There is a certain self-satisfaction to our popular culture which I find nauseating. TV and film are used to tell more styles and types of stories than ever before. At any given moment I can boot up Netflix or Amazon Prime and find a hundred sci-fi series, horror flicks, romances or documentaries. On any given day, I can walk into a cinema and satisfy my craving for any genre I choose.
And yet, I find myself discontented. For all the superficial variety of modern cinema and television, almost everything on offer suffers from the same vague, ideological squalidness. The underlying ideas and concerns of most of the stories in our visual medium are as tawdry as they are homogeneous. And just to be clear: they’re very homogeneous.
This problem finds its purest and most troubling expression in one company: the Disney corporation. I despise Disney. Don’t get me wrong: like everyone else in the universe, I like some of the films they’ve bankrolled. They own Marvel Studios, and a surprising number of that studio’s films are very, very good. My issue with Disney has nothing to do with their ability to produce entertaining content: my problem is that they own just about everything. Well, that and the use of child slave labour to make their merchandise. We’ll come back to that.
It’s Disney’s money behind the Star Wars franchise (and every other LucasFilms franchise), the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the animated films of Pixar, Touchstones Pictures, the ABC (aka the American Broadcasting Company), A&E and Lifetime (two lesser-known US cable channels), and, for some mad reason, the Muppets. And that’s not even a comprehensive list! Disney owns shares in various news and music distributors as well (including Vice, believe it or not).
The point is that this one corporation owns most of the film studios generating our most influential cultural myths, along with a vast network of lesser studios and TV channels. Its ideas, values and ideologies therefore dominate the cultural landscape. Yes, it’s true that most of their interests are in America, but we still consume the same content here in Britain. If you regularly watch movies of any description, your mental landscape is being shaped by Disney. If you have kids who watch films or TV, their value systems are being moulded by a company that got caught using sweatshop labour as recently as 2012. And no – I don’t think they’ve stopped just because they haven’t been caught again since.
You can find a complete history of their malpractice and abuse at the Corporate Research Project. Disney is a company that’s happy to subject its workers to slave-like conditions whenever it thinks it can get away with it. It also grossly underpays its western-based workers outside of sweatshops. You can find an interesting summary of just how wealthy Disney is and how little it pays its workforce in the essay Disney Corporation Through the Eyes of a Marxist. The essay also discusses Disney’s function as an ‘opiate of the masses’, which makes it a perfect companion to this article.
This single, exploitative company is in charge of the most influential cultural franchises on the planet. Yet despite the evil of the company itself, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with the values and ideas that Disney-backed films promote… at least on the surface. Those films seem pretty big on friendship, diversity, self-sacrifice, etc. – all the usual positive values that help our society function. But dig a little deeper and you’ll see that there’s quite a lot of weaselly and self-serving messages hidden in Disney’s output.
Consider, for instance, the villains of the Marvel studios films. If you’re familiar with those films, you may have noticed that a surprising number of the villains are motivated by outrage over injustices they have suffered at the hands of America in general, or its fictional superhero community in particular. My favourite example is probably the terrorist from Captain America: Civil War, who turned ‘evil’ in response to the fact that American superheroes and villains nearly destroyed his eastern-European home city.
Meanwhile, there’s The Vulture, from Spiderman: Homecoming, who’s actually just a working-class dude who loses his job to a company owned by Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), and is driven to a life of crime as a result. Hmm. I wonder why a company like Disney that routinely exploits the impoverished and people from less affluent nations might be keen to portray them as unhinged psychopaths-in-waiting. Maybe I’m paranoid, or maybe Disney has a vested interest in limiting our sympathies with the people and demographics it regularly screws over.
Of course, not all Disney’s Marvel films are propaganda for capitalism and western colonialism. It’d be hard to argue that there’s anything ideologically suspect about the Guardians of the Galaxy films for example. But then again, those were directed by James Gunn, who was fired by Disney at the first opportunity, so I’m not sure if that counts for anything.
Lest you think the disturbing propagandist trend is confined to just one of the studios that Disney owns, let’s examine another one. LucasFilms is the Disney-owned studio that makes Star Wars. Now, who can tell me what’s wrong with Star Wars? That was a rhetorical question – put your hand down.
Part of the problem is the simple lack of depth. To say that the modern Star Wars films are about as deep as puddles would be an insult to puddles. I once stepped into a puddle in Wales and sunk up to my waist. I wish Disney’s Star Wars had that kind of surprising depth (and that I’d been wearing waterproof clothes, but that’s off-topic).
The Empire’s holdouts in the new trilogy are clearly meant to be an allegory for the rise of the far Right, but they seem less villainous than the real thing because they’ve been airbrushed into a saleable form. They’re a stylised form of evil designed to shift themed merchandise, and they make that type of evil look almost appealing, which is kind of irresponsible when its real-life counterpart is on the ascendant across Europe and America.
Also – and I admit this is a comparatively minor gripe – the new films actually endorse the mindless following of orders, even if they don’t make sense. In The Last Jedi, there’s a military General on the good guys’ side who keeps giving really, really stupid orders that keep putting people in danger and nearly getting them killed. Some of the other characters nearly mutiny… but it turns out the General had a super-secret plan all along and should have just been trusted!
The moral of the story seems to be to trust high-ranking military officials, even when they’re clearly nuts. I think the film’s writers and producers expected to get away with this little subplot because the General is a purple-haired woman who looks like a Liberal Arts major rather than a moustache-twirling Kitchener type. Newsflash, Disney: smuggling a message of militarist conformity in under the guise of diversity and progressivism makes it worse, not better.
