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Dissing Disney

disney montage
Pick a Protest: Some Catholic groups don't like 'Nothing Sacred' (from left); 'Mr. Magoo' bothers blind activists; 'Pocahontas' is a bad role model; and 'G.I. Jane' stereotypes Libyans.

In the new age of global entertainment, Mickey Mouse and company are so big that they can't avoid offending somebody, somewhere, somehow

By Jenn Shreve

WHO WOULD have thought it? The Walt Disney Company, once lauded as the last bastion of wholesome entertainment, is now being lambasted by a vocal but strange mix of Christians, Catholics, Muslims, family organizations, blind activists and fair-labor advocates--to name but a few. The fabled Mouse, they say, is a racist, sexist, gay-loving, visually challenged-bashing, Native American history-desecrating, anti-family, pro-sweatshop louse.

In a decade when intolerant left-wing political correctness cohabits with equally intolerant right-wing family-values mongering, it is difficult not to offend someone. The Walt Disney Company, however, a conglomerate that includes Miramax Films (Pulp Fiction) and Buena Vista Pictures (George of the Jungle), the ABC and ESPN networks, and the Anaheim Angels and the Mighty Ducks sports franchises among its bulging ranks, can no longer entertain in any venue without stepping on a multitude of overly sensitive toes. And after months of hemming and hawing, the company is starting to respond to the demands of its potential boycotters.

Just last week, ABC unveiled Nothing Sacred (Thursdays at 8pm), a new program about a soulful inner-city priest with liberal leanings. Before the show had even aired, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights had requested that the network not carry Nothing Sacred because it "promotes the most positive stereotype of Catholics who dissent from Church teachings while fostering the most negative stereotype of those who remain loyal to the Church," according to a position paper written by the organization's president, William Donohue. The league also ran an ad in Advertising Age promising to "to mobilize our 350,000 members to conduct a campaign against the sponsors" of Nothing Sacred.

Last month, Disney CEO Michael Eisner suspended Tony Phillips from the Anaheim Angels after the second baseman was charged with cocaine possession. Keeping him would have aroused the already inflamed ire of groups that believe Disney should maintain a pristine image as a purveyor of family entertainment. (The players' union and the major-league owners, in a rare display of solidarity, reinstated Phillips.)

Two months before yanking the less-than-angelic Phillips, Disney had pulled an obscenity-laden rap album by the Insane Clown Posse (on its Hollywood Records label) from record-store shelves, ostensibly in reaction to the Southern Baptists' proposed boycott of the company's theme parks for their gay-friendly employee policies and programs. Disney's supposed truckling to the gay agenda had also irked the Assemblies of God, a Pentacostal Christian organization that clamored for a boycott of Disney theme parks. Not to be outflanked, Arab organizations are upset over how Libyans are portrayed in the shoot-'em-up climax of G.I. Jane (Hollywood Pictures, another Disney subsidiary).

And so Catholics, Protestants and Muslims agree, perhaps for the first time in centuries: Disney must be boycotted. Perucci Ferraiuolo, a journalist and the author of Disney and the Bible: A Scriptural Critique of the Magic Kingdom (1996, Horizon Books, Christian Publications, Inc.), tells me why: "Although Disney is still in the business of providing strong family entertainment, you really have to ask what kind of family is it catering to? Although they have come out with some fairly benign animated and live-action features in the past decade or so, the vast majority of their movies have asserted agendas that people of faith cannot embrace."

Ferraiuolo cites Disney's often nonjudgmental take on homosexuality, its "extreme environmentalism" and its "Eastern religious and New Age philosophy" as examples of world views in conflict with Christian consumers.

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Disney boycott page.

Disney and the Bible, and another Bible page.

Catholic League's Disney boycott.

Insane Clown Posse (rap group dropped by Disney).

National Labor Committee's boycott of Disney.

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RELIGIOUS ENTITIES are not alone in their desire to eliminate all things Disney from their lives. The National Federation of the Blind is currently "conducting talks" with Disney over the December release of Mr. Magoo, a live-action rendering of the near-sighted cartoon figure of the 1960s.

"What we have done is called for the removal of plans to do the Mr. Magoo movie at Christmas time," Patricia Maurer, director of community relations for the National Federation of the Blind, tells me. A boycott is being considered, she adds, but the group isn't making any solid plans until after negotiations are through.

When I call for an official response, John Dreyer, a spokesperson at Disney, expresses optimism that the talks will go in the media conglomerate's favor: "I think they are not familiar with the script. I think they'll find Mr. Magoo is a heroic figure in the film. There is no slight to the blind."

