perfectamerican perfectamerican

The Walt Disney Image Problem

Last weekend, The Guardian published a long-ish piece on Philip Glass’s soon-to-debut opera The Perfect American based on the novel of the same name by Peter Stephan Jungk. The book (and it appears the opera, too) is a veritable checklist of accusations that have been leveled against Walt Disney throughout the years: he was a McCarthyite, a racist, a misogynist, an anti-Semite, a megalomaniac. It manages to come up with new fictional flaws too, like philandering and incestuous obsession with his daughters.

Jungk’s book has been described by Walt Disney biographer Michael Barrier as “infantile” and “wretched.” That is perhaps why the Guardian reported that the Disney company called Glass to ask him not to work on the opera. The article also says that the finished opera was submitted to the Disney Studios for consideration, and there was no response. Jungk, the author of the book, said that he interpreted the company’s lack of response as “a green light.”

Glass says that despite all the negative (and untrue) traits the opera attaches to Walt, his intentions were noble:

“When I started out, people thought I was going to laugh at him. But I see Walt Disney as an icon of modernity, a man able to build bridges between highbrow culture and popular culture; just like Leonard Bernstein, who could jump from a Broadway musical to a Mahler cycle.”

To me, the opera is representative of a bigger problem faced by the Disney company, and that is that the company has been unable to present an alternative narrative to the perpetual vilification of Walt Disney in contemporary pop culture. The lack of honest and easy-to-access information about Walt is precisely why a majority of teens and twenty-somethings today have a wildly distorted and inaccurate view of Walt Disney, the man.

The Disney company could do much more to humanize the founder of their company. Instead the company has taken the tactical approach that its founder must be deified. In response, they build statues of Walt using every conceivable material that is known to mankind, from bronze to Tom Hanks.

These statues end up being as one-dimensional and untrue as the negative portrayals. Today’s generation is too savvy to accept an image of Walt Disney as an irreproachable god-like entity, and so they seek their truth elsewhere. It is through this cycle that the Disney company continues to lose control over its founder’s image.

Disney animator and director Ward Kimball, the subject of my own as-yet-unpublished biography, rebelled in his own idiosyncratic fashion against the Disney company’s deification of Walt, which he felt diminished the man’s accomplishments and tainted his legacy. Ward never censored himself when he was asked to speak about Walt Disney at public functions. He made sure to incorporate stories about honest human interactions with Walt, of which he had more of than almost any other artist who worked at the company. In Ward’s stories, Walt may have used a cuss word and he may have just walked out of the bathroom after taking a shit, but he was a human being who people could recognize, understand, and most importantly, admire.

The Disney family-operated Walt Disney Family Museum, in its own way, does a great job of humanizing the founder of the company. However, the museum is not a panacea for Walt’s image problem because its impact is limited to tourists and Disney fans. It cannot combat the steady stream of misinformation about Walt from mainstream cultural sources like Family Guy and Saturday Night Live.

The Disney company itself, with its vast media reach, is in the best position to rehabilitate the image of its founder and offer a counterimage to the flood of negative portrayals of its founder. A good first step would be to acknowledge the fact that Walt Disney wasn’t a god, but a human being.

  • Mike Kenny

    You’re absolutely right about younger generations having a wildly distorted image of Walt Disney. Whenever I am in a conversation about Walt, people always throw out the usual negative myths they’ve heard around the campfire. It just gets to be laughable that people hear something and immediately start preaching it like fact before they do any real research on their own account.

    I’ve always admired Walt for exactly the reasons you state above, he had visions and created so much wonder in his lifetime but at the end of the day he really was a human. A devoted husband, a loving father and overall a genuine guy that managed to inspire so many people to follow his lead into so many wonderfully animated films and beyond. The Disney company certainly needs to make a bigger effort in humanizing their founder for this generation as well as many more to come. It still makes me wish that that beautiful artwork of a proposed Disney biopic starring Ryan Gosling were true.

    • Geoff

      Movie, yes. But not starring Gosling. He’s just too bland.

