In theory, legislation just signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) would seem like a perfect fit for Disney, one of the state’s largest employers. Titled “Parental Rights in Education,” the bill has been hyped as a way to empower parents to protect their children, a family-centric idea that might get nods from the family-focused corporation.
But the title of the legislation is narrowly drawn; the empowerment it offers, focused solely on those parents worried about how interpersonal relationships and gender identity might come up in school curriculums. The bill makes the long-standing assumption that conversations about same-sex couples are necessarily conversations about sex, an assumption that doesn’t apply to non-gay couples. For that and other reasons, the bill has provoked an enormous backlash — including, now, from Disney.
One reason is simple. In part thanks to pressure from the company’s employees, Disney understands that American families don’t look the way they used to. Fox News — which has eagerly taken up DeSantis’s side in its feud with Mickey Mouse’s parent company — ran an entire story based on the complaints of two older people, one of whom said that “Walt [Disney] would be rolling over in his grave” at the company’s actions. In reality, what would probably have flummoxed the company’s founder is that the families who attend his park include parents of the same gender or different races and that more and more children these days are expressing themselves in ways that aren’t easy catalogued as “Dick” or “Jane.” That’s also not the world in which Fox’s men-on-the-street grew up.
After Disney announced its opposition to the legislation, DeSantis very specifically drew the connection outlined above.
“For them to say they’re going to actively work to repeal substantive protections for parents as a company that is supposedly marketing its services to parents with young children,” he said, “I think they crossed the line.” DeSantis insisted that “California corporate executives” didn’t get to dictate policies in his state, an interesting comment to make about a fixture of Orlando’s economy.
But again: We’re here helping kids and families, DeSantis argues, and Disney is against that? And, again: Yes.
It is by now well-established that America’s understanding of same-sex relationships and families has evolved in the past few decades. Gallup polling in 1977 found that 14 percent of Americans thought same-sex couples should be allowed to adopt children; by 2019, three-quarters did. The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey found that the density of same-sex married couples in the country doubled from 2013 to 2019, with the number of same-sex married couples with children growing by 71 percent and the number without children growing by 140 percent. Approval for same-sex marriage, meanwhile, has reached 70 percent nationally.
Among Republicans, though, the figure is 55 percent. As I wrote last week, Republican views of same-sex issues continue to lag behind the left and the country overall. That overlaps to some extent with age. Younger Americans — who are also more likely to be starting families and of working age — are more open to same-sex partnerships and accepting of less-regimented personal identities.
That younger Americans are more liberal, particularly on issues related to race, gender and sexual identity, is one reason that corporations have been more willing to engage publicly on the subjects. It appears that the pressure Disney faced came from within, not from the public. But this has also increased awareness about corporate activism that often reflects positions that align with the political left, inspiring frustration and backlash from the right. A Republican governor attacking a prominent corporation in his state is also not in keeping with long-standing practice and would probably spur confusion for past Disney executives.
And, again, there’s Fox News to amplify the fight.
This is more complicated than it might at first seem. Fox News’s controversial programming, particularly its evening opinion shows, have led to backlash from advertisers in the past — including from Disney. But Fox is a reliable barometer of the furies of the right, and, this week, it’s targeting a corporation synonymous with the family-focused policies that the right often touts.
There’s a broader question here about why Republicans have suddenly reembraced rhetoric targeting gay Americans. The collapse of opposition to same-sex marriage a decade ago marked a shift in the national conversation about same-sex couples and gay people, but only on the surface. It seems clear that, as with the recent focus on the increased voice of non-White Americans, the rise in visibility for gay and transgender Americans has provoked a backlash. The perception is often that increased visibility for non-White or non-heterosexual people is a constraint on straight Whites or an encroachment on their power.
So we get this newly visible backlash, one often more direct than the one targeting Black Americans. That furor is often couched by focusing on things like critical race theory. This one is more direct: DeSantis’s spokeswoman didn’t simply defend the bill as it came under attack; she implied that those who opposed it were hoping to sexually abuse children.
Then you have things like this:
Walt Disney is largely still in the business of selling stories and merchandise to American parents and children. Its recent films have not been rehashes of traditional fairy tales but, instead, explorations of families that don’t look like traditional families and relationships that are more complicated than boy-meets-girl. It’s providing stories that resonate with the expectations of American families today, not the families that Fox News’s interviewees grew up with.
Republican legislators, on the other hand, are in the business of selling themselves to the sorts of people who agree with what’s shown on Fox News. And here we are.