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Breaking Down Disney’s “Woke” Advertising

Mining the Far Rights Toxic Reaction to Diversity for Profit

By Alex Mell-TaylorPublished 2 years ago 8 min read
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Photo by Patrícia Ferreira on Unsplash

Listen, I love Disney. I am up to date on both the MCU and Star Wars. I have also watched every Disney animated movie from Hercules to Turning Red. I have not stopped loving Disney cartoons as an adult, and, now that this company has problematically acquired every popular media property this side of the Outer Rim, I don’t think I'm going to stop now.

Yet I am someone who has also been very critical of how Disney has handled the issue of diversity in the past (see Does Disney Care About Diversity?). I have taken the stance that Disney is a conservative company that acts in favor of profit maximization, and not out of some stunning desire to be progressive. The fact that conservatives are claiming this company is “too woke”, when Disney has actively contributed to anti-queer politicians for decades, speaks more to their departure from material reality than of Disney being a progressive defender of diversity.

I want to stress that a lot of people complaining about diversity in Disney are being very supremacist about it. You will often see conservatives lambasting “wokeism” in a show or movie when what they really have a problem with is human difference. And unfortunately, we see this happening with a lot of recent Disney properties like Obi-Wan Kenobi or Ms. Marvel, where they have become fodder for conservative influencers in the American Culture Wars.

These properties have become touch points in conservative circles, and I believe that partly has to do with Disney phasing out the more reactionary parts of its audience because it doesn't perceive them as profitable anymore. It’s not that this hatred has gotten worse, necessarily, but that it's now an important part of Disney’s advertising.

A Brief History of Nerds Losing Their Shit

Firstly, I want to stress how common overreaction to difference is in nerd spaces. One of the touchpoints in the modern Culture Wars was Gamergate — a mass harassment campaign of several prominent women in the video game space. This harassment was largely driven by male entitlement, and in some cases, white supremacist organizations (see Innuendo Studios for a great primer on this event).

Since that moment there has been a predictable overreaction to any human difference added in pop culture. For example, the all-female Ghostbusters movie released in 2016 (two years after Gamergate effectively started) earned a tremendous amount of hatred from male nerds. Its movie trailer was one of the most disliked videos on YouTube at the time. The actor Leslie Jones, who played Ghostbuster’s Patricia “Patty” Tolan, was doxxed by angry “fans” and racistly compared to a zoo animal.

Yet frequently more and more of this conversation on “diversity” or “wokesism” seems to be dominated by Disney properties specifically. The actress Xochitl Gomez, who played America Chavez in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was allegedly harassed for her queer scene in the movie. The show Ms. Marvel was review bombed several weeks later when it was released on Disney+. We see a similar reaction happening with actress Moses Ingram, for her ongoing role as Inquisitor Reva in Obi-Wan Kenobi.

It’s not that Disney properties have never received this type of reaction from “fans.” The actress who played the character Rose Tico (played by Kelly Marie Tran) endured an infamous harassment campaign after the film's release in 2017. The same for the Star Wars character Finn (played by John Boyega). We could also talk about Captain Marvel, the first mainstream female superhero in the MCU, which received intense initial disgust from various reactionaries.

However, there seems to be an intensification in the speed and quickness of this narrative among Disney works. Almost like clockwork, we will have a property get released with a brown or female lead (or both!), and a very short news cycle will revolve around angry nerds decrying the content. Ms. Marvel. Obi-Wan Kenobi. Every week seems to create a new “mini-scandal,” and that’s because Disney is having a falling out with its more toxic fans.

How Disney’s Approach To Supremacy Has Changed

There are several reasons for this reaction to Disney content. Recently, Disney has tepidly opposed Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill (after facing both intense internal and external resistance), and this has earned it criticism from conservatives. Commentators such as Chris Rufo have criticized the company for “grooming” and even encouraged a boycott.

Disney has also become such a big media giant that it’s kind of hard not to talk about them. They were already a culture engine before the acquisition of the MCU, Star Wars, and 21st-Century Fox. Three of the top 10-highest-grossing movies of 2021 were Disney films (and another of them was in collaboration with Sony). Now, for better and worse, they pretty much set the cultural conversation, so it makes sense reactionaries would be engaged with this content (everyone else is).

Yet most importantly I think what we are seeing is a market shift. As I have written about in the past, Disney is a very conservative company, which has historically meant trying to straddle the line between what its progressive and conservative audience members want. This balancing act has meant that they would tell works with rich themes that could subtextually be mined by more progressive audience members, without having to reward that on screen. We might get powerful messages, and even diverse leads, but more controversial moments could always be reframed or edited out for more conservative markets (see The Frustrating Queerbaiting in Disney Pixar’s ‘Luca’).