      • Drew

        Ryan Gosling is an oscar nominated actor that is starring in some of the most amazing movies coming up “Only God Forgives” & The Place Beyond the pines. the man acted his butt off in Blue Valentine and Half Nelson. He is a great actor

  • wever

    If the book portrays made up accusations about Walt as well as established ones, why would so many people allow it to be made into a play at all?

    • Mapache

      Because we all like to demistify positive icons icons and redeem negative icons.

      Nowadays media is obsessed with anti-heroes and anti villains. It’s apparently easier for people to identify with them. There is no sutch thing as a moral high ground for people nowdays. We’re more open about our flaws; And expect everyone else to be as well.

  • The thing the Disney company seems to ignore or not understand is that our society has a cynical streak to it that wants to see the successful and rich brought down in some way. When someone reaches a level of fame and accomplishment people will start to turn on them, looking for weaknesses to exploit and hammer or hoping for some public crash and burn.

    It doesn’t always have to be a complete fall from grace like Mel Gibson or Lindsay Lohan, but people want to see every great artist make a dud, every great athlete choke at the pivotal moment, just to establish that they’re human like us.

    As long as the choice of how to perceive Walt Disney is between the ‘Saint Walt’ icon the company tries to put forth and the ‘Anti-Semite who had himself frozen’ creep pop culture has created, people will gravitate to the latter idea just because a flawed person is more realistic than what the Disney company has tried to create.

    People today don’t want heroes as mythical figures, we can handle the warts and the wrinkles. And it’s entirely in the Disney company’s hands to steer the image of Walt to something respectable, admirable and yet also human enough that people today, people like myself who were born well after Walt died, don’t reject it as phony or contrived.

    • James

      Am I the only one that finds it odd that so many find it more believable for someone to have been secretly and successfully cryogenically frozen that for someone to be a saint? Certainly not suggesting Walt can possibly be categorized in either area, but why does the “frozen” thing stick so much as something that is realistically possible?

      Where are the rumors that Walt had himself clones as seven identical dwarves? Or had his brain preserved alive and shot into space? Or had his own thoughts programmed into one of the animatronics at Disneyland as part of a plan for global domination? Or built himself a time machine out of spare props from 20,000 leagues under the sea and made himself future emperor?

      • Hulk

        Any of those premises would make a great movie! An Animatronic Walt Disney, who has the real Walt’s soul and unfrozen brain inside him, walking around the modern world he’s been away from for 40 plus years, while trying to restore his reputation- is a movie I would totally watch!

        Other than that, well said Amid. I totally agree.

        • Steve C.

          I do as well.

  • Gobo

    Making a tentpole feature starring Tom Hanks as an enterprising and charming Walt isn’t providing a narrative?

    You’ve even got pictures from the film here in this article, but you seem to dance around the existence of it in order to chide the Disney company a lot.

    • Hank

      Except it’s not a film about Walt. It’s 90% about P.L. Travers–based on a biography of her. The screenplay is fun– but it’s a small art house film…NOT a “tent pole” movie and it’s not being made by the Walt Disney company–although they are distributing it in North America. Banks is in it very mi it. It’s mostly Emma Thompson!

  • Shazbot

    I wish some talk-show host or interviewer would confront people like McFarlane and the craven twit who wrote that play about the lies and slander they manufacture about Walt. I’d love to hear how they defend themselves. Especially McFarlane, who’s built a fat fortune thanks to a medium Walt helped pioneer and build into an artistic and profitable juggernaut. He really ought to be ashamed of himself, that is, if he had any shame.

    • Hey Now

      @ Shazbot: Perhaps this interviewer you speak of could also dictate who is worthy of ridicule and who is not.

  • ShouldBeWorkin’

    I really believe the vilification of Walt Disney the man from different sources is a reaction to the company presenting and protecting his image to the other extreme as if he was perfect.
    Thinking people don’t buy that any human is perfect.
    By not admitting to a humanized Walt it sort of leaves they door open to caricature him in extreme opposite of his P.R. picture. Owning up to his frailties would divert some the energy towards others painting whatever picture they want of the man.

