Disney has officially declared itself a woke leader, vowing to fight Florida’s newly-minted Parental Rights in Education Law while advancing the rainbow agenda to the youngest of its viewers. The past few weeks have shown Disney’s wokeness in startlingly clear detail: top execs are promising that 50 percent of its characters will be racial or gender minorities by the end of 2022; there will be a gay kiss in a Buzz Lightyear spin-off; its theme parks have removed “gendered language”; and internal company meetings discuss how Disney is committed to reprogramming young children’s concept of what is “normal.”
However, Disney declaring itself the Wokest Place on Earth should come as no surprise to anyone. Recent Disney movies are not necessarily “family friendly.” Many conservatives held their breath before the second Frozen movie was released: Would the corporation give in to the loud demands to make the ice-queen Elsa overtly gay? It did seem likely, after her “coming out” style song in the first movie, even if she was technically talking about her magical abilities instead of her sexual orientation. Parents everywhere must have breathed a sigh of relief when the sequel decided instead to lecture their children about white guilt and the oppression of native peoples.
Disney has been quietly and steadily paving the way for the new normal of identity politics for almost forty years now. At least since the dawn of the so-called “Disney Renaissance” in the ’80s, Disney has been the progressive Trojan Horse that has infiltrated almost every single home in the developed world. It has deposited its special Disney morality in the impressionable imaginations of several generations who now embrace the narcissistic tautologies and equivocations that make up identity politics.
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When I was a kid, folks on the Right were already trying to call attention to the dangers of Disney. Unfortunately, while many people smelled that something was rotten, all too often they highlighted the wrong things, making a laughingstock of the entire position. Take, for example, the charge that there is a phallus making up one of the spires of the mermaid Ariel’s palace; or that a cloud of bugs in The Lion King quickly spells out the word “sex.” Supposedly, Aladdin sends silently-mouthed, dirty subliminal messages to the audience. Church groups in the ’90s warned each other about these sorts of things, and much of the world—many good, conservative parents included—laughed.
But the supposedly wholesome Disney of yesteryear was, in fact, dangerous. The ’90s saw the “family values” company offer family benefits to homosexual couples in a country where Bill Clinton—of all people—was signing the Defense of Marriage Act. That decade also ushered in “Gay Days” at Disney theme parks. This should have been expected: many of the producers, writers, and lyricists of the classic Disney Princess movies were themselves out and proud members of the gay community. The songwriter widely acclaimed as the major force behind the Disney Renaissance—Howard Ashman—died at the age of 40 from AIDS. Beauty and the Beast, for which he won a posthumous Oscar, is dedicated to him. And his same-sex partner made history when he accepted the award on Ashman’s behalf.
Now, as a literature scholar, I do not believe that an artist’s personal life necessarily impacts the morality of their art, nor am I advocating that Christians consume only literature written by verified saints. We would have to chuck almost all of the greatest books ever written if we were that scrupulous. And yet, upon closer examination, it cannot be denied that the Disney Renaissance wrote the theme songs for today’s woke reality.
Take, for instance, the movie that kicked off the Disney Renaissance: The Little Mermaid. In Hans Christian Andersen’s original story, the mermaid trades her fins and voice to the sea witch not only for the chance to win the love of the human prince but also because she has learned that humans have immortal souls and will go to heaven; mermaids, on the other hand, live for 300 years and then become sea-foam. The witch promises the mermaid that if she marries the prince, not only will she remain human but she will also share his immortal soul. If not, she will die.
Naturally, the prince mistakes his girl, and the mute mermaid watches as he marries another. The witch offers the mermaid a magical dagger: if she murders the prince and his wife on their wedding night, she can avoid death and become a mermaid again. The mermaid, however, chooses death rather than this evil. As she turns into foam, she is taken up into heaven, awarded an immortal soul of her own because she worked so faithfully and righteously to attain it.
By contrast, Ashman and his Disney colleagues turned this deeply religious tale into a story that validates those who dislike their bodies and wish to change them because they believe the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Virtue does not win the day but, rather, a juvenile love of two smitten teenagers. The prince is attracted to Ariel because of her voice, and when the witch steals it and passes it off as hers, her ill-temper and abuse of his loyal dog aren’t enough to make him reconsider. Ariel’s father is swayed from his anti-human prejudices simply because he can’t say no to “love.”
Back in 1989, with even most Democrats against same-sex marriage and transgenderism almost universally abhorred, it would take a keen eye to see what exactly was so dangerous about Disney’s version of the story. But songs like “Part of Your World” and the longing to be in a different body due to personal feelings settled into the subconscious of generations of kids.
Soon to join that earworm were songs from Mulan, which reaffirmed the idea that you can (and should) change your reflection to match who you are inside. Mulan even features an explicit transvestite joke as one of Mulan’s silly (prejudiced?) ancestors panics when she sees the girl in male clothes. Mulan also took pains to mock traditional marriage roles: our heroine stands out from the crowd of brain-dead bimbos lining up at the frankly frightening matchmaker’s house, excited to be turned into some man’s chief cook and bottle washer. Later, the army sings about “a girl worth fighting for”: the sort of girl Mulan has rejected in her own reflection. By contrast, Mulan manages to metaphorically out-swim “Lia” Thomas with her sudden ability to physically outshine an entire army of men.
Similarly, the plot of Tarzan was changed dramatically from the book’s original emphasis on the superiority of man in the state of nature. Disney turned that tale into a vehicle for the expansiveness and possibilities of family structures. “Don’t listen to them, ’cause what do they know? We need each other, to have, to hold,” Phil Collins assured millions of children.
Aladdin—the last film for which Howard Ashman wrote lyrics before his untimely death—fantasizes about a “whole new world” where “no one will tell us no.” The movie also involves a rather stupid plot device where the poor Sultan feels like a jerk that there are laws that dictate whom his daughter can or cannot marry, until he suddenly and conveniently realizes that he can just change them at will…with no thought as to why those laws might have been there to begin with. Ashman himself faced a law that told him he could not marry his choice of partner, a law that was also abruptly dismissed in a similar manner using the shakiest of logic and with no authentic consideration as to why it was a law at all.
The fact of the matter is that Disney has been feeding generations stories and songs that focus our attention on our own wants and desires without making us reflect upon their wisdom or virtue. For almost forty years, we have been hammered with Disney’s definition of love, a definition that is shockingly supportive of the woke tautology that demands that we define no further, impose no limits, and allow no objections.
Old fairy tales and beloved legends were repurposed to fit a very modern message by artists and producers whose own lifestyles required a cultural seismic shift in basic definitions about family, relationships, love, and personal identity. Nineties conservatives felt that there was something wrong when they looked at this friendly, Mouse-shaped Trojan Horse, but few were perceptive enough to realize that the danger lay in the songs their children knew by heart rather than the supposed subliminal messages and dirty images.
In a sane world, a world where megacorporations do not vow their support of blue-haired teachers openly discussing their bedroom habits with kindergarteners, where men do not win “woman of the year” awards, and toddler board books do not introduce babies to the idea that their identity is “fluid,” this would all be different. In such a world, the movies from the Disney Renaissance would simply be shallow, threadbare versions of greater stories, albeit with extraordinarily catchy music. In such a world, parents could reasonably allow their children to fall in love with these movies because their facile depictions of love and self-expression would not have an external application.
But the world in which Disney has been operating for at least these past forty years has not been that world. And they have been quietly ushering in this woke new world by reprogramming children’s conceptions of what is normal for decades. They have only come out of the closet so thoroughly now because they sense that total victory is so near.