JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

 

Private and public:
constructions of social hierarchies

Gender. Always a politically and culturally conservative corporation, Disney has reproduced many popular gender stereotypes from its earliest days, with special emphasis on the conventionally attractive white princess who needs rescuing, and later just needs a conventionally attractive man.[46][open endnotes in new window] From the antic chases of the first Silly Symphonies to the long line of princesses from Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950) and Pretty Woman (1990) through Ariel in The Little Mermaid (1989), Belle in Beauty and the Beast (1991), and beyond, Disney has taught that girls must be paired off with men to be happy. And it continues to teach this lesson through the recirculation of these films and images.

But increasing with second wave feminism in the sixties and seventies, Disney has encountered a growing chorus of criticism for its representations of gender.[47] The company pretended to ignore this criticism as it grew, yet has tacitly engaged with its critics as its heroines have become superficially more ethnically diverse (Pocahontas [1995], Mulan [1998], and The Princess and the Frog [2009]) and central to the films’ narratives (Frozen [2013]). However, the corporation has been slow to promote women to positions of responsibility, and as yet no woman has solo directed a Disney animated feature. Throughout, Disney has failed to respond to changing social constructions of gender until resistance became more visible and public, and the corporation continues to market its older, more blatantly patriarchal films in multiple venues to new generations.

Sexualities. As more complex understandings of sexualities have supplemented conventional notions of gender, some have come to understand that Disney, seemingly a bastion of compulsory heterosexuality, has not only made covert and a few overt appeals to gay audiences, but it has long employed lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgendered people, while keeping LGBTQ characters largely invisible in its products. Sean Griffin has complicated these emergent queer understandings with his explorations of the history of gay culture’s use of various Disney motifs, the role of lesbians and gays within the company, and the ongoing struggles over “Gay Days” at the Disney theme parks.[49]

These struggles can be seen as uneven and often unsuccessful yet continuing attempts to treat a private company as a public resource and the private property of the theme parks as public spaces, to be defined by their heterogeneous workers and citizen-consumers as much as by Disney. While the gay rights movement generally operates within a liberal political framework of appeals for full inclusion within public life, some aspects of it strive for a more expansive and radical definition of citizenship to include a rejection of the consumer capitalism that constantly privatizes and constricts that public life. Capitalism commodifies gay as well as straight identities by turning the public signs of identity into private property. As Griffin concludes,

“As Disney and its advertising seem to encourage homosexual viewers to ‘do’ gay readings of their product, such advertising also regulates how that reading is supposed to be done and who is authorized to do it, turning a subversive strategy into a potential for more profit….[although] such target marketing is not completely effective.”[50]

Unfortunately, while Disney has begun to take cautious steps to make its marketing address more of the world’s sexual (and gender and racial) diversity, it ignored a major opportunity in Saving Mr. Banks. The real P.L. Travers was bisexual and complicated. She moved in literary and bohemian circles where she could be relatively open about her romances and associations. But Saving Mr. Banks is tasked with making Walt look as saintly as possible, though it tries to inoculate itself against criticism by acknowledging but de-emphasizing his drinking, smoking, and patriarchal attitudes. So the company apparently thinks it must, by contrast, turn Pamela Travers into a too-often mean and psychologically one-dimensional spinster with major daddy issues. Thus there is no hint of Travers’ bisexuality or many of her other interesting traits.

Race. Since its beginnings, Disney’s racist and ethnocentric constructions have also been pervasive, including widely-discussed racial caricatures in such films as The Three Little Pigs (1933), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), Peter Pan (1953), The Jungle Book (1967), The Little Mermaid (1989), Chip n’ Dale Rescue Rangers (1989 TV series), and Aladdin (1992).[51] Of course many other media corporations have sold racist products. The difference here is that, with the sole (and likely temporary) exception of Peter Pan, Disney continues to re-circulate these films worldwide in 2014. Re-selling everything from its vaults seems to be a compulsion the company can’t break. Even its most notoriously racist film, Song of the South (1946), picketed and protested since its opening, still turns up wholly and in commodified pieces throughout the Disney universe and elsewhere. Jason Sperb has insightfully analyzed the ugly reception history of this film, including the confusions of its twenty-first century fans. He notes that Disney’s famously aggressive legal department continues to ignore the easy availability online of pirate copies of the film and related Disneyana. Perhaps more important, the film is legally available in many other countries outside the United States.[52]