Supremacist overreaction to difference has existed for a long time in pop culture, especially with Disney’s more diverse works. Mike Pence, for example, infamously wrote an op-ed decrying the 1998 movie Mulan as “liberal propaganda.” But until recently, Disney would respond to these overreactions with deflection or denial. As recently as 2017’s The Last Jedi, Disney reacted to the Rose Tico fiasco by cutting her role in the sequel and minimizing her character's merchandising, effectively affirming the opinions of toxic fans.

Now with the inclusion of more diverse leads such as Inquisitor Reva and Ms. Marvel we are seeing Disney inch away (oh so slowly) from this strategy. Rather than denial or deflection, Disney is no longer openly courting its white supremacist audience. In fact, the dismissal of that racism has become a key part of its marketing strategy.

Over the past couple of years, we have seen a new beat emerge:

  • Disney releases marketing praising an upcoming property for its diversity, usually via comments from actors and producers.
  • The press picks up on these comments to make articles and other content.
  • Then Disney’s white supremacist audience does what always does to human difference — it loses its damn mind. Reactionaries like The Quartering and Tucker Carlson make derivative, racist content decrying a piece for being woke, liberal propaganda when really they just hate diversity.
  • Celebrities and producers attached to the Disney work then decry this racism (good!), helping generate further interest in the show.

For example, early reporting for the Obi-Wan Kenobi show on Disney+ centered on how it was important to have a diverse villain. As director of the series, Deborah Chow told Entertainment Weekly about Inquisitor Reva: “I was really excited about this character because it’s a new one that is not from the animated series and it’s also, for me, really exciting also to bring a female villain and to have a dark side woman of a very significant role.”

People were understandably very excited to have an interesting villain played by such a talented actress (side note, Moses Ingram’s Inquisitor Reva is frankly my favorite part of this show). There was even an emphasis in production on doing Reva’s hair right, leading to a cute write-up by Entertainment Weekly of how she finally gave Black girls with kinky hair a Halloween costume.

Unsurprisingly reactionaries did what they always do when seeing a Black woman do cool things — they harassed her, flooding her social media with terrible messages. Unlike Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico, however, Disney had apparently warned Moses Ingram privately that this backlash would happen. Ingram alleged that she was well supported. When she went public with harassment on her Instagram, the company was quick to get ahead of it, amplifying a clap back from actor Ewan McGregor on the official Star Wars Instagram.

Now there is a lot of fair criticism that Disney is still not doing enough to proactively protect its POC actors from this predictable cycle, being reactive instead (see Eric Deggans’ great essay on this in NPR). The average viewer, though, isn't going to be aware of these nuances. The media narrative for them becomes “wow, racists really don’t like that Black inquisitor woman in that new Obi-Wan Kenobi show” and “good, on Disney for…actually being there for her.” Suddenly the show becomes, not just a piece of content, but a conversation. And more than that, a statement.

It’s not bad that Disney stood by Moses Ingram and provided her support — to be clear, all entities should do this for their actors. What I am trying to emphasize is how Disney has incorporated this racist backlash into its media strategy. The backlash has become the point, tying into what influencer Hbomberguy originally called “Woke Brands” in a video of the same name. In that video he commented:

“When you are the focus of a conversation online. When you are a hashtag millions can click on and check out, when you are the conversation for a brief moment, that everyone feels expected to think about and have a take, not even an ad block can hide you.”

Hbomberguy was originally talking about advertising here, but I believe that it applies as much to shows as it does anything else. After all, it's all product at the end of the day, and if there is one thing controversy does, it’s create engagement.

Conclusion

We’ve been in this era of “Woke Brands” for a while now (Hbomberguy released his video in 2019). It’s just that Disney, as a conservative company, takes a bit to jump on to any bandwagon.

None of this is bad, per se. The fact that Disney feels like (right now) it can stop courting its white supremacist audience actually says a lot of good things about our society. If the most popular media company in the world feels that it's okay to spurn people like The Quartering and Tucker Carlson, I am not complaining. Disney is gambling on the future, and it's not these awful people.

As critical as I am of this media company, that doesn’t mean I think representation from this conglomerate is irrelevant. It is a good sign overall that Disney has started to focus less on whiteness in its filmography, even if only responding to the market trends (and probably some committed employees within the company itself). This trend does mean something to the millions of people who have felt unrepresented by the decades of whiteness that have dominated pop culture before this current moment, and that is something we should celebrate.

This does not mean, however, that this company has suddenly become “woke.” They still have a lot of conservative messaging that is quite alarming (see MCU is for Rich People), and I worry if they will still be behind these new principles if the social tide were to ever shift back (see Roe v, Wade). They are responding to a trend, and like any successful mega-conglomerate, capitalizing on it.

That may be progress to some, but to me, its acceptance with an asterisk.

*Be profitable, or else.

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About the Creator

Alex Mell-Taylor

I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.

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