Disney’s newest animated feature, “Turning Red,” caused a considerable amount of positive buzz online last weekend.
The film, which premiered last Friday, garnered widespread praise for featuring a predominantly Asian American cast, director, and writing team while also dealing in some themes about growing up as an ethnic minority and being a developing girl entering their tumultuous teens. AAPI fans in particular are enjoying it for the way it brings their unique cultural experience in America to the big screen and have shown Disney plenty of love for helping them feel seen in the Hollywood landscape.
Disney does films like this to tout their progressive nature and ability to tell stories from non-mainstream/white voices and many of their latest films, including movies and shows from Marvel and Star Wars, tend to lean heavily into that theme as of late. The company has put its finger on the cultural zeitgeist and consciously made the decision to showcase minority voices in their newest features which fans have been all too happy to consume and largely support.
What is not talked about enough in the discourse lately around Disney is what the company themselves say and do behind closed doors which unfortunately do not match the voice they speak with when films like “Turning Red” are released.
In late February, the Florida House and State Senate passed a new bill that imposes vague restrictions on “classroom instruction” to force teachers from even saying anything that remotely references “sexual orientation or gender identity through grade 3.” It further states that this rule applies to “age-appropriate” and “developmentally appropriate” classrooms while also not bothering to define what “classroom instruction” is as laid out in this excerpt from an article here:
The bill is appropriately dubbed by critics the “Don’t Say Gay Bill” and by any sane metric deeply unconstitutional to put it mildly and a gross erasure and further marginalization of not just LGBTQIA+ adults but of children developing into these identities as well. It’s grotesque and it’s barbaric (par for the course really in this country) and surprise! It was revealed in recent weeks that Disney is in on this very evil law.
Disney has been donating to Florida lawmakers for an extensive period of time, including Governor Ron DeSantis, more than likely because of their close affiliation to Florida’s tourism industry through Disney World among many things. Disney money, like many other mega businesses, mind you, made Republicans in places like Florida powerful, and given the way they write favorable laws for businesses owned by the Mouse it’s not surprising they would. When word got out of Disney’s partnership with DeSantis and the Republican legislators, CEO Bob Chapek was slow to give an official response until finally, public outcry forced him to write a letter to his employees stating he needed to be a “stronger ally” and he “let (them) down.”
The funny thing is about this, like so many other powerful men and companies who finally get exposed behind the scenes, is Chapek isn’t likely sorry and if he really cared about being an “ally” you would think the last thing a company like Disney would do is donate to Republican lawmakers who seemingly stand against everything their films and company supposedly tout and represent.
But they’ve never been allies. Disney is exactly who they’ve always been; greedy ass capitalists.
Or just plain capitalists for short, really.
Their recent more “progressive” films or more pejoratively, as DeSantis put it in response to Disney’s walkback, “woke” business practices are at the end of the day marketing decisions as cold and sad as that sounds.
Disney doesn’t make movies about ethnic minorities coming of age or films about marginalized people becoming superheroes or Jedi because they (The producers, shareholders, and CEOs) actually care about our stories and pushing Hollywood to be more “inclusive.” They did it, as coldly as it sounds, because they crunched the numbers and determined that we are a marketable demographic worth making money off of.
Nothing more, nothing less.
Before I get my words twisted here by readers, I want to make it clear that this write-up is mostly about Disney the company, not the films they make so much. I have no doubt that director Domee Shi of “Turning Red” cares about telling AAPI stories to young developing audiences or that Ryan Coogler is invested in expressing his particular gripe with white America through a film like “Black Panther” four years ago. But it’s important to know that these films ended up getting greenlit because Disney felt they could make a profit off it, not because they actually cared about “starting a conversation” about representation or whatever. They used this same logic when they were (probably still are) donating to Florida lawmakers this entire time. It’s pure capitalism, not activism.
But even in terms of the films produced by Disney, you know the ones that are supposed to showcase how diverse and representative they are of marginalized groups, the studio has been far from the willing ally they pretend to be as well.
John Boyega has made it very clear that Disney has NOT been nearly as supportive of black voices such as his in his post Star Wars career. Piggybacking off Star Wars, what support if any did Disney give to Kelly Tran in the abuse she faced from fans after “The Last Jedi?” And back to Pixar, writers have talked about how Disney has censored LGBTQ stories “down to crumbs of what they once were” in order to protect their bottomline. Moments of “overt gay affection” are cut from films before their final release and it again calls into question how driven the company really is about pushing and supporting diversity and inclusiveness.
