Disney and Morality, or: How The Idea That ‘Viewing a Film is a Kind of Moral Act’ is a Bad Take – An Editorial

disney and moralityAt San Diego Comic-Con this past weekend, Disney/Marvel announced the slate of titles making up Phase Four of the MCU. Among the titles announced are five films – Black Widow, Eternals, Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and Thor: Love and Thunder – and five Disney+ shows – Falcon and the Winter Soldier, WandaVision, Loki, What If?, and Hawkeye. Some of these movies/shows seem interesting, others I don’t know enough about yet; but, overall, I found it rather hard to get excited for any of them as it all just sort of feels like an endless onslaught of similar-looking and feeling blockbusters that slowly erode any innovation within the artform. I wasn’t the only person with a take like this and, as you’d expect, there were some MCU-fans pretty unhappy with those who were less-than-enthusiastic about the news. One such fan replied to a pretty popular (progressive) YouTuber’s tweet, suggesting that the mixed reaction was partially in response to the Phase Four lineup consisting of films that focused on women/people of color/LGBTQ+ characters more than previous MCU films have. This accusation leveled at this particular YouTuber was a bit ludicrous as this YouTuber has long championed diversity in films, but it did lead to a conversation about how viewing Disney films has turned into a bit of a moral stance, often pushed by Disney’s own PR team. The idea goes that by watching one of Disney’s films featuring progressive ideas (such as having a diverse cast), you’re taking a moral stance in support of an issue rather than just giving your money to a corporation that doesn’t really care about these issues you care about. It’s an interesting conversation, and a kind of funny one, especially in light of Disney’s long history of immorality. (A quick note – I am not trying to insult or criticize anyone who is excited about any of Disney’s upcoming films, nor am I trying to insult or criticize anyone who really enjoys these movies. What I am trying to criticize is Disney’s framing of the viewing of their films as a moral statement while they do very immoral things as a company.)

Lately, the consumption of films and TV shows has become a kind of statement on a person’s values. Fandom has become so entangled with our personal lives that any kind of criticism directed at a thing we love makes us feel like we’re being personally attacked. The thinking goes that “this person dislikes this thing I like so they must dislike me.” This aspect of fandom culture makes criticizing any major property a messy affair. Then, when politics start getting involved, it gets even messier. We, as political people, want to support films that appear to support the kinds of issues we find important in our lives and, subsequently, any attack on a film that is supportive of those issues feels like an attack on the issues themselves and on us as human beings. We see this from fans of the thing being criticized and also from the companies making the thing – look at how the critics of The Last Jedi and Captain Marvel got painted by the media, fans, and the filmmakers as a group of bigoted people hating the films because of their diversity instead of the, more accurate, mix of people not liking the films for a variety of reasons.

Disney, themselves, have played up this idea by focusing so heavily in their PR campaigns about how these movies are giving voices to people who have never had voices in major motion pictures before. And, to be fair, this is wholly accurate and totally fair of Disney to do. It’s a definite selling point for a film like Black Panther or Captain Marvel and it’s absolutely important for people in these under-represented communities to have the opportunity to see themselves represented in films made by such a big company. No one is arguing that. But it does open the door for the idea that the films aren’t allowed to be criticized because any criticism of a film that champions diversity is interpreted as a criticism of the diversity, itself, and not simply the qualities of the film as a piece of narrative storytelling. And this idea has definitely waltzed through that open door as of late. It turns the act of watching a film into a kind of moral stance instead of an act of consuming a product made by a huge, uncaring corporation.

It’s particularly funny that Disney is the studio that’s experiencing this phenomenon the most as Disney has, historically, been super immoral as a company. Disney has been an immoral company for longer than I’ve been alive. I remember hearing (in elementary school) how other elementary schools weren’t allowed to show Disney movies in the classroom due to not having a license to do so. I know it’s a copyright thing and that if those schools and teachers could show in their lesson plans why it was vital they show the film, they could probably do so without the license, but it seemed that Disney was the only major studio who actually seemed to care about this and would sue school districts. What kind of moral company prosecutes schools for showing a movie to children to help them learn?

Then there’s the abhorrent way they treat all of their employees. This has been an open secret for ages, now, and nobody seems to care. It’s expensive as hell to get into any of the Disney parks and yet they can’t be bothered to pay their employees any kind of livable wage. I mean, there were those stories about how lots of Disney theme park employees are borderline-homeless because of how little Disney pays them. Then there are the ones where it seems Bob Iger has no intention of fixing this issue. A company that can pay its CEO millions and millions of dollars in bonuses but can’t manage to pay its employees any kind of a living wage is not a company that should be considered moral in any shape or form.

And then there’s the awful way Disney treats the people who work on their animated movies. You know all of these live-action remakes that are basically using the same script and visuals the animated originals used? Guess who’s not getting paid as their work is essentially being copied: The original writers/directors/animators. They’re not getting residuals and they’re not getting repaid when the bulk of their work is reused in a lifeless remake because, technically, Disney owns it all. And, yes, it’s also technically a union issue, but as Disney is the largest distributor of animated films – and the only company currently remaking its own animated films, largely using the same scripts – it’s particularly gross that they don’t provide any credits or payments to the original creators as they blatantly reuse those same creators’ ideas.

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of those creators for a moment. Imagine you’re a creator who’s worked on a massively successful film – maybe you’re a writer or a director or an animator. Imagine you’ve spent years working on that film, pouring your blood, sweat, and tears into it. Imagine a few decades later, while you’re still alive, that film gets remade and your work gets reused. That work isn’t in the public domain, but you don’t technically own those things you made, so you don’t get a single cent or a single credit for your work being blatantly reused. And if you want to see this remake of your work, you have to pay the company that reused your ideas without crediting or repaying you to do so (by buying your own ticket to see the film). In what world would that be considered a moral thing to do?