  • Mac

    Everyone compares Walt Disney and Steve Jobs, and thats a nice contrast in this case. Everyone is into the idea the latter was an abrasive hippie doing LSD, saying one thing and doing another, all in pursuit of his mission. A rock star entrepreneur, inspired, charismatic, passionate, insane, can inspire people.

  • Mapache

    Give us some credit. Not everyone wants to break paradigms and be cynical about it.

    Maybe, it’s easier for us young people to believe in some very messed up artist than in someone with no flaws at all.

  • I’m not sure why the Disney Company seems unable or unwilling to contradict these accusations. There are still plenty of people around today who knew and worked with Walt Disney. Myself included.

  • NAveryW

    I’m not entirely convinced Disney wasn’t an anti-semite; according to my grandfather, my great-grandfather, who applied to work at Disney, said he was rejected because he was Jewish, but I only got that information third-hand and wouldn’t take it as hard evidence. It’s possible he felt he wasn’t hired because he was Jewish when it was actually for some other reason, but unless my grandfather made up the whole thing, it means Disney was at least accused of anti-semitism while he was still alive.

    I know for certain the “Secret Lives” documentary on Walt that interviewed people who went into all the scandalous elements that may or may not be true, but I’m certain it included archive footage of Walt testifying that he believed his employees who went on strike against him were communists.

    • Paul N

      Walt was named Man of the Year by the Beverly Hills chapter of B’nai B’rith in 1955. Hardly an award that the organization would give to an anti-semite.

    • Shazbot

      And yet, Walt hired animators and other artisans who were Jewish, including the Sherman Brothers, composers of the some of Disney’s most memorable music, who claimed that Walt once fired a lawyer for calling them “those Jew boys”. Walt also had other Jewish friends, donated to Jewish charities, and was once named B’nai Brith’s “Man of the Year”. In light of all that, I think your evidence is pretty shaky, and, as you admitted, third-hand at best…and spreading such stuff is how slanderous rumors get started.

      • NAveryW

        Yeah, I wouldn’t want anyone to take my comment as evidence of anti-semitism, especially since it’s just a random internet comment to anyone reading it; I’m merely pointing out my personal experience with the allegation.

        The McCarthyism thing seems a bit more solid, though. I’ll try to find the documentary again to make sure I’m remembering the relevant parts properly. It’s possible the archival footage is less damning on its own without context the documentary provided on its own; that’s not the way I remember it, but my memory isn’t infallible.

    • Mike Barnes

      Maybe great grandpa just wasn’t good enough.

  • Mike Caracappa

    We need to take into account the time in history, the 60’s, when these bad rumors about Walt started. “Uncle Walt” wasn’t the image of someone people wanted to glorify when an entire cultural revolution was taking place. It’s not a matter of the rumors against Walt being true or not. People wanted to dethrone his image which represented something no longer relevant in a changing society. Bad rumors were started by one person somewhere in the 60’s, but so many millions of people clung to those rumors because they didn’t want Walt representing them as Americans, and they wanted his image to go away when an important change was taking place.

    About why these false rumors still show up today, it doesn’t have anything to do with Walt Disney, but “Disney” the company of today. Walts frozen head is an old joke, as well as him being an anti-semite, racist, etc. but it’s the easiest way to jab one of the most powerful media conglomerates in the world. I think those people taking jabs are angry because they believe “Disney” is keeping alive the influence of a man who died a long time ago, which is keeping any sort of change from occurring.

    Jeffrey Katzenberg on The Little Mermaid DVD talks about first coming to Disney in 1984 and everyone was still asking themselves, “What would Walt do? What would Walt do?” Katzenberg finally broke in and said, “Guys, we’re not Walt.”, but then he was true to his statement when he eventually left Disney and helped form Dreamworks to continue what he started. Disney before he left should have probably become “Jeffrey Katzenberg Pictures”, because he’s the one person, like Walt Disney, who is changing everything and influencing the industry today. At Dreamworks at least Katzenberg can take credit for creating his own legacy, but its funny how Disney governs their current success from a man whose been dead 47 years, when the company only came back to life again because of three men, Eisner, Katzenberg, and Wells. The Walt Disney Company continues to promote their founder, except the films they make today contradict everything that represents Walts vision in the first place. The Disney Company is stuck with the image of their creator, like an adult person stuck with the voice of their father in their head, not being able to grow past their father and be their own self.