Neo-Colonialism. Newer approaches contextualize Disney representations of gender, sexuality and race within larger neo-colonialist narratives. In their analysis of Disney’s Pocahontas (1995) and Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (1998), Radha Jhappan and Daiva Stasiulis acknowledge the improvements Disney has made over previous representations of women and “Indians” while demonstrating how the films continue to demonstrate white (English and American) superiority and justify colonialism:

“The impression left at the end of each film, that British imperialism was called off, is indeed one of the most fanciful yet serious departures from reality committed by Disney’s narratives….the interracial love story between Smith and Pocahontas serves to legitimize that colonization.”[53]

Private and public: Disney’s exploitation of labor

The Walt Disney Company has a long corporate history of aggressive property development, obsessive control of copyrights and trademarks, and bad corporate citizenship within the societies and communities from which it extracts resources, employees and capital.[54] Although I am not claiming any direct causal connections with Saving Mr. Banks, nevertheless to understand more fully the contradictions in the company’s actions is to understand more fully the import of Saving Mr. Banks as corporate self-promotion and mission statement. Here I will focus on updating previous accounts of Disney’s exploitation of its workers, which began with cartoonists in the twenties and thirties and now extends to the workers of the world.

Like many multinational corporations, Disney makes huge profits on merchandise sold at high prices in developed countries and made in low wage, often sweatshop conditions throughout the developing world. Because Disney and other corporations refuse to protect those who make their products with the same zeal with which they protect their own brands and trademarks, those workers often labor in unsafe, oppressive and inhumane sweatshop conditions. Although these workers are employed by suppliers and subcontractors, Disney, Wal-Mart, Apple and other companies repeatedly create, with the low prices they demand, the conditions for sweatshops.[55]

Over and over again, such sweatshop injustices are compounded by tragedies in which workers lose their lives. On the evening of November 24, 2012, at least 112 garment workers were killed at the Tazreen Fashion garment factory in Bangladesh. Disney and Wal-Mart garments were being sewn there. Three weeks later, the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights reported on similar conditions in another factory making Disney and Wal-Mart products, the Dream International Toy Factory in Shenzhen, China.[56]

Meanwhile, around the world in Orlando, Florida, Walt Disney World is the largest employer in the region, so large (around 60,000 workers, over 12 percent of the total regional workforce) that its low wages depress the already low wages in the whole Central Florida area with its predominantly tourist-driven economy.[57] In 1998, through all-too-common collective bargaining laws and processes designed to weaken workers and their unions, and to make organizing practically illegal, Disney effectively imposed a two-tier wage system on its non-tipped service workers. Those hired after Dec. 12, 1998 received smaller pay increases starting in 2001, so they have been permanently paid at a lower rate than their counterparts hired previously.[58]

“In 1998 its entry level hourly wage scale was 5-8% higher than its competitors [Universal Studios and Sea World]; by 2006 it was 3-4% lower.”[59]

The tens of millions of dollars Disney saves in this way is mostly extracted from the economy of greater Orlando and goes to stockholders, top-level executives, and investments elsewhere.[60]

In 2010 UniteHere Local 362, one of six unions negotiating a new contract for over 27,000 bus drivers, waiters, custodians, parking attendants and front desk staff, produced a documentary film titled Mouse Trapped 2010. With average wages for union workers around $10 an hour, Doug, a worker in Animal Kingdom, said on camera,

“For me and my family to survive, we have to go to the churches. We have to go to the church and we get handouts.”

And Bryan in the Transportation and Ticketing Center said in the film,

“I can work for 50 hours a week and bring home $165 because of my insurance and other deductions that come out of my paycheck.”[61]

By 2014, many of Disney World’s employees were still only making the minimum wage of $8.03 an hour in Florida, a right-to-work-for-less state.[62] In 2013, Walt Disney World, along with Darden Restaurants, a low-wage chain, and other business groups, successfully lobbied the Florida Legislature and Governor for a new state law prohibiting local governments from enacting measures to guarantee paid sick days for all food service workers, thus ensuring that many of those workers, mostly women, would be forced to come to work sick and spread their illnesses to others.[63]

