Published April 4, 2022
Disney’s leadership is engaged in a quest to oppose a Florida law that prohibits teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity with children in kindergarten through third grade. The only problem: The law is already in place, and it isn’t going anywhere. So what’s Disney supposed to do?
Part of the company’s vociferous yet fruitless opposition stems from the fact that it missed the window for action, not having lobbied against the bill until just before Ron DeSantis was preparing to sign it. Progressive Disney employees — surely a tiny minority — are displeased about this and are taking out their ire not on Disney’s home state but on their own employer, which failed to bully the state enough to prevent the law from taking effect.
What’s so interesting about this latest culture-war skirmish is that Disney’s foray into progressivism conflicts with the company’s profit motive in a way we haven’t yet seen. It’s the first major example of corporate virtue-signaling crashing and burning. In nearly every previous iteration, companies have wielded their influence without incurring any significant loss either to public image or profit.
Major companies have been wielding financial and cultural influence against state laws that don’t comport with a left-wing social agenda for quite some time, and thus far, it has usually worked out in favor of the company.
In 2015, Apple, PayPal, Yelp, Eli Lilly, the NCAA, and the NBA opposed the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would’ve protected the right of business owners to operate in accord with their religious values — such as, for example, declining to celebrate a same-sex wedding. Governor Mike Pence was quick to back down in his support for the bill after companies began to issue their implicit threats.
Then it was a so-called bathroom bill in North Carolina, which allowed businesses to create sex-specific restrooms or gender-neutral restrooms rather than permitting biological males into female-only spaces and vice versa. PayPal canceled plans to open a global operations center in North Carolina. The NBA pulled its All-Star Game out of the state in response to the law’s enactment and returned only after the law had been repealed. The NCAA did the same, issuing a temporary ban on hosting championship events in North Carolina until the law was gone.
In 2019, the outrage du jour was heartbeat bills, which protect unborn children from abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Dozens of major companies signed a public statement calling pro-life laws “bad for business.” In response to Georgia’s heartbeat law, major film companies including Netflix, WarnerMedia, and Disney announced that they’d cease doing business in the state if the law ever took effect. Thanks to Roe v. Wade, the law was blocked in court immediately, so these companies never had to make good on their threats.
Last summer, Major League Baseball moved its All-Star Game from Atlanta in opposition to a proposed voting-reform bill. Notably, the MLB moved the game to Colorado, which has voting laws at least as stringent as those proposed in Georgia. Empty virtue-signaling at its finest. Then, last fall, dozens of major companies took out a full-page New York Times ad attacking Texas for its Heartbeat Act. Ride-share companies Lyft and Uber pledged to pay the legal fees of any drivers prosecuted under the law, and Lyft pledged $1 million to Planned Parenthood.
These examples underscore two major themes: First, when companies threatened to pull out of a state, it often had the intended effect of stymying a policy that woke corporations disliked. Second, in states where companies would face a major loss if they left, they never threatened to do so, or they didn’t follow through on their threat. No major company, for instance, threatened to remove its headquarters from Texas in response to the heartbeat bill; in fact, the largest corporations based in the state said nary a word about it.
And then there’s Disney, which has spent the better part of the last two weeks engaged in a futile campaign to bully Ron DeSantis into opposing an eminently reasonable ban on teaching young children sexual content in the classroom. When DeSantis proved immune to social pressure, the tactic changed: Now, Disney executives are promising to inject sexualized content into their programming, depicting “transgender and gender-nonconforming” characters, as well as “queer leads.” The company apparently intends to erase references to “ladies and gentlemen” and “boys and girls” at Disney parks and resorts.
All this in response to a bill whose text is popular among American parents. For all its virtue-signaling, no one at Disney has mustered a coherent explanation of what exactly is so “harmful” and “immoral” about the bill, nor what is so essential about introducing children under the age of eight to controversial sexual topics. The best they’ve managed is to contend that the bill “erases” gender-nonconforming children, a ludicrous assertion palatable only to those already onboard the radical gender-ideology bandwagon.
If Disney were serious about opposing the law, it would have to leave Florida entirely, an unbelievably costly option. But the company’s executives have opened their mouths, and they can’t close them without making themselves out to be a bunch of liars. So now they must pacify angry employees by stuffing sexualized content into children’s programming, surely not a popular move even among parents who might generally sympathize with the left on some matters of sex and gender.
Unlike past virtue-signaling corporations, which have managed to exert social control without harming themselves, Disney has backed itself into a “solution” that requires it to operate contrary to its own business model, which is to create entertainment that everyone can enjoy — and enjoy without fearing that their kids are being ideologically indoctrinated. It’s safe to say that virtually no one in America wants their young children watching sexualized movies, let alone ones that introduce their children to controversial topics such as gender identity, same-sex relationships, and queerness.
Disney, in other words, is running up against the fact — yes, the fact — that people who think Florida is “erasing trans lives” are a powerful, loud, infinitesimal group of Americans — and Disney exists to please everyone, not to cater to minuscule cliques.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer for National Review and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.