Disney doesn’t get it

Azza Radwan Sedky
Tuesday 5 Jul 2022

Despite Disney’s much-vaunted claims of inclusivity, it does not seem to realise that audience values differ around the world, writes Azza Radwan Sedky


Whether we accept it or not, cultural standards are different around the world. No two cultures are the same, so shouldn’t Disney perceive the real meaning behind “inclusivity” and not enforce American standards on all? 

In its June release of the new film Lightyear, Disney projects a same-sex kiss between two animated female cartoon characters. This brief moment has stirred controversy and resulted in the banning of the movie in many countries. 

Lightyear is not the only issue facing Disney, however. It’s merely the tip of the iceberg. The Florida legislature in the US has passed Bill HR 1557, dubbed by opponents as the “don’t say gay bill” in the same state in which Disney World flourishes. The bill forbids instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity to pupils from kindergarten through grade 3 in Florida schools. 

The bill has dismayed many gay rights proponents, and when Disney ignored the issue, it took much heat. Soon afterwards, Disney retracted its silence, and CEO Bob Chapek spoke of “inclusivity” and the “right of everyone to be presented.” 

Disney also promised to continue to make films with an increased commitment to “diversity.” Chapek reiterated Disney’s intention to “represent its audience.” Its film The Eternals introduces Phastos, the first openly gay superhero, who has a husband and children. More gay characters will be featured in upcoming movies.

The character of Buzz in Lightyear is voiced by actor Chris Evans, who criticised the controversy to the Reuters news agency. “There’s always going to be people who are afraid and unaware and trying to hold on to what was before. But those people die off like dinosaurs… I think the goal is to pay them no mind, march forward and embrace the growth that makes us human,” he said.

In contrast, many, even in the US, are against having Disney include transgender or gay characters in movies that have children as their target audience. Caroline Farrow, a representative of an ultraconservative group in the US, Citizen Go, asked Chapek whether “it is perhaps time to reconsider what you can do to make Disney more family friendly, to make it safe for people around the world, not just one particular minority?” 

A sign posted in the window of an Oklahoma cinema in the US also delivered a message to parents. A same-sex kiss in Lightyear would be “fast-forwarded,” it said. An article in the US publication Wink News speaks of a summer camp cancelling a field trip to watch the movie after parents were upset over the same-sex kiss. 

What Disney doesn’t really get is the global impact and the implications and obligations of universality. Disney’s audiences are far more diverse than Chapek realises. Not only American children watch Disney movies. They are also watched by children in Singapore, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, and many other countries. Prudence and common sense in these cultures question why a Moroccan or a Libyan child in kindergarten, say, should be exposed to sexuality in the first place, let alone LGBTQ content.

Sensitivity to social norms and values is key. Cultures are the basic standards of any country and are represented in its customs, arts, attitudes, and other notions. Ethnocentrism and the likes and dislikes of each culture, be they right or wrong, are focal points that can hardly be denied or ignored. 

What Disney is promoting is therefore disproportionate. If Disney is to cater to minorities, then it should not be catering to one single minority. It should be catering to all minorities without disregarding the majorities either, and this is a difficult endeavour. 

Does Disney cater to indigenous minorities, ethnic minorities, Southeast Asians, Muslims, bereaved Palestinians, or other viewers around the world? I doubt it. Yet, Disney films are watched around the world.

Do we breed fear of the unknown if we worry about what our children will absorb if they see a certain movie, especially a Disney one? Not necessarily: we all remember scenes and phrases from movies we watched way back, and many movies leave their marks on viewers.  

In addition, Disney is expanding its presence in many other countries, many of which are anti-gay. If Disney intends to have its subscription-based streaming service available in areas and countries that have strict anti-gay laws, then it must worry. Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia fall into this category.

Simultaneously, Disney should be aware of the ramifications of such a bold but bizarre move. When Disney acted on the war in Ukraine, it paused all its business in Russia. The chances are that countries that find Disney’s “inclusiveness” offensive will resort to the same retaliatory measures. 

Let’s not kid ourselves. The world has become so small that whatever happens anywhere, be it a Disney movie, a Netflix flick, or even a mere incident, is almost guaranteed to resonate across the globe. Other controversial issues will creep up, I guarantee you.

Neither Disney nor the world at large cares much about how parents raise their children. This is an onerous responsibility placed on the shoulders of parents. It is up to those parents to closely monitor what a child watches and review content beforehand.

Hence, the onus falls upon parents, educators, and guardians to enlighten children in the way in which they deem fit and be aware of the viewing habits they pass on to children. They may opt to be overly realistic and expose them to films that showcase violence and horror scenes, fantasy or science fiction, same-sex marriage issues, violence, and crime and gangsters that kill arbitrarily. Or they may opt to have them watch what they believe is more fitting. The parents and their children will bear the brunt of those actions either way.

Ultimately, it is all a power game. But despite the saying that “what the powerful want to, the powerless have to,” it’s up to individuals to set the guidelines and standards for their children’s education and not be victimised by the powerful. 

* The writer is a former professor of communication based in Vancouver, Canada.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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