Elites on the American right are in an intense conflict with an iconic American institution, the Walt Disney Company. It began last month, when Disney publicly condemned, and then announced it would fight to overturn, a “parental rights in education” bill in Florida. Since signed into law by the Republican governor Ron DeSantis—and widely referred to by its opponents as “Don’t Say Gay” legislation—the measure prohibits classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity up to the end of the third grade, after which it must be “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” The law also lets parents sue school districts that they consider noncompliant with it. Disney’s public opposition to the law followed protests among its employees over the company’s lack of activism on the issue, with CEO Bob Chapek ultimately apologizing for not being “a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights”—pledging that Disney would fund LGBTQ advocacy and reassess its approach to political donations going forward. Now, prominent Republican politicians and right-wing media figures are outraged, attacking the company for being “woke” and even somehow complicit in “grooming” children. The response became more furious after the leak of video footage featuring senior people in the company speaking with apparent pride about a “not-at-all-secret gay agenda,” efforts to add “queerness” to children’s programming, and the removal of “gendered greetings” from theme parks. What they see as progressive steps toward diversity, equity, and inclusion look to their opponents outside the company like radical indoctrination. It’s is no longer a new kind of conflict in American culture, but the intensity is nevertheless remarkable. Why such anger with Disney?

Carmenita Higginbotham is the dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts and an art historian, who’s spent many years studying and teaching about Disney’s effect on American life. Higginbotham sees the company’s latest actions as unprecedented—as it’s historically avoided joining divisive political or cultural battles, especially over contentious social issues. Rather, Disney has tended to align itself with a broad mainstream sentiment—keeping pace with social change without ever getting too far ahead of it. In this way, Higginbotham says, Disney has attracted and maintained a politically and demographically diverse audience, even while embracing a nostalgic and often traditionalist vision of America. That vision may not be politically conservative as such, but it’s been very friendly to political conservatives—which helps make sense of why the company’s new tack toward progressive activism feels, among so many of them, like a betrayal. The future of the company will depend more on what audiences and consumers generally make of it—and, Higginbotham suggests, it’s not clear that anyone, inside or outside of the company, yet knows entirely what that will be.

Graham Vyse: How do you see Disney’s decision to oppose this law in Florida and lean into the broader politics of gender and sexuality that surrounds it?

Carmenita Higginbotham: It’s surprising that the company decided to lean in on a social issue—and not simply through one of its many brands, like ESPN, but as the Walt Disney Company. The company itself is now at the center of this debate, which is remarkable—and risky—for the company. Disney is typically very quiet about its political participation, when it does participate. It doesn’t broadcast it. It doesn’t advertise it.

You could look at this issue as one of right and wrong, the kind of topic on which Americans should all lean in; and it makes sense that Disney would have to respond to what’s going on in Florida, where the company has so much financial and cultural influence. But this isn’t a company that risks its identity on social issues. Those issues can change based on the people in power or the mood of the general population.

We’ve arrived at a tenuous moment in American culture where we can talk—or at least try to talk—about race. There seem to be repeated attempts, if not successes, to try to have that conversation.

Kenrick Mills

Gender and sexuality are different. People are more reticent to declare their political leanings—or personal leanings—on issues of gender and sexuality. You don’t see cities commissioning artists to paint Queer Lives Matter on sidewalks. Athletes aren’t taking a knee for LGBTQIA+ identity. Disney has always committed itself to a culture in which heterosexuality is the norm—aligning itself with the American middle class and its power to determine cultural and economic trends. What the company’s doing now is transformative.

Vyse: How so?

Higginbotham: Disney can’t go back to claiming that it’s simply a media company invested in entertainment. It’s now made a dramatic gesture. This is such a polarized topic, and Disney picked a side, eventually. At first, the company tried to stay in the middle, which is how it’s always thrived—keeping quiet, riding out cultural change, and then going back to promoting an idealized vision of family, hopes, dreams, and nostalgia.

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