Disney has always been an explicitly morally instructive company; his characters were used as propaganda during The Second World War. Walt Disney’s original vision for Walt Disney World in Orlando was a model for a healthy civil society, among many other examples. Conservatives now simply disapprove of society’s chosen morality, which includes commonly accepted progressive ideas about multiculturalism and personal identity.
The story of the struggle against this gradual and seemingly inevitable cultural shift to the left is more or less the story of conservatism itself. The inducements and pressures that have led conservatives on this particular quest, however – a quest that is not only almost certainly hopeless, but has led them into grim rhetorical territory by labeling opponents of the law “groomers” or of manipulative pedophiles – is quite modern and reveals how much our cultural and political landscape has changed over the last decade of American life.
The personality of Walt Disney and imagination are at the heart of the company that bears his name. From “Steamboat Willie” to “The Avengers”, there is a irrepressible optimisma love of sound and visuals for themselvesand a stubborn determination (to his detractors, easy bordering on irresponsible) to do even the macabre or the tragic ultimately fun. If this seems indistinguishable from “Americanness” as it is loosely defined in pop culture, it is not by accident.
Disney’s early leftist critics accused the company of whitewashing American life and spreading the myth of the post-war nuclear family to reluctant recipients around the world. What cultural architects and critics of the company could agree on was that it represented, at least by pop culture standards, the average American mainstream.
Conservative criticism of Disney today rests on the idea that by aligning itself with liberal social causes, it is leaving that mainstream behind. Yes, there are polls that show the specific Florida bill in question is especially popular with voters. But right-wing political entrepreneurs like Chris Rufo, the impresario of last year’s ‘critical race theory’ panic, have turned a quiet disagreement over a bill into the pivot of a culture war on its own. whole.
They are now accusing theoretically LGBT-friendly companies like Disney of “grooming” children – startlingly cynical rhetoric that, by hijacking a term used to describe pedophiles, manages to confuse homosexuality with pedophilia, profoundly disrespects real survivors of child sexual abuse using their experience as a political cudgel, and invoking the specter of far-right conspiracy theories like “Pizzagate” all at once. (The backlash also predictably and depressingly caught sex education in its blast radius, which has been repeatedly proven to be the most effective tactic for to prevent sexual abuse.)
The approach is reminiscent of the anti-gay crusades of the 1970s. A line from conservative activist and former pop star Anita Bryant that has been making the rounds since the Florida bill was introduced could have come from Rufo’s keyboard or from any number of today’s anti-gay activists: “Gays can’t reproduce, so they have to recruit. And to refresh their ranks, they must recruit American youth.
For conservative Central American parents with short stature of young children, waiting until the end of the third grade for their children to learn about homosexuality – or simply teaching them about it themselves, in private from their own homes, as is their right – seems pretty reasonable, at least looking at the polls. But claiming corporate America is engaged in a mass conspiracy to make your children gay definitely doesn’t. The conservative culture war tactics of 2021, exemplified by the successful campaign of Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, were based on real and widespread discontent with the liberal handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. In contrast, Disney’s move toward greater LGBTQ friendliness is in tune with American audiences; support for gay rights has been on a uninterrupted and steep climb for the last decade.
The GOP attacks on Disney are above all a reminder of their unsuccessful campaign against the NFL, with its support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Both are among the few remaining monocultural institutions in American life and present a compelling opportunity to assert national “character” more broadly. Ideological conservatives are far from the rooms where decisions about the publicly professed policy of these institutions are made, and so seek to steer the conversation from the outside. And in both cases, conservatives have confused corporate messaging with support for extreme cases on every issue, like abolishing police or gender transitioning young doctors, hoping Americans will do the same.
Embedded in this effort is the recognition that when it comes to the core issues that need to be addressed — support for the racial justice movement and LGBTQ rights — the ship has sailed left and has done so since the 1960s, if not before. If you are a committed conservative activist, this is real cause for lament. If you’re an ambitious Republican like Ron DeSantis, this is a potential opportunity to win grassroots loyalty. By attacking Disney, he and other Republicans as Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene are betting that they can do it without alienating the wider community. But in their targeting and the hateful, off-putting nature of their attack on all the most extremely online conservative activists, they have unwittingly exposed how little influence they have on the American cultural mainstream.