As a longtime fan of Disney, I have been disappointed to see how the company has chosen to respond, or not respond, to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill. Dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its critics and opponents, the proposal would prohibit “classroom discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity” in the state’s primary schools — dangerous legislation, that, if signed into law, could increase stigma around LGBTQ issues and put youths at risk.
After he refused to denounce the bill publicly and suffered backlash, Disney CEO Bob Chapek finally addressed the company’s stance on the controversial bill during an annual shareholder meeting Wednesday. “I know that many are upset that we did not speak out against the bill,” Chapek said. “We were opposed to the bill from the outset, but we chose not to take a public position on it because we thought we could be more effective working behind the scenes, engaging directly with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.” He also said Disney would donate $5 million to organizations working to protect LGTBQ rights and that he would meet with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
If Disney seeks to create a more inclusive world with inspiring content, it needs to understand that the bill would severely undermine how “inspiring” its content can be.
While this is the right move for a company that claims to support the LGBTQ community, it is too little, too late, as the statement of opposition came after the Florida Senate had passed the bill the day before.
Many may wonder why Disney’s stance on the bill matters. Disney is one of the largest content producers for children and a self-proclaimed ally of the LGBTQ community, and the bill would invalidate what it claims to be trying to achieve.
In a statement from the week before it addressed its silence, Disney said: “The biggest impact we can have in creating a more inclusive world is through the inspiring content we produce, the welcoming culture we create here and the diverse community organizations we support, including those representing the LGBTQ+ community.” If Disney seeks to create a more inclusive world with inspiring content, it needs to understand that the bill would severely undermine how “inspiring” its content can be.
Content does not exist in a vacuum, nor should it. Children who see themselves represented in Disney content and feel a sense of belonging as a result need to know that the world Disney has created with their stories is one that the company is striving to achieve in the real world, not an isolated land of dreams that disappears as soon as the credits start rolling.
Like most children of the ’90s, I grew up on Disney animated classics. According to my mom, I had a crush on Princess Jasmine from “Aladdin” as a kid. I still have the tiny figurine of the character I bought when I was 4 years old to prove it. When I was a child, Disney was a large part of my world, and its characters were my friends. Through Disney, I learned about princes and princesses, families and stepfamilies and the power of “true love’s kiss.” In other words, I was learning about gender, the family unit and, of course, love.
I can imagine that many kids right now are learning about the world through Disney, as well. While the company previously had no openly queer characters in its children programming, it is starting to have them now — albeit slowly and not without alleged censorship from corporate executives.
A prime example of LGBTQ representation in Disney content is Pixar’s 2020 award-winning short film “Out.” The short, a young man’s coming-out story, has been lauded for being family-friendly while dealing with serious issues, the kind of content that children need. However, as Benjamin Siemon, an LGBTQ animation writer at Disney, said in a video posted Sunday on Twitter: Disney is “starting to include more LGBT characters that let kids know that being gay is all right. But when they have donated to the sponsors and co-sponsors of the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill and they have made no position against this bill and they are going to continue donating to these politicians, they are essentially saying that this bill is OK.”
If the statement from DeSantis’ office responding to Chapek is any indication — “The governor’s position has not changed” — it is unclear how impactful a meeting will be at this point.
Indeed, creating LGBTQ content is not enough. With so much influence over what children see and how they feel, Disney needs to actively facilitate opportunities for discussions around the content so that actual change in attitudes can occur. For children in school, this means getting the opportunity to talk about the movies and TV shows not just with their parents but also with their teachers and peers, the very people with whom children spend most of their waking hours.
Opposing this bill doesn’t mean asking for a gender studies class in elementary school or proposing that we introduce sex education sooner, but we do need to acknowledge that gender identity and sexual orientation are issues children are dealing with, not mature subjects that should have an age restriction.
According to the Mayo Clinic, children start developing their understanding of gender and gender stereotypes from an early age, with most children being “rigid about gender stereotypes and preferences” around ages 5 to 6. These gender norms that children, like the rest of us, are exposed to every day are likely to be the reason children get teased or bullied at school (e.g., a boy being called a sissy for being feminine). Addressing this sort of behavior, which essentially amounts to gender policing, and talking more openly about gender norms and how restrictive they can be should be encouraged because, as the Mayo Clinic noted, feelings about gender do become more flexible with age.
If Disney is creating content that can break these biases and help children accept themselves and respect others, it needs to be at the forefront of making such content readily accessible to children and combating any laws or policies that would ban its content or discussion of it.
Moving forward, I do hope that Disney will meet with DeSantis to address the real concerns about how the legislation “could be used to unfairly target gay, lesbian, nonbinary and transgender kids and families,” as Chapek said. Alas, the fear is that after this PR nightmare has passed, so will the sense of urgency to act.
And if the statement from DeSantis’ office responding to Chapek is any indication — “The governor’s position has not changed” — it is unclear how impactful a meeting will be at this point when the bill is on its way to the governor’s desk for a signature.