Disney is known for their squeaky clean, family-friendliness. There are parents throughout American who trust Disney with protecting their children from anything obscene or inappropriate, to the point of allowing their children to watch only Disney films exclusively. It’s this image that Disney wants to preserve, and in doing so fired James Gunn for a series of jokes that were, admittedly, off-color, black humor that wasn’t appropriate for public consumption. But when we look closer at Disney’s not-so-distant past, the company and the man it’s named for aren’t so squeaky-clean either. As fans, family, and friends clamor for Gunn to be given a second chance we look back on Disney’s own sordid past. How many chances has The House of Mouse been given?
Walt Disney himself was no saint, as much as his company would like to paint him as the creative mastermind behind their successes. Walt Disney himself enacted policies that were discriminatory and unfair. Walt’s greed lead him to underpay his animators, giving them random and arbitrary raises that kept employees guesses as to why or how these raises were obtained. This went on through the early years of the company until finally, the animators decided to strike. After weeks of the strike, picketing, and pressure put on Walt, he finally relented and agreed to pay employees fairly. Though afterward, Walt made anyone involved with the strike miserable until he eventually fired them or they left of their own accord. His terribly business practices lead to animators striking out on their own and changed things for the better, but the success of that lands on the shoulders of the organized employees, not Disney himself. Before the strike, Disney illegally fired any artists who joined a union and believed the strike itself to be the work of communists.
Walt Disney also refused to let women work in the creative side of the company. A letter on Snow White stationary passed around on the internet, has been verified as the genuine article, explaining to a female hopeful that creative positions in the company only go to ‘young men’, while women are given jobs in tracing and inking. The letter goes so far as to discourage her from applying, saying that so many women apply that she’s not likely to be selected anyway. While many things can be chalked up to being a product of their times, this letter is sorely behind even for the time it was written.
Walt Disney was rumored to be racist and antisemitic. While most of these claims can be derived from subject in Disney’s early film work, such as a stereotyping black centaur servant in Fantasia, the crows from Dumbo, the film Song of the South, and 1932’s Three Little Pigs, the biggest evidence lies with Walt’s association with antisemitic groups and Nazi propagandists Leni Riefenstahl.
Disney’s involvement with the Motion Picture Alliance and their anti-communist and antisemitic views and his support of the group bring to question his level of bigotry. While it could be said that Disney’s obsession with communists was his main attraction to the Alliance, he also hosted Leni Riefenstahl, giving the Nazi propagandist filmmaker a tour of the studio. Riefenstahl reportedly said of Disney, it was “gratifying to learn how thoroughly proper Americans distance themselves from the smear campaigns of the Jews.”
Disney made cartoons that made light of life in Nazi Germany. While labeled an anti-Nazi film, the Donald Duck cartoon named Der Fuehrer’s Face, dumbs down the Nazi party, turning them into silly characters for children’s amusement. The cartoon ends with Donald awaking from his Nazi dream, dressed in star-spangled pajamas and kissing a small, golden replica of the statue of liberty, which can also be been seen as mocking over-zealous American patriotism and drawing parallels to America and Nazi Germany.
But Disney’s faults don’t end with the man. The company has had its own fair share of controversy in recent years. In 2016 a 2-year-old boy died at Disney World after an alligator attack. Disney acted shocked about the incident, but reports show they knew the issue was getting out of hand. As of 2016, Disney had removed 240 alligators from their properties over a 10-year period, with 83 of them removed the year the boy was attacked. Washington Post reported that 6 alligators were removed within days of the attack. Another 5 were removed after the boys’ remains were found. Disney put up signs and tried to play it off as a random incident when they should’ve been taking stronger measures well beforehand. But acting shocked, erecting more signs, and issuing a statement of ‘remorse’ keeps the appearance of their family-friendly image. The parents chalked it up to an accident and declined to pursue legal action against Disney, wanting to move on with their lives.
Song of the South is a 1940s film depiction of African American plantation workers. While never explicitly calling them slaves, the film takes a very derogatory view of African Americans, their speech designed to make them look less intelligent, and well as showing them pleased with their lives, working in servitude to white folk. The wolf in 1932’s Three Little Pigs imitates Jewish stereotypes. The murder of crows from 1941’s Dumbo and the centaur Sunflower from early versions of 1940’s Fantasia also perpetuate awful, exaggerated stereotypes of people of African descent, with Sunflower actually acting as a servant to white half-horse centaurs, while Sunflower is depicted as an exaggerated black half-donkey centaur. Even his own grandniece has spoken out about her granduncle’s past, in 2014 after Meryl Streep made a speech about Walt, Abigail Disney took to Facebook to agree. “Anti-Semite? Check. Misogynist? OF COURSE!! Racist? C’mon he made a film (Jungle Book) about how you should stay ‘with your own kind’ at the height of the fight over segregation! As if the ‘King of the Jungle’ number wasn’t proof enough!! How much more information do you need?” Song of the South has been locked away in the Disney vault, never to be seen again. But are we to give Disney a free pass on it? Sure, it was a long time ago, maybe they’re a different company now, but if we use the same logic for Disney that Disney did for James Gunn, then the company has some dues to pay.
All of this and more can be found with a few quick Google searches. It’s not really a secret as much as it is something we as a society choose to overlook because his films made us and our kids feel good. Disney, the man, and the company have been given chance after chance to clean up their act, change the way they think and grow and evolve to fit the times. But James Gunn makes some inappropriate jokes years ago, stops making jokes like that, apologizes forever being that person, and he’s still ostracized and cut off from the company.
James Gunn used to have a shitty sense of humor. You could blame the abuse he suffered as a kid. The drug and alcohol abuse he eventually overcame, but let’s be fair, that kind of thing does ever really “go away” completely, even after being sober for years and years. Or a painful childhood with an alcoholic father and thoughts of suicide as a kid. But none of that really excuses the level of ‘bad’ his tweets were. The fact remains, they were terrible and shouldn’t have happened. Gunn admits this. He’s worked for the better part of a decade to not only actively NOT be that kind of person, but to be more outspoken against that kind of person. Maybe six or seven years ago Gunn might have deserved being fired for making those tweets. But years later, after working so hard to better himself and make the world a little better, in turn, he hardly deserves the punishment today. Disney’s own past shows that not everyone, even the squeaky-clean family-friendly company that graces nearly every home and TV in America, is truly innocent. If we continue to give Disney a pass on their awful behavior, which we’re likely to see more of as we go on and discover other little ways the company is doing wrong, if we continue to turn a blind eye to Disney, it makes us all who condemn James Gunn the worst kind of hypocrites.
Was a Disney sin that wasn’t brought to light in this list? Do you feel James still deserves punishment even though Disney hasn’t received any? Let us know in the comments below or hit us up on Facebook and Twitter.