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Opinion M-I-C-K-E-Y: He’s a groomer, too!

A Pride-themed Mickey Mouse plush photographed in a studio at The Post's offices in 2019. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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Psst. Have you heard? Mickey Mouse is a groomer.

So wrote American Conservative senior editor Rod Dreher, one of many on the far right who lately have wielded accusations of pedophilia and child sex abuse to slime opponents (real or cartoon) of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, more broadly known as the “don’t say gay” bill.

This was part of an extended salvo: “About the term ‘groomers,’” Dreher later clarified, “it’s usually used to describe pedophiles who are preparing innocent kids for sexual exploitation. I think it is coming to have a somewhat broader meaning: an adult who wants to separate children from a normative sexual and gender identity, to inspire confusion in them, and to turn them against their parents and all the normative traditions and institutions in society.”

Ostensibly, then, this reckless deployment of a highly charged accusation is meant to keep kids safe from sexual confusion and harm. But the “groomer” discourse isn’t really about safety. It’s about control. And it could end up doing much more harm than good.

The “groomer” talking point has been taken up by political spokespeople, Fox News hosts and conservative celebrities, who have used the term to describe anyone from educators who let it slip that they have a same-sex partner to the Mouse himself. (Disney is under fire in conservative circles for having opposed Florida’s bill.) The suggestion is that by introducing — or simply being willing to introduce — children to questions of sexual orientation or gender identity, educators risk making young people more vulnerable to sexual predation or abuse. Indiscriminately labeling teachers “pedophiles” will help keep kids safe!

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Of course, if conservatives really wanted to keep children safe from sexual predation, there is much they could do besides smear Mickey Mouse for occasionally sporting a pair of rainbow ears.

They might have spent more time closing the loopholes in Tennessee’s Republican-proposed “common-law marriage” bill that would have legalized child marriage (an amendment to address this oversight was added to the bill only this week, after progressive outcry). They might turn a more watchful eye toward members of their own party — Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, for instance, is actually under investigation to determine whether he had sex with a minor and engaged in sex trafficking. (Gaetz has emphatically denied the allegations.) They could have vocally supported legislation like the Emergency Funding for Child Protection Act, which was meant to support programs to prevent child abuse and neglect during the covid-19 pandemic. (That bill was eventually folded into the American Rescue Plan, which didn’t receive a single Republican vote.)

None of that is happening. Which indicates that this frenzy about “groomers” and pedophiles is not about children’s well-being. Rather, it’s being used to manipulate a narrative and to discipline companies, individuals and even kids themselves.

The “Mickey is a groomer” attack stems from the idea that the best way to punish Disney for not getting in line with the Florida law is to accuse the corporation of pedophilia. And the tossing around of highly charged phrases is meant to silence teachers and educators in a way that legislation never could, by equating certain teaching material with pornography and the teachers themselves (especially those openly LGBTQ) with sexual predation.

As conservative pundit Jesse Kelly put it in a Twitter thread that was later deleted: “Call them groomers and pedophiles if they oppose it. Put THEM on the defensive. Make THEM afraid.” He continued: “You have the high ground. Use it to destroy your enemy.”

It’s a cynical exploitation of loaded language to make bad-faith attacks. It’s also a way for parents to control what their children hear, by making anything that they oppose — same-sex marriage, say, or gender fluidity — seem beyond the pale.

Although I don’t agree with the tactic, I do have some sympathy for the motive. It’s understandable that parents want to be the ones who teach their children what to believe. It’s worth asking just how early children need to be exposed to certain information about sex, or whether certain gender ideologies need to be discussed in a kindergarten classroom. Yet taken to the extreme — and the equating of early sex education with “grooming” is certainly extreme — these valid questions disappear in a haze of QAnon-inflected invective.

Plus, parents aren’t always right. And being involved in curriculum formation and teaching, while a worthy goal, does not mean controlling it from the top down. Sooner or later, all children become their own people — or at least they should. And over-sheltering can leave kids more open to harm.

This new vocabulary game might end up backfiring. The conservative movement’s insistence on brandishing hyperbolic language will make their complaints sound less credible, not more. And if everything is “grooming,” soon nothing will be — which means parents may find it harder to call out real instances of abuse and predation when they do occur.

In that scenario, Mickey won’t be the one who has lost.

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