clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Disney found itself in the middle of a culture war

Ron DeSantis’s political theater isn’t about changing the company — it’s about clout.

A person dressed as Mickey Mouse wearing a “make America great again” hat holds signs in support of Governor DeSantis. One, in a mock Disney font, says “DeSantisland.”
Florida MAGA activists, far-right politicians, and QAnon-adjacent patriot groups gather outside the entrance to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, on April 16 to protest Disney’s objection to Florida’s anti-gay “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and to try to deter tourists and guests from entering the property.
Dave Decker
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Disney doesn’t like conflict.

Conflict means taking sides. Conflict means making enemies. Conflict means personally defining what’s right and what’s wrong. None of those things are appealing to a company that’s ridden high-gloss inoffensiveness to become the richest and most powerful entertainment company in the world.

Yet, despite its immense financial power and commitment to deflecting confrontation, Disney has found itself stuck in a rather complicated one.

Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis set into motion the dissolution of Disney World’s special self-governing district. Disney, through Disney World, is the state’s biggest employer. The company’s special status allowed it to do things like create infrastructure and construct buildings without asking its local government. DeSantis’s termination of that special status comes after the company, after much hand-wringing and internal protests from employees, spoke out against Florida’s anti-gay “Don’t Say Gay” bill — a right-wing bill that DeSantis supports.

Disney now finds itself in unfamiliar territory.

On one side we have DeSantis, his presidential hopes, and his cohort, who are determined to punish Disney for breaking ranks with their anti-LGBTQ bill, which has culminated in loud-if-ineffective protests outside of Disney World. On the other are Disney’s LGBTQ employees, fans, and their allies who, despite reassurances from Disney, are still skeptical about how much the company is committed to the diversity and inclusivity it sells. Both political sides have protested against the company, making Disney perhaps the most significant American company in recent memory to acquire bipartisan disappointment — a feat.

Despite its political battle with DeSantis and its ongoing damage control with the LGBTQ community, perhaps the biggest fight the company is facing is its identity crisis.

Disney’s business plan operates on accommodating everyone and minimizing excluding anyone. From its movies to its theme parks to its hotels and vacation packages, Disney has created an image that Disney is for everyone. The company’s political fight with DeSantis — a fight that DeSantis is more than happy to have spilled onto the national stage — could very well shatter that portrait one way or another, and perhaps create a more realistic picture of who the company is ready to stand with and who it may disappoint.

How Disney found itself at the center of the political theater, and why it hates being there

After much back and forth between Disney CEO Bob Chapek, Disney employees, and its LGBTQ fans, the House of Mouse came out in opposition of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill that prohibits teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity with young students. Being against the bill put Disney, Florida’s largest employer, against DeSantis, who signed the bill into existence.

DeSantis has since begun a bold, attention-grabbing attack against Disney, using inflammatory language with newly engineered anti-gay undertones to portray it as an enemy of right-wing politics.

Boycotts in and of themselves aren’t really super effective, Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, told me. Schweitzer researches negotiation, trust, and behavior, and he pointed out that in cases like the boycott against BP after the 2010 oil spill, people just ended up choosing whatever gas station was convenient. As much as the public was very upset with BP’s environmental disaster, the boycott didn’t really work — to harm BP’s sales by withholding business — as intended.

What boycotts, including the BP boycott, are very successful at doing is calling attention to a cause and garnering media attention. Hence the many articles that are churned up in the wake of boycotts against corporate entities. Boycotts are about halting business with a company you disagree with, and DeSantis has essentially begun that process by revoking Disney’s special self-governing status. If you frame DeSantis’s retaliation toward Disney as a theoretical boycott, it has done a very good job at capturing attention.

“I don’t think he actually wants or expects that he’s going to change anything at Disney. I think he really just wants the media attention,” Schweitzer told me, explaining that DeSantis’s primary concern is his own image and posturing for a presidential run rather than changing content at Disney.

“In a primary race, the challenge is to stand out and he needs to become the obvious choice. And he has to stand out among what could be either a crowded field of candidates or competing with Donald Trump, who has, you know, even broader name recognition,” he added.