I can hear a few of you saying “Well it’s multi-billion dollar company. Films cost a lot of money. If they do something risky it can cost them financially” and sure that may be true but people who purport to care about these issues don’t pretend these are roadblocks in the way of progress. In fact, Disney as a brand is so powerful, and has monopolized Hollywood so much that virtually anything they produce and release brings back money. The idea that they either 1) can’t risk a flop or 2) can’t make their money back on a number of other countless films, TV shows, and Ips they own is laughable, to put it mildly.
Disney just wants to make money via the status quo as much as possible, and will only push so much further past that depending off if they can make money off it or not. It’s really not much deeper than that, unfortunately.
I can sense maybe a few of you going “Disney made a mistake. You can’t expect them to know better yet. Representation isn’t mainstream yet,” to which I would say “Fuck you” first of all, and secondly the idea that these mega-wealthy and powerful people are ignorant and just need to be educated is deeply naïve.
Much like another write-up I’ve done, Disney, its board members, CEOs, and shareholders, actually are fully aware of the humanity of marginalized groups of people and they simply do not care or at best care more about the money they can make off them instead.
Ask yourself honestly, if it came down to actually doing activism and advocacy for a marginalized group and their bottom-line what do you think they’ll choose?
The idea that Bob Chapek didn’t know Florida Republicans would push through a bill like that on the Mouse’s dime is absurd. Chapek knows exactly who conservatives are; they blare it quite loudly in the endless culture wars they wage. Why do you think Disney does censor explicit gay affection scenes in their movies? It’s obviously not to appeal to us or our money in our pockets. It’s to appeal to those people so they make sure they make money off them too.
Republican lawmakers know how to appeal to money in the Mouse’s pockets too. Conservatives write owner-friendly laws to make the land they hold their theme parks on gentrified and wealthy so that Disney can make as much money as possible every year on it. Georgia, whose Republican politicians are looking to pass their own discriminatory LGBTQIA+ law right now, has some of the cheapest land to film on in the country. Disney has shot many of their most recent live-action films on their lots and studios. The “German” airport scene in “Captain America: Civil War” was shot there in fact because again it protects Disney’s bottom line, and they donate to conservative (and liberal) lawmakers all the time to ensure that they continue to benefit from that.
The extent to which Disney will go to protect their money or even squeeze out a few extra bucks is disturbing though. In a fairly infamous case in 1989, a Florida Daycare Center created murals featuring Disney characters for their young students and were forced to remove them by Disney after the company sued them for trademark violations (Ironically Universal offered their characters for free after the case in a game of PR chess between the two studios). Fans love Disney for featuring Dia De Los Muertos in the film “Coco” but in 2013 the company attempted to trademark the very same holiday (luckily no court upheld it). Disney have made plenty of films about the poor everyday man finding a way to make ends meet but forced actual working people off their jobs when the pandemic started in 2020 all while rewarding executives and shareholders (probably those very same Florida lawmakers) wealthy compensation packages as their newly ex-working class-employees went on food stamps.
There are many other blatant examples of Disney’s business practices not matching the words they speak through their movies but the point I’m trying to make here is that it is high past time to stop calling this company an “ally” of any kind. When I see people online heaping praise on this company for making what is, to be fair, probably a good movie about being AAPI and a growing girl, I think of these stories instead. I think of the many ways this company talks out of both sides of their mouth in order to placate their customers into believing they are their friend in order to extract money from their pockets.
As an Asian American myself, I think about the fact that this company donated large sums of money to Trump and the America First Action PAC. You know, the people who ramped up the sinophobia to 11 in 2020…
To call upon an apt metaphor here, the cute blonde at the strip club doesn’t actually love you or find you interesting. They just want you to pay for an expensive lap dance and tip them well for it, and they are willing to tell you whatever you want to hear from them in order to get it.
But in this case, that cute blonde owns pretty much all the strip clubs in the country and uses their money to help subjugate people like you and keep you in line.
I can sense maybe some of you saying, “Well the existence of a film like ‘Turning Red’ (among many) is a net positive in Hollywood. Afterall, diversity is still important even if the company that makes them doesn’t actually believe in it.” Well, I think we need to get past this mode of thinking on the subject as well because Disney is also counting on viewers to feel they need them in order to feel seen in pop culture.
A few months ago, I watched “Matrix: Resurrections” and one of the most controversial scenes of that movie is the board room scene. Fans and naysayers alike have greatly mischaracterized what this moment in the film is saying so I’ll reiterate again that it is not about saying The Matrix isn’t about “anti-capitalism,” “trans politics,” or “guns lots of guns.” It’s trying to describe the machine-like process that takes place in board rooms across Hollywood when film executives decide they want to market to a certain demographic. They boil down complex, nuanced, and unique perspectives from these various cultures and identities into commodifiable buzzwords meant to be repackaged and sold to an audience. Lana Wachowski wasn’t telling her fans that her films aren’t about these subjects; she was lamenting how her deeply personal story she told through this series had been boiled down into a sellable product instead of a story.
