Published on June 15, 2020
Though the following is an opinion piece, it’s presented with facts and sources cited via links. You may agree with it or you may not. I won’t pretend to have known Walt Disney personally or know his true decision-making process. I did, however, grow up under his influence and from an early age felt admiration for the man I wish I did know. With a lifetime of Disney knowledge, a handy book of Walt quotes, and drawing from interviews with those who did indeed have first-hand encounters with the man, I set out to put together the following post to help others understand Walt’s mindset – specifically on the topic of our nation’s (really our world’s) struggle to overcome racism.
Disney is not escapism
During a recent discussion about wearing a facemask in the Disney Parks following the COVID-19 pandemic, a friend of mine (and fellow Walt admirer) opened my eyes to the fact that Disney isn’t and shouldn’t be a form of escapism. This sentiment of “escapism” was raised again as Disney began vocalizing their support for their Black employees and fans following the recent Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests across the world, flared up by the brutal killing of George Floyd. Comments across social media are criticizing Disney for taking a stand on the issue, accusing them of infringing on their own form of “escapism” and driving a political agenda.
More on this in a bit… but let’s go back to the discussion I had with my friend about escapism: At first, I disagreed. I argued that going to the parks and watching the movies were a way to escape from the real world, to forget about the problems of normal life. In some ways it is – you don’t go on vacation to think about the stress of work and responsibilities. That doesn’t mean that the real world doesn’t still exist around you though. The big point I missed and now see more clearly, though, was that Walt himself never intended for his creations to be a way for people to forget about the issues going on in society.
Walt’s point of view
Walt wanted everyone who saw his films to confront real-world problems head-on and in-turn, inspire change through optimism. Yes, Disney is an entertainment company, but Walt acknowledged and strived to fulfill an intentional purpose with his work:
“Audiences want to know things rather than escape realities, so long as they are presented as entertainment.
He set this example throughout his career and even emphasized these values when dedicating Disneyland. I’m sure you’ve heard this speech hundreds of times, but listen again and meditate on the meaning:
“Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America… with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world”
– Walt’s Dedication of Disneyland , 1955
Do the “hard facts” that created America include our country’s history of cultural and political issues? Is Walt providing us with a place for people to escape real-life issues or is he influencing us to find the good in mankind by learning from our harsh past? Walt’s words are permanently emblazoned on a bronze plaque, proudly standing at the foot of the American flag in Town Square, at the park’s entrance. Take a moment to acknowledge this during your next visit and think carefully about his intentions for Disneyland.
Walt was never one to remain silent about his hopes and goals for his creations: “[Disneyland] would encompass the essence of the things that were good and true in American life. It would reflect the faith and challenge of the future… [and] the interest in intelligently presented facts”. The challenge of the future that Walt speaks of no doubt has a great deal to do with the ongoing struggle for human equality and basic freedoms.
“We have created characters and animated them in the dimension of depth, revealing through them to our perturbed world that the things we have in common far outnumber and outweigh those that divide us”
Admiration for Lincoln
If you didn’t know, Walt famously had a man-crush on Abraham Lincoln, a strong and well-spoken role model whose greatest achievement was putting an end to the Civil War and effectively abolishing slavery in America via the Emancipation Proclamation. Walt strongly believed in Lincoln’s values and longed for a Hall of Presidents type attraction in Disneyland where he could “celebrate the optimism and goodwill he saw at the heart of the American Story”. When Walt was given the opportunity to bring Lincoln to life during the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair, he proudly leapt at the chance because he, in his own words, “wanted to bring to the people of today, the inspiring words of the man who held this nation together during its moment of greatest crisis”.
Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln told the story of Lincoln’s rise to the Presidency and how his wisdom kept our house divided from falling apart. The show, which still runs daily in Disneyland, features an amalgamation of real speeches Lincoln had given during his political career with one line that stands out to me with relevance now more than ever:
“The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty, but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.”
– Abraham Lincoln, 1864
156 years later and Lincoln’s words hold up; America is not on the same page in many respects and we are once again heading towards another moment of our greatest crisis.