Disney also has a… complicated relationship with sexism and racism. In fairness to the corporation, there’s actually very little direct sexism or racism in their recent films. Their classic output, on the other hand, is rife with it. Remember that, until recently, Disney was primarily known for its animations based on fairy tales and the ‘Disney Princesses’ contained therein. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White – that whole fictitious milieu. None of these characters had any real agency.
Of course, in the modern age, Disney has made a show of subverting and even mocking this trope from its earlier films. Films of that era also contain quite a few racist stereotypes (Dumbo, one of their non-fairytale films from that era of animation, contains a racist caricature in the form of a crow named Jim Crow, after the segregation laws that America used to discriminate against people of colour). There is a discussion of Disney’s sexist and racist messages here.
The problem isn’t that the Disney company made sexist and racist movies years ago. I can’t legitimately attack the modern incarnation of a company for things it did before most of its current executives and employees were even born. The problem is that Disney continues to profit from these movies. It regularly releases and re-releases DVDs and Blu-rays of them. It continues to sell them to uncritical children and nostalgia-blinded adults.
I’m not saying these movies should become inaccessible. I don’t think any cultural artefact should be put beyond reach, no matter how repellent it might be. However, there’s something sleazy and toxic about the way Disney continues to peddle them (and therefore the ideas they contain) for profit. Really, they should be in a public archive, instead, with annotations explaining their historical context. But they’re not. They’re in supermarkets, utterly devoid of context.
By now, you should have a sense of how huge Disney is and how comprehensive its impact on our culture truly is. The point is that one of the largest media companies in the world – a company whose content almost all of us consume – is perfectly comfortable with skewing the underlying ideology of its current output to the right while selling even more retrograde content from its past. And that’s a problem, because the messages are ubiquitous and therefore play a gigantic role in shaping the thought processes of anyone imbibing them. Worse, they’re also subtle. They enter the brain as background information and aren’t subjected to the critical and analytical processes that would greet explicit ideological message-mongering.
Any cultural and ideological monopoly is bad, because it means a single source is distorting and mutating the mindscapes of entire populations. A cultural and ideological monopoly that happens to be in the hands of a right-wing, morally-bankrupt mega-corp is so, so much worse.
Disney is engaged in a constant project of acquiring more studios and controlling more and more of the cinematic and cultural landscape, which should worry anyone who values the polyphony of ideas and viewpoint that exist in a real cultural democracy. And they have a history of using sweatshop labour.
In their article Culture for the Many, Not the Few, Mike Quille and Chris Guiton state that “Fundamentally, cultural activities are social, unifying and egalitarian. They assert our common humanity against divisions of class, gender, race and other divisions caused by capitalism”. The Disney corporation controls an enormous swathe of our media culture, and the ideologies that it pushes are antithetical to those cultural ideals. It enshrines division, particularly between different nationalities and classes of humanity. As such, it is as an enemy of cultural democracy.
Do I think a company like Disney can be reformed? Frankly, no. I think the culture of exploitation and right-wing bias is so deeply ingrained in Disney’s corporate DNA that its incapable of meaningful, lasting reform. However, that doesn’t mean that the individual writers, animators and artists trapped within the company are beyond redemption. In an ideal world, I’d like to see the talented people working for Disney break away and set up their own small, independent studios, which would be owned by their workers, not external shareholders. Smaller studios that aren’t answerable to profit-motivated capitalists can put out content with a healthy range of ideas and viewpoints.
Believe it or not, you can encourage individual creators to break away from their masters and Disney in this fashion. All you have to do is find out the names of individuals who have worked on films that you’ve enjoyed, and support their independent projects. You can also be open in your criticism of Disney in order to make creators and film-goers aware of the depravities of the organisation.
However, individual action is never enough on its own. It’s also worth considering what governmental and legislative steps can be taken to break the cultural dominance of the Disney corporation and improve conditions for its workers. As you probably guessed, I have a few ideas.
Crucially, I think we need to see a new kind of anti-monopoly law aimed specifically at media corporations. This law would limit the number of studios and creative teams that any one company could have under its corporate umbrella. A key part of the problem with the Disney corporation is that it owns too many studios and creative teams and therefore dominates our cultural landscape. Any law that prevents it from acquiring new studios would be a positive first step. If the law could also force Disney (and companies like it) to sell off some of their studios to the people who already work there, that would be even better. It would create a polyphony of worker-owned, independent studios practically overnight.
Theoretically, an incoming Labour government could introduce such a law in the UK, but Disney is an international company primarily based in the USA. In other words, other countries (particularly America) would have to adopt versions of the law for it to have a serious effect. However, the UK has an opportunity to lead the way by being the first company to apply anti-monopoly laws to the cultural landscape itself, and thereby encourage cultural democracy.
An incoming Labour government could also do something about the way Disney treats its workers in this country by raising the UK minimum wage for individuals employed by corporations above a certain size. It could also help combat Disney’s use of sweatshops by requiring that all companies have documented proof that their goods are not being manufactured in sweatshops.
None of this would result in the destruction of the Disney corporation. However, they are practical steps that can be implemented within our lifetime and – hopefully – within the lifetime of the next Labour government.
I’m not saying you should never consume media put out by Disney. Aside from anything else, that would be almost impossible, particularly if you’re into genre films. However, Disney has been given a free pass for far too long. Large swathes of the population laud the company for the creative risks that it supposedly takes with its movies and for its superficial (and entirely false) progressiveness. It’s important to bring its faults, failings and evils to light. Discuss them with other people who watch the movies. Make people aware that they’re putting monsters on a pedestal. Heck, talk about it on the Internet if you’ve got the stomach for the inevitable backlash, courtesy of emotionally fragile fans.
Paul Victor Tims is a writer and a magician.