Saturday, October 24, 2015

Disney the non-saint

In a teaser interview for her new documentary, The Armor of Light, Abigail Disney was asked about remarks she made about her great-uncle Walt that characterized him as mysogynistic and racist. While sorry she had antagonized at least some of her family, she added:
I don’t know why he needs to be seen as a saint. It’s important that heroes have their feet of clay. That makes them human, and that’s where all the learning is.

Disney's public image has been zealously guarded and massaged over the years by his studio, but enough has slipped through the cracks that we know he shared the attitudes of many in his generation. He meant well, I'm sure, but he really did think he, the white male father figure, knew best. When challenged, he could respond badly. The infamous 1941 studio strike stoked hard feelings toward the strikers that he never lost. He went so far as to testify before the House UnAmerican Affairs Committee in 1947, naming key strikers as likely Communists.

You might be able to excuse whatever racism and sexism he exhibited as a byproduct of his upbringing. Portraying his (by now, former) employees as Communists, though, was vindictive and cruel in the paranoid atmosphere of the time. He tarred them as anti-American when the country was in a mood to execute anybody who looked to be a threat to national security (to use the current phrase). This went beyond Dad disowning the rebellious, disloyal children. He was trying to destroy people's lives.

Disney was human, very much so. That he made lots of children laugh during his lifetime doesn't excuse how he sometimes treated those nearest to him.

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