How Mickey Mouse entered the culture wars

Walt Disney’s focus on ‘clean, informative entertainment’ made the company a favorite of conservatives. Then it got ‘woke’

For decades, The Walt Disney Co. has been synonymous with family entertainment. Its wholesome characters, engaged in earnest battles of good and evil, were reflective of a Judeo-Christian worldview, and the company perennially ranked as one of the world’s most trusted brands.

It’s also one of the most profitable.

Recent controversies, however, appear to have shaken that trust in one of Disney’s core constituencies: conservatives.

From subtle changes in Disney’s beloved movies, to the firing of actress Gina Carano, to recent revelations about the company’s internal diversity and inclusion program, Disney has been dubbed “the wokest place on Earth,” a twist on Disneyland’s claim to be “the happiest place on Earth.” And wokeness, which is heightened sensitivity to racial and social injustice, doesn’t play well with conservatives who see extreme involvement in such causes as the advancement of liberal and progressive policies.

Even some Democrats are backing away from woke agendas. “Wokeness is a problem, and we all know it,” longtime Democratic strategist James Carville said recently.

A person dressed as Mickey Mouse takes a break from posing for photographs with people in Times Square, Thursday, Dec. 24, 2020, on Christmas Eve in New York. | Kathy Willens, Associated Press

While many people on the left have applauded Disney’s socially conscious stance, some conservatives are pulling back from a brand they have long cherished. Talk radio host Glenn Beck has highlighted the work of Christopher Rufo, a writer, filmmaker and Manhattan Institute scholar who recently made public internal Disney training documents. The training, among other things, urges employees to assess their privilege, based on statements such as “My parents are heterosexual” and “I went to summer camp,” as well as “I have never been called a terrorist.”

Some conservatives on Twitter and Reddit have said they will no longer visit Disneyland or Disney World, just as the theme parks are reopening after a year’s closure because of the pandemic. 

And Christian apologist and podcaster Dinesh D’Souza is urging his 670,000 subscribers on YouTube to boycott Disney properties and products.

So far, it’s unclear if the backlash will have a measurable effect. On Thursday, the company reported better-than-expected earnings, but its stock prices fell, in part because subscriptions to the streaming service Disney+ were not as high as expected. Still, even without Carano’s presence on “The Mandalorian,” Disney+ had more than 103 million subscribers, up 9 million from the previous quarter.

So Disney doesn’t need true love’s kiss to resurrect it just yet. But here’s how the company, wittingly or not, has become a player in the culture wars.

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Not ‘our grandparents’ liberals’

James Plowman, a retired Army sergeant major who saw 53 months of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, is among those who have said enough with what they see as Disney’s politics.

A father and grandfather who lives in Goldsboro, North Carolina, Plowman said in an email that he finds the diversity training reported by Rufo “abhorrent” and that he considers it “racism disguised as education.”

“You can’t claim to be family oriented while espousing talking points of Black Lives Matter, which has called for the destruction of the Western nuclear family,” he said. (After criticism, one BLM group, the Black Lives Matter Global Network, removed a reference on its website that supported the “disruption” of the nuclear-family structure, the New York Post reported last year.)

Plowman said he considers Disney to be not just liberal but socialist. “These aren’t our grandparents’ liberals we’re talking about.”

The program that has generated so much ire among prominent conservative voices is “Reimagine Tomorrow,” training for Disney employees that Rufo wrote in City Journal was “perhaps noble in intent” but has become politicized. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, there was a societal call for Americans not to be satisfied with not being racist, but to be actively antiracist, and one section of the training deals with “antiracism,” encouraging white workers to “work through feelings of guilt, shame, and defensiveness to understand what is beneath them and what needs to be healed.”

Another section called America’s infrastructure racist and said that people should strive for not just equality, but equality of outcomes.

Asked about the “Reimagine Tomorrow” training, the company provided an emailed statement that said: “These internal documents are being deliberately distorted as reflective of company policy, when in fact their purpose was to allow diversity of thought and discussion on the incredibly complex and challenging issues of race and discrimination that we as a society and companies nationwide are facing.

“The Disney brand has a long history of inclusivity, with stories that reflect acceptance and tolerance and celebrate people’s differences.” As examples, the statement cited “Black Panther,” “Soul” and “Raya and the Last Dragon,” adding, “as a global entertainment company we are committed to continuing to tell stories that reflect the rich diversity of the human experience.”

True love or sexual assault?

Faith Moore, a self-described “Disney enthusiast” who lives in Brooklyn, New York, has been concerned about the company’s ideology for several years and wrote a book, “Saving Cinderella,” about what she sees as an ideological metamorphosis ongoing in Disney’s princesses.