    But the people still attacking the company with the same false rumors are being naive though, when Walt himself doesn’t truthfully represent at all what the Disney Company is today. It’s not surprising people want to keep the lie going about Walt, but really they’re making attacks at the wrong person who is not responsible for how the industry is today. Walt himself and those false rumors are really just a product of their time.

    • Mac

      Katzenberg is a major animation producer, and I agree he compares favorably to the Disney corporate leadership, but he’s not the world historical industrial figure that Walt Disney is. Not even close.

      • Mike Caracappa

        Mac, I agree 100%. Katzenberg is definitely not Walt. :)

  • Drew

    I use the Family Guy version of Walt Disney as my thoughts on him. lmao

  • Jeff

    The Wikipedia article on Walt Disney describes where the antisemitism rumors started: his affiliation with an organization called the “Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals”.

    • James

      True, though I doubt joining that organization automatically made one an anti-Semite (although membership seemed to lean towards gentiles). While it certainly catered to the right wing, joining such organizations was also a good way to avoid HUAC probing at a time when they were looking under every rock for alleged communists and sympathizers.

      Also, was there really that much blacklisting and witch-hunting going on at Disney compared to, say, RKO at the time? Also, compared to RKO, I can’t seem to recall any anti-communist shorts or films coming out of Disney around that time period which is notable since every other studio at the time made at least one anti-communist feature. Disney comics, maybe?

    • Shazbot

      I’d take Gabler’s comments with a large grain of salt. Diane Disney Miller despised his biography of her father, even going to far as to scold the Disney Company for supporting it.

      • stavner

        If Gabler’s biography depicts Walt as a nut, then why does Disney sell his biography in their stores?

  • Luke

    Amid, maybe you should write a bio on Uncle Walt. I would certainly enjoy it!

  • Toonio

    How a company that systematically proves itself in destroying the magic around Walt’s creations be in any position to defend Walt’s image?

    It’s like asking Salieri to promote Amadeus’ compositions.

  • tredlow

    To me, Walt Disney’s just the guy who made those cartoons I saw as a kid, but died.

  • Michel Van

    Most people think that Walt Disney was a,
    god-like Genius who is now deep frozen in liquid Nitrogen.

    That false image about Walt Disney is partly the fault of
    Walt Disney Company and His Family.
    they want a good memory about Him
    and any “negative” impression is unwanted!
    what let to Walt public image of a god-like Genius.
    Not the Real Walt Disney who was a
    chain-smoking workaholic, who doubt his own work.
    who became anti communist in oder to save his
    company during his Animator went on Strike of 1941.
    by men consider by Walt as a “one big family” to then.
    this event turn him into a paranoid.
    in same time he push the border of Animation,
    with each new project like Fantasia or Bambi.

    that’s the way we have to see Walt Disney
    a Man of his time and under the influence of his time.

    but Walt Disney Company lack the courage,
    to revealed a realistic image of Walt Disney.
    a similar problem has the Herge Foundation
    who systematic block every attempt for a
    Herge biography looking into the years 1930-1945
    or any article about Herge involvement with
    Belgium extrem right during this time.

  • Céu D’Ellia

    Totally agree with Amid.

  • I have a question. How’s this Phillip Glass not been sued yet. Isn’t this slander?

    • Brent

      It is an abiding principle of law that you cannot slander the dead. (Oh, and “this Phillip Glass”? In the world of modern symphonic music Glass is regarded in much the same way that Disney was – publicly at least – in the 1930s; as one of the great geniuses of the form alive today.)

