Is Disney Still For Family Values?

Amid all the lights and holiday greenery woven throughout the Disney World theme parks, the absence of a single hand-bell choir on Dec. 11 was a protest that went unnoticed by any park guest with kids in tow, and by all who were without kids as well. But it was a protest nonetheless. "Your recent decision to provide health-care insurance for live-in partners of homosexuals places you in a moral position with which we can not identify and still maintain spiritual and moral credibility," said a letter to Disney from the Rev. Ronald Walker of the First Baptist Church in Belleview, Fl., declining the choir's first invitation to perform in the park. The choir had wanted to go. But then last month the Florida Baptist Convention declared Disney's execs to be godless heathens, personally at fault for dismantling the nation's moral backbone, promoters not just of homosexual unions but also of alcohol and gambling (on cruises) and for being conniving, bottom line-obsessed businesspeople who had turned "The Happiest Place on Earth," as a sign at the entrance to Disneyland proclaims, into a place that valued profit more than smiles on children's faces when before, right up until that defining moment, parents had been able to turn their offspring over to Disney and never for a second have to fear their own standards of "goodness" and "virtue" and "family" would be compromised, for heaven's sake. Or something along those lines. Well, the choir couldn't ring its bells for that. Disney chose not to comment on the choir's decision. But as the minor flap that emanated from predictable quarters grew into a national story -- driven in large part by the media's constant urge to have fun with Disney's virginal image -- Disney corporate spokesman John Dreyer found himself being quoted on the Florida Baptists' resolution in publications from The New York Times to Entertainment Weekly. And everywhere Dreyer's name appeared, someone speaking out for a remote special interest group gained a larger audience by delivering an opposing viewpoint -- in this case, that Disney has surrendered its family values franchise. And that was even before Disney announced its pending acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC, whose NYPD Blue debuted the bare butt on network television. David Caton, the conservative religious activist who periodically bubbles to the surface as a Florida chapter president of the benignly named American Family Association, told Entertainment Weekly: "What we've seen is a change in the entire culture of Disney. They've shown an outright disrespect and arrogance in their attitude toward the American family." Spurred by the health-care benefits action, Caton's group has announced a boycott of Disney merchandise. For anyone keeping track, it follows the boycott begun by the Stafford, Va.-based America Life League, which has complained that Disney's latest animated films are sprinkled with subliminal messages, including a cloud of dust in The Lion King that the league says spells out S-E-X, and a line of dialogue in Aladdin that League observers say whispers, "Good teen-agers, take off your clothes." The world is watching with something of a smirk. "Their track record is strong enough and long enough to rebuff any type of a challenge on these grounds," says Harold Vogel, a financial analyst who follows Disney for Cowen & Company, a New York investment firm. "The Walt Disney Co. is known for its high-quality, family entertainment-type programming as developed over most of this century. As specialists in family entertainment, they're not about to offend anybody if they can help it. I don't see why they should be attacked on any grounds. This whole thing is ludicrous. These people are making themselves appear very foolish." "Personally, the Baptists, that's just like nuts," says Ron Grover, whose 1991 book, The Disney Touch: How a Daring Management Team Revived an Entertainment Empire, grew out of his reporting as the Los Angeles bureau chief of Business Week magazine. "I'm sitting in Los Angeles, and the only reason I know about this Baptist thing is because I have a writer in Florida who called looking for a quote. This thing is going nowhere fast. Should they respond? I don't know. I haven't the slightest idea. I'm not in their corporate mindset. I wouldn't respond." Joe Flower, author of another 1991 book,Prince of the Magic Kingdom: Michael Eisner and the Re-Making of Disney, observes: "In a way, religious conservatives speaking to Disney are somewhat in the position of conservatives in general warning Republican presidential candidates that they won't vote for them. The question is, where else will they go? Disney so dominates that market that there's not much of another card to play if you want to take your kids to a movie at all, or buy a video at all, if you leave out Disney." Dreyer is just as practical. Though Disney's typical reaction to controversy