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Disney’s downward path from vague causes to overt ideology

The recent products and actions of the Walt Disney Company are nothing more than natural extensions of the corporation’s strident LGBT and anti-familial advocacy.

Disney in China. (Image: pan xiaozhen/Unsplash.com)

It has been a lively month at the Walt Disney Company. Late February saw the release of the feature film Turning Red to the dismay of parents who believe that discussion of menstruation, sexualized drawings of middle-school crushes, and the phrase “I like gyrating” have no place in a children’s movie. Then, in early March, Disney CEO Bob Chapek requested a meeting with Governor Ron DeSantis to express his disappointment with Florida’s new Parental Rights in Education law, which rather mildly “prohibits classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels” (namely, pre-school through third grade). By mid-month, it was announced that a same-sex kiss would be included in the upcoming children’s film Lightyear – in part as a reaction to Florida’s new law. Today, a vocal subset of employees are demanding that Disney commit significant resources to advancing LGBT advocacy; Mr. Chapek has apologized for failing to do more in the past.

In the wake of all this, it has been easy to find critics who decry the company’s actions as a betrayal of its family-friendly legacy. While this objection is understandable, it seems to me fundamentally mistaken. Whatever Disney might have been in the mid-twentieth century, the studio has not been truly friendly to families for some time now. In fact, far from being a betrayal of the company’s history, it seem to me that Disney’s recent actions are nothing more than a wholly natural extension of the corporation’s clearly and consistently expressed ideology.

Permit me to illustrate the point by describing for you the plot of a movie. You’ve probably seen it before. The central character is a bright, sympathetic, and winsome young lady. She is strongly independent, somewhat different, and most certainly special. Alas, she lives in a rigidly traditional (probably, but not necessarily, patriarchal) society that fails to appreciate her gifts for what they are; instead, she is expected to conform to the conventional standards of her community. She succeeds, for a time – bearing the weight of her traditional duties and even appearing to follow to her elders’ plans for her life – until, at last, in an ecstasy of liberation, she casts them off and embraces her true self. The resultant journey of self-actualization coincides with some menace that threatens to destroy the heroine’s society; her quest culminates when she resolves the catastrophe and saves her people. She returns home to assume her rightful place in her community and to lead it into a new, more enlightened, future.

This is, as far as I can tell, the plot of Moana – but it is also Frozen and Encanto and Brave and Pocahontas and Mulan as well; there are elements of it even in films as early Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. The familiar plot structure is the product of a governing moral vision: one that exalts the individual at the expense of community, innovation at the expense of tradition, and youthful exuberance at the expense of aged wisdom.

In short, these films are an expression of what Russell Kirk called the idyllic imagination, “which rejects old dogmas and old manners and rejoices in the notion of emancipation from duty and convention.” This idyllic imagination is broadly antithetical to the settled order required by family life – and it is no exaggeration to say that it has been the governing ethos of Disney studios for the past thirty years (and perhaps beyond).

This is not to say, of course, that the idyllic imagination is the only idea in the films listed above, nor to ignore other, more positive messages in some Disney movies in the past generation or so – one thinks of the meditations on mortality, friendship, and family present in the early Pixar movies, or the tragic vindication of parental wisdom in The Lion King. But these are the exception. Self-focused liberation and rebellion are the rule and the unquestionable presupposition. Whatever other themes may be present, and however the film may play with the formula, the belief that a child must reject ancestral authority to become an adult is not so much argued as it is assumed.

One might well object that I am making much ado about nothing. These are only children’s movies, after all – and children surely don’t pick up on these things, do they? Children just want to be entertained by pleasant characters, flashy colors, and catchy tunes; the message doesn’t matter. A six-year-old does not walk away from Encanto railing against the oppressive evil of traditional family roles, after all, so why worry?

This is an understandable but fatal miscalculation – and very nearly opposite the truth. As philosophers and poets from Plato to Dante to C. S. Lewis recognized, stories are a foundational part of a child’s education: the story reflects the author’s understanding of reality and recreates in the minds of the audience. As a consequence, very few things matter as much as the stories we tell to the young. They shape the child’s identity, his notions of good and evil, and the how he understands his place in the world.

