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Disney: a billion-dollar casualty of woke

The entertainment giant is paying a heavy price for trying to shove identity politics down our throats.

Lauren Smith

Topics Culture Identity Politics

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The Walt Disney Company is in deep trouble. Its last four high-profile releases bombed at the box office, losing over $1 billion between them. Once Hollywood’s most successful film studio, Disney was dethroned last year by Universal Pictures.

The reason for Disney’s decline? It has gone woke, to an almost comical degree. Last year, the company admitted to investors that there was a growing ‘misalignment’ between Disney’s output and ‘public and consumer tastes and preferences for entertainment’. ‘Consumers’ perceptions of our position on matters of public interest’, it said, are risking the company’s reputation and profits.

Viewing figures and box-office sales spell this out clearly. Audiences are growing sick of the woke slop that Disney has been serving them. They are tired with scripts that are weighed down by clunky political messaging. They are fed up with storylines being mangled to fit ‘progressive’ narratives. They are irked by Disney’s desire to lecture them instead of entertain them.

Even Disney franchises that were once guaranteed money-makers have struggled to excite audiences of late. Marvel Studios, which is owned by Disney, used to regularly break box-office records with its billion-dollar superhero films. As recently as 2019, Avengers: Endgame became the second-highest grossing movie of all time. But last year, Marvel registered its worst-ever year at the box office.

Its biggest flop last year was The Marvels, which failed to break even. One reason it probably did so badly was that it features none of the characters that audiences are most familiar with. Instead of beloved, well-established heroes like Captain America or Iron Man, The Marvels focusses on an ensemble cast of mainly diverse newcomers. So we follow the adventures of Ms Marvel, a Muslim teen superhero from the Ms Marvel TV miniseries, and Monica Rambeau, a black female side character from the WandaVision miniseries.

Practically all new Disney films place a huge emphasis on this kind of diversity casting. Karey Burke, president of Disney’s General Entertainment Content division, said in a leaked video in 2022 that she wants 50 per cent of all Disney characters to be either LGBT or from an ethnic-minority background. Disney Television Animation executive producer Latoya Raveneau has similarly said she is ‘adding queerness’ wherever she can to the shows she oversees.

No one is against diverse characters. Like any other character, they just need to be compelling and have depth. But all too often, their inclusion in Disney productions feels more like a tick-box exercise to meet Karey Burke’s quota. Meanwhile, they often come at the cost of other more familiar faces. It’s as if these ‘diverse’ characters are only on screen to send a message – to remind the public that ‘diversity is our strength’ – rather than drive the plot forward or engage the audience.

Often, these characters are also actively grating. Captain Marvel, played by Brie Larson, is supposed to be the main draw of The Marvels. She even starred in her own film, Captain Marvel, back in 2019. But like so many female protagonists these days, she is the stereotypical ‘girlboss’. She comes across as smug and condescending. She beats enemies with ease and brags about her powers.

Perhaps Disney’s most egregious use of the girlboss trope was in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. This Disney+ series follows a Hulk-type character, except, as the title suggests, she’s a woman and a lawyer. She is a Strong Female Character who delivers lectures about why catcalling is bad. To the surprise of precisely no one, She-Hulk went down like a cup of cold sick with many Marvel diehards.

It seems the public aren’t particularly interested in watching these unfamiliar characters talking down to them for 100+ minutes. Nor are they going to invest hours of their precious time in the endless TV spin-offs on Disney+ if they suspect that these series are just lectures in disguise.

Disney’s Pixar, the studio behind some of the biggest animated hits of the modern era, is now awash with identity politics, too. Even when its output isn’t excessively preachy, it still seems to trumpet ‘diversity’ at the expense of good storytelling. Take its 2023 movie, Elemental – the worst-performing release in Pixar’s history. It tells the story of a fire character and a water character falling in love. The film is inoffensive enough, even if its subtext about overcoming racism is not all that subtle. What executives were most proud of, however, was the fact that Elemental contained Disney’s first nonbinary character – a lake who wears earrings, goes by they / them pronouns and is voiced by a nonbinary actor.

The character, called Lake Ripple, is such a small part of the film that it – sorry, ‘they’ – doesn’t even appear in the end credits. But ‘they’ were still everywhere in the film’s marketing and media campaign. Studio executives seem to imagine that the public is constantly clamouring for yet more diversity ‘firsts’. Or perhaps they are shamelessly using them to generate more publicity. Either way, it clearly isn’t a winning strategy.

