Is Disney Too Woke? And What Does Woke Even Mean?
Does the Walt Disney Company have a woke problem? Unlike in any other period of their history, Disney is aggressively embracing inclusion in its products, much to the dismay of some fans who were used to the old ways of doing things. This past week I took in two of Disney's most important animated features for 2022- Lightyear and Strange World. Both movies have disappointed at the box office, but even more disturbingly they've ignited culture wars online, with some parents especially upset about their inclusion of LGBT characters in both films.
Lightyear tells the origin story of Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story fame, and no- he isn't gay. The gay character is his colleague Alisha Hawthorne, a black lesbian who is shown kissing her partner on their anniversary. Though Hawthorne is barely in the movie, the kiss was too woke and uncomfortable for many viewers. Strange World goes even further, portraying a teenage main character as gay, while all his parents, peers, and grandparents are totally cool with it. In addition, it adds a big climate change lesson towards the end that rubs a lot of people the wrong way.
In the days of Cinderella and Peter Pan, all of the characters were white, attractive, and strong, and any color or humor was added by the animals. Walt Disney himself was a strong, anti-communist conservative who would have a hard time dealing with what his company is putting out today. Attitudes towards race and gender were so much different back then. He got away with Song of the South, a loving look at ex-slave Uncle Remus in a story that is now hidden and disowned by the company. Disney princesses back then were helpless damsels in distress, and not the strong role models like Mulan and Pocahontas that emerged in the 1990's. Things have changed, and not all Disney fans are on board.
The three main animated features of this year- Turning Red, Strange World, and Lightyear depict a rainbow of main characters, including mixed marriages, girls entering puberty, lesbian mothers, and a female president. In addition, Disney debuted Ms. Marvel, the first ever Muslim Marvel superhero, a black Ariel in the new live version of The Little Mermaid, and they're making full use of 2021's popular Encanto story from Colombia, with live specials, parades, and rumored sequels. Disney World and Disneyland have been getting woke makeovers as problematic characters from Pirates of the Caribbean, Splash Mountain, and even Tinkerbell have been cut or reimagined.
All of this has made Disney a target for conservatives, some of whom are boycotting the brand. Most surprisingly, Disney got entangled with Ron Desantis, the governor of Florida, in 2022 over an anti-gay state law that enraged LGBT Disney employees. This has made the house of mouse the butt of jokes on right-wing websites, and you wonder what is going on behind the scenes at Disney in reaction to all of this attention. While Lightyear and Strange World both bombed at the box office, Disney is still doing well financially, experiencing growth across its platforms as the travel and movie industries rebound from Covid.
What does "woke" even mean anyway? It got its start in the black community as a term for being awake to racial and social justice issues, and grew in use after the 2014 Michael Brown shooting. Now it has taken on an entirely new meaning, or actually several new meanings. In addition to its use in the black community, woke has become a derisive term on the right to designate progressive politics run amok. It has become synonymous with cancel culture as an overzealous overreaction to perceived wrongs that don't exist. Anything that points to discrimination against gays, women, blacks, or other minorities and tries to correct it is deemed too woke and an exaggeration of the problem. Even liberals have grown weary of the term and shun it when political correctness goes overboard. But the opposite of woke is either ignorance or indifference, which are even worse.
What Disney appears to be doing is to be more inclusive, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, unless you preferred the old Disney that pretended race and gender issues didn't exist. The women, people of color, and LGBT characters in current Disney films don't call a lot of attention to their identities- we are just supposed to accept that this or that character is they way they are. Being uncomfortable with a black female president or gay teen is not intended as an assault on social norms, but for some it's the obvious result. I am no longer in the demographic that Disney is seeking, and neither are many of the people who are outraged. They are playing a long game, looking to a global audience and a more "woke" group of Millennials and Gen Z members who expect the world to look different than that of their parents. And that is their right as a private company. They are catering to their audience, not grooming them.
Strange World is a beautifully animated movie with elaborate scenes of an underworld that would be better appreciated while high. The story is fine, dealing with father and son dynamics and a mysterious land that sits atop an even more mysterious one. The end provides a surprising reveal that turns the story upside down and makes you think. I found nothing wrong except the title could have been a lot better. It wasn't the best ever Disney movie, but it was enjoyable. But on IMDB, a site that rates movies, over 50% of the 8000+ people who rated the movie gave it the lowest possible rating, a 1 out of 10. (and IMDB had to delete most of the comments, leaving only the non-political ones.) Movies, like everything else, are becoming polarized, and I kind of applaud Disney for taking the risks with this type of content. Because of the woke content, Disney will not release the movie in many of the most conservative corners of the globe like China, The Middle East, and much of Africa. That's a lot of money to leave on the table by taking a chance on a more inclusive story- but the evolution of attitudes especially regarding LGBT people are rapidly changing and Disney is betting that will continue.
Disney has made the calculation that for much of the world, new stories will have to be inclusive going forward, and they've broadened their reach with every new batch of stories. Inclusivity enhances belonging, and what they seem to be saying to LGBT, minority, and excluded groups is that you matter, and we want to include you and your stories. I still have plenty of problems with Disney, including their destructive cruise line, unfair labor practices, and exorbitant theme park prices ($3.50 on opening day in 1971, $46 in 2000, and a whopping $130-$200 in 2022!)
But I still have a special place in my heart for Disney movies and Theme Parks. (Full disclosure: I own over 50 movies and have been the the parks more than a dozen times.)
Watching them and their audience evolve over the decades has been fascinating, and I almost feel sorry for the souls who are missing out on this transition. Disney and Pixar movies, at their heart, are about loving people, animals, or fantastical creatures trying to do the right thing, and I don't care what race, sexual orientation, or gender they use in the process.