  • Marvin O

    This ‘play’ exists because Walt Disney was a public figure, writ large. The Disney Company can’t legally halt a play about a public figure, though it would be far easier (and less conspicuous) for them to attempt were Philip Glass not the artistic world icon he happens to be, nor “The Perfect American” so publicly commissioned, originally by the New York City Opera. By that token, we can look forward to a minimalist, damning, wannabe opera on the life of Seth Mac Farlane 46 years after he cashes in his considerable chips. I plan to live that long just to see it.

  • Julian

    I think the problem with Walt Disney’s image, poor and overrated alike, stems from the heavy charisma the word “Disney” alone carries and the overall lack of specific identity for him and his company. I mean who was Walt Disney and what did his company really stand for? Most people we look at on this site, we see as animators, writers, cartoonists, and film makers with an over all identifiable feel and style. But Walt Disney, II know here we kind of like to see him as an animator, but it was never really his life’s passion and he did so much more. I mean musicals, live action feature films, educational films, theme parks, to eventually planning communities in Florida?? Really?? As much as it’s uneasy to say, Walt Disney at his core, was a business man. He was the corporate head we as animators, writers, cartoonists, TV, film, and indie alike, all like to frown upon. Yes, He created Mickey Mouse and a variety of other characters, but let’s be honest, do we honestly see them as works of art or corporate mascots? And the things we do see as animation innovative works of art, we usually attribute to other people in or attached to the company both pre and post Walt. (i.e. Ward Kimball, John Lasseter, etc.). Only difference between Walt and other’s of his type is that he has managed to attach and ingrain himself into his mega company so much that he left the world with this larger than life perception everyone has of him for reasons they don’t entirely understand which leads to both conspiracy criticism and blind praise. It’s actually not that much different from religion and cults on a smaller scale.

  • Paul N

    Disney’s also now heavily into monetizing Walt’s image in the theme parks. A quick visit to the gift shops in California Adventure reveals all sorts of tchotchkes with Walt’s image on them.

  • Pedro Nakama

    I think what everybody admires about Walt Disney is his success. And the reason behind that is he took a lot of risks. And the risks paid off. Taking risks…something corporate America and The Walt Disney Company today won’t do.

  • Bright side

    What are the chances this means you can also interpret Disney’s lack of response as a green light and publish your Kimball biography?

  • DisturbedAnimator

    Was Walt anti-semitc? maybe
    Was racism very common place in Walt’s era? well yes sadly
    Would he be in this one? No not at all.
    Did it effect his work in the animaion field? Not at all.
    Do Disney’s films entertain people who are non-cuacassion or non-christian? Well yes.

  • As has been mentioned above, my father and uncle, respectively, Bob & Dick Sherman, have both made clear that Walt Disney was no Anti-Semite. My father has made this statement publicly, in interview and privately to me and many other people. He goes into it in his upcoming (posthumous) autobiography, MOOSE. In fact he dedicates a chapter, solely to this very topic. I should know, I’m the editor of the book…. (sorry for the delay in getting it out btw. It’s been a tricky year.)

    Moreover, my father has gone into detail as to the history of this libel (and now slander) against the memory and name of Walt Disney. Back in 1979, when my Dad was trying to get the first version of “Walt’s Time” published, to my father’s amazement and great frustration, he learned that the 21 or so publishers who rejected the book, did so on the grounds that “There wasn’t any dirt in it about Walt”. It wasn’t until around 1985 or maybe a year or two later that the first CONTROVERSIAL book about WD’s life came out. And as the publisher who printed it predicted, it sold-out (in more ways than one). I have it somewhere in storage still, I think.

    It’s a shame, but smut sells. You’ll note that my father stayed away from that sort of thing all his life. He would never knowingly allow himself to get dragged into the mire of personal destruction. My Dad was too smart for that. This is pretty much evident in most of the interviews he’s done.

    But I hasten to add that that should not be taken as an indication of any sort of cover up to protect WD. Ask anyone who knew him, my father was a straight shooter, a no nonsense kind of guy. As a highly decorated World War II Veteran, present at the earliest stage of the liberation of Dachau Concentration camp in April 1945 (present with only 7 other soldiers, btw), and as a JEW… I can say without any reservation… My father DID NOT SUFFER ANTISEMITISM SILENTLY.