“All of a sudden, we were hearing how passive and submissive the old princesses were, (with people) trying to push those characters aside as relics of another time. … It was starting to become part of the zeitgeist that fairytale princesses are these boring drips. But that’s not actually true. If you go back and watch the movies, even the old princesses like Cinderella, they have agency, they have drive, they have ingenuity,” Moore said in an interview.

A small study from Brigham Young University in 2020 similarly concluded that preadolescent girls were learning empowerment from the princess stories.

In this Friday, April 30, 2021, file photo, Mickey Mouse keeps social distance while interacting with guests at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. California tourism leaders are urging residents to spend their pent-up travel dollars at home after experiencing a 55% decline in spending from pre-pandemic levels. Tourism raked in $145 billion in 2019 but just $65 billion in 2020. Full recovery isn’t expected until 2024. | Jae C. Hong, Associated Press

“Overall, this study indicates that preadolescent girls do not take the princesses at face value and recognized the actions and behaviors of the princesses first. They see beyond the physical attributes of the princesses and understand they do not have to be beautiful to be confident and kind to others,” the authors wrote.

Recent controversy over a Snow White ride at Disneyland shows that change within the company may be the result of outside pressure, not just corporate values. Earlier this month, two editors for the website SFgate.com, a news site covering San Francisco, wrote that an updated Disneyland ride, “Snow White’s Enchanted Wish,” is problematic because it still shows Prince Charming kissing an unconscious Snow White.

“Haven’t we already agreed that consent in early Disney movies is a major issue? That teaching kids that kissing, when it hasn’t been established if both parties are willing to engage, is not OK?” Julie Tremaine and Katie Dowd wrote. “It’s hard to understand why the Disneyland of 2021 would choose to add a scene with such old-fashioned ideas of what a man is allowed to do to a woman, especially given the company’s current emphasis on removing problematic scenes from rides like ‘Jungle Cruise’ and ‘Splash Mountain’.”  

While many conservatives like Moore found that argument laughable, given that the story had already established the princess and prince were each other’s true love, others have made similar arguments in years past, including one person who likened the scene to sexual assault on an unconscious person.

The Christian satirical website The Babylon Bee mocked these objections with a headline that said, “Disney to Remove Problematic Kiss from Disney Movie, Snow White Will Now Remain Dead.”

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Still ‘the gold standard’

Podcaster D’Souza, himself a controversial figure who was pardoned by Donald Trump after pleading guilty to campaign finance violations, is among the most vehement critics of Disney, urging his followers to stop buying all Disney products. D’Souza said in a podcast that the company has historically been a celebration of Americana, and of virtue.

“Disney was about good and evil. Disney was about wicked witches and beautiful princesses and noble, chivalric princes. It affirmed our innate sense of good and evil and gave virtue a certain patina of loveliness. But in today’s Disney, that is all gone.”

He recalled being at a Disney park and seeing a person playing “Goofy” go behind a building and take off the mask, light a cigarette and utter an expletive. D’Souza said the scene revealed a disturbing facade, similar to how he sees the company today.

One person on Reddit spoke of similar concern, writing that he was disturbed when the company relaxed personal standards for employees, for example, allowing them to have visible tattoos and “gender-inclusive” hairstyles. “I am there for the immersion and the fantasy, not the reality of a stranger’s self-expression.”

The Reddit poster noted that Disney has taken a “woke scalpel” to two rides: Jungle Cruise and Splash Mountain because of racial depictions that some people found troubling.

“Disney owns Splash Mountain so it can do what it wants. But if Disney screams at the top of its corporate voice, which is pretty loud, that it is changing it to appease a certain political point of view, now every time I look at the ride I am thinking about politics.”

In a blog post in April, Josh D’Amaro, Disney’s chairman of parks, experiences and products, said that the company’s tradition of “four keys” to a great customer experience (safety, courtesy, show and efficiency) have been expanded to five by adding inclusion, a change recommended by cast members around the world.

“The world is changing, and we will change with it, and continue to be a source of joy and inspiration for all the world,” D’Amaro wrote. All but one of the comments on the blog post were positive, with one person writing, “As a lover of all things Disney and former college program cast mate, my heart is exploding with pride. I have never loved a company statement more.”

Unlike D’Souza, Moore, the stay-at-home mom of two and writer in Brooklyn, does not believe that conservatives should “cancel” Disney and stop going to the parks or buying Disney products. A boycott is unlikely to affect Disney’s bottom line, she said, adding, “They are still synonymous with family entertainment. They’re still the gold standard for that.”

The solution, she said, is to not let troubling things go unchallenged. “We can’t just go with what the woke critics are saying. We need to fight back intellectually, not economically.”