A wake-up call for the Magic Kingdom? | WORLD
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A wake-up call for the Magic Kingdom?

Disney’s progressive ideology is crippling its brand

Mickey Mouse greets guests at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., on April 30, 2021. Associated Press/Photo by Jae C. Hong, File

A wake-up call for the Magic Kingdom?
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Everybody loves a good narrative. Few love it more than the Walt Disney Company, which, perhaps better than any other company in modern history, has perfected the art of telling a good narrative. But “narrative” can mean more than one thing. It could mean a captivating fairy tale or a laugh-out-loud comedy. But it can also mean a myth a person or a corporation believes about itself.

Disney’s self-narratives are in question after it recently posted dreadful earnings, leading to disconcerted shareholders. In turn, the company ousted its CEO and welcomed back the old one. These struggles may not be much more than the slings and arrows of corporate fortune, except that they come right on the heels of the company’s most ideological era to date.

At the same time that then-CEO Robert Chapek was overseeing a strong uptick in LGBT representation in Disney properties, he was also going toe to toe with Florida governor Ron DeSantis over sex ed in schools. Chapek’s decision to position Disney as a culture war ally for the left appears to have backfired, as returning CEO (and Chapek’s predecessor) Robert Iger is reported to have “clashed” with Chapek over this move.

Iger is now tasked with rescuing Disney from its malaise. Whether or not its stock improves, the company has to reckon with the fact that stuffing children’s entertainment with sexual revolution shibboleths is bad for the bottom line. Disney’s self-perception as a vanguard of social progressivism is a giant risk, one that alienates the very audiences that Disney’s business model relies on.

This is more than “go woke, go broke.” As the world’s foremost creator of children and family entertainment, Disney’s LGBT signaling feels invasive in a way that typical Hollywood liberalism does not. This year’s film Lightyear depicted a major character’s lesbian relationship. Guess what? The movie was a colossal failure at the box office. Did objections to the movie’s “representation” play a role?

It’s not that a majority of American moviegoers are eager to boycott films with gay characters. But Disney films, the animated movies in particular, had been widely perceived to be one of the few truly family-friendly genres in American pop culture. Infusing these cultural artifacts with LGBT themes and characters is precisely the kind of aggressive ideological campaigning that millions of American parents are mobilizing to counteract.

Disney’s ticket-buyers do not want to know what the billionaires in the boardroom believe about Florida’s education laws.

The appeal to “representation” is hollow. Considering Disney’s global audience, it is remarkable that none of its characters or stories seem to take religion very seriously. One recent movie, Turning Red, drew scathing reviews for its preachy depiction of a family whose traditions and values are dismantled by an adolescent daughter. Of course, religion as a concept wouldn’t play very well in Disney’s moral universe, which has become synonymous with clueless parents, inexplicably wise kids, and unquestioned expressive individualism. But that proves the point. If representation were the goal, why is seemingly every Disney film a metaphor for irreligious people who leave home, abandon commitments, and chase adolescent dreams? Where are the characters who pray and stay?

Perhaps Disney, like countless other mass media corporations, believes it’s simply doing its part in the narrative of woke capital. In this, however, the house of mouse is getting a wake-up call to an underreported and underappreciated development in the West. As the birth rates of economic superpowers descend, the political character of raising children is coming into sharp relief. Families with more than two children are very likely to be to the religious and political right of Disney. Onscreen references to gay and lesbian relationships are increasingly understood as nothing but a virtue signal to a white and family-less audience. The unstoppable force of ideology is colliding with the immovable object of diversity. At some point, Disney’s leadership will have to decide who they are willing to alienate.

The current plan doesn’t seem to be working. Alternatively, Robert Iger could decide that Disney shouldn’t be an evangelist for cultural liberalism, and that it should recommit to serving the role that many families have to this point believed it was serving. Disney’s ticket-buyers do not want to know what the billionaires in the boardroom believe about Florida’s education laws. They want to know that their children can watch the latest Pixar film without being confused. Nobody is asking for Disney tales to become paragons of virtue formation (though that was true once upon a time). Stories that do not sexualize kids or beautify homosexuality will suffice.

For the last several years Disney has sold many narratives, none quite so fictional as the one it has sold about itself. But just as carriages turn back into pumpkins after the clock strikes midnight, so too does ideology kill a corporate brand. The world needs good family movies. It needs Disney to chart a new course. But if not, an alternative will come. After all, there’s always another prince.

Samuel D. James

Samuel D. James serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books. He is a regular contributor to First Things and The Gospel Coalition, and his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and National Review. Samuel and his wife Emily live in Louisville, Ky., with their two children.

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