The so-called culture war has sparked a new controversy in the ostensible happiest place on earth.
The debate over a controversial anti-rights law in Florida, promoted by Republicans, has caused a scandal at Disney. According to some employees of the media giant, the company was planning to censor LGBTQ+ themed scenes in several of its films. The episode is a reminder that corporate leaders must no longer only deal with external pressure on social issues, but also that demands for change and accountability increasingly come from within the company.
According to industry trade magazine Variety, LGBTQ+ Disney employees claimed that executives at the parent company have demanded cuts to “almost every moment of gay displays of affection,” regardless of resistance and protests from the creative teams and leadership within the Pixar studio, which was purchased by the entertainment giant in 2006.
“We at Pixar have personally witnessed beautiful stories, full of diverse characters, come back from Disney corporate reviews shaved down to crumbs of what they once were,” states the text addressed to the company’s CEO, Bob Chapek, who came into the position last year, replacing Bob Iger.
Chapek said last week that Disney “unequivocally” stood up for minority rights and that they were committed to creating more diverse content. “We all share the goal of living in a more tolerant and respectful world... I believe the best way our company can make lasting change is through the inspiring content we produce,” he said via internal communication channels. “I do not want anyone to confuse the lack of a statement with a lack of support,” added the executive, who was in charge of theme park operations before relieving Iger at the helm of the company.
The employees have not cited examples of films whose content was watered down by corporate censorship. In the text addressed to Chapek and Susan Arnold, the chair, the community members say they are “disappointed, hurt, fearful and angry” at the tepid corporate response to the law passed this week by the Republican majority in Florida. The animators’ union also called Disney’s stance “disheartening” and a “misstep” for the corporation.
The Parental Rights Act, known in progressive sectors as the “Don’t say gay” law, regulates content in schools on sexual orientation and gender, topics that are weapons in the ideological battlefield between Republicans and Democrats. Governor Ron DeSantis, one of the contenders for the conservative presidential nomination in 2024, will enact it in the coming days. “We’re going to assure parents that they can send their children to kindergarten without some of this stuff injected into their school curriculum,” the local governor said recently. Once it goes into effect, teachers will be prohibited from talking about these topics between kindergarten and the third grade of elementary school.
“We expected our company to stand up for us, but it didn’t,” said the statement from the employees, who had hoped Disney would take a tough stance against the Act being pursued in Florida, where the company operates its largest amusement park. Visited by 20 million people each year before the pandemic, this sector generated revenues of $16.5 billion for the company in 2021. There was no public statement against the act. In addition, media reports state that the company has donated money to some of the Republican politicians who supported the initiative.
The employees’ statement calls Chapek’s message “hollow”, and goes onto call the company’s conduct hypocritical and cynical: “The parks did not organize gay pride parades until 2019, and only in Paris. Disney has a history of preventing pride events organized by park-goers and, in the 1980s, expelled people of the same sex dancing together,” states the text, which accuses the company of commercially exploiting their segment of society. “It feels terrible to be part of a company that makes money from gay pride march merchandise and decides to step back in a time of need, when our rights are at risk,” they add.
The scandal coincides with the company’s announcement to suspend its operations in Russia following the unjustified invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s troops. Last week, Disney confirmed that it would not release its films in the country, in protest against the military offensive. The decision cancels ongoing content projects and the operation of the tourist cruise ship that the company had docked in a St. Petersburg port. Employees on Russian territory will not be laid off.
In 2016, Disney and other industry powerhouses threatened to cancel their projects in the state of Georgia, popular for its tax benefits for film productions, if a law discriminating against homosexual people was passed. The pressure was such that legislators relented. For LGBTQ+ employees, this is a sign that corporate stances by Disney can make a difference. A distinction that has not been extended to them.