Feminist complaints prompted Disneyland to revamp its Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland this past spring. No longer do lustful pirates chase after maidens fair; they now chase the food women carry. Feminists have also dinged Disney for its gender-role stereotyping in The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast--who can forget petite Belle, kneeling down in submission before the gruff, very male beast, and saying, "Take me"?

Even Pocahontas, a film meant to appease politically correct factions with its fawning portrayal of a strong Native American female, backfired. Perhaps the animated feature pleased a smattering of revisionist historians, but it most certainly upset Chief Roy Crazy Horse of the Powhatan Nation, the tribe from which the original Pocahontas hailed. He has published a Web page titled Pocahontas Myth decrying Disney's "cultural and historical" lack of accuracy, not to mention its flaunting of the "good Indian/bad Indian" theme. (Ferraiuolo, by the way, excoriates the movie for omitting its heroine's ultimate conversion from paganism to Christianity.)

The Lion King sparked anger among gays and blacks because the evil lion Scar, as voiced by Jeremy Irons, was considered by many to be an offensive homosexual stereotype and the hyenas, also antagonists, all spoke in distinctively ethnic voices, provided by African American Whoopi Goldberg and Latino Cheech Marin.

Indeed, so many groups are angry at Disney that it takes a Disney Boycott Web site--to track them all.

HOW DOES Disney view all these special-interest Grumpys? "We need to respect all the opinions of all the different cultures in this country," ripostes spokesman Dreyer. "And there is not one culture that expresses the national viewpoint."

Disney, obviously, does not respect all cultures and viewpoints. Such a task is impossible. What Disney does try to do is to sell to all opinions and cultures. Therein lies its problem. You can't please born-again Christians and homosexual activists at the same time.

In trying to be all things to all people, Disney has built up the expectations of its customers, whether they be straight, gay, Christian or Muslim. And those customers end up appalled when the company they've trusted to provide wholesome family entertainment or wholesome gay-friendly programming, or even unwholesome rap records, does something in stark contrast to those expectations.

We can talk of embracing all ideas and cultures, loving thy neighbor and respecting our differences--and sing "It's a Small World After All" while we're at it--over and over until we feel like we've been spun one time too many on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. It will make no difference, and Disney serves as a reminder that such high-minded ideals are downright impossible to enact in reality.

Although the media giant can't please everyone with its fictional representations, it could, according to the National Labor Committee, do something in the real world to address its use of sweatshops and child labor in poor countries to produce Disney clothing and merchandise.

Disney, however, will probably go unshaken by the various boycotts for the same reason it's found itself mired in so many controversies to begin with: it's too big to be shaken. Ironically, much of Disney's strength lies in its appeal to a broad variety of cultures and beliefs, a characteristic at the root of so many complaints against the corporation.

When asked if Disney is concerned, financially, about the possibility of boycotts, Dreyer says there is no real threat. "I don't want to get into an argument with people. I don't want to taunt anyone, but that's not really the issue."

The figures back him up. The company's net income increased 77 percent in the last three quarters, and its stock continues to rise. This financial good news is attributable in part to the fact that Disney has accumulated enough wealth to be sheltered from isolated consumer action. But there is another, perhaps more important, reason: people aren't really willing to give up all things Disney.

"Disney is so pervasive in our lives that it is hard not to bump into them and their subsidiaries," Ferraiuolo admits. "Equally, though, it isn't hard to stay away from them if you are educated enough to discern what is Disney."

It is certainly possible to make a list of every Disney subsidiary and side project, checking it twice before spending any entertainment dollars, but how many people are really going to spend that much time poring over SEC filings to keep up with the latest acquisition? How many sports fans will turn ESPN off because they object to the Insane Clown Posse? How many parents will withstand their children's pleas to see the latest animated feature because the Little Mermaid isn't a proper role model? How many tourists will bypass Anaheim and Orlando because Nothing Sacred tests the faithful?

Disney's sheer size combined with the clear fact that it is meeting consumer needs on so many fronts guarantees its survival. No boycotters are capable of making a dent, and if they did, the dent wouldn't be big enough to matter.

Although the Mouse might make minor, though well-publicized, changes here and there to meet the demands of one angry group or another, no surgery beyond a superficial nip and tuck is really necessary. Unless Muslims, Christians, Republicans, Democrats, homosexuals, blacks and whites, right-wingers and emissaries of political correctness join together and boycott all Disney products in an unprecedented instance of solidarity and mutual understanding, the Mouse has nothing to fear.

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From the Sept. 25-Oct. 1, 1997 issue of Metro.

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