Disney’s ‘inspiring content’ can’t substitute real change

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On March 8, Disney CEO Bob Chapek sparked controversy with a middling response to Florida’s Senate passing the Parental Rights in Education bill, which critics have fittingly dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

The Don’t Say Gay bill, should it go through, would ban primary schools from properly discussing gender and sexuality. Following reports about Disney’s longstanding donations to the bill’s supporters, Chapek commented on the company’s perceived role in social change – or lack thereof – in a memo to employees. 

Chapek has already backed down and halted said donations after severe backlash, so that’s not my focus in writing this. Instead, I want to highlight a specific point he made that reflects a wider problem in entertainment.

“Because this struggle is much bigger than any one bill in any one state, I believe the best way for our company to bring about lasting change is through the inspiring content we produce, the welcoming culture we create and the diverse community organizations we support,” Chapek said.

“Encanto, Black Panther, Pose, Reservation Dogs, Coco, Soul, Modern Family, Shang-Chi, Summer of Soul, Love, Victor,” Chapek said. “These and all of our diverse stories are our corporate statements — and they are more powerful than any tweet or lobbying effort.”

Graphic by Kenzie Akins.

For the sake of argument, I’ll play devil’s advocate and assume Chapek didn’t just cowardly admit that he doesn’t care about LGBTQ+ rights if Disney+ subscriptions are up. Let’s say that because Disney’s “inspiring content” alone causes real change, they shouldn’t have to make statements or donations if their diverse stories are powerful enough. Even in that scenario, Disney is doing a pretty godawful job of uplifting the LGBTQ+ community.

I’ve lost track of how many “Disney’s first gay characters” we’ve had. How many of those were just throwaway dialogue, like minor characters in “Avengers Endgame” and “Onward” getting a single line confirming their identities? It’s no wonder that Disney routinely fails GLAAD’s Vito Russo test for multidimensional LGBTQ+ characters.

It’s been a hot minute since I last criticized “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” which you can never do too much. Let’s not forget the film’s one-second lesbian kiss – oh, but I can forget it, because they’re nameless characters. In a piece of cinematic genius, the lesbian kiss is interrupted by a shot of Klaud the weird slug, who was important enough to be on the poster despite having no dialogue.

That’s not to say Disney has no representation that resonates with the LGBTQ+ community; in fact, the best examples come from LGBTQ+ creators within the company, many of whom are critical of Chapek’s statement. Dana Terrace, the creator of “The Owl House,” spoke out on Twitter and encouraged her fans to donate to LGBTQ+ charities through a March 13 fundraising livestream.

“I’m someone who honestly had a hard time coming to terms with my queerness till my mid-20s because of stuff like this, because I thought I shouldn’t exist, because no one even told me I had the option of existing,” Terrace said. “Man, I know I have bills to pay, but working for this company has got me so distraught. And I hate, hate moral quandaries about how I feed myself and how I support my loved ones.”

“The Owl House” is a rare case of genuinely groundbreaking LGBTQ+ characters in Disney content. Protagonists Luz Noceda and Amity Blight are a lesbian couple, and the second season introduced Raine Whispers, a nonbinary character. The show has received a massive online following for its powerful storytelling, well-written characters and solid representation.

Despite how “The Owl House” is easily Disney’s best LGBTQ+ representation, notice how it was absent from Chapek’s list of Disney’s diverse media. That’s because proper LGBTQ+ representation usually doesn’t last long under the mouse’s reign.

Disney’s season orders for “The Owl House” shortened its run to two seasons and three 44-minute specials, forcing Terrace to condense planned storylines from later seasons into its fast-paced second season. Thankfully, her team was able to do so while retaining the show’s quality – the episode “Knock-Knock-Knockin’ on Hooty’s Door” perfectly showcases their ability to balance several plots – but they shouldn’t have had to truncate their show regardless.

This isn’t the only example of Disney suppressing LGBTQ+ representation. When the company acquired and shuttered Blue Sky Studios, they canceled “Nimona,” an adaptation of ND Stevenson’s graphic novel. Blue Sky employees stated that they received pushback from Disney surrounding the film’s gender non-conforming character and same-sex kiss – far from Chapek’s self-proclaimed “welcoming culture.” “Nimona” was reportedly 75% complete before the studio closed and would’ve been released in January 2022.

Like many other LGBTQ+ individuals, I would’ve loved to see “The Owl House” continue or have “Nimona” finish production. Seeing truly positive media representation like this as a kid would’ve been extremely validating for me growing up, and I can only imagine how it feels for younger generations who can see themselves in the media. However, even if both of these stories had fairytale endings, it wouldn’t absolve Disney of responsibility.

The core problem with Chapek’s response goes beyond casting and storytelling. Media representation is important for several reasons – it can educate, remove barriers, encourage empathy, make marginalized groups feel seen and so much more – but it can only supplement real change, not substitute it. That change is coming from employees like Terrace protesting against the bill and fundraising for LGBTQ+ charities, not from the company’s content.

Creating content is the only change that financially supports Disney; remember, this is a media company that wants you to buy merchandise, theme park tickets and streaming subscriptions. Chapek’s list of “inspiring content” isn’t a political statement regardless of how powerful any of those individual stories are. To the company, it’s a list of its products.

What Chapek didn’t want to admit (prior to the backlash) was that Disney’s gargantuan profits give them the power to pressure politicians. Before Chapek became CEO, Disney pressured Georgia by threatening not to film there anymore if a restrictive bathroom bill passed, then again for an abortion bill. The impact of Walt Disney World on Florida’s tourist economy is more than enough for Disney to impact the Florida Senate.

As an entertainment writer, I want to showcase impactful media and authentic representation, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that it’s the strongest method of furthering LGBTQ+ rights or protecting any marginalized groups as Chapek implied. At the end of the day, it’s just a piece of media, no matter how much it speaks to you. Enjoy art and let it inspire you, but remember: art only imitates life.

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Opinions Editor | + posts

Sean Mullins (she/they) is the opinions editor and webmaster for the Journal. She is a media studies major and professional writing minor at Webster University, but she's participated in student journalism since high school, having previously been a games columnist, blogger and cartoonist for the Webster Groves Echo at Webster Groves High School. Her passion is writing and editing stories about video games and other entertainment mediums. Outside of writing, Sean is also the treasurer for Webster Literature Club. She enjoys playing games, spending time with friends, LGBTQ+ and disability advocacy, streaming, making terrible puns and listening to music.