Disney’s preoccupation with diversity can often feel like an attempt to distract from its otherwise pedestrian output. Its 2023 live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, in which black actress Halle Bailey was cast as Ariel, is another case in point. Although some might have seen this blockbuster remake as a sad day for redhead representation, most members of the public were distinctly unbothered by the prospect of a black Ariel. Once again, few people are opposed to ‘diverse’ casting in and of itself.

Predictably, there were some tedious woke additions to the remake – including new lyrics in ‘Kiss the Girl’, emphasising the importance of consent. But the film’s main problem was that it was boring and uninspired. Although Disney was hailed in the media for its ‘inspirational’ choice of casting, The Little Mermaid performed worse than expected when it hit screens in 2023, barely breaking even. No amount of diversity hype can make up for a dull film.

Snow White is next up for a woke reboot. It’s slated for release next year. And already, its prospects aren’t looking good. Ever since her casting was announced in 2023, star Rachel Zegler has used every opportunity to trash the source material as sexist and outdated. She has called the film’s love story ‘weird’ and accused Prince Charming of having ‘literally stalked’ Snow White. Zegler claims that this new, updated version will focus less on romance and ‘true love’, and more on ‘women being in roles of power’.

This might sound thrilling to a women’s studies graduate, but what about the young girls the film is supposed to appeal to? And what about the adults who feel nostalgic for the original? Zegler has essentially branded their tastes as bigoted and backward. Listening to her interviews, you get the distinct impression that Disney now loathes its canon and its audience.

Time and again, Disney has gone out of its way to alienate and insult the core fanbases of its franchises. After Disney acquired Lucasfilm studios in 2012, Star Wars fans feared the franchise was about to be given a feminist, progressive makeover. Disney executive Kathleen Kennedy was even pictured wearing a t-shirt saying ‘The Force is Female’. Whatever that means.

The Force Awakens, Disney’s first Star Wars film, performed well when it came out in 2015. But as the rest of the new Disney trilogy dragged on, the box office numbers trailed off. Meanwhile, some of the spin-off movies and series also fared poorly with audiences. The only thing many of the new movies had to shout about is their ‘diverse’ casting.

When fans made their displeasure known, they were dismissed as bigots and trolls. The Star Wars cast and crew got into a bizarre war of words with sections of the fanbase in 2018, after Kelly Marie Tran, who played Rose Tico in The Last Jedi (2017), left social media following alleged trolling by fans – something Rian Johnson, director of The Last Jedi, blamed on the ‘manbabies’ among Star Wars’s audience, upset with its new direction.

When Disney isn’t infuriating its own audience, it is cancelling its own actors. In 2021, Gina Carano – who starred in the Star Wars spin-off series, The Mandalorian – shared an Instagram story comparing being a Republican in 21st-century America to being Jewish during the Holocaust. Carano was almost immediately fired by Disney for ‘denigrating people based on their cultural and religious identities’.

The comparison was in poor taste, for sure. But to smear Carano as an anti-Semite – not least when Hollywood A-Listers had spent most of the previous few years comparing Trump’s America to Nazi Germany – was both wrong and outrageously hypocritical. Carano maintains that the real reason she was fired was because she is an outspoken conservative, who has mocked woke practices like stating preferred pronouns. She is now suing Disney for wrongful termination – and is being backed in her fight by Elon Musk.

Disney has even taken to making political interventions out in the real world. Since 2022, in the US state of Florida, home to Disney’s biggest theme park and resort, the Walt Disney Company has been locked in a fierce battle with governor Ron DeSantis over something entirely unrelated to Disney’s business interests – namely, the place of transgender ideology in schools.

DeSantis’s Parental Rights in Education Act bans ‘classroom instruction’ on issues of ‘sexual orientation or gender identity’ for schoolkids under the age of 10. Disney, apparently outraged by the prospect of preteens being denied an indoctrination into gender-identity ideology, pledged to donate $5million to organisations opposing the law. In retaliation, DeSantis revoked the special tax status that the Walt Disney World Resort has enjoyed since the 1960s.

Not only did this spat cost Disney its tax breaks – it also damaged its image as a family friendly company. Most parents agreed with DeSantis that gender ideology is an inappropriate subject for under-10s and were baffled that Disney would say otherwise. After the skirmish with DeSantis, Disney’s approval rating among Americans tumbled by more than 25 percentage points.

The woes facing Disney illustrate the powerful hold wokeness now has on big corporations. It’s as if Disney’s leaders felt compelled to toe the line on the identitarian agenda. They were prepared to trash the company’s reputation and alienate its fans, seemingly just to signal their allegiance to this new elite ideology.

Perhaps those billion-dollar losses will finally break the spell.

Lauren Smith is a staff writer at spiked.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture Identity Politics

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