Guest Essay

An illustration of fireworks over Cinderella Castle. The explosion of fireworks to the left are multicolored; the explosion of fireworks to the right are red and blue.
Credit...Jared Nangle

By Sean Griffin

Mr. Griffin is the author of “Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company From the Inside Out.”

The culture wars have come for corporate America. In the days and weeks leading up to Pride Month, right-wing critics have levied boycotts and even threats of violence at Bud Light, Target and Kohl’s for merchandise and marketing campaigns affiliated with the L.G.B.T.Q. community. Even Chick-fil-A, the chicken-sandwich seller that has historically been aligned with conservative causes, drew sudden condemnation for an existing diversity, equity and inclusion policy.

Companies are rarely exemplars of courage, and some — particularly Anheuser-Busch, Bud Light’s brewer — switched course almost immediately. But the noise is obscuring a bigger transformation amid the growing politicization of big business. Big businesses are increasingly being forced to take sides, and the realities of doing business with modern-day consumers and employees are increasingly pushing some companies to side with the L.G.B.T.Q. community.

There is no better illustration of what is happening, and what is changing, than in Orlando, Fla. When the presidential hopeful Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida last year attacked the Walt Disney Company for criticizing his anti-L.G.B.T.Q. legislation, he probably believed he had secured a quick political win. Instead, Disney engaged in an all-out war, most recently suing him and pulling out of a planned $1 billion development that would have brought thousands of jobs to the area. Suddenly, he was fending off charges that he is anti-business — an image that Donald Trump, his main opponent for the Republican presidential nomination, is happily promoting.

Why would one of America’s largest corporate entities, particularly one lacking a long history of taking grand positions on social issues, go to the mat for L.G.B.T.Q. rights? Because it has no alternative.

The relationship between Disney and the L.G.B.T.Q. community started before the company was aware of that relationship. In the 1930s, when being lesbian or gay was considered a mental illness, many gay and lesbian people identified with the quirkiness of Disney’s first star. Lesbians called secret get-togethers Mickey Mouse parties, and a gay bar in Berlin called itself Mickey Mouse.

As Disney grew, more L.G.B.T.Q. fans identified with characters like Ferdinand the Bull and Peter Pan or appreciated the campy flair of villains such as Captain Hook and Maleficent. Misfit characters who eventually found acceptance for being different gave many L.G.B.T.Q. individuals solace and hope. Queer youth signed up to work at Disneyland and Disney World as employee “cast members” and found a community. In the 1980s and ’90s, the attachment was evidenced by the wealth of Disney imagery on panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Based in part on interviews I’ve done with current and former Disney employees, I believe the Disney corporation in the 1980s decided it was fiscally viable to reach out to the L.G.B.T.Q. fan base. Working with a number of openly L.G.B.T.Q. artists, including Howard Ashman and Elton John, queer subtext in Disney culture quietly became more visible. (Ursula in “The Little Mermaid,” for example, was modeled on the female impersonator Divine.) Yet the references remained under the radar — ones that queer viewers could recognize and appreciate but that would most likely go over the heads of conservative families.

Disney’s both/and approach continued for decades. Years after other Hollywood fare like the television show “Will & Grace” or films like “Brokeback Mountain” prominently featured L.G.B.T.Q. story lines, Disney’s “gay” content remained largely stuck in the blink-and-you-miss-it variety (two male characters dancing in 2017’s live-action version of “Beauty and the Beast,” a female couple embracing in the background of 2019’s “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”). In 1995, Disney announced that it would extend health coverage to employees who were in committed same-sex relationships, but only after other Hollywood studios had already done so.

Disney profits every June from Gay Days events at Disney World, even though it doesn’t organize any of the events. In Florida, where it is one of the state’s largest employers, Disney has quietly contributed to politicians across the political spectrum.

Then last year, Mr. DeSantis championed state legislation that barred discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in some elementary school grades. Disney’s chief executive at the time, Bob Chapek, tried to avoid taking a stand on the “Don’t Say Gay” bill entirely. After his silence angered employees, he said, “We were opposed to the bill from the outset, and we chose not to take a public position because we felt we could be more effective working behind the scenes directly with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.”

His silence and then his lackluster response shattered both/and. An open letter by furious employees accused company executives of removing displays of overtly gay affection from projects. By mid-March, full-scale employee walkouts were staged, and the brouhaha got so bad, it likely factored into Mr. Chapek’s ouster in November. Mr. Chapek’s predecessor Bob Iger, who had been more publicly supportive of L.G.B.T.Q. rights, resumed his post at the helm.

Suddenly the company’s timid and hypocritical position on L.G.B.T.Q. matters seemed to become untenable. Disney began including more overtly L.G.B.T.Q. characters in its movies, including the animated films “Lightyear” and “Strange World.” And the company and Mr. Iger became more openly pugnacious with Mr. DeSantis.

Open warfare against a state official is not a common business strategy for any company or corporation, particularly a company facing financial struggles in other areas, notably its streaming and cable services. Yet the fracas seems to be having almost no impact on what Disney cares about most: its bottom line. Attendance at the theme parks remains strong, and “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3” and a live-action version of “The Little Mermaid” have dominated spring moviegoing. Analysts cite the cable services and streaming wars, not the culture wars, as having the greatest impact on the company’s stock price.

A similar dynamic has played out at Walmart. Like its rival Target, the giant retailer came under fire for selling Pride-related merchandise. But unlike Target, which decided to remove some items in its Pride collection, Walmart said it hasn’t made any changes. Since that announcement, Walmart’s stock price has gone up. Public opinion polls regularly show overwhelming acceptance of L.G.B.T.Q. relationships. Such acceptance is highest among the younger generations, the age group most sought after by advertisers.

Others are pointing to Disney’s example in efforts to get other organizations to support the L.G.B.T.Q. community. Representative Jimmy Gomez of California referred to Disney’s stand against Mr. DeSantis while protesting the Los Angeles Dodgers’ decision to disinvite the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (a beloved queer institution) from the team’s planned Pride Month event. The Sisters were eventually included.

Disney is not the hero here. Even today, the company remains leery of pushing certain boundaries. To the extent the company markets to members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community, it focuses mainly on monogamous, married same-sex couples with kids rather than on other forms of L.G.B.T.Q. identity. The real heroes and heroines are the L.G.B.T.Q. consumers and employees who buy Disney merchandise, who work for the company and who have helped lift it up for generations — and the company’s decisions are partly in recognition of that history.

Disney and the rest of corporate America are learning that both/and does not work anymore. Ambitious politicians may think twice about the wisdom of dragging companies into such culture wars. And executives everywhere are getting a powerful lesson that fighting back isn’t always bad for the bottom line.

Sean Griffin is a professor of film and media studies at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts and is the author of “Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company From the Inside Out.”

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