“Won’t somebody please think of the children?“
In another World’s Fair attraction that Walt personally supervised, we once again face harsh realism. This time it’s in the form of an earworm of a song:
It’s a world of laughter
A world of tears
It’s a world of hopes
And a world of fears
There’s so much that we share
That it’s time we’re aware
It’s a small world after all
Yes, it’s a kiddie ride, but the lyrics are simple and intentional. It’s not just a world of laughter, fun, and good times – there are real issues going on here: fears, tears, and hopes that everyone has. If anything, it’s the one thing that binds us together as humans. Walt didn’t believe in sugar-coating the truth, or talking down to children either:
“Life is composed of lights and shadows, and we would be untruthful, insincere, and saccharine if we tried to pretend there were no shadows. Most things are good, and they are the strongest things, but there are evil things, too, and you could do a child no favor by trying to shield it from reality.”
So when a comment like the one below pops up on social media, I feel a bit of outrage. But I also feel a bit sad about how this parent and many others choose to talk (or in this case, not talk) to their children about what’s going on in the world around them – a world that they are living in and a part of.
Besides the notion that if your “child” is old enough to see and understand what Disney is posting on their corporate Facebook page, then surely they are old enough to hold an informed discussion about the tough topics of today. Yes, it’s true that you have the right as a parent to shield your children from certain evils of the world, for their own wellbeing. Unfortunately, though, some adults simply don’t want to be the ones to break the news that there are actual problems still going on in the world. Walt took on a mantra that was the opposite:
“A child is helpless in choosing what is to be engraved on his mind during the formative years. The awesome responsibility is assumed, for better or worse, by us adults. Today we are shapers of the world of tomorrow. That is the plain truth. There is no way we can duck the responsibility; and there is no reason, except sloth and cowardice, why we should.”
Fantasyland is more real than you think
Whether you like it or not, Disney has a long history of presenting real-life issues and *gasp* political undertones in their films. Death is probably the most commonly seen topic but war, discrimination, corporate greed, climate change, Native American slaughter, and even infertility are tackled head-on in Disney movies (supposedly) meant for kids. Heck, if you can’t see that 2016’s Zootopia is about race relations and police corruption/brutality, then I strongly suggest you give it another viewing – this time be prepared to talk to your kids about what lessons you learned from the film and how it relates to real-life struggles that humans have faced and continue to face today.
The Star Wars franchise is also very clearly steeped in political commentary – not only the analogy of the Empire being Nazi Germany but according to creator George Lucas, the atrocities of the Vietnam War paved the way for the guerilla war tactics used by the Rebel Alliance. “Democracies aren’t overthrown; they’re given away” Lucas explains. Keep this in mind the next time you intend to ‘escape’ real life by stepping foot onto Batuu.
The Marvel Universe (cinematic and otherwise) also slip in their fair share of social and politically-driven commentary, drawing real-world parallels. If you can’t see what’s going on beyond the flashy costumes and special effects, then you need to re-examine how you’re consuming media. Marvel sweetheart Stan Lee even frequently denounced racism with vigor in “Stan’s Soapbox”, his op-ed column published inside the pages of Marvel comic books. He used this platform (think of it like Twitter before Twitter existed) to spread his beliefs… and he didn’t hold back from speaking with blunt honesty. Take a look at an example below and consider how this is any different from Disney’s modern-day stance on racism.
In 1968, Stan Lee used his Marvel "Stan's Soapbox” column to talk about the ignorance of racism. "Racism and bigotry are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today … Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits” https://t.co/3kowLk0WxT pic.twitter.com/Lw8FtxIyuk
— Ryan Parker (@TheRyanParker) November 12, 2018
But wasn’t Walt a racist and anti-semite?
Disney has indeed had a slew of inappropriate cultural depictions in their past, but I’m a firm believer these were not executed with malice – though I’m not justifying them by any means. These came from a place of ignorance during the time period. I’ve seen Song of the South and it’s uncomfortable to watch for many reasons. On the bright side James Baskett, who played Uncle Remus in the film, became the first Black man in history to receive an Oscar – no doubt paving the way for future well-deserving Black actors and actresses who have to deal with prejudice that still exists in Hollywood.
