At the same moment Disney-critical documentary “The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales” was premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, the media giant’s controversy du jour involved the treatment of dwarfs in its upcoming live-action “Snow White” remake. “Heigh-ho! Heigh-ho!” as the lyrics go. “We dig up diamonds by the score / A thousand rubies, sometimes more / Though we don’t know what we dig ’em for.” Turns out, the employees of Disneyland can say the same, generating enormous wealth for shareholders and CEOs while earning barely enough to feed their families — a situation Abigail Disney wants to do something about.
The granddaughter of The Walt Disney Co. co-founder Roy O. Disney — and a direct beneficiary of its corporate policies — Abigail Disney doesn’t like to see the little guy exploited. Some may recognize the filmmaker (who shares credit with “The Armor of Light” collaborator Kathleen Hughes) from media appearances, in which she’s made the shocking, seemingly un-American case that the country is not taxing her enough — and yet, from where she sits, our democracy looks a lot like oligarchy.
With that in mind, it makes a powerful statement when a member of one of America’s most respected families steps forward and demands change, not unlike the way Mary L. Trump speaks out against her uncle Donald. It’s even harder to ignore when this Disney descendant provides the public an entertaining, easy-to-digest film to explain the inequality hiding in plain sight. One of great-uncle Walt’s greatest strengths was his ability to take the complexity of the real world and simplify it so even children could understand. Here, Abigail does the same. This engaging economics lesson, bolstered by articulate experts and amusing animated sequences, would be right at home in high school and college classrooms. Heck, it would be a nice addition to Disney Plus, breaking up all the hagiographic puff-pieces on offer there.
Walt Disney and his brother Roy (Abigail’s grandfather) made their fortunes entertaining the world while ensuring that their employees also made a decent living. They weren’t saints, and they weren’t socialists, but they had a very different attitude toward the team than the company that bears their name today. Whereas Roy earned 78 times his lowest worker’s pay in 1967, the multiple for recent CEO Bob Iger was closer to 2,000 times, according to the film.
To be fair, in 1967, the company was nowhere near the global behemoth it is now, diversified across theme parks, resorts, broadcast networks, licensing and what we call “content.” But Abigail Disney’s point — the main takeaway of this project, presented as a memo of sorts to the two Bobs, Iger and Chapek — is that the ethics of doing business in America have changed. As she writes in a letter to the chief, dictated on camera, “There’s a painful irony that somebody working at ‘the happiest place on earth’ is sleeping in their car.” (And let’s not get started on the folks making the merch.)
Abigail Disney dedicates about half of her film to showing the conditions Disneyland workers deal with: A poll indicates that one in 10 have been homeless in the past two years and two-thirds can’t afford to pay for food. And then came the coronavirus to shut down the parks and put the employees — or “cast members” as they’re called — in an even more precarious position. When the pandemic hit, the company furloughed 30,000 employees, while Iger made a symbolic gesture of forgoing his entire salary (which the board quietly gave back a few months later).
Disney wants to better understand how we got here, breaking down daunting ideas into simple language: Like labor unions and economist Milton Friedman’s argument that a corporation is “a machine for making money for investors.” Like “trickle-down economics,” a Reagan-era theory that justified the city of Anaheim’s decision to take out a $500 million bond to build a massive Disneyland parking lot, which was then leased back to the company for $1 per year.
In the doc’s most memorable visual, that model is illustrated via the equivalent “horse-and-sparrow theory,” in which horses get the oats, while the birds are left to peck at road apples. “‘Trickle-down’ always sounded like urine,” quips CUNY labor professor Heather McGee, who raises a touchy but important point: “The American dream was a gift of the American government,” she says, citing the mortgage subsidies and public programs that boosted the middle class half a century ago. ”But it was largely for whites only.”
In a shocking admission, Abigail Disney confronts the company’s own complicity in this power dynamic, even if doing so will surely alienate some of her audience: “It’s painful and it took me a long time to fully comprehend the role that my family … played in perpetuating centuries-old myths and stories that made this racist system seem perfectly natural and completely benign,” she sincerely admits, while clips of Aunt Jemima and Native characters in the park reinforce her point. The Walt Disney Co. was founded in 1923. Frankly, every century-old studio in town bears some responsibility for reinforcing racist stereotypes — but the mere fact of acknowledging it goes a long way. The same goes for pointing out the radical inequality in how employees are treated.
With so many corporations practicing the same policies, will changing Disney made a difference? Of course it would. Walt was ever the optimist, and we need only look to the parks to remember: It’s a small world after all.