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June 26, 2022

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In Disney’s DeSantis feud, echoes of a culture war that never died

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LOS ANGELES — The weeks-long feud between the Walt Disney Co. and conservatives over Florida’s Parental Rights in Education legislation — nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by LGBT activists — recently escalated into a full-blown imbroglio that has played out on cable news and social media.

Fox News host Laura Ingraham has accused Disney of “pushing a sexual agenda” on children.

Christian music artist Sean Feucht, who has organized rallies outside the entertainment giant’s Burbank headquarters and near Disneyland in Anaheim, told Fox News that Disney “crossed a line in the sand when they began to enable those who want to fight to sexualize our kids,” in what has become a now-regular attack against the company.

It’s a battle that, to people who have followed Disney’s history, has a familiar ring. The current conflict is just the latest clash to reveal underlying tensions that have existed between Disney and religious conservatives for decades as the company has increasingly embraced the LGBT community.

It has strong echoes of the anti-Disney protests of the late 1990s, when religious leaders criticized the extension of health benefits to the partners of LGBT Disney employees, the coming out of Ellen DeGeneres on her sitcom on Disney-owned ABC and unofficial “Gay Day” celebrations at the theme parks.

Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, host of “The 700 Club,” warned the city of Orlando that it risked hurricanes by tolerating Gay Days. The Southern Baptist Convention in 1997 called for a Disney boycott after the nondenominational American Family Association campaigned against the Burbank entertainment giant by sending thousands of protest packets to pastors. The difference now is that, instead of brochures, there’s Fox News and Twitter.

“They have a bigger platform now,” said Chapman University religious studies professor Julye Bidmead, who created a course on Disney, gender, race and religion. “But it seems to be the same kind of thing that we’ve seen over and over again.”

A Disney spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

The latest fight started with the introduction of Florida’s Parental Rights bill, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law last month. The law bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through Grade 3 “or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

Supporters of the law say they’re trying to protect young kids from being exposed to concepts they’re not ready for. Opponents say it amounts to a homophobic attack on queer youth and teachers by creating a chilling effect on even casual classroom discussions.

Disney CEO Bob Chapek first spoke up after initially getting fierce employee blowback for the company’s slow response to the Florida legislation. Chapek’s hesitancy to publicly denounce the bill before it was passed by the state legislature sparked fury from workers, some of whom staged walkouts.

After DeSantis signed the bill, Disney said in a statement that its “goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts.”

The debate reached a new pitch after leaked footage of a Disney employee diversity and inclusion meeting showed an animation producer praising Disney’s inclusiveness and talking about “adding queerness” in the company’s programming.

In the video, obtained and distributed by conservative activist Christopher Rufo, television animation executive producer Latoya Raveneau discusses Disney’s willingness to support queer storytelling. “Our leadership over there has been so welcoming to my not-so-secret gay agenda,” Raveneau said in the clip.

That prompted a verbal assault from conservative commentators decrying Disney’s “woke” messaging. Ingraham described Disney employees’ efforts to include more LGBT storylines and characters in its films and shows as “propaganda for grooming,” harkening to old tropes comparing gays and lesbians to pedophiles and the idea that queer people are trying to recruit children.

“We are waging moral war against Disney,” tweeted Rufo, who has previously labeled Disney’s diversity initiatives as “critical race theory.” “We are directly targeting their public reputation. We are turning half of their customers against them.”

Republican politicians have threatened to hit Disney with more than words and boycotts. DeSantis voiced his support for state lawmakers who want to repeal the 1967 state law that established the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

The law granted Disney extraordinary powers of self-government, such as the ability to levy taxes and provide emergency services on land in central Florida that is home to the company’s sprawling theme park resort.

The loss of the Reedy Creek privileges would be a significant blow for Disney. But observers doubt rhetoric will become reality. The proposed change gives DeSantis the opportunity to grandstand for a national conservative base ahead of an expected presidential campaign. However, Walt Disney World remains one of Florida’s biggest employers, and a primary driver of tourism to the state.

“This is a really a marriage of convenience with Burbank and Orlando,” said Mark Pinsky, author of “The Gospel According to Disney” and a former Los Angeles Times reporter. “The cooler heads understand that they need each other.”

Over its 99-year existence, Disney has been a frequent political lightning rod on virtually all sides. Liberals criticized sexist princess narratives, as well as racism and culturally insensitive cultural depictions in “Dumbo” and “Aladdin.”

In Walt Disney himself, who founded the company with his brother Roy in 1923 and was politically conservative by Hollywood standards, the right long saw something of a kindred spirit.

While rarely explicitly religious, the company’s animated movies have been picked over by scholars for biblical parallels and symbolism. In 1937, Snow White uttered a short prayer for her dwarf companions. (“Bless the seven little men who have been so kind to me. And, may my dreams come true. Amen.”) The company even released a short film based on the tale of Noah’s Ark in 1959.

Some deep readings led to rumors that fed a growing moral panic. One conservative Christian organization accused Disney of including subliminal sex messages in “The Little Mermaid” and “The Lion King.”

As the culture changed, Disney films started including other religious traditions and philosophies. “The Lion King” draws on the Christian narrative of a son who becomes a savior but also incorporates elements of mysticism though the mandrill shaman Rafiki. The 2020 Pixar film “Soul” explores the idea of an afterlife, but one without any god.

Camarillo-based Ted Baehr, founder of the Christian Film and Television Commission and publisher of the film website Movieguide, said he’s heard from religious parents who had been giving up on Disney even before the controversy over’s Florida’s new law.

“I think it’s turned off a lot of people as it’s gotten more eclectic in its religious point of view,” Baehr said.

But scholars note that Disney, historically, has not exactly been on the bleeding edge of cultural change when it comes to social issues. Rather, Disney’s evolution on inclusivity reflects broader shifts in society. That increasingly includes openness to more queer storylines in films that might be watched by kids.

“The young people that I’m teaching in college now? They have no problem with trans characters,” Bidmead said. “They have no problem with any of this. So I think that will make it very difficult for a small group of the religious right to cancel Disney.”

At least one conservative media organization has used the furor as an opportunity to promote its own family-friendly content operations as an alternative for Christian parents.

The Daily Wire, founded by political commentator Ben Shapiro and filmmaker Jeremy Boreing, held a town hall in the wake of the controversy to announce DW Kids, its children’s content arm, with plans to invest $100 million over three years. Boreing said the strategy has been in the works for months, and that it is not meant to draw conservatives away from Disney.

“Disney is driving their own audience away,” Boreing said in an emailed response to The Times. “We are simply providing an alternative for that audience.”

Pinsky said he doubts there will be enough of a backlash against Disney to harm its bottom line, citing the failure of the Southern Baptists’ boycott.

Disney’s then-chief executive, Michael Eisner, refused to entertain the group’s demands, dismissing the company’s critics as “nuts” in a 1997 interview on “60 Minutes.” The boycott officially ended in 2005, without so much as an olive branch from Burbank.

“They thought they had picked a fight that they could win,” Pinsky said of the Southern Baptists. “That’s a lingering lesson about the boycott. When they thought they were holding three aces, it turned out that they had a pair of deuces.”

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