Disney, 100 years of magic, princesses, and politics
The Walt Disney Company turns 100 years old on Monday, and after a century of fairy tales and magic, our hyperpartisan reality is encroaching on the Magic Kingdom.
Founded on Oct. 16, 1923, by brothers Walt and Roy Disney, the company established itself as a leader in animation. Mickey Mouse debuted in “Steamboat Willie” five years later, in 1928. Since then, it has grown into an empire, amassing $67 billion in annual revenue and encompassing Pixar, Marvel, ABC, National Geographic, and ESPN – just to name some of its subsidiaries.
Walt Disney, the man, envisioned a “family entertainment” company focused on fantasy and free of politics. Nevertheless, Disney has always been political.
Walt himself was an anti-communist conservative who founded the Hollywood Republican Committee to counteract the influence of the Progressive Citizens of America in California. George Murphy, his cofounder of the group, would go on to become a Republican Senator from California with Disney’s backing.
During World War II, Disney went to war. The company established a unit devoted to producing propaganda and insignia for the military free of charge. The most requested character was Donald Duck.
Disney would be shocked to know that the GOP has turned on his company in recent years. Ahead of the launch of Disney Plus, Disney went back through its film catalog to flag potentially problematic content that includes “stereotypes that were wrong then and are wrong now” – as the disclaimers read. It also decided to make the loudspeaker announcement at its theme parks gender-neutral, removing “ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls.”
In Disney World’s hometown in the Sunshine State, this change dragged them into the crosshairs of a Florida law – dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill – that restricts classroom instruction through third grade on sexual orientation and gender identity. Disney denounced the bill under the pressure of employees, leading Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to send a fundraising email to his supporters denouncing “Woke Disney” and threatening to revoke the theme park’s ability to function as its own municipal government, as it has for the last 55 years.
Disney had previously crossed DeSantis when they issued a vaccine mandate for employees after the state restricted workplaces from making such requirements.
But Disney has angered its fair share of liberals as well. The brand has long been criticized for being too American, too traditional, and too white. After World War II, it was accused of spreading the notion of the post-war nuclear family around the world. In the 1990s, leftist radicals concerned about “cultural imperialism” detonated a bomb at the opening of Euro Disney in Paris. While the company is trying to tell more diverse stories today, it took until 2009 for Disney to introduce a Black princess. Since then, it has continued to champion diversity, from the all-Hispanic cast in “Coco” to the “Eternals” featuring a gay superhero who kisses his husband on screen.
The shift towards inclusion can be attributed to Disney’s CEO from 2005 to 2020, Robert A. Iger, who pushed for more diverse casting and storytelling. At the 2017 Disney shareholder meeting, Iger fully embraced entertainment as activism: “When we make a movie called ‘Zootopia,’ which is about prejudice … we can actually change people’s behavior – get people to be more accepting of the multiple differences and cultures and races.” Iger has since returned and is Disney's CEO today.
Disney is an unavoidable behemoth of a brand, giving it the power to weather the seasons of public opinion. But in our era of hyperpartisanness, everyone wants the biggest entertainment company on their side, so the politicization of Disney will likely persist well past the company’s 100th birthday.