BY ED RAMPELL
Abigail Disney, who proclaims that “Class