LBGTQ audiences and artists helped save Disney

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Recently, Disney CEO Bob Chapek hesitated to take a firm stance against the Florida bill, now law restricting LGBTQ discussions in schools. This put Chapek in conflict with his predecessor, Bob Iger, who openly criticized the bill on parental rights in education on Twitter. In the face of public backlash, Chapek insisted on the company’s “unwavering commitment to the LGBTQ community.” But he refrained from officially condemning the legislation.

In response, many of the company’s employees staged a walkout, calling for a Disney boycott on behalf of LGBTQ’s visibility and rights. In doing so, they emphasized the important role queer communities have played in the company’s successes, including its sustained influence on popular culture and continued vitality as a company.

It was only after the bill that critics dubbed the bill “do not be gay”, passed on March 8, that Chapek apologized: “You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights, and I failed you. . ” It was this action that prompted the Florida Legislature to deprive Walt Disney World of its special tax district this week.

The company’s restraint ignores a long history of LGBTQ employees and audiences supporting, even rescuing, the company from veritable death.

For nearly two decades after the death of founder Walt Disney in 1966, the company struggled creatively. The quality of feature films declined, and as teens replaced the family audience, live-action films could not compete with the film audiences of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

Things were so serious that in 1984 financier and stakeholder Saul Steinberg attempted a hostile takeover of the company. The Disneyland theme park department had kept the company afloat, and its real estate assets and significant film library made it a desirable acquisition for Steinberg. Disney successfully withstood the acquisition frenzy, but at great cost.

To rebuild, a new management team came on board, led by Paramount’s Michael Eisner and Warner Bros.’s Frank Wells.

The earliest signs of Disney’s recovery after the arrival of Eisner and Wells in 1984 came from its adult-directed film company, Touchstone Pictures. And no star was a bigger goldmine for Touchstone in the 1980s than Bette Midler.

Funds appeared in the original 1964 Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof” and flourished in the 1970s as a performer in gay bathhouses, most notably Manhattan’s Continental Baths, before moving into film. Most notably, in 1979, she starred in Janis’ Joplin-inspired drama “The Rose,” a role that earned her a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. Throughout the 1980s, Touchstone Pictures skillfully leveraged Middle’s brave, dynamic personality – and loyal LGBT fans – across often campy live-action comedies, such as “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” “Ruthless People” and “Fragile fortune.” The Disney-owned company also used funds for dramas, such as “Beaches” and “Stella,” which did well in the box office thanks to the continued support of her LGBT fans.

In his efforts to revitalize Disney, Eisner, who had risen through the ranks as television director at ABC in the 1960s, also committed the company to network television. Walt Disney pioneered the medium with his anthology series “Disneyland,” in which he presented Disney animations along with behind-the-scenes previews of the amusement park he built in Anaheim. The show had gone off the air in the early 1980s, when the company focused on building its newest theme park in Florida, Epcot, with estimated costs of nearly $ 1 billion.

But Eisner, the former TV boss, was well aware that a hit sitcom could feed the company’s coffers in the years to come.

Disney’s first television triumph via its Touchstone Television division came in 1985 with “The Golden Girls”. Starring Betty White, Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty and Rue McClanahan, was a big hit. In fact, “The Golden Girls” was the only new hit sitcom of the fall television season of 1985, and it eventually defeated “Cheers” and “The Cosby Show” for the 1986 Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series.

LGBT viewership was the key to the success of “The Golden Girls,” and gay fans proved especially loyal to the show over time. According to White, gay bars regularly turned off the music and turned on the television when a new episode began. In addition, during its seven-year run, “The Golden Girls” has addressed several issues of importance to LGBTQ communities, including homophobia, same-sex marriage, and the HIV / AIDS crisis.

Disney also relied on LGBTQ communities to renew its animated films. Few creators were more central to Disney’s renewed life than Howard Ashman, a blatantly gay lyricist and director who the company recruited away from Broadway in 1986. In collaboration with composer Alan Menken, Ashman provided the new musical template for Disney animation and made “The Little One.” mermaid”. ,” “Beauty and the beast” and “Aladdin”, which all became Broadway musicals. With “I want” songs that expressed the wishes of the princess protagonists, and with huge showstoppers, Ashman brought theatrical know-how – and a good portion of camp – to Disney animated films.

In “The Little Mermaid”, Ashman and the animators honored the gay culture by drawing inspiration from a number of gay icons, including Divine, Bea Arthur and Joan Collins, to bring the brassy and voluptuous mermaid Ursula to life. Even today, Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” solo – an Ashman and Menken original – is a staple of drag artists around the world.

In 1990, shortly after winning an Oscar for best original song for the iconic tune “Under the Sea” from “The Little Mermaid”, Ashman revealed to Disney that he was HIV-positive. Jeffrey Katzenberg, then head of film and television at Disney, unequivocally supported Ashman, and the company paid to set up a production unit near Ashman’s home in Upstate New York so he could work while receiving treatments in New York City, instead of require him to fly back and forth to Burbank. Ashman died in March 1991, eight months before his last film, “Beauty and the Beast,” was released. Disney dedicated the film to his memory: “To our friend, Howard, who gave a mermaid his voice and a beast his soul, we will be eternally grateful.”

But that was not the only posthumous honor Ashman received. His partner, Bill Lauch, received Ashman’s Oscar for best original song for “Beauty and the Beast” at the Oscars in 1991. On stage, Lauch offered a powerful observation: “This is the first Oscar award given to someone we have lost to AIDS. ” But he went on to note that in working on the film, “Howard faced incredible personal challenges, but always gave his best, and what made it possible was an atmosphere of understanding, love and support.” At a time when people with HIV and AIDS were being viciously convicted and marginalized, Disney stepped up and supported their talent.

Ashman’s work continues to resonate today across Disney animated films, stage productions and theme parks. Recent Disney hits such as “Frozen”, “Moana” and “Encanto” demonstrate the lasting influence of Ashman-Menken’s musical theater’s storytelling.

At Disney, Ashman was not alone in his work representing queer perspectives. Albert Tavares, a casting director who had collaborated off-Broadway with Ashman in “Little Shop of Horrors,” also continued to thrive at Disney. He oversaw the casting of “The Little Mermaid”, “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” before dying of AIDS-related complications in 1992. Animator Andreas Deja oversaw animation for the characters of Gaston in “Beauty and the Beast,” Jafar in ” Aladdin “and Scar in” The Lion King “. Both scholars and fans have often noticed the camp value in these characters. As Sean Griffin notes in his landmark study of Disney and the gay community: “Fantasy often goes hand in hand with camp, one of the cornerstones of gay culture.”

In fact, queerness can be found throughout the Disney canon. While Disney promoted LeFou as its first “openly gay” character in the live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast” from 2017, audiences have read a number of Disney characters as queer for decades, either in their opposition to heterosexual romance , where their gender does not match. performances or their camp.

Behind the scenes, on screen and among the audience, members of the LGBTQ community have been instrumental in Walt Disney Co.’s continued success. In fact, the company as we know it today would be radically different without them.

Yet this year, Disney’s CEO avoided taking a firm stand in support of LGBTQ rights in an effort to protect his business in Florida and its working relationship with the state government. Thus, Disney turned its back on its LGBTQ staff and fans – and its own story. As Chapek plans Disney’s future, he would do well to return to its past to understand the invaluable contributions LGBTQ communities have made to the business he leads.

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