I love Disney. I listen to its musical numbers on repeat on Spotify. I love traveling to Disney World and going on the rides (Magic Kingdom is the best, obviously). I can obnoxiously hold my own amongst the most intense Disney adults.
Simultaneously, I also think that Disney is a conservative company that tepidly adds the blandest representation possible while also lobbying for some of the most regressive policies out there. Seriously check out how they were instrumental in restricting copyright law, bullying local theaters, and more. I have been quite vocal about my distaste for the Mickey Mouse corporation, and I am not afraid to write about it (read me complaining about working-class representation in the MCU, tearing apart WandaVision, and even the "woke" She-Hulk).
I want you to keep this critical perspective in mind when I emphasize that I am worried about how the far-right has been talking about Disney recently. I have noticed a trend of Disney being used by conservatives to rally their base in order to promote fascist rhetoric, and I think we need to be wary of this trend while also not uplifting a company that has historically been very harmful to our society.
What is Disney to Conservatives?
I want to preface this by saying that conservatives have always used pop culture as a fixture for their reactionary policies. We could look to the 1980s and early 90s satanic panic, where people claimed that various practices, from daycares to goth fashion, were part of the occult. Another was the comic book scare of the 1940s and 50s, where people asserted they were indoctrinating children.
It's easy to laugh at these examples now, but they all had lasting policy consequences. The comic book scare led to many companies dying off and the remaining ones self-censuring under the Comic Codes Authority as a way to avoid future regulation. The satanic panic, something that never truly ended, led to the harassment of countless individuals across the country as well as the conviction of many innocent people on evidence that would later be deemed to be false.
These panics are happening regularly throughout our history, and it has to do with how mainstream conservatism operates. The contemporary conservative movement is reactionary (i.e., it champions a return to a prior time believed to be better). Conservatism's philosophical foundation comes from academics such as Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre, who were reacting to the French Revolution and the possible fall of the monarchy. They were trying to ultimately defend hierarchy using the market as a vehicle to preserve their power, even as the aristocracy's control faded. Not all conservatives cite these philosophers — many don't even know about their existence — but when you look at the philosophy underpinning their actions, it's about preserving hierarchy.
Conservatives usually don't perceive things in the terms I have described. They will instead talk about the need to preserve culture and tradition, but because they are often trying to preserve a dominant hierarchy against change, they have to demonize opponents of it in irrational ways. Change, after all, is inevitable, and those suffering under the boot of hierarchy will have an instinctual desire to oppose it.
Many times conservatives resort to fascist rhetoric. "Enemies" are rebranded as not those unhappy (and suffering) under the hierarchy conservatives defend, but rather an abstract, insidious “other”: a group that is all-powerful and pervasive but, given enough power, can also easily be cast aside. An evil that can't be fought directly but works through the edges of society in newspapers, books, TV, comic books, and other aspects of pop culture to corrupt society.
Under this logic, pop culture is not the evil itself — although many conservatives definitely perceive it as evil — but the tool that conservatives claim their scapegoat is using to indoctrinate others. Dungeons and Dragons was allegedly the tool Satanists were using to corrupt the minds of our youth. Those who targeted comic books often leaned on anti-communist and anti-queer hysteria. You could also point to, you know, actual Nazis who burned thousands of allegedly "un-german" books to stop "foreign" influences.
In the contemporary era, conservatives are scapegoating a "woke elite," which can include everyone from the transgender community to Black Americans to feminists. Conservatives claim these groups are trying to indoctrinate children and other vulnerable members of our society when what we are doing is pushing against a cruel and regressive hierarchy. You can see this discourse in the anti-grooming rhetoric, where conservatives are conflating the existence of LGBTQ+ people with pedophilia, or with the CRT discourse, where the mere discussion of racism has been rebranded as far leftist propaganda. The discussion of our existence leads to frank conversations about how the status quo is terrible, so of course, in the minds of conservatives who like the status quo, we must be evil.
Disney got lumped into this "woke" group in March of 2022 when an employee walkout over Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill pushed the company to come out against the legislation. It was truthfully a turn in public perception that was a long time coming. Disney has earned the ire of conservatives after every diversity and inclusion reform they implemented in the last decade (e.g., updating their racist rides, acknowledging how some of their past films were racist, etc.), but this condemnation of the "Don't Say Gay" bill was the last straw for many conservatives. They went from a media company that occasionally "went too far with diversity" to an enemy manipulating our society. In the words of Florida Republican Rep. Brian Mast when Disney tepidly condemned the "Don't Say Gay" law:
“Corporate America is under this cloak of arrogance where they think they get to play God with morality and sexuality and a host of other realities in this world, and somehow if you don’t agree with their interpretation, then you are guilty of some kind of hate speech.”
In other words, conservatives like Mast argue that companies such as Disney are manipulating society and getting people to accept — not corporate control — but “wokeness.” If you scan right-wing sections of the Internet, Disney is a topic of this conspiratorial thinking. "Layoffs expected at Disney. Go Woke! Go broke!" posted the admin for a Pepe Telegram group. "Disney employee warns that Magic Kingdom is advancing cultural marxism," a Q-Anon channel warns. This fear of malicious outsiders controlling the public through the media is the same logic that has existed throughout every moral panic, and it should ring some alarm bells.
