Disney’s Queer Quagmire

The Walt Disney Company’s been in the news this week in ways that show it in a poor light. What’s going on and why does a company with erstwhile positive LBGTQ+ attitudes suddenly find itself on the defensive?

First it was the Florida law, then it was censoring Pixar films, then it was scratching a same-sex kiss in a film that’s since been canned entirely. What’s up with Disney’s actions? It depends on who you ask.

On the one hand, the company is savagely circumscribing queer kids and identity; on the other hand, it’s upholding social morals and protecting kids from the evils of homosexuality. Both sides are intransigent in their respective beliefs; while conveniently pushing their own agendas to their followers too.

So what’s the Disney company’s perspective? The company doesn’t make decisions by rolling dice. What’s its reasoning? It’s gotten lost in the mix and nobody seems to care. Why did they make the decisions they made?

It all comes down to money.

Shocking, I know, but for a corporation like Disney, money drives each and every decision they make. How much it’ll cost them now; how much it’ll cost them later. Who’s bonus will go up, who’s will go away. Will it push the stock higher, or make it drop? Such are the questions that are asked in decision meetings at the corporate level, but they are prevalent at the middle management level too.

So let’s take a closer look at each of the reasons Disney’s been in the news lately and see if we can crack their reasoning.

Don’t Say Gay

The first is Disney’s non-action regarding a Florida bill that aims to (amongst numerous other provisions) prevent schools and school personnel from discussing aspects of gender or sexual orientations:

3. Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with State standards.

Disney’s hot water came about not because they did something, but because they didn’t do anything. The company did not provide any public comment on the bill besides a statement from the CEO:

But Chapek did not take a stand against the bill, saying corporate statements are counterproductive and undermine “more effective ways” to implement change. But he said corporate statements “do very little to change outcomes or minds.”

Chapek was absolutely hounded for that response, but, he’s not wrong! Corporate statements generally don’t instill change. When was the last time a press release caused you to change your habits? Remember all those animation studios lining up to ‘stand with’ their black artists a few years ago? It made for great PR but did it make things any better for their black employees let alone black people in the US in general. Talk is cheap at the end of the day.

So there’s two aspects to Disney’s action (or non-action if you prefer). The first is that Disney directly employs upwards of 75,000 people in Florida. Their resorts are the largest single-site employment location in the entire country. Disney has a loooong history of not only needing, but requiring local political support for their activities in the sunshine state. Disney simply cannot afford to ruffle feathers too much because what if they want to do something at some point in the future? They’re gonna need the assistance to get it done. By not commenting, Disney is simply not getting involved in a political fight it really doesn’t have any skin in to begin with.

But doesn’t the law have a grave and immediate detrimental impact on LGBTQ+ kids? Shouldn’t Disney stand up for them?

Is there any money to be made by doing so? Do you think the odds are more in favour of making more money, or paying a price? Make no mistake, kids are Disney’s bread and butter (aside from ESPN) and they will not engage in any activity that jeopordises that. The company might score some brownie points and goodwill with a portion of the populace, but what about the rest, and what about the future? Apathy is a shockingly common activity.

Personally I think Disney’s corporate officers have much more important things on their mind than a state law that affects state and local government educational institutions. They’re also probably well aware that regardless of the outcome, they have an opportunity to acquire the affected kids as consumers anyway, if they haven’t already.

Such a cold, heartless, miserly viewpoint isn’t it?

Censoring Pixar Films

Jumping on the bandwagon, Pixar employees published an open letter that accused the company of censoring signs of queer affection in the studios films. Rounding on Chapek’s statement on the story above, the letter states:

Nearly every moment of overtly gay affection is cut at Disney’s behest, regardless of when there is protest from both the creative teams and executive leadership at Pixar. Even if creating LGBTQIA+ content was the answer to fixing the discriminatory legislation in the world, we are being barred from creating it.

Let’s set up a few undeniable facts first:
1. Pixar films are *expensive* (hundreds of millions of dollars)
2. Pixar films appeal to everyone
3. Pixar films play in a multitude of countries and cultures around the world
4. Pixar films must, by virtue of the economics of filmmaking, make a profit

With those four facts in mind, let’s list a few more undeniable facts:
1. Countries outright ban (and execute for) being queer let alone permit queer content to be shown
2. Countries can (and do) exert control over media released within their borders
3. Adapting films for local markets costs money
4. The fewer countries a film can play in, the less money it makes.

Let’s look at this story, again from Disney’s perspective. I doubt the company is even remotely concerned or bothered about whether scenes of queer affection are present in Pixar films or not from a moral perpsective, but I am almost certain they care about them from a financial one.

Adapting films for local markets goes beyond merely dubbing new voices. It can extend to altering the films themselves to conform to the local culture and to comply with the local film classification (censor) office’s requests. (E.g. a film that’s ‘R’ rated in America would have to be edited to conform to a ’15’ rating in the UK to succeed in a comparable target demographic.) Disney’s goal is to reduce these costs as much as possible. Why include content in a film that you know is going to have to be removed?*

Pixar’s films also have to appeal to everyone by virtue of their economics, but also their brand. Who Framed Roger Rabbit! features a cast of classic cartoon characters but the film’s themes are mature enough that Disney couldn’t release it under their own brand; they had to resort to their Touchstone Pictures label reserved for adult fare instead. Pixar films don’t have that luxury. Why? Because they’re Pixar! Could you see a Pixar film being released under another banner? A ludicrous scenario.

The bottom line is that queer affection in Pixar films costs Disney money to remove so why bother also spending money to create it in the first place?

* The Mitchell’s vs. The Machines did not set a bar in this regard. The letter refers to *overt* affection which this film lacks. Katie’s queer identity was so subtle I didn’t even notice it until the end; which is also a convenient location to remove the scene without affecting the rest of the film.

Nimona’s Lost Kiss:

Lastly, this most recent story concerns a same-sex kiss that was allegedly removed by Disney management as the film was in production. Tying it all together: you have a queer scene, in a film that is in the process of being made, by a studio with a brand that is family-friendly (Blue Sky) and you, as the Disney manager, have been tasked with reviewing the work and providing suggestions. What. Do. You. Do?

You do what everybody in such a scenario does: make changes you can plausibly sell to your immediate superior who in turn tries to sell them to their superior, and so on. The buck stops somewhere, and the decision comes down from on high: cut the gay kiss.

Do you agree? Can you afford to challenge? Do you simply play the role of messenger? It depends on the individual. Perhaps you do disagree, but your hands are tied; bills have to be paid after all.

In the end, the decision is made to cancel the film entirely. Whoever crunched the numbers figured the film was going to come up short; queer scenes or not. The problem is now moot.

Parting Thoughts

Bob Chapek’s actions appear tone deaf and downright clumsy at first glance, but with a closer look, it’s more apparent that the mob (for want of a better word) took control of the story which put him on the back foot. Politicians, for all their faults, face this problem every day; having to distill complex problems and scenarios down to a soundbyte or tweet; actions that lose necesary context. Even this blog post grossly summarises things but I don’t have the time to write the thesis is should be.

As dangerous as it is to take the side of the company, it’s disingenuous to chide it for making decisions or taking actions you simply disagree with. There’s two sides to every coin but the force causing it to flip is also a determining factor in the outcome. Sometimes we should also keep that in mind.

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