May 3, 2010 1:56 PM   Subscribe

Is Disney evil?

A little while ago, I made this throwaway comment on the blue:

Disney used to be all about making amazing animated movies and McDonald's was originally just a couple of brothers who wanted to make good burgers. Corporations always change for the evil. I trust the Google of today well enough, but not the Google fifty years from now, and ceding power to the former is ceding power to the latter.

The mentions of Disney and McDonald's were meant to be cheeky and hyperbolic and not meant to stand up to any real scrutiny. But looking back at the comment, I'm not sure why I mentioned Disney as an evil corporation. I guess I just threw it in there because it's a huge and powerful institution. Can any of its practices be held up as representative of the evils of corporate America? I'm looking for evidence one way or another. Does Disney do anything that is shady? Or is it squeaky clean?

I'm having trouble finding non-trivial pieces of evidence online. There's a wikipedia page on criticisms of Disney, but nothing strikes me as really all that important. Can these really be the worst criticisms of a corporation of that size?

I've read Disneywar, but that was mostly about the sleaziness of execs behind the scenes and mistakes they made in acquisitions. I don't remember anything pertaining to the corporation as a whole being villainous. I guess one could argue that their movies enforce values on children that they shouldn't (pertaining to gender roles, for instance), but I'm more interested in the practices of Disney qua corporation rather than the content of their products. Those probably can't be entirely disentangled though, so feel free to mention something along those lines if you feel it's appropriate.
posted by painquale to Society & Culture (32 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I dont think it makes sense to project human values onto corporations.
posted by H. Roark at 1:59 PM on May 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

This is kinda chatfiltery, and so will probably get deleted, but...

The biggest thing that Disney does that while it isn't "evil", it certainly is not "good". They do everything in their power to keep Mickey Mouse out of the public domain. The problem is that they end up making it essentially impossible for ANYTHING to ever enter the public domain, and that is a _BAD THING_.
posted by gregvr at 2:01 PM on May 3, 2010 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: OK, you can disregard the rhetorical flair of calling a corporation 'evil' if it makes it seem too chatty.

Does Disney engage in business practices that many people would frown on if were they aware of them?
posted by painquale at 2:03 PM on May 3, 2010

You would likely be interested in reading Team Rodent, the only non-fiction work I know of by Carl Hiaasen. It is a short, interesting read.
posted by stinker at 2:05 PM on May 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Really? I think it makes a lot of sense to project human values onto corporations. We're humans. Corporations are made up of humans, have their decicisions made by humans, and depend on doing business with humans.

I think what's so evil about Disney is the dumbed-down worldview that's contained in their products, where there's Good and there's Bad and that's about it.
posted by dunkadunc at 2:06 PM on May 3, 2010

There is tons of evidence online that show, when it comes to the treatment of their workforce - both in their parks and resorts and in the production of their consumer goods - that Disney is, in fact, evil.
posted by RajahKing at 2:09 PM on May 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

I dont think it makes sense to project human values onto corporations.

Research shows that (almost) everybody projects human values onto corporations and brands. It's also why said corporations spend millions on branding and corporate identities.
posted by NekulturnY at 2:09 PM on May 3, 2010

Naomi Klein explores some of Disney's branding practices in "No Logo."
posted by the foreground at 2:10 PM on May 3, 2010

The simple answer is, of course they do. Corporations are out to make money and sometimes that's at odd with what other people value. Many people are disgusted by Disney providing health care to same-sex domestic partners and spouses. As mentioned before, Disney champions extended copyrights to protect things that long since would have gone into the public domain.

But they're hardly evil.
posted by inturnaround at 2:11 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I used to work for Disney Consumer Products as a contractor, very very low level, but even there I could see a commitment to making sure their kazillion branded products were manufactured ethically (i.e. no child labor, safe factories), even in overseas places that are usually hard to patrol.

So there's that bit of good news, at least.

(This was before the recent "Princess and the Frog" cadmium necklace issue, though, but that seems like the exception, not the rule.)
posted by Asparagirl at 2:12 PM on May 3, 2010

Disney markets to directly to children. Via TV channels they own, print magazines they publish, internet sites and games, radio stations, etc,etc. A massive conglomerate pushing its message (what to watch, what to listen to, what to buy) at kids to support its bottom line.