is no reaction at all, the company's response to the small but growing list of conservatives' complaints has evolved from mildly defensive to weary and somewhat condescending. It's easy to see why; two new films -- dare anyone say family films? -- once again find Disney at the top of the commercial heap. "It concerns me that they're ignoring the facts," says Dreyer of the attacks by the self-appointed family values lobby. "This year we produced more family-values entertainment of every kind than we have in any other year of our 70-plus-year history. Our Disney brand of entertainment makes us the world's leading producer of entertainment for every family. If anybody has any doubt about it, they should look at the two top films this past weekend, Father of the Bride Part II and Toy Story. There's none that could portray family values better than Father of the Bride, and there's none that could portray friendship values better than Toy Story." It is not a new complaint. "From time to time over the years you see it, and people have single issues that they seek to generate publicity about," says Dreyer. Thus, there is little surprise over the alarm among the Florida Baptist leadership over Disney's recognition of same-sex unions -- a recognition that finds Disney following somewhat sluggishly in the wake of every other major Hollywood studio. Dreyer says the current spate of objections are in keeping with the activity of groups that seek publicity. And while opposing cards and letters have certainly been arriving -- though not in any unusual amounts -- he says, "We've also been receiving cards and letters thanking us." He adds: "The Disney brand of entertainment in movies, books, TV, theme parks, records, you name it, will continue to speak for itself and continue to represent the image of the company. ... In other words, we will concentrate on producing the Disney brand of entertainment, not on what people say about us." But people continue to say plenty, mostly because Disney gives them plenty to talk about. No longer a mere caretaker of Walt's cartoon character and theme park legacy, the Disney company was diversified well before its planned merger with Capital Cities/ABC forged an unrivaled giant in worldwide entertainment production and distribution. Within that diversity are contradictions aplenty. Yes, Pocahontas, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast - both the animated film and Broadway musical -- are contemporary Disney creations. But Disney also was responsible for the gay-clergy film Priest and the unrated (to avoid the current equivalent of X) and unsettling docu-drama about aimless youth in the age of AIDS, Kids. Television (Home Improvement, Ellen), books (from Ross Perot's anti-NAFTA screed to Growing Up Gay), even urban development (currently in the heart of New York's Times Square) -- all have been fodder for those who observe Disney's elevated cultural status and insist that, in exchange for our lavish consumer affection, Disney shoulder responsibility for upholding the standards it helped to create. But not everything has been within the company's control: A grass-roots event launched five years ago by and for local gays and lesbians, Gay Day at Disney World has grown into a nationally promoted event. Organizers for the past two years have estimated attendance at more than 20,000, and in 1995 they secured sponsorship for a corresponding weekend from Coors Brewing Co. and American Airlines. Disney has neither endorsed nor publicly encouraged the June gathering, but for conservatives who see Disney engaged in a moral tailspin, it's part of a pattern. Disney's acquisition of Miramax Films presented back-to-back headaches. Priest, which received decidedly mixed reviews, had only limited release after inciting another call to boycott Disney products by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Liberties, a watchdog group; the film never opened in Central Florida. Kids, in part about an HIV-positive boy who has sex with teen-age girls, flirted with an NC-17 rating, challenging Disney's policy of not releasing a film rated as such. Finally Miramax created a separate unit, Excalibur Films, to distribute an unrated version of the feature, which opponents criticized as child porn masquerading as art. In October, Disney presumably was surprised to learn that the director of its film Powder, about a boy with pale skin and mysterious powers, was a convicted child-sex offender. The media was alerted when the victim of the 1988 assault, for which director Victor Salva served 15 months in prison, picketed a Hollywood screening of the film. Disney at the time would not comment on whether the revelation might affect the film's marketing, but a weak reception meant that Powder did not linger long in theaters anyway. Then there were outcries Disney brought on knowingly. Animal-rights activists here and across the country have quietly been shaping protests over a