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We Should Talk About Disney

Apr 12, 2022

The Walt Disney Company has hopped into a heap of controversy, prompted at first by the company’s official opposition of a Florida bill, and now amplified by testimony from anonymous employees about the organization’s chilling effect on political and social conservatives as well as jaw-dropping videos of Disney creatives acknowledging their desire to insert “queerness” and LGBT+ storylines wherever they can in Disney movies.

In response, some have called for boycotts. (The Southern Baptists were ahead of the curve on this, passing a resolution in 1996 that called for a multiyear boycott. That protest petered out around the time Disney partnered with Walden to release the first Narnia movie in 2005.) Others seek to pressure the company to step back from tarnishing its reputation as the world’s biggest and most beloved provider of family-friendly entertainment.

The Difference with Disney

Recently, a growing number of companies have aligned publicly with agendas on the political left, often at the behest of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion officers and HR departments. Some commentators now label this phenomenon “woke capitalism,” and conservatives worry about the results when both big government and big business unite around new and contested ideologies about gender and sexuality.

But the Disney trouble is different. In this case, it’s not about your Whopper with rainbow-colored wrapping, or the propriety of Pepsi taking a position on a particular piece of legislation. In those cases, the product from the organizations remains the same. Consumers may roll their eyes at the leftward virtue signaling or the TV commercials, but the Oreo remains the Oreo.

Disney is different. The insertion of an ideological perspective related to gender and sexuality affects the product. The creatives on video are forthright: they want to use the Disney name and its cultural cachet to push views of sexuality into entertainment for children.

Now, I’m old enough to recall the often comical claims that Disney artists have long been inserting subliminal messages into their films. (A moment with leaves in The Lion King led some viewers to see the word “SEX,” when the artists, instead, had given a nod to the special effects team by spelling “SFX”). I’m not surprised at these conspiracy theories. After all, Disney is the largest entertainment company in the world, and its vault of endearing family films is massive. People have long wondered if a business this big might misuse its power.

But the most recent dustup takes us beyond conspiracy theories about subliminal messaging. The messaging is overt, and there’s no conspiracy because the plans are out there for anyone to see.

Beyond a Boycott?

How should Christians think about Disney products in light of some employees looking for ways to inculcate transgender ideologies and “queerness”?

A boycott of Disney would be challenging, simply because of the size of the behemoth. We’re talking ABC, ESPN, Touchstone, Marvel, Lucasfilm, AE, The History Channel, Lifetime, Pixar, Hulu, Vice, and Core Publishing. And that’s just a start.

Another way forward would be to keep up the public pressure on Disney to avoid tainting their future artistic endeavors. Preachiness damages art, and ideological agendas limit the company’s reach.

When I lived in Romania, I remember asking about the literature and films produced during the Communist era, when so much of the literary world was subjected to ideological conformity. Romanians preferred to look to the poets and writers who preceded the Iron Curtain; they felt little affection for the “art” manufactured for ideological purposes from the 1940s to ’80s.

The subjection of creativity to ideological propaganda, where the primary goal is the inculcation of a political or social agenda, sounds the death knell of beauty. (This goes for Christian films as well. When the primary goal is getting across your sermon, you may entertain those already convinced, but you’ll rarely move others with your art.)

So, for the sake of Disney’s own artistic desires, and for the sake of their desire to entertain audiences all around the world, including countries that refuse many Western insanities, the company should put an end to the idea of instrumentalizing its art for a political purpose.

More Conversations, More Discernment

For Christian parents, we should recognize that no secular company, no matter how family-friendly, is truly a friend to biblical values.

You may think we’ve come a long way from The Little Mermaid, but the distance between the late 1980s and today is closer than you realize. The expressive individualist outlook on life (“the purpose of life is to look inward to discover and express your truest self”) is everywhere evident in the films from the ’80s and ’90s and has only grown in influence in subsequent years. The great Disney anthems, “Part of Your World,” “Reflection,” and “Let It Go,” continue that tradition. In these earlier cases, however, Disney wasn’t pushing a political agenda onto American youth, but merely reflecting and compounding the expressive individualist impulses already present in society.

The messages of many Disney films, even the most wholesome and family-friendly ones, are in some places antithetical to a biblical view of the world. The subversion won’t start with a potential same-sex kiss in a Pixar movie. It’s already there, and it goes way back.

We’ve got to stop thinking of family entertainment as “safe” merely by counting the number of cusswords or asking whether the movie contains overt displays of sexuality and violence. When our focus remains on the surface, we underestimate the more powerful and persuasive aspects of art. Plenty of films rated G and PG promote messages that counter biblical teaching.

So where does this leave us? With a call to discernment.

It’s not only the overt aspects of gender ideology that we ought to be looking for when we watch Disney movies, but also the subtle aspects of the expressive individualist philosophy that undergirds the sexual revolution. That is where the real and most urgent battle is fought.

The belief that happiness will be yours if only you look deep inside, follow your heart, chase your dreams, and oppose anyone who would stifle your truest self—that’s the narrative storyline for most children’s films today. I wrote Rethink Your Self so that people who have no interest in philosophy could still learn to spot that way of looking at life, and then see how it contrasts with the biblical view of looking up before looking in.

So, whatever conversations happen internally at Disney about their future programming, let’s make sure that thousands more conversations happen in our families about their current and past programs, appreciating what’s right and beautiful in their portfolio and recognizing what’s wrong and harmful. Whenever you turn on the TV, make sure you don’t turn off your mind.

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