We have fallen into this somewhat predictable cycle, where Disney releases products with some positive representation, and the right-wing community organizes campaigns to demonize the product and the "woke" (i.e., diverse, nonwhite) people associated with it. They review bomb the media, make derivative content deriding the product's diverseness, and dox and harass the diverse people associated with it (see Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ms. Marvel, etc.). These harassment and grievance campaigns allow conservatives to perpetuate their persecution complex (i.e., the idea that some Other is trying to hurt them and, by extension, destabilize society).
Yet they also simultaneously serve as a vehicle for recruitment. We saw a similar pattern for how the "far-right" used video game communities to swell their numbers (see Steven Banon's WoW days or Gamergate). Conservatives are infiltrating the communities of the people they want to radicalize and then making the barrier for engaging with them as low as possible by talking about the things these people already understand (i.e., media). As the Innuendo Studios YouTuber Ian Danskin argues in their video "How to Radicalize a Normie":
“This distributed nature is what makes the Alt-Right, and the movements connected to it, unique….Doing almost everything online has, as compared with traditional hate movements, dramatically increased their reach and inoculated them from consequences.”
Reaction content to Disney is low-risk and high-reward. Commentary about Disney doesn't just feed into the anxieties of the already-converted but gains attention from people interested in the media being criticized. Latching onto existing discourse is the strategy many content creators are doing on the Internet, including me, which is why this strategy is so effective. If you want to impact culture, you have to talk about the things in that culture — and well, since Disney is one of the biggest media conglomerates on the planet, talking about them is, if not an inevitability, highly incentivized.
Like with previous eras of history, this discourse is not only being used as a tool to expand their base of support but as a pretext for passing destructive policies. The idea that the queer “Other” must be guarded against is leading to terrifying political changes. We mentioned the Don't Say Gay bill in Florida, but there are also hundreds of anti-queers laws that are being proposed (and passed) across the country. We will be feeling the effects of this moral panic for generations. It doesn't matter if the rhetoric is bullshit; the specter of an enemy is enough to do real harm.
We are not out of the woods yet, either. While not every moral panic devolves into fascism, all of them are built upon fascist reasoning (i.e., scapegoating an "other"). The Republican Party has outwardly embraced this rhetoric, and the left is not as cohesive as it needs to be to meet this challenge. We have to be careful with how we proceed, or we will wake up in one to five years in a far worse situation.
A Disneyfied conclusion
I cannot be the first to make a big ole fuss about how these criticisms of Disney have become an outlet for fascist rhetoric. Remarks on Disney are not the cause of this moral panic — the queerphobia and racism we are experiencing predated it — but it's certainly an indicator of the situation worsening. Think of Disney as a canary in a coal mine or a frog in a boiling pot of water. The point is that the environment around us is worsening.
Like with the other moral panic we have mentioned (e.g., GamerGate, the comic book scare, the satanic panic, etc.), we are seeing this flashpoint over media play out as an extension of a larger cultural battle. This is a battle between conservatives and an alleged Other. Conservatives may be talking about how Disney is woke and evil and controlling everything, but the thing they actually hate are cultural minorities like queer people whose free existence invalidates the hierarchies they cherish.
It can be tempting to want to rally around Disney. Several have argued that we must defend these cultural products against the hate groups forming in reaction to them.
Yet I think that is a mistake for two reasons:
- Disney doesn't give a [email protected] about stopping white supremacy: They are in it for the money and enjoying the free publicity these outrage cycles give them. White supremacist hatred is turning mediocre cultural products into issues people have to fight over politically, and that's money in the bank for Disney. We gain nothing by strengthening their political and social capital, which Disney will undoubtedly cash in to worsen copyright law or some other evil bullshit, not to fight fascism.
- Defending a megacorporation's product because it's "diverse" falls right into the rights’ mother [email protected] hands: We then have to engage in a tiring argument over whether or not a product is a morally good or bad piece of media. Listen, we don't need to intrinsically defend the goodness of a movie — that battle is subjective and unwinnable. Like the content you want to like. That's a personal issue I have no desire to regulate.
It doesn't matter if a Disney product is morally good (a trap I have fallen into far too frequently). We, as humans, can disagree over media criticism. It's not what's driving this rise in fascism. What matters is that actors on the right are part of a hate movement — not that their movie tastes suck. They are using the boogeyman of "woke" media to retrospectively justify their preexisting hatred, and the goodness or badness of Disney media needs to be decentered from that conversation. It’s not really about Disney.
Apart from that, there isn't a sweeping set of points or arguments that will "defeat" this moral panic. Anti-racism, radicalization, and deplatforming require multi-faceted approaches and intense time commitments. These approaches will not be completely summarized in a single, 8-minute article. I can give you some places to start (check out this essay on deplatforming and this one on allyship), but the general advice I can offer is to get invested in some form of community — whether that be a local advocacy group or just knocking on your neighbor's door.
We are in the middle of a moral panic, and we need to be aware of the signs of how it is unfolding around us. We should be alarmed by how the right is talking about Disney, but if we continue to center a megacorporation like Disney as the hero or victim in this “debate,” we will increase the spectacle of this moral panic and lose the war against it.
About the Creator
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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