The sentiment of DeSantis using his fight with Disney to beef up his political profile was echoed by Anthony Michael Kreis, a political scientist and law professor at Georgia State University. Kreis pointed out that DeSantis has adeptly turned the spat with Disney into a bigger, national conversation that fits a pattern that DeSantis has previously had with mask mandates, critical race theory, and the aforementioned “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

“He’s making multiple Florida issues into national issues and nationalizing his agenda,” Kreis said. “Now he’s saying,not only am I going after all these groups that generally oppose conservative right-wing policies, but if you oppose them in any way, I’m also going to undercut you with retaliation.’ He’s doing it in an election year, which sends signals to me that he’s not afraid of anything at this point.”

The image of someone willing to stand up to political opponents — to retaliate and to punish them — is effective messaging. It keeps DeSantis at the forefront of his voting base’s mind. It also gets him approval, in part because of how big a target Disney is.

“Disney is a very useful foil for him in that,” Kreis told me. “And I think he kind of senses that — that there’s some blood in the water and he’s been fairly successful. And so he could go for the jugular.”

There are a few reasons besides its high profile that makes Disney an appealing sparring partner.

First and foremost, Disney can’t just pack up Disney World and all of its employees and go somewhere else. Kreis explained that in analogous cases like Georgia’s voting rights laws or North Carolina’s transgender bathroom ban, entities like the NCAA and Major League Baseball removed events from those states to show their displeasure with state and legislation.

Nikki Fried, Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, recently traveled the state and told me, “I talked to so many Floridians on this tour, and not one of them mentioned having a problem with Disney.” She believes that DeSantis’s fight with Disney is a political distraction away from issues like affordable housing.

“He doesn’t govern, he inflames,” Fried added.

But what makes Disney an even more appetizing target is that it’s a company that hasn’t really established its ethical identity — which makes it sort of an anomaly.

Schweitzer, the Wharton professor, explained that over the two decades, there’s been a trend of corporate activism. Consumers want to know how the companies they spend their money on stand on issues of morality and justice. He pointed out examples like Starbucks supporting marriage equality, Nike supporting Black Lives Matter and Colin Kaepernick, and Patagonia joined in a lawsuit against the Trump administration when it decreased the protection of Bears Ears National Monument. And to be clear, it’s not a “go with the good vibe” feeling when it comes to these moral issues — companies usually weigh out risk and calculate the bottom line before making these very public-facing decisions.

While these companies are putting themselves out there, Disney, on the other hand, has tried to minimize its exposure. Its wishy-washy reaction to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill is an example of that. Before finally taking a stand against the anti-LGBTQ bill, the company wavered multiple times.

At first, Disney said nothing and was criticized for its lack of action, as well as for previously donating money to Republican politicians who directly sponsored the bill. Then, CEO Chapek went back and forth with the messaging that the company stood with its LGBTQ employees despite an open letter from LGBTQ Pixar staff and their allies alleging that Disney had actively scrubbed queer representation from their movies. The saga officially ended with the company releasing a statement that it hoped to see the bill overturned and would support that outcome.

The consistent throughline in that entire saga, Schweitzer points out, isn’t just that Chapek misread the moment — which is how the company managed to find itself as a target from both ends of the political spectrum — but that Disney has historically built its success on appealing to everyone.

The messaging for the Disney flagship brand has been that everyone can go see a Disney movie and everyone is welcome at a Disney resort. Wading into the political sphere too much in either direction changes that calculus.

Disney has long had conservative appeal — the company largely produces family-friendly stories that affirm American values, and effectively promoted those values globally. It also has a history of donating to conservative politicians. But it also has, especially recently, positioned itself as a diverse and inclusive workplace and corporation.

This might help explain why LGBTQ representation in Disney movies is slim and why Disney doesn’t officially recognize “Gay Day” celebrations at its parks, yet still uses those occasions to court its LGBTQ fans and sell rainbow merchandise. It also explains why the company and Chapek’s initial response was to say nothing in regard to the bill.

The more Disney and Chapek fight with DeSantis on a national stage, the more Disney will have to spell out its stance, especially since the “Don’t Say Gay” bill revolves around the education of children — Disney’s primary audience. Its fans, its employees, and its detractors all want a company that has made a fortune being everything to everyone to start establishing its boundaries, which it very clearly does not want to do because of said fortune.

“It’s a big tent. The movies, the resorts, their brand — it’s this broad appeal,” Schweitzer said. “But that’s hard to keep up, especially as the world changes.”

Or, especially for Disney, as long as this political theater drags on.