.
And it isn’t just executives waving the rainbow flag. Disney heir Charlee Disney — Walt’s great-great-nephew — this month revealed he is a transgender man as he and his family added their voice to protests at the Don’t Say Gay legislation.
Last year, Disney decreed that all loudspeaker announcements at its theme parks would be ‘gender neutral’; ‘ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls’ would be replaced with ‘dreamers of all ages’.
From Star Wars and the Marvel superheroes franchise (both now owned by Disney) to its animated movies, its main characters have become progressively less white, less male and less heterosexual.
Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom became one of the most famous brands in the world by providing a cosy escape from hard reality. Last Friday, the state’s ruling Republicans stripped the company, which employs 75,000 people there, of the right to govern its vast resort and theme park itself
Marvel’s 2021 film Eternals depicted a gay superhero kissing his husband.
Disney’s even been tinkering with its classics. A 2019 initiative called ‘Stories Matter’ adds on-screen warnings to older films: a chopstick-wielding Siamese cat in The Aristocats is flagged up for racism, as are the African-American crows in Dumbo, and the ‘stereotypical’ portrayal of Native Americans in Peter Pan.
Disney insiders say the Stories Matter team’s review of Peter Pan expressed concern over Tinker Bell because the fairy is ‘body conscious’ and jealous of Peter Pan’s attention; while having Captain Hook as the villain could expose the company to accusations of prejudice against people with disabilities.
A forthcoming, live-action Snow White will substitute digitally created ‘magical creatures’ in place of the seven dwarfs.
Some Disney staffers issued an unsigned letter saying that Disney had embraced a ‘progressive orthodoxy’ that has created an ‘environment of fear’ for employees who don’t back Left-wing causes.
Time will tell whether Disney theme parks decide to scrap their famous Mickey Mouse ears because it is deemed cultural appropriation from small mammals.
However, it is clear that America’s divisions must be yawning if even the ‘wonderful world’ of Disney cannot bring it together.
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