    Walt Disney’s reputation is, simply put, the victim of an ongoing, vicious attack. Show me ONE PERSON who was actually the VICTIM or WITNESS to his supposed bouts of antisemitism and I’d give the matter some consideration. That person doesn’t exist.

    As someone with a personal connection to these people, these legends, I encourage everyone reading this to not give the matter any more attention. Let’s face it, if the allegations weren’t so serious, under any light at all, the notion of Walt Disney being an anti-Semite would be laughable.

    By the way, if you’re interested, I host a SHERMAN BROTHERS “Group” on Facebook. We’ve got about 1300 members now, and are always happy to welcome more. Fun stuff, trivia, songs of the day– interesting member chiming in. Hope to see you there!

    • Shazbot

      Sir, thank you. Thank you for speaking out about this, as your father and uncle did. Bravo!

  • Counter

    Look at 6:05 and tell me that Walt wasn’t an anti-Semite.

    Also, consider how Friz Freleng and Joe Grant left Disney under bad terms.

    • Giovanni Jones

      Does a 1933 cartoon prove that point? Are Norm Ferguson, Art Babbitt, Billy Bletcher, Frank Churchill, Fred Moore, Carl Stalling and others who helped make the film also anti-Semites, or did Walt force them?

      Did Walt also force millions of theatergoers to pretend they liked “Three Little Pigs” and make it one of the most popular cartoons of 1933, or were they all anti-Semites, too?

      According to Jim Korkis is his new book, the offending scene was replaced while Walt was still alive. Was Walt covering his tracks?

      And finally, if you could get into your DeLorean and go back to the ’30s, ’40s or any time in history when political incorrectness was the norm, would you shake your finger at everyone and show them the error of their ways?

      Maybe we should be happy with how far some of us (not all) have come in the issues of diversity and tolerance instead of being outraged at what used to be acceptable behaviors and attitudes by people who lived decades ago.

    • Frankly, anything Disney did back then is far less offensive than what you see nowadays on Family Guy, South Park or this.

      • Steve C.

        Yikes, how totally polkitcally incorrect..the uploader and animators of that video should have put a “So Sorry”, and I don’t mean “So Solly”..Nice to see one of the Shermnas’s kin here. Robert J.Sherman, your father and uncle wrote so many great sngs..!

    • ShouldBeWorkin’

      Wow. How many versions of that are there? I had never seen that!
      The one I thought was controversial had the wolf in a hat and beard but saying, “Fuller brush salesman!” in a Yiddish accent.
      They must have redone this scene a few times.

      Y’know…it is possible for an individual to have an attitude towards a certain group of people, being raised to believe untruths about a group, to later thaw on that prejudicial notion after meeting people in that group. I know I have and I am sure many have.

  • Josh

    Very true! The image of the anti-semite Nazi-sympathiser is purported by Family guy to the disinterested teen-twenty age market who accept it because Disney is a huge corporation and he’s an easy (namely deceased) target)

    While on the other hand certain eager beaver animation students name him as the end-all be-all inventor of animation because of the lashings of idolisation they get from Pixar and Disney DVDs. If those are your only sources, it’s easy to paint an unrealistic picture.

    • D’love

      The whole Nazi thing was before Family Guy.

  • Jenny

    I honestly don’t give any of the outrageous Walt Disney rumors any attention – never really have. I imagine the company does the same thing. What baffles me is when I run into people who truly believe that Disney was cryogenically frozen because of a book that has to be a work of fiction (how it was considered non-fiction, I’ll never know). If I remember correctly, the same book also said that Walt was the son of his family’s maid? It was absurd.

    All I can say is that I felt I got a very clear image of Walt Disney from Barrier’s book “The Animated Man”. It’s perhaps not a perfect biography but I think it captures the essence of him. He was ambitious to the point of being awe inspiring but he also had people he quarreled with and fired during the strike. Not all of his classic films were the successes we know them to be. He was very human to me. With such a wonderful book out now, I don’t understand why the rumors still linger.