“The Fifth Key is Capitalism”

Disney announced a change that affected “The Disney Look,” and the reactions have been everything I expected and lots more that I should’ve expected

This week Disney announced a renewed focus on “inclusion” in its company goals. Along with that came a change to “The Disney Look” that would support a wider range of hair styles, tattoos, traditional head coverings, and jewelry. It also doesn’t impose restrictions based on gender, like make-up, nail polish, and earrings for male cast members.

As you’d expect, there are tons of crotchety responses from people who are horrified on behalf of Walt Disney himself, and whose vacations will be absolutely ruined if the 23-year-old man wearing lederhosen in Anaheim in 99 degree heat wishing you a magical day in Fantasyland also happens to be wearing nail polish.

An awful lot of Disney “fans” simply aren’t happy unless they’re complaining about how much better things used to be. I will never forget being on a message board and reading a thread about a change in smoking areas, and one earnest fan’s post lamenting how upset Walt Disney would be to see people smoking in Disneyland.1When multiple people pointed out to her that Mr Disney was a heavy smoker and in fact died of illnesses related to lung cancer, she replied that that’s all the more reason he’d be anti-smoking in the 21st century.

But most people seem to get it, and recognize that it’s a good thing. The standards were a little hypocritical from the start, introduced by a mustachioed gentlemen in the 1950s trying to keep his carrousel, Monsanto advertisements, and Indian-killing fantasies from being associated with unsavory carnival types. I agree with most of Robert Niles’s take on Theme Park Insider. The “Disney Look” has always been most hospitable to middle-class white people working to make middle-class white people feel safe and comfortable.

You can tell how overdue the changes are when you hear people struggling to make half-assed complaints about it. There were some feeble arguments about “show” which mercifully dissolved before anyone had to make the claim that polyester theme park costumes were intended to be historically accurate. Most of the complaints I’ve seen have been about “tradition” and “children” and “family-friendliness,” all the not-quite-code words that jackasses use to describe things that aren’t white, Christian, and heterosexual.

What’s surprised me, though, is how even the people who “get it” have been quick to reduce Disney’s announcements to nothing more than a commercial or financial decision. The real reason they’re pushing inclusion, they say, is because they quickly have to hire back a ton of people after laying off tens of thousands during the pandemic. They can’t meet hiring demands unless they loosen their standards!

Which is a disappointing take for a few reasons. First, a lot of the people who’ve been furloughed or laid off by Disney are still unemployed and looking for work, so the company’s not having to refill all those positions from scratch. Second, even describing it as “relaxing” or “loosening” standards hints at the outdated prejudices that caused the problem in the first place — anything other than a standard that’s easiest and most comfortable for straight, white people to meet is seen as “lesser.” Lazier, less professional, less refined, less trustworthy.

Third, I think it’s silly to believe that there’s a single real reason that a company as huge as Disney does anything. Of course you shouldn’t take corporate PR statements as if they were 100% truth, even from companies that aren’t as fantasy-oriented as Disney is. But the opposite, Bernie Sanders-plus-Max Headroom All Corporations Are Bastards take isn’t any more accurate. Any organization large enough to have “ideation sessions spanning multiple time zones” is going to have quite a lot going on. I can all but guarantee that there are plenty of people in management positions who strongly believe in the importance of diversity and inclusion, just as I can guarantee that there are people who are eager for a cover-your-ass PR statement to make up for bad decisions while dealing with a big financial hit.

The way I see it: a lot of people who were laid off are going to get hired back into better jobs. Obviously, it’d be better if they were getting competitive salaries in addition to compliments on their cool tattoos. But I’m hopeful that treating people fairly in this smaller way will gradually turn into more fairness in all respects, including pay.

One thing this discussion made me realize is that one of my own key assumptions about Disney has been wrong for years. I’ve always thought that Disney had a conservative fan base. This is incorrect. Disney has a huge fan base. This means that the conservative part of the fan base raises a big stink whenever there’s any change that makes them feel threatened and suspect that a multi-billion dollar global conglomerate doesn’t exist solely to make them happy. And the liberal part of the fan base tends to shrug off changes without much noise, as long as everyone seems to be treated fairly.

It’s kind of obvious, in retrospect, but I’m so used to thinking of Disney as being risk-averse and conservative that it’s limited my expectations of what the company’s capable of. And more significantly, I’ve associated “gigantic company with thousands of stakeholders”-flavor conservative with “sparking bullshit culture wars to further a fascist, morally bankrupt agenda”-flavor conservative. Simply put: a company as huge as Disney would not be able to stay in business catering solely to the just-barely-veiled racists and homophobes who love to assert that they’re the company’s target audience.

There’s this bizarre, pernicious idea that it’s somehow “risky” for Disney to make moves that increase diversity in their workforce and promote inclusion among their audience. But that’s nonsense; it would be a far bigger risk for them not to.

I’m reminded of how I saw this play out on a much smaller scale when I was working for Disney. I was always a contractor instead of a full-time employee, so I never had a cast member badge, and I was never subject to “The Disney Look.” Which was a good thing, since if I’d had to walk around in 99% humidity wearing the pressed khaki pants and polo shirts that most of the operations and Imagineering people wore, I would’ve been a soggy, miserable, mess, incoherent from perpetual heat stroke.

So I was more comfortable physically, but I still spent the entire time feeling like I wasn’t supposed to be there. I was some chubby, bearded, shorts-and-Hawaiian-shirt wearing slob who would occasionally appear to guests like a Bigfoot sighting from the Hollywood Studios backstage tour or the Magic Kingdom train. Even though I wasn’t subject to any explicit dress code, I still took out my earrings before flying down to Orlando, out of some sense that wearing them would be “bad show.”

Most of the Florida-based employees that I met down there were white men in their late 20s to early 40s, and most wore the same non-uniform uniform of the aforementioned khaki slacks and polo shirts. One of the guys — and I can’t remember his name or even what division he worked for — always seemed to wear a single, simple, stud earring. It stood out to me, because even at a company where Joe Rhode was on the exec staff, such a small thing still seemed like a quiet but rebellious act of individualism.

It must’ve stood out to the others, as well, since one day I happened on a conversation where someone asked him about it. He said he was taking his daughter to get her ears pierced, and she was a little scared of it. To show her that it wasn’t that bad, he got his pierced first. Which is such a pure and simple example of the values that Disney is supposed to be about, that I was a little surprised that fireworks didn’t go off right after he said it.

I got my own ears pierced for nowhere near as heartwarming or noble reasons; I mostly just thought it would look cool. But there’s a little bit more to it than that. Every time I wore one in high school or college, I’d take it out within a day, because I didn’t want anyone to think I was gay. After I came out, I started wearing them again, and got a few more, to remind myself not to care so much about what people thought.

On subsequent projects when I went to work at Disney World, I embraced my gay Yeti child-of-the-80s identity in full — or in other words, I looked like just about any other chubby white bearded guy at a theme park. I think it’s time we all acknowledge that the one who looks weird and out of place in 2021 isn’t the man wearing hoop earrings and nail polish in the Haunted Mansion,2As my friend Kevin said on Twitter, “Dylan looks GOTH AS HELL. That look totally fits in with HM” it’s actually the man wearing business casual outdoors in Central Florida in July.

Or in other words: go for it, Dylan, live your truth! We’re all finally behin— yes, Jamie, we can all see your flower tattoo and it’s very nice, but for the last time, this isn’t about you.