Thus, whether or not he consciously “picks up on” a film’s message is wholly irrelevant. He will still absorb it – and all the more powerfully because he is unaware that he is doing so. And so a child raised on a steady diet of these films is conditioned to regard any constraint on his freedom of expression as an exercise of tyranny, developing a habitual mistrust for authority, limits, and tradition – especially of the local and parental variety.

The idyllic imagination’s immediate assault on familial authority is not the only concern, however. An even greater danger lurks in the unthinking exaltation of rebellion, liberation, and autonomy. Put simply, such values are naturally and restlessly progressive. There is always a new taboo to be broken, a new frontier to be crossed – one last obstacle to be overcome before full human liberation can be achieved.

For this reason, as Russell Kirk pointed out, the idyllic imagination is inherently unstable. If it will not return to the order of the moral imagination (and it usually does not) it inevitably sinks down to the diabolic imagination, rejoicing “in the perverse and the subhuman.”

Brief acquaintance with Disney’s recent history leaves little doubt as to which path the corporation has chosen. The vague feminism and multiculturalism of the Disney 1990s has given way to strident LGBT and anti-familial advocacy in the 2020s. The signs of the shift are everywhere: whether in the rehabilitation of formerly diabolical characters, or in the increasingly obvious homosexual subtexts in its children’s movies, or in the overt political machinations mentioned above, the Disney Company has taken its stand. It is past time for parents to do so as well.


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About Ben Reinhard 4 Articles
Ben Reinhard is Associate Professor of English Language and Literature at Christendom College. He holds a B.A. from Purdue, as well as an M.M.S and Ph.D from the University of Notre Dame.

15 Comments

  1. “… one that exalts the individual at the expense of community, innovation at the expense of tradition, and youthful exuberance at the expense of aged wisdom.”

    If this were true (and I certainly recall elements of community in most of those movies you mentioned) we wouldn’t have Anna’s exuberance over her crush turn into a potential regicide. I’d have to say that many Disney movies are critical more of stupid than family or community.

    As for the downplaying of community, surely we can recall the numerous action hero movies from the 60s on that tout that rugged individual who needs no support team, no family at home, no roots in tradition to accomplish what he wants.

    Even recent superhero movies of this century seem well-aligned with many characters in community, with supportive teams standing behind them, if not with them.

    I worry that female empowerment is a little disconcerting to some. As a father of a daughter, I applaud these narratives. While they certainly aren’t perfect in how they portray all Christian values, I don’t expect secular media to adopt the same values of my faith and religion.

    I also worry that looking deeper into antagonists is seen as a negative. American society is full of rehabbed bad guys: Richard Nixon, Martha Stewart, Bill Clinton, even Donald Trump. People seen as crooks, cheaters, and adulterers can, with appropriate penance and time in time out, regain some good will. We did it with a lot of old white guys from the 18th and 19th century. Why not fictional characters?

    • Donald Trump is a “rehabbed bad guy”?? Really? What planet are you on doll? Donald Trump has a past which ALL of us do. He is no bad guy and was victimized and hunted down by a disgusting partisan press. As were people who had the nerve to be his friends. Maybe YOU wouldnt mind being investigated by a vicious press more than willing to tell lies, distort truth and take things out of context but most of us would pass on that option. Trump gave up a lucrative business empire to help correct the course of the country. He did super well with it, giving us a booming economy and energy independence. Since ” mean tweets”( oh, boo-hoo!) were traded for senile Joe, the country has gone in the dumper with soaring prices across the board, especially gas, shortages of all sorts of things, and a world on the brink of a possible spreading war. We are now trying to buy oil from our ENEMIES and will be instrumental in creating a nuclear Iran. Include in that 13 Marines dead by sheer incompetence. I can guarantee Donald would have allowed NONE of those things. I didnt vote for Trump thinking he was a saint. I knew he wasnt. Neither am I. I voted for a man who was capable of making hard and unpleasant world decisions to keep our country and it’s people SAFE. The world is a MUCH more dangerous place with Biden in charge. He is unable to think or speak clearly. For his being in office I thank his minion voters. As for a woman’s role, I am a woman myself. I have a masters degree, and come from a lower middle class background. I earned my own way. . Nobody can determine your self worth and self esteem but YOU. If you have none, it is your problem, and you cannot lay it off on “men”. I have seen peers who invested years in careers and schooling to the detriment of their personal lives because society tells them to. And one day they wake up with a failed marriage, or no marriage at all, and disaffected children who never saw them at home. Nobody ever lay on their death bed and said, ” I should have spent more time at the office.” Thats a word both men and women could learn from. But then, some people value the wrong things for too long and learn too late. Sad, as Donald would have said.

