How Disney Has Become the Master Illusionist of Our Day
The imagineers at the Disney Corporation are busy making a different kind of magic these days to prove that the unthinkable continues to be possible.
On March 17th, 2017, the entertainment leviathan rebooted Beauty and the Beast, the fifth highest-grossing traditionally animated film of all time. The film continues the company’s strategic plan of copy-and-pasting its way through the decade, as it is sandwiched nicely between Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), Mulan (2018) and Aladdin (rumored in 2020).
While moviegoers are undoubtedly familiar with the plot, theme, characters, and setting, the live action take of this classic tale is historic.
The film features the first “exclusively gay moment” ever depicted on a Disney major motion picture. This is the actual phrase used by Director Bill Condon to explain a scene featuring Gaston’s sidekick, a man who “on one day who wants to be Gaston and on another day wants to kiss Gaston.”
For obvious reasons, the news is being widely celebrated in gay and lesbian circles. On its April 2017 magazine cover, the British gay lifestyle magazine Attitude refers to the movie as “Disney’s gayest film ever.”
This decision to portray this moment on the big screen is significant and worthy of evaluation.
Disney is a Fortune 500 company reporting $56 billion in revenues for fiscal year 2016. Like all large businesses, the company is obsessed with growth and market penetration. While the progressive idealist may believe that Disney has (finally!) evolved with respect to its values, the realist knows that this is merely a calculated business decision. Disney executives simply believe that the ideological climate is ready to embrace this type of content.
Disney is obviously attempting to target the gay and lesbian community, so let’s try our best to “reverse imagineer” this decision to better understand the risk inherent in this business decision. For it to make sense, Disney needs to be unequivocally certain that the portrayal of openly gay content would not cause a net reduction to their general market penetration.
One important statistic for us to consider is the overall percentage of gay and lesbian Americans.
Thanks to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), we have this information. In 2013, the CDC ran a first-of-its-kind survey that shed some light into the sexual orientation of Americans. The CDC-sponsored survey concluded that nearly 97% of all Americans identify as straight.
Only 1.6% of Americans identified as either gay or lesbian.
On a purely mathematical level, statisticians would categorize this undertaking as an incredibly high-risk, low-reward proposition. Assuming Disney’s audience is representative of the national population, this is a horrendous exercise of judgment in the event a mere two percent of Disney’s straight audience finds this content objectionable.
How could Disney executives possibly approve this scene given this information?
The truth is that this factual statistic was probably never even discussed in the board room. Disney doesn’t care about reality…they care about perception. Here are the two actual reasons why the company is so comfortable airing this content.
Survey after survey confirms that Americans believe that nearly 25 percent of the population is gay or lesbian. One such example, courtesy of a 2011 Gallup survey, actually increases to nearly 30 percent when only considering responses from the youngest demographic of respondents.
This point bears repeating. People aged 18 to 29 legitimately believe that nearly one in every three Americans is either gay or lesbian.
More importantly, the actual percentage of Americans who deemed gay and lesbian relations to be “morally acceptable” increased from 38 to 63 percent between 2002 and 2015.
How did this paradigm shift happen in such a short period of time?
Those little imagineers have been hard at work! The optical illusion that is this magnificent misrepresentation of reality came through years of hard work on the small screen. Though Disney cannot assume full credit for the change in public opinion, a pretty compelling case can be made that it has substantially helped swing public perception through its family of networks, including network giant ABC and Freeform television (formerly known as ABC Family).
The 2013 GLAAD “Where We Are on TV” report noted that LGBT-themed content was featured on an astounding 50 percent of ABC Family’s primetime shows. This figure overstates reality by more than 2,000 percent. Sister network ABC featured similar content on a staggering 33 percent of its primetime programming.
ABC Family had actually been flailing in the mid-2000s before newly-hired president Paul Lee rebranded the network under the slogan “A New Kind of Family.” This marketing campaign aggressively pushed such LGBT-themed content to capitalize on the emotions of America’s most impressionable and vulnerable demographic, children and young adults aged 11-24.
I only include this section because it worth noting that Disney subsequently promoted Mr. Lee to the position of president of the entire ABC Entertainment Group in mid-2010. Clearly, they were pleased with his results and the overall direction of the company.
Returning to the subject matter at hand, we now see how Disney has essentially backed itself into a corner in which it would be a terrible decision not to portray openly gay scenes on the big screen. It was their own strategies that created this market demand!
What is the real magic of the Disney Corporation in the 21st century?
Disney is now shaping business decisions according to the very illusions they themselves helped create!
This is a highly-volatile strategy that creates exceptional short-term growth potential while simultaneously presenting long-term viability concerns.
You see, every time an illusionist takes the stage to captivate his adoring fans, he has to increasingly assume a greater degree of risk to maintain their enchantment. Harry Houdini initially amazed his audience by harmlessly escaping from a special set of handcuffs. Before long, however, he found he had to suspend himself upside-down in a water torture cell just to preserve his appeal.
Disney executives are reacting to the voracious entertainment appetite of the general public by stretching the boundaries of established norms to promote increasingly debauched behavior. This is a self-destructive business model. The same innocuous homosexual flirtation that is celebrated today will be bemoaned tomorrow if it does not lead to a steamy bedroom scene between two attractive, and likely very young men.
The very heart of the Disney consumer base is the American family. Will this segment continue lining up at the box office to purchase tickets if the company completely abandons the value system that most parents are looking to impart upon their children?
At some point, Disney is going to have to decide whether it is more important to pursue a fashionable cultural narrative or salvage its wholesome reputation that was built upon the decency of a caring mouse and his lovable friends.
They cannot have both.