Walt spent his formative years in a rural, predominantly White town smack dab in the middle of America. His family struggled to make ends meet and he likely wasn’t exposed to racial diversity until he served in the Red Cross Ambulance Corps following the first World War. Again, I never met Walt so I don’t have any personal accounts to attest to his stance on bigotry, but I can tell you, based on other people’s first-hand encounters, that he was quite the opposite of a bigot. There’s enough evidence of this out there to prove it and I’ve yet to see any that reveals his supposed dark side.
It’s true that Walt was ruthless when it came to his expectations of the people that worked for him who were in control of bringing his ideas to life. His employees were notoriously nervous to receive Walt’s critique of their work. At the same time, Walt was also legendarily warm, accommodating, and personable. He was empathetic towards all people and would often ask about his employees’ children by name.
According to Robert Sherman, “[Walt] hated to see people mistreated or discriminated against”. He goes on to recall that “one time, Richard and I overheard a discussion between Walt and one of his lawyers. This attorney was a real bad guy, didn’t like minorities. He said something about Richard and me, and he called us ‘these Jew boys writing these songs.’ Well, Walt defended us, and he fired the lawyer. Walt was unbelievably great to us.” Robert and his brother Richard were the songwriting duo behind some of Disney’s most famous songs (including the aforementioned “it’s a small world”). They were just two of many prominent Jews working for Disney at the time.
In fact, Walt hired a number of employees from all different backgrounds and creeds. One of which was Disney Legend Floyd Norman, a Black man hired by Walt in the 1950s as an animator. Norman staunchly defended Walt’s character and sentiment toward him and his fellow minority co-workers, saying that he “never felt any prejudice from Walt”. Norman went on to leave his own legacy within the Disney company and influence the lives of those in the Black community. You can learn more about his story and Walt’s relationship with other Black employees in the 2016 documentary, Floyd Norman: An Animated Life.
Why is this relevant to the issues in today’s world?
On May 31, The Walt Disney Company released a statement across all of their social media platforms shortly after the George Floyd protests began. The statement was simple, powerful, and clear:
We stand against racism.
We stand for inclusion.
We stand with our fellow Black employees, storytellers, creators and the entire Black community.
We must unite and speak out.
Within minutes, the comments sections of the posts exploded with a clear divide based on their own perceived politics. I wonder, though: how can any respectable person disagree with a message like this? Especially Disney fans who pride themselves on enjoying wholesome entertainment and show admiration for Walt – a role model for tolerance.
A couple of weeks later, on June 13th, Disney released the following video. It’s a compilation of real cast members telling stories of their personal experiences – proof that racism still exists in our country. Proof that this is not a political issue but a human rights issue.
Several of our colleagues created this powerful and very personal video to share with their fellow employees,…
Once again, the comments explode with thousands of people shouting at their phones and computer screens, either in support or in anger. Walt would have agreed that the only reason someone should be angry about a video like this is that they’re feeling empathy for the stories being told. Instead, misplaced anger is being directed at Disney because some people feel that their “happy place” is no longer happy. This is not the case – it never was.
In LIFE Inside the Disney Parks, Imagineer and Disney Legend Marty Sklar mused about how Epcot’s purpose was to reflect optimism for a better future. It was about setting an example and “this was true of almost everything Walt did”. He continues, “once, when a marketing team announced a campaign to promote the Disney parks as ‘escapism’, my friend John Hench, who designed Space Mountain, got so upset. He said they’re not about escapism at all – they’re about the reassurance that things can be done right”.
Actress Whoopi Goldberg acknowledged this notion during her Disney Legend acceptance speech in 2017 by revealing that “Disney made you feel that no matter where you came from, you were welcome”.
WWWD: What Would Walt Do?
I hope everyone reading this starts to re-consider the idea of escapism and understand more clearly how Walt would have felt were he still alive today – perhaps you can draw your own conclusion based on the evidence I’ve presented to you. To me, though, it’s obvious that his life’s work and legacy were deliberate in order to make the world in a better place for everyone.
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I want to leave you with two more powerful Walt quotes that I hope can help guide you through the journey that our Nation is on at the moment:
“Tomorrow will be better for as long as America keeps alive the ideals of freedom and a better life. All men will want to be free and share our way of life.”
…and to those actively participating in the fight against racism:
“Believe in the future, the world is getting better; there still is plenty of opportunity”