      • From a person who grew up and lived in New York, Mr Trump was well-known as a rich, but shady businessman, and later, an employee of the mainstream media. He had a number of bankruptcies and a cancelled tv show. But he rehabbed himself as a political candidate in 2015 and successfully took on at least 17 other politicians. Looks like a comeback to me. I think he wants another one to recover from his loss in 2020.

        The simple truth is that many Americans love a comeback hero.

        • I disagree that somehow being a NEW YORKER, rich, or a media employee makes one somehow “shady”. Ditto, bankruptcy is a perfectly legal business option, and not at all shady. Some creditors may not like the results but the fact remains it is legal and has been for generations. If in fact what you suggest is that you like the reality he can take a verbal punch and give it back, it is one of the reasons I voted for Trump twice and would do so again. .

    • There are several more relevant points here. It’s hard to ignore the trends:
      https://decentfilms.com/articles/quovadisdisney

      You might wish to look to Mary or Mother Teresa as examples of what female empowerment really is. It’s not trying to compete with men in strength. It’s not leading the household (St. Paul says this in Ephesians 5:22 for instance!)

      Even science, when it isn’t being suppressed/co-opted by the narrative, knows that men and women are fundamentally different: https://stanmed.stanford.edu/2017spring/how-mens-and-womens-brains-are-different.html

      There’s nothing wrong with rehabbing people. The disturbing trend is to ever more sympathize with antagonists and villains, and not require true or convincing repentance.

      On the trends of sympathizing with villains:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HFhYwR5H1g
      http://www.scifiwright.com/2013/07/heroic-villains-and-villainous-heroes/

      The Literature Devil video linked in this article is a true masterpiece, though long. The article itself is good though much shorter.
      https://rawlenyanzi.com/heroes-are-better-than-villains/

    • Female empowerment is really nonsense viewed from the lens of Christianity especially Catholic Christianity.

      Christ was not about empowerment but humility. Self abnegation. This frequent talk of empowerment shows how Eve still rules the hearts of women.

      • Correct. We find our truest selves, the best versions of ourselves, our most “powerful” selves when God works through us rather than us relying on our own feeble strength. True power is letting the power of God work through you and not thinking you can do it all, and accepting it whether your role seems grand and amazing or humble and boring.

      • Exactly. There’s no reason to settle. Especially when there is good stuff to read and watch instead–much of the literature preserved from the past few centuries, and the good creators often forced to be independent because of ideology at the big publishers. Try gutenberg.org or the Internet library (run by archive.org) for countless completely free or borrow-able books, for instance.

        If everybody quit Disney+ or watching Marvel movies, they wouldn’t have the money for this (or at least would take their disgraceful stuff only to China, which at this point is often a bigger moneymaker for movies than the US is).

        See http://www.wastelandandsky.blogspot.com (by JD Cowan; not my blog) for many ideas both old and new (shows and books alike), signal boosting of independent creators, and more. As well as often insightful analysis or simply descriptions of the long trainwreck that got us where we are now. (Such as the thorough “Cultural Ground Zero” with its surprising list of catastrophes large and small in the late 90s.)

