(Originally published with slight variation as my Mombian newspaper column.) My family and I took a trip to Disney World a few weeks ago (before the hurricane), an end-of-summer hurrah before our son started high school. The rides and entertainment still retain their magic for us—but on this trip, I was also thinking about how Disney both reflects and influences our society, and what that means in the current era for a queer family like ours.
On our vacation we saw visitors from across the country and around the world, of every age from infant to elderly, and in every shade of human skin. Ours was not the only queer family (if the two guys in the matching “Wicked Queen” t-shirts weren’t a couple, my gaydar needs recalibration), but we also saw families of all shapes and sizes. I stood in line wearing my HRC “Love Conquers Hate” t-shirt next to a guy in a Trump hat; at the water park I saw a Muslim woman in head-to-toe burkini swimwear near a man with a Confederate flag tattooed on his arm. Disney’s appeal is broad.
Disney World attempts, too, to expose visitors to a range of human experiences. It’s a small world, after all—and many of the subsections of its theme parks (notably Epcot and the Animal Kingdom Park) are dedicated to showcasing the cultures of other countries or regions of the world. We happened to be there, for example, during the start of Epcot’s annual International Food and Wine Festival. These are limited views, of course, not always nuanced, and the line between appreciation and appropriation is not always clear. Disney does, however, hire people from the relevant countries to work in those sections of the parks and act as cultural ambassadors as well as park guides, waiters, and entertainers. A visitor may for the first time have to communicate with someone who speaks with an accent far different from theirs; may engage them in conversation about their homeland; and may taste food from France, Nepal, Morocco, Japan, or other places around the globe. Perhaps this experience will inspire them to travel and learn about other peoples in the future, or to be more understanding when they meet someone from a different culture. A trip to Disney is no substitute for actual travel to another country, and much will depend on what individuals and families make of it, but it may be a start for those who have had no other exposure to people from different lands.
Disney World has also come to welcome LGBTQ visitors more openly, allowing several LGBTQ travel companies to host widely publicized events there, and stocking the gift shops with rainbow-hued Mickey pins. George Kalogridis, who became president of Disney World in 2013, is himself a gay man. And when an employee at Disneyland Paris recently told a young boy he could not participate in its “Princess for a Day” event, park officials quickly apologized to the boy’s mother and said he could, reported Huffington Post. The larger corporate entity of Disney ABC, too, has for many years scored a perfect 100 on HRC’s Corporate Equality Index for its employee policies and public support of the LGBTQ community.
Disney ABC has also been a leader in LGBTQ representation on television, with shows like Modern Family, featuring a gay dad couple, and The Fosters, about an interracial two-mom couple and their five kids, which has broken new ground with thoughtful storylines about gay middle schoolers and transgender teen boys. For pre-teens, Disney Channel’s Good Luck Charlie featured a two-mom family in 2014, and Disney XD cartoon Gravity Falls revealed this year that two male characters were a couple—important steps, but both right before each show went off the air for good. Last month, however, Disney Junior’s preschool show Doc McStuffins featured an interracial two-mom family—breaking new ground in queer representation on television for that age group.
This is not to deny blatant bias in some Disney works (for example, the racist portrayal of the Native Americans in 1953’s Peter Pan), nor to ignore that Walt Disney himself has often been accused of anti-Semitism. Disney was, and in many ways remains, a product of its times.
Disney, too, has long fostered gender stereotypes, particularly with its beauty-driven princess culture and many stories of princesses fulfilled only when they find a prince, but they have tried to temper this in recent years. Princess Merida of Brave prefers shooting arrows to dressing up and is not interested in any prince (or princess, for that matter); Elsa and Anna’s story in Frozen highlights their sibling relationship, not romance; and Moana’s adventure in her titular film follows her coming of age to lead her people. The latest two Star Wars films (now Disney ventures) also star women who are more fighters than princesses (and the famed Princess Leia gains gravitas as General Leia).
Disney has given generations of children stories and characters that have shaped their imaginations. Sometimes this has reinforced damaging stereotypes. But Disney has of late shown it is willing to push the boundaries towards greater understanding and inclusiveness—more slowly than some of us would like, perhaps, but with little sense that it is turning back. Is it perfect? No. As a reflection of our culture, it shares the same missteps that many of us do when it comes to issues of diversity and representation. As a leading driver of that culture, though, with a wide appeal across people of many backgrounds and beliefs—as evidenced by the varied folk we encountered at Disney World—can Disney be one of the bridge-builders we sorely need in a contentious and divided era? Here’s wishing upon that star.