How many times have you seen press releases and trailers for films like “Turning Red” pushing the “FIRST AAPI LED PIXAR FILM EVER” over and over again? Or when the new Star Wars was released “BLACK HERO! WOMAN JEDI!” back in 2015? Or Marvel taking an unearned victory lap on “Captain Marvel” and “Black Widow” being their first “FEMALE LED SUPER HERO” films after nearly a decade of putting it off at every turn because they didn’t feel they could profit off either?
All this while behind the scenes, Disney actively cuts harsher perspectives from these marginalized groups. Censoring more mature language associated with stories about ethnic minorities. And as mentioned before removing even the mildest of displays of affection by gay or implied gay characters.
You’re not getting justice here. You’re being pandered to. Know the difference because this important detail also affects what kind of movies are made from one side or the other.
If Disney was half as dedicated as they say they are to promoting marginalized voices in Hollywood they wouldn’t spend so much time monopolizing the industry that actively pushes those same voices further out. “The Farewell” which is a beautiful film by Lulu Wang on the complex experience of being Chinese American had a limited release largely because when it debuted in the summer virtually every mainstream theater was still catering heavily to Marvel films such as “Endgame” and “Far From Home.” I had to drive 25 miles to see the film because Disney literally pays theaters to feature their movies on as many screens as possible and threatens to leave many others in the dust if they don’t.
I’ve said this before on my blog but as an AAPI myself I don’t pretend to be THE voice on all AAPI perspectives but when you have a company like Disney literally buying up all the space in Hollywood they definitely pretend they are THE voice when they make movies like “Turning Red.”
Martin Scorsese gets a lot of shit still from Marvel fanboys about being some type of “elitist gatekeeper” because he said Marvel films “aren’t cinema,” but who actually owns the physical gates here? I miiiiiiiight disagree with his assessment of these movies not being cinema but one thing he does do is he is committed to the preservation and promotion of old and new films created by diverse directors through organizations he helped found such as The Film Foundation, The World Cinema Project, and The African Film Heritage Project. Scorsese is an ACTUAL ally in this particular conversation.
To call Scorsese the “elitist gatekeeper” over this and not Disney is beyond laughable and shows just how well Disney has controlled their “ally” narrative here.
You don’t have to wait for Disney to come out with “X Marginalized Group led animated feature, where the hero/heroine is more than likely spends the entire movie as a talking animal.” You don’t need to wait for table scrap representation from a company that doesn’t actually prioritize your voice in pop culture, much less the real world. There are AAPI, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA+ creators and writers that would love to share their unique stories, films, scripts, ideas with you right now! You should seek THEM out! You don’t need Mickey senpai to approve of your existence first!
If you genuinely enjoyed “Turning Red,” “Raya,” “Moana,” or some other recent AAPI led Disney film that is perfectly fine. I still have a very soft spot for “Lilo Stitch” for instance, but you really don’t need to praise Disney for doing the bare minimum just to make money off you. There is a world of difference between someone like Justin Chon making a film like “Gook” or “Blue Bayou” that is unapologetically their artistic vision of being AAPI and Disney granting access approval to the above-named AAPI led features while more than likely censoring even the mildest of mature language on the subject.
Disney is hardly the first studio to do things like this but because they have controlled the narrative so well with their fans they get far less than half as much heat as they deserve for it. It’s a microcosm of a far larger problem in this country’s politics as well. Disney saying one thing and doing another with what they make and spend money on is not to unlike how Democrats placate their base with soft language about inclusivity while they literally pour billions of dollars into law enforcement and the military that butcher brown and ethnic groups of people both domestically and abroad. If the general public can’t even recognize this aspect about a company as large and with as many well-documented incidents of awful business practices as Disney, what do you think the average person knows about what America and its politicians have done?
Our stories, our culture, our identities are more than just commodities for The Mouse to enrich himself off of. It’s who we are, and actions need to match the words of people who purport to be our “allies.”
Again, no one is saying you can’t watch or enjoy Disney flicks anymore (ok maybe a few more hardline leftists than myself are…haha), but the main takeaway one should have here is Disney, the company at least, does not deserve your praise. Ever. We are far past the point of taking the words of the powerful in this world at face value and Disney is one of the last companies one should ever trust to be on your side.
It seems obvious but it really needs to be said again here and repeated until more people wake the fuck up. The Mouse is not and never was your friend or ally.
You are just a customer to them…