Private and public: Abigail Disney refuses to build the family brand

The corporate media, composing the first draft of public history, continue to ignore or de-emphasize any more critical or complete account of the activities of Disney or other large corporations. So it’s not surprising that they largely ignored Meryl Streep’s unusual introduction of Emma Thompson at the annual National Board of Review awards gala in New York on January 7, 2014, which was more fully reported in the trade press and British newspapers. Streep, who had reportedly been offered the part of P.L. Travers for which Thompson was being honored, pointed out that Walt Disney

“had some…racist proclivities. He formed and supported an anti-Semitic industry lobby. And he was certainly, on the evidence of his company’s policies, a gender bigot.”[64]

She went on to quote a 1938 letter from Disney to a young woman named Mary Ford of Arkansas, who had applied to his company’s training program for cartoonists. Disney replied,

“Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that task is performed entirely by young men. For this reason, girls are not considered for the training school.”[65]

It is not news that Walt Disney was a man of his times, or that there was a sexist division of labor in animation as in many other areas of life during this period as in our own. Streep’s historical claims are well supported by the historical literature, including even Neal Gabler’s authorized hagiography of Walt Disney.[66] But the trade press and blogosphere mostly treated her remarks as controversial. The reaction from Disney fans in online comments was predictably defensive and hysterical, attacking Streep as a bad actor and a “bitch.”[67] As elsewhere, conservative defenses of bigotry in the past slid quickly from “everyone was doing it” to nostalgic attempts to recreate a time when critiques of bigotry could easily be ignored or silenced.

What happened next was less predictable. It came from Abigail Disney, Roy E. Disney’s daughter and Walt’s grandniece, a documentary filmmaker, social activist and philanthropist with a Ph.D. from Columbia and politics very different from her famous family members. On her Facebook page on Jan. 10, 2014, Disney acknowledged “mixed feelings” about Walt:

“Anti-Semite? Check. Misogynist? OF COURSE!! Racist? C'mon, he made a film (Jungle Book) about how you should stay 'with your own kind' at the height of the fight over segregation! As if the 'King of the Jungle' number wasn't proof enough!! How much more information do you need? But damn, he was hella good at making films and his work has made billions of people happy. There's no denying it. So there ya go. Mixed feelings up the wazoo.”[68]

She went on to criticize Saving Mr. Banks as “a misplaced attempt at hagiography”:

“I LOVED what Meryl Streep said. I know he was a man of his times and I can forgive him, but Saving Mr Banks was a brazen attempt by the company to make a saint out of the man.”[69]

Only in the worlds of Hollywood publicity and Disney fetishism could these comments seem startling. More interestingly, at the moment that the corporation attempts to assimilate other brands (Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars) around its core brand, thus stretching the Disney brand to the breaking point, it seeks to ground its synthetic identity ever more thoroughly in its own constructions while the real Disney family ceases to act as guarantor of brand identity. Ms. Disney’s comments record a moment in the separation of the Disney family from the corporation that bears its name, and a shifting in the connotations of the Disney brand as the connections between family and corporation become almost entirely symbolic. In its attempts to mythologize itself by systematically confusing a corporation with a person, the company can no longer count on much help from the younger generation of Disneys. One can easily understand why Abigail Disney might prefer to separate her identity from the company’s, and might even wish that the company stop pretending it has a human identity.

I referred above to the relatively small but influential audience of Disney fans, many of whom read and comment on online stories about Disney and comprise the most attentive audience for The Pixar Story, Walt & El Grupo, Waking Sleeping Beauty, Get a Horse! and to a lesser extent Saving Mr. Banks. Based on their comments on press reports of Meryl Streep’s mild and factual remarks about Walt Disney, these Disney fans have a lot in common with the fans of Disney’s Song of the South discussed by Jason Sperb. Many in both groups seem unable to accept that a film they love, especially one they cherish from childhood, might turn out, like its creators, to be on further adult reflection sexist, racist or otherwise bigoted. Beyond those who might wish to deny the existence of any bigotry in Disney or anywhere else, there is here an attempt to deny any imperfection in the object of their affection, a denial that many people will reasonably find some of Disney’s films less than timeless and universal, and Walt and his crew historical rather than magical.