  2. This obsession with the self, with independence, with the throwing off of obligation and expectation, is, of course, a product of privilege. (My choice of words is mischievous, but the point remains.) For most of human history, and for a good deal of the modern world as well, people relied, and still rely upon, individuals for their sustenance and safety. A community was a fragile entity in which every member depended on every other member pulling their weight. To have rebelled against the responsibilities and expectations of such a community would have been to imperil all, and the result would have been exile, which would have meant almost certain death.

    But in rich, privileged societies we do not depend on individuals but on institutions. We can work for institutions, shop at institutions, and live without dependence on or responsibility for, any human individual. This independent living, entirely for oneself, is the ultimate expression of privilege and planet-destroying excess. (Mischief, I make mischief!) Exile now becomes the goal to be strived for, rather then the grim fate to be avoided.

    As a writer of historical fiction, I see these stories everywhere about me in my genre. It is hard to find an historical novel these days in which the heroine is not rebelling against the conventions of her time and the expectations of her family is ways that are historically implausible, to say the least. (Male characters do this too, but there are far fewer of them, and they are almost all soldiers.) While historical novelists obsess over the number of buttons on a glove, they uncritically buy into the narrative of uniformly oppressive past societies without taking a moment to understand the reasons for the social structures of an age.

    (This is not to say the social structures of the past were never oppressive. They often were. As they often are now. It is only to say that they were specific adaptations to the conditions under which people lived at the time — which means without the unprecedented wealth some of us enjoy today, and its attendant “privilege”.)

    So yes, Disney tells these stories. So does everyone else. It is the story of our age. It is based on privilege and an ignorance about how societies develop and function. The only antidote, though, is to tell better stories.

  3. FYI – I am an old coot of 78 summers, and happy and grateful to be so.

    I remember back in 1966 when Walt Disney died and there was a lovely drawing of many of his cartoon characters with tears in their eyes.

    ‘The Aristocats’ was a masterpiece – The two spinster sisters from England on vacation in France were beyond funny. Maurice Chevalier singing the title song was wonderful. Zsa Gabor voicing the mother of the kittens was wonderful.

    ‘Lady and the Tramp’, ‘101 Dalmatians’, ‘Fantasia’ – all reminders of a gentler time that is not only long gone now, but which is actively mocked now, and nowhere is that more so than in the trash which Disney promotes now.

    How sad.

  4. We, as humans both male and female, are empowered to complete the work of Jesus Christ on earth. We are called to reject the immorality of our current society and stand for the good. It’s our mission, and we have the authority through the roles assigned at our Baptism — priest, prophet and king. Go out and proclaim tithe Good News to the world. Keep using your God-given power to preach His word.

  5. Disney has had a not so hidden agenda for a long time. There has not been a strong male character in any of the latest Disney movies – The males are duplicitous (Frozen), stupid (Tangled)and their kisses no longer work to wake the sleeping maidens (Sleeping Beauty). I have given up on them and have resorted to the original Grimm’s Brothers Fairy Tales for my grandchildren. Some of the original versions of the stories are a bit graphic (in Cinderella, the envious step sisters are finally blinded as they get their evil eyes pecked out by birds) but they are always moral. And that is what is important for children to learn. The Fairy Tale is truly a gift to a child – and Disney has forgotten that

  6. Excellent article and absolutely to the point. Back in the stone age, my husband and I were house parents at a children’s residence; not delinquents, or “kids with problems,” though many of them did have serious problems because they had been abandoned by their parents. At one point, remembering the charm of “Snow White,””Cinderella” et al. we decided to take the kids from “Sleeping Beauty.” Innocent enough, wouldn’t you think? But already, as a very young woman myself, I remember thinking that something was going wrong. SB wasn’t a young girl like SW and C. She was definitely a well-depicted young women. I said nothing, of course, but it felt WRONG compared with the “old” Disney. So this has been brewing for a long, long time, and that was quite innocuous compared with current horrors. And yet…..perhaps…..the camel’s nose….?

  7. I’ve just reread this article in light of Get Religion’s account of the Disney/DeSantis conflict and the MSM’s dereliction in omitting the religious elements.
    Yes, it’s past time for parents to get up to speed on what’s going on here and take a stand.

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