As if that’s not enough, then there’s the way that Disney strong-arms movie theaters. With ‘The Last Jedi’, theaters were forced to give Disney ~65-70% of the box office and show the film on their biggest screens for a minimum of 3-4 weeks or they wouldn’t be allowed to show the film at all (or would have to pay a penalty). Reportedly, they’re doing a very similar thing with ‘The Lion King’ because they got away with it the first time, so why not do it again? This, needless to say, is bad. Small theaters can’t afford to give up their biggest screens to a single film for multiple weeks but they also can’t afford to lose out on showing such a big film, either. Do you like all your local theaters being owned by huge chains? I hope so; because Disney is gonna put locally owned theaters out of business with these tactics and not feel an ounce of remorse.

Also, if you really think that one company being responsible for so much of the media you consume is a good thing, then I don’t know what to tell you. Competition and other points of view have always been good and Disney forcing movies to fit into one, specific kind of formula is not a good thing. Do you like smaller movies that actually tackle real issues with some level of nuance? Do you like films that feature fully-developed LGBTQ+/POC characters and actually depicts them in a real, nuanced way and not just as props to make their films seem more progressive than they are? Disney doesn’t, and if things keep going the way they’re going, no studio will bother trying to make those smaller, more intimate movies and release them widely in theaters because it won’t be “worth the money”. We’re already seeing fewer mid-budget movies getting made. And, in the wake of the Disney/Fox merger, Disney has already shut down one of the biggest major companies that actually made movies like that: Fox 2000 – and who knows what the fate of Fox Searchlight is at this point, another Fox verticle that made movies of that nature. There is, obviously, a place for the kinds of movies that Disney likes to make. There should also be a place for the kinds of movies that Disney is sucking all the air and attention from and, because of Disney’s total dominance over the pop culture discussion, those films are finding it harder and harder to exist – and that’s bad.

And the worst thing is, none of these things will ever change as long as Disney’s movies keep making huge bucks; Disney’s films are beginning to appear to be “too big to fail”; both Aladdin and The Lion King got mixed-to-negative reviews yet still raked in boatloads of cash. Businesses never change their terrible practices if they’re still making huge profits. And, sure, some of their movies might be diverse-ish, but their company is really awful for a whole lot of people. The idea that watching Disney films is some kind of positive moral stance flies in the face of the actual things the company does.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t enjoy some of the movies Disney makes. Personally, I find a lot of them mediocre-at-best (and I feel that Disney is allowed to get away with making mediocre films far more than any other movie studio is), but some of their films are quite good and Disney is indeed starting to give some major opportunities to groups of people who have, historically, been excluded from major Hollywood blockbusters – and that’s a really good thing! But let’s not pretend Disney is some bastion of morality. They’re not. Let’s also not pretend that any criticism of Disney, as a company, is somehow a criticism of the progressive values being put into some of their recent films. It’s not. Disney can make movies with good values and lots of progressive representation (all good things!) while still being super immoral to its employees and to the business at large. Criticizing the Walt Disney Company for the immoral things it does behind the scenes should not be conflated with criticizing the progressive aspects of the films it makes. Seeing Disney’s films shouldn’t be an act of morality. Disney doesn’t care about you or about whatever issue they’re pretending to care about. All they care about is making money and exploiting every avenue they can to rake in the biggest bucks.

And, to be fair, that’s true of every huge corporation. Every corporation wants to do whatever it takes to get the most people to consume their product. But most corporations aren’t trying to guilt you into consuming their product by framing it as a moral statement. Don’t think for a second that, if the tides changed, they wouldn’t backtrack on all the ‘progress’ they seem to have made. Representation is great, but Disney isn’t the only source of that representation and there are a lot of people doing a better job in much better faith. And, to be fair to Disney, they’re not the only shady corporation making films. AT&T owns Warner Bros – and that’s super awful. Comcast has owned Universe for ages – and that’s also really awful. Netflix wants to start its own chain of movie theaters – which seems like a terrible idea. Disney isn’t the only shady company in the game, but they are the one trying to frame the consumption of their films as a moral stance instead of a consumer consuming a product.

Will I still see some Disney properties? Yes. I do run a review blog and, like Disney, I’d like to maximize my potential audience. I’m also a human being filled with gray areas and contradictions and I can believe all the things I believe and still want to see the newest Thor movie. But I won’t see everything they release because, frankly, I don’t really want to support Disney as a company more than I already do. It’s a personal thing and I’m under no delusion that it’s going to make any difference in the larger scheme of things.

That being said, it’s totally okay to see their films. It’s totally okay to like them. It’s totally okay to be super excited about their slate of upcoming films. But don’t confuse supporting their films as supporting some kind of moral cause. Don’t turn a blind eye to a company’s corporate practices just because you like their product. Don’t shut down other peoples’ valid criticism of the films or the company itself just because those films happen to support an issue you support. That doesn’t mean the film or the company is without flaw. You can like the product while still disliking the company. Things aren’t black-and-white and a company can make some positive progress in one area while still being really terrible and immoral in other areas. Both things can be true, and, in Disney’s case, are true. And this is true for all companies, not just Disney. But I am seeing this crop up a lot with Disney films, which is why this post exists at all.

Ultimately, seeing a film should never be considered a moral act because no company that ever makes a film is ever really gonna care about whatever issue they’re talking about. All they care about is money. And that’s capitalism. Everything is complicated and filled with shades of gray and big companies like Disney are never moral and seeing their films (or anyone’s) should never be considered some kind of moral statement. That being said, you can totally like and be excited about whatever you want. Just know that other people can also not be excited and/or criticize what they want, too, and their displeasure or ambivalence shouldn’t be construed as a personal attack.

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