As if to demonstrate in miniature why the Disney brand needs constant maintenance through products like Saving Mr. Banks, Meryl Streep and Abigail Disney, representing the East Coast feminist wing of non- or anti-Disney culture, generate and expose small, peripheral fissures in the smooth, magical surface of the Disney public image. In her introduction of Emma Thompson, Streep called Thompson “a rabid, man-eating feminist, like I am.”[70] And as I will show below, although Meryl Streep and Abigail Disney are talking explicitly about Walt Disney, they are also talking implicitly about how Walt’s company, continuing the policies he began, has, with Saving Mr. Banks, done its best to finally put Pamela Travers firmly in her (Disney) place.

The compatibility of the Disney and
Tom Hanks brands

Although Abigail Disney is not willing to build the Disney brand, Tom Hanks certainly is. In many ways he is uniquely positioned, as a commodity-brand, to help remodel the simulacrum that is “Walt Disney” for the twenty-first century. In February 2014, according to Forbes magazine, Tom Hanks was the “Most Trustworthy Celebrity” among Americans, just ahead of Carol Burnett and Morgan Freeman, and he also topped the Reader’s Digest “Trust Poll” in 2013.[71] In December 2013 The Harris Poll named Tom Hanks as “America’s Favorite Movie Star,” and he was the favorite among both the most-educated (post grad) as well as the least (high school or less).[72] In 2014, when NPR’s “All Things Considered” asked U.S. men what movies made them cry, an unexpected pattern developed: in more than 5000 replies,

“Hanks was mentioned far more than any other actor, and for a wider range of performances.”[73]

Popularly known for playing ordinary, everyman guys, Hanks has come to embody for many the nice boy next door, charming, familiar, good natured, and emotionally open, a contemporary Jimmy Stewart. Beginning with comedy roles on television series like Bosom Buddies (1980-1982), he went on to movie stardom in Splash (1982, Disney) and Big (1988), then to three of his biggest successes, Philadelphia (1993), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and Forrest Gump (1994). By then his star brand was well-established: boyish and soft-bodied, sexually muted or passive, Hanks became the boomer alternative to the rampaging tough guys played by Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson.[74] He starred in Saving Private Ryan (1998) and The Green Mile (1999) and began a star franchise with The Da Vinci Code (2006). The core of boyish asexuality remained key to most of his later star performances, and certainly to his updating and reconstruction of the image of Walt Disney. Hanks was 57 when he played Disney, and the role merges the brands of Walt Disney and Tom Hanks into the apotheosis of the ordinary man Hanks has played so often, now older and legitimized in a “hierarchical order of adult male power and authority,”[75] yet whose talent lies in his intimate connection with the innocent and playful boy-child as Disney consumer within.

The real Walt Disney apparently remained unable or unwilling to fully articulate anything like a mission statement,[76] but his company has grown so large, so distant from its playful and anarchic origins that it requires a new, twenty-first century Walt. Those very mid-twentieth century Audioanimatronic figures at the Hall of Presidents speaking those mechanical civics-lesson clichés perhaps inadvertently expressed the viewpoint of the conservative Walt Disney and his corporation on democracy, the state, and the public realm. In Tom Hanks the Walt Disney Company found its ideal new Walt. In Hanks the corporation found an actor to embody itself, an actor as technically accomplished and alive as those embodiments of the public state were inept and dead. More important, though, as Fred Pfeil has pointed out, a generally unnoticed dimension of Hanks’ star persona is that he generally plays characters who are exclusively concerned with private and psychological life, who are publicly and politically indifferent:

“There are no larger purposes or higher values in the world in which Hanks’ masculinity is normative than that of accomplishing whatever mission you happen to be given—and/or, insofar as you are still a bagman, doing as you please.”[77]

Given the corporate values of most Hollywood films, this may be a trait that Hanks’ persona shares with that of most other contemporary U.S. stars. However, it certainly assures his compatibility with Disney, a corporation like others devoted to the neoliberal values of commodification and privatization, and an indifference or hostility toward public institutions and civic life.[78]Perhaps in time future generations will, at the mention of Walt Disney’s name, conjure up an image of Tom Hanks rather than that genial old guy on the old television images. If so, that would be entirely appropriate, since Hanks would seem to be the ideal personalizing star for a personalizing era.

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