fourth Orlando theme park, Disney's Wild Kingdom. Taking a page from the debacle it created by angering historians with plans for Disney's America, the aborted park outside of Washington, D.C., Disney aligned itself in advance of its Wild Kingdom announcement with some of the best-known animal-rights and zoology consultants. That act largely blunted opponents -- and demonstrated a newfound savvy in the face of potentially contentious reactions. But they didn't waste any energy spinning the benefits issue. Indeed, it was a pure business decision; their competitors in the film industry were doing it, and Disney couldn't risk the loss of talent that might ensue if they went any longer without it. (The company's policy takes effect on Jan. 1.) "Hollywood has a fair number of enlightened liberal people, many of whom have same-sex partners," says Grover. "If Disney didn't do it, they would have lost workers to other players." So a handful of Florida lawmakers wrote Disney CEO Michael Eisner criticizing the "inclusion and endorsement of a lifestyle that is unhealthy, unnatural and unworthy of special treatment." So what? Rick Foglesong, a political science professor at Rollins College in Winter Park who has long followed Disney's governmental politics in Florida, may call it a "courageous stance" but, notwithstanding a small conservative backlash, it was the only stance Disney could take. Says Flower: "Disney cares about two things. The main thing is, dollars at the box office or at the main gate. The second thing -- my guess is that it's far behind the first, but it is there -- is their standing in Hollywood." He continues: "Walt Disney was a passionate ideologue about what we would today call family values. Michael Eisner sees it as a franchise. ... He sees it as a franchise to be protected at all costs, but I would seriously question whether the remonstrations of particular religious groups have much effect on the business at the box office or at the gates of the park. So far there is no evidence that it does, and I mean that just looking at Toy Story." Foglesong agrees. "Disney looks to the box office to decide what's acceptable, but prefaces that by a concern for its overall image, so that when people have criticized certain movies for moving away from the image set by Walt himself, you get the sense that Michael Eisner and others look to see if the movie was commercially successful. If it was, then they feel like they have somehow been endorsed by the public." And what of the academics who criticize Disney's reach and impact, not just for being plastic and fantasy-based but for contributing to American imperialism? Remember the advance debate about EuroDisney? Remember the phrase "cultural Chernobyl?" "I don't think that kind of criticism has much impact," says Foglesong. "Religious-based criticism of their willingness to provide spousal benefits to gays is potentially more threatening to them than criticism from ivory-tower academic types. Because I think that conservative criticism threatens their wholesome image more than liberal criticism -- I should say liberal academic criticism -- that they have contributed to the sense of patriarchy and American imperialism. "If one goes back," he says, "Walt Disney built Disneyland because there were not amusement parks that were appropriate for families. As a grandfather and as a parent, he lamented that he could not take his kids to an amusement park, or didn't feel comfortable doing it, because of the carny types who were employed there. ... In fact, he gave instruction to his people not to hire people who had worked at boardwalk-type theme parks, because he wanted to keep that boardwalk element out." He might be surprised, then, at Eisner's resurrection of the boardwalk setting for one of Disney World's soon-to-open hotels. But times change, says Foglesong. It's normal that Disney would -- or should -- change too. "After all," he says, "churches change [on questions of] integration of races, divorce, abortion, premarital sex. It seems reasonable to expect that an entertainment company like Disney with responsibility for upholding right standards would change those standards in response." Indeed, says Flower, it was Eisner's call to push through Disney's first adults-only comedy -- although under a then-new label, Touchstone, to distance it from the Disney name. "It was not an accident that the first film he put out, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, was R-rated," he says. "They made sure those words were in the script." And still there are things that Disney won't do. Gambling on cruise liners that will pull out of Port Canaveral is one thing, but when approached by gaming interests about going into partnership on a Las Vegas venture, Eisner put his foot down, says Grover. Can you imagine, Eisner protested, what people would think about Disney involving itself in Vegas?


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