That qualifies as evil to me, but I have issues with capitalism and using propaganda on kids so I may be an outlier.
posted by anti social order at 2:12 PM on May 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

They've gained some infamy for sending cease and desist orders to organizations like daycare centers and hospitals with unlicensed murals of Disney characters.
posted by phoenixy at 2:22 PM on May 3, 2010

Like any company, Disney has had it's ups and downs. It's a huge company with many different ventures. Just today I read a news article about new research that was conducted on elephants at Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park about elephant behavior; the results of this study looks like it will save lives of humans and elephants in Africa and Asia.

After the release of Princess and the Frog, Disney sponsored a large exhibition of artwork at the New Orleans Museum of Art- and they paid for buses and admission for over 12,000 local school kids to go see the art and learn about the history of animation.

Just two of many non-evil examples in the last 6 months...

It's a big company, and often easy to criticize, but Disney does do a lot of really great things. It's capitalistic motives are no different than any other large company.
posted by mintymike at 2:24 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Disney was one of the biggest proponents of the Copyright Term Extension Act. Some might characterize that as "evil."

Disneyland had a spate of well-publicized fatal accidents shortly after undertaking several cost-cutting measures with regard to ride maintenance and worker training.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:29 PM on May 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

Not really an evil practice per se, but as a children's librarian, the Disney Vault kind of makes my life a living hell at times. Disney DVDs are among the most popular, expensive, and frequently lost/replaced items available at the library. I spend beau-coup $$ on multiple copies of each Vault release, only to be caught out a few years later when the last of those multiple copies is scratched beyond watching and I can't get another for love nor money.

I curse their name regularly.
posted by Knicke at 2:40 PM on May 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Certainly South Park accuses Disney of some pretty dark doings. "South Park Jonas Brothers" on YouTube will get you some examples. Not endorsing, just sharing.

Oddly, enough, it could be argued that Disney has done in the opposite direction. By some reports, Walter Elias Disney was a right bastard who underpaid and under-credited his employees, busted unions, and was chummy with the House Un-American Activities Committee. The Straight Dope talks about some of the accusations against Disney.

A case could be made that instead being a bunch of cartoon-loving pals that transformed into an evil corporation, Disney was a jerk's sweatshop that turned into a reasonably decent corporate citizen. I'm not going to make the case either way, but I thought I'd drop in the information.
posted by lore at 2:40 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's the story of them squishing the reprinting of Mickey Mouse newspaper strips that had fallen into the public domain (they fell back out of it after the 1998 Copyright Extension act that Disney lobbied for) on trademark infringement grounds.

I'm willing to bet that before 2023 when the first appearances of the Mouse would fall back into the public domain again, Disney lobbyists will be insisting that 95 years of copyright isn't possibly enough. But this is, as yet, hypothetical evil.
posted by Zed at 2:46 PM on May 3, 2010

Mod note: few comments removed - can we skip the "evil" aspect and just try to answer the OPs follow-up please?
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:48 PM on May 3, 2010

Well, they aggressively protect their copyrights. while this is certainly "frowned on" by the Doctorow and "artists should starve" brigades online, I don't think the general public considers this wrong or immoral.

They do, I think, make some of their products in sweatshops.

As an employer, I can personally testify they are one of the classier big corporations out there. When they have to do layoffs, they often do "voluntary layoff" packages that are so generous people eagerly accept them.*

As mentioned above, they are notably progressive and gay-friendly in their hiring practices and the types of events they host at their parks.

*this is speaking about working at a corporate office, not a theme park.

posted by drjimmy11 at 3:02 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

IMO, if corporations in America do not deserve to be thought of in terms of projected human values, then they ought not qualify as individuals under US law. But they are, and thus we--at least in the US, can project human values onto the actions of these "individuals."

I will accept that the corporation as a whole is complex and is capable of doing great good and great evil. Some posters up thread have mentioned some of the good and some of the evil. To me, another spot on the evil side of the ledger surrounded the founding of Celebration, FL, which once was Disney owned. (I have looked for some links to the controversies that surrounded the "birth" of this Disney baby, but the surface web seems to have been scrubbed, and I am at work, so deep web is not possible). Disney has largely divested itself of Celebration, even if it still seems a company town, but iirc, Disney Corp tried to recreate the halcyon days of America circa 1955, without any of those troubling racial, sexual orientation, or gender issues that have so sullied America once the genie got out of the bottle.
posted by beelzbubba at 3:38 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Perhaps I should point out that in the book I referenced above, Hiassen's big beef with Disney is not the advertising to kids or copyright protections or making products in sweatshops. The destruction that Disney has wreaked on Florida's ecosystem has been monumental. Disneyland (IIRC) is its own municipality, which allows them to skirt environmental protections and saves them from having to pay taxes on schools and the like. I believe he takes on Celebration, as well.

My problem with Disney, as a mom, is that my daughter is captured by images of women with waists smaller than their necks. I actually have a rule that waist-to-neck ratios for dolls in our house must be >1.
posted by stinker at 3:40 PM on May 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

er, 'captivated by images'...
posted by stinker at 3:41 PM on May 3, 2010

If you enjoy Hiaasen's book, you might also enjoy Richard Shickel's The Disney Version (and maybe the two books about Celebration, FL).
posted by box at 6:41 PM on May 3, 2010

I know this is self linking, but I do write about Disney on my blog, so it can't be helped. I just reviewed 'Project Future" a book that digs into the creation of Walt Disney World including the secrecy and special laws that surrounded it.

While stinker is technically correct in that the law does allow Disney to skirt certain regulations, the same law actually gives them reason to go out of their way to be good actors in Central Florida. For instance, they've set aside 10,000 acres at the headwaters of the Everglades to protect the water source and the wildlife that depends on it. The Florida legislature can always change the law if Disney misbehaves.

As for the original query, I believe that Disney is, for the most part, acting in its own best interests. Sometimes this requires it to be 'good', like its work at Disney's Animal Kingdom, or 'evil', like its rumored sweatshop factories (see Haiti and China). Stuff like copyright and trademark enforcement is more of a gray area. I fall into the Doctorow camp that Disney is actually hurting itself by pursuing stronger copyright protections for its IP.
posted by IndigoSkye at 7:20 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't know if any of this has already been linked, but everything I know about Disney being evil I learned from this page . Either way it's kind of an entertaining read.
posted by buzzkillington at 7:30 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Might I suggest researching "Disneyfication".
posted by AlliKat75 at 8:19 PM on May 3, 2010

There is tons of evidence online that show, when it comes to the treatment of their workforce - both in their parks and resorts

Having lived down south, I had a number of college friends working at Disney who all said they were treated professionally and, in turn, were expected to treat the customers with respect. If anything, people who worked there tended to have a somewhat fanatical devotion of the company and spoke highly of it.
posted by jmd82 at 8:26 PM on May 3, 2010

You might be interested in the book Vinyl Leaves; Walt Disney World and America — it's a pretty evenhanded overview of Disney World, including some less-than-scrupulous practices involved in acquiring the land and building the park.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 9:33 PM on May 3, 2010

Does Disney engage in business practices that many people would frown on if were they aware of them?

Disney Nature does, here in Kenya (and probably everywhere else they film in Africa, for that matter).

One of the benefits of living here that I sometimes take time to enjoy - usually when friends or family are visiting, is going on safari in some of the wonderful game parks here. While I've not seen Disney Nature filming in any of the parks other than Masai Mara, I have seen them there on multiple occasions, and every time, it is the same thing.

They operate with 2 trucks, rather than one. The first one is the film crew, and they communicate by radio with the second one, which is the director. I don't know who this guy is, but he is a dirty mother effer, because he always has a park ranger in the vehicle with him and its clear he has bribed them to do all kinds of stuff that's clearly against park rules - you often see them driving way off road, disturbing animals that clearly don't want to be near the road, trying to get good shots.

What's worse, he uses the ranger to legislate the activities of other park-goers. I lost a full morning of game-drive arguing with the paid-off ranger in the director's vehicle over the fact that I clearly was not "off-road" like they were claiming I was, when in fact I was just in the camera shot that they were trying to get of some cheetah. When it became clear to them that if they were going to take me to the park gate to fine me, I was going to take pictures of where my vehicle was situated, and where they were situated, and that I wanted to speak to the warden to show him, they finally left me alone.

Naturally, their websites offer no medium for corporate feedback - further evidence to me that they are not interested in hearing about the unscrupulous activities of their staff in the interest of serving the needs of the corporation.

(As a matter of measurement: I've seen film crews from plenty of other organizations - BBC, Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, etc. - all operating respectfully of the nature they are filming and other park guests. Disney seems to be the only one who thinks taking advantage of their size and money to damage the local environment and promote corrupt activities is all in a day's work.)
posted by allkindsoftime at 12:39 AM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

They make money making sure no one does to them what they did to Buster Keaton, The Brothers Grimm, and Aesop.
posted by at at 12:18 AM on May 5, 2010

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