In a way, conservatives ought to feel some measure of sympathy for Disney CEO Bob Chapek.
When he took over the reins from former Mouse House chief, Bob Iger, it seemed clear that the new boss wasn’t going to be the same as the old boss. Iger was famously known as a Democratic donor and even flirted with a run for the presidency. In 2020, he made it known that he would be open to an appointment with the Biden administration. More significantly for Disney’s corporate culture, though, was Iger’s readiness to put his money where his mouth was – taking public stances on behalf of the company against Georgia’s heartbeat bill and former President Trump’s restriction of travel visas for some Muslim-majority nations.
Chapek, who replaced Iger in February of 2020, clearly intended to do things differently.
Unlike Iger, who was a dyed-in-the-wool creature of the network and studio systems, Chapek came up through the ranks of Disney’s parks and consumer products divisions. He was, of course, entering a corporate culture that was already steeped in diversity, equity, and inclusion leftism, but all indications were that he was content to keep that sort of political posturing in-house. As one anonymous source told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month, “Chapek is staunchly opposed to bringing Disney into issues he deems irrelevant to the company and its businesses.”
Another indicator of Chapek’s neutrality: his high-profile executive hire, Geoff Morrell, a Bush administration appointee whom Chapek tapped as Disney’s Chief Corporate Affairs Officer. Chapek’s chief of staff, Arthur Bochner, also has the Bush administration on his resumé.
Though he has also made political donations to Republicans like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, none of this is to suggest that Disney’s top executive is a conservative, merely that he is pragmatic. In the wake of riots over the death of George Floyd during the summer of 2020, Chapek joined the rest of the Fortune 500 class in making a statement about systemic racism. He issued an email to staffers stating that “lethal attacks and harassment of unarmed black citizens in our nation continue to drive outrage” and said he wanted to make sure Disney was fostering a culture that acknowledged its minority staffers’ “feelings and pain.”
But again, these were internal statements.
Even when a shareholder took Disney to task last year for her belief that increased LGBT content was driving the company’s stock price down, Chapek avoided grandstanding and issued a diplomatic response that avoided the explicit activist language subordinate studio heads like Marvel’s Kevin Feige have indulged. “We believe we want to tell stories that our audience wants to hear and that reflects their lives,” Chapek said, adding, “It might have more to do with coronavirus and the worldwide pandemic that we’re facing, but thank you for your question.”
With this record in clear view, it came as no surprise that, when the media began agitating for Disney to pressure Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to back away from House Bill 1557, Morrell made it clear there was a new sheriff in town and that Disney would not be taking sides in the political skirmish.
“Whatever Bob’s personal politics are, he’s not an activist and does not bring any partisan agenda to work,” Morrell told THR. “He sees himself first and foremost as the custodian of a unifying brand that for nearly a century has been bringing people together, and he is determined that Disney remain a place where everyone is treated with dignity and respect.”
Morrell went on to say that Chapek believed that “the best way [Disney] can help create a more inclusive world is through the inspiring content we produce, the welcoming culture we create and the diverse community organizations we support.”
As activist Disney employees ramped up the pressure and began demanding a public declaration against the legislation, Chapek initially doubled down, saying in a company memo, “As we have seen time and again, corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds. Instead, they are often weaponized by one side or the other to further divide and inflame.”
So what changed? Why did Chapek suddenly do an about-face and issue an abject apology? Why did he promise to halt political donations in Florida, donate $5 million to LGBT activist group The Human Rights Campaign (or, at least, try to donate — so far HRC is making a show of refusing the money), and seek an audience with DeSantis to try to strongarm him into not signing the bill?
Simply put, a barrage of shakedown tactics within and without got the better of him and the rest of Disney’s leadership. The company’s reversal provides the latest dire warning for the Right — unless it strategizes ways to combat corporate activism, all but the most stalwart business leaders will crumble at the threat of lost business revenue, and conservatives will continue to lose the culture despite winning elections.
If big business can’t find a way to keep silent on legislation that 64% of the public supports (and that 68% of Disney’s core customer base — parents — is behind), then there is no agenda, however radical, that it can refrain from promoting.
As to the mechanics of how it happened…
In a tale that’s now as old as time, the press went into overdrive to paint Republicans as the aggressors for introducing anti-grooming legislation that would make it illegal for teachers to talk about sex and gender identity with five- to ten-year-olds without their parents’ knowledge. THR, in particular, characterized the bill as part of “the GOP’s sharp rightward turn.” Variety and Deadline ran similarly one-sided takes.
However, Orlando Sentinel columnist, Scott Maxwell, revealed a relatively new play in the media’s game in a February 25 essay in which he noted that “in other states, businesses have used the political power they purchase to effectively neuter culture wars.” He went on to point out that activists successfully coerced big companies into pressuring North Carolina to repeal a law that required use of government bathrooms to correspond with biological sex (private companies were free to do whatever they wanted with their bathroom policies).
That watershed moment in 2017 has since become the Left’s go-to end-run around the will of the people via duly elected legislators. Left-wing activists connected to Disney immediately made use of it.
To start, Iger, who retired from Disney at the end of 2021, put Chapek in an awkward position by signaling early on that he would have happily issued a company statement against the bill. On February 24, Iger retweeted, to much applause from LGBT groups, a statement from President Biden calling the bill “hateful.” To that, the former Mouse House head added his own comment, complete with a very un-C-suite-style exclamation point: “I’m with the President on this! If passed, this bill will put vulnerable, young LGBTQ people in jeopardy.”
A host of creatives at the company then joined him in taking to social media to air their grievances, with writers, animators, and producers posting anti-Disney hashtags and saying things like: “Silence is unacceptable,” “I’m f***ing tired of making Disney look good,” and “Breaks me in pieces that a company that literally pays me to speak is paying to keep me silent by funding puritanical Anti-LGBTQIA+ politicians.”
Finally, a group that deemed itself the “LGBTQIA+ employees at Pixar” (the animation studio owned by Disney) put out a statement claiming the company has censored gay and trans content in their films. Published in full in Variety, the letter accused corporate executives of cutting “nearly every moment of overtly gay affection [from their films]… regardless of when there is protest from both the creative teams and executive leadership at Pixar.”
The letter also stated:
We are writing because we are disappointed, hurt, afraid, and angry. In regards to Disney’s financial involvement with legislators behind the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, we hoped that our company would show up for us. But it didn’t…
Even if creating LGBTQIA+ content was the answer to fixing the discriminatory legislation in the world, we are being barred from creating it.
While it’s true that Disney does tend to contain LGBT content to scenes that are easy to cut for foreign markets, particularly in children’s films, one has to wonder how much more activists at Pixar and other Disney studios have been requesting. Recent years have seen same-sex references in films for even the youngest set, including lesbian moms in Toy Story 4 and a gay police officer in Onward.
For their tween content, Disney Channel has introduced numerous gay and non-binary characters in shows and films like The Owl House, High School Musical, and Andi Mack. Just last week, Pixar released a new animated film, Turning Red, that has been sparking controversy over sexual themes, including a 13-year-old character twerking.
However, while the establishment media has focused on Pixar staffers’ claims that Disney execs were suppressing LGBT content, the key thrust of the letter has gone largely overlooked, and that’s the part that picks up the gauntlet Scott Maxwell threw down. It reads:
Following the siege on the capital in 2021, Disney stopped all political donations to members of Congress who had objected to the presidential election results. In 2016, Disney told the state of Georgia: “We will plan to take our business elsewhere should any legislation allowing discriminatory practices be signed into state law” in response to the controversial Religious Liberty bill. By taking a stand, Disney directly affected the legislative outcome in Georgia. It has been proven that Disney’s corporate statements can and do make a difference.
The message here is clear. Leftists know that their individual votes are not enough to remake the country in their image, so they are using their power to embarrass and harass their employers into doing their bidding.
GLAAD, which already had a relationship with Disney that allowed it to “consult” on scripts and casting, also picked up the marching orders, making the political shakedown of studios formal. In an expansion of environmental, social, and governance (ESG), the organization announced on March 10 that it is now monitoring studios’ campaign donations and will begin issuing report cards this summer based on which candidates and political action committees the companies give money to. It will also track “public advocacy efforts from a film studio or parent company around pro-LGBTQ or anti-LGBTQ legislation” as well as scrutinize how much advertising entertainment companies devote to gay and trans promotion.
It is, of course, vital for Republicans to have the courage of DeSantis, who responded bluntly when Chapek finally indicated that he would use Disney’s power levers to pressure lawmakers. “In Florida,” the governor said, “our policies are going to be based on the interests of Florida citizens, not on the musing of woke corporations.”
That’s good, but it’s not enough.
Like ESG, which demands that companies focus on woke agendas rather than creating wealth for their shareholders lest they face PR storms generated by activists, the Disney debacle makes it clear that, while the Right is still trying to win elections, the Left has moved onto a new battleground.
Becoming content creators is key for the conservative movement to survive this new onslaught, but it’s also time to think strategically about how to use concentrated free market pressure to combat the Left’s corporate activism.
Chapek and other cowed CEOs seem to think that screeching employees are their bosses. They’re not. Their real bosses are called shareholders. It’s time conservatives organize their investing to remind them of that.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.