The quintessential post-World War II vacation is a trip to California, to Disneyland. This year we had the good fortune to take a trip to Anaheim, to take our daughter to Disney for the first time.
The venerable theme park, sixty-one years old this year, remains a popular attraction for kids of all ages. It was remarkable to see people of all walks of life visiting the epicenter of American consumerist culture. In a audible echo of Disney’s It’s a Small World song, I heard languages from every continent in the lines for rides and in the shops throughout the Magic Kingdom. A small world indeed.
Disney, the man and the company, has long stood for traditional American values. Disneyland itself is located in one of the most conservative counties in America, not far from the birthplace of Richard Nixon, the ideological forebear of everything the right has become. Historically, Walt Disney and his productions have been criticized as being anti-Semitic and racist. In Disney’s films, female characters have been slow to evolve from traditional patriarchal depictions. Disney was a virulent anti-Communist, serving as a friendly witness in the McCarthy hearings. 1
Suffice to say that the Disney’s history does not exemplify what we think of as a progressive, liberal world view. But for all the criticism of Disney’s past, it is hard to say that Disney was any more anti-Semitic or racist than the rest of the nation at the time. And it is fair to say that Disney, especially after merging with Pixar, has changed. In many dramatic ways, from providing benefits for LGBT employees and their partners, to having more dynamic, strong female characters and characters of color in their movies, Disney today is very different than it used to be. The company is regularly the target of boycotts by right-wing groups who object to any subtle nods in the direction of progressive modernity.
Disney as a company has always been a marriage of art and commerce. They have built an international brand based on the handiwork of thousands of artists. The message of that brand, though, is always what will sell. To that end, I would argue that as the economic life of the country has turned more bi-coastal and more progressive, Disney has engaged with that cultural conversation and responded. Today, half of US GDP comes from just a few, mostly coastal, mostly progressive areas, like Seattle, San Francisco, New York, and Boston. 2
These areas are growing, and Disney, following the market, is no more radical than this burgeoning audience. They’ve changed as America has, with an eye to the future. It should come as no surprise that their business model follows the direction of the nation. If Disney represents conservatism, it isn’t the blue conservatism of whatever the GOP has become, it is the green conservatism of the dollar bill, and increasingly those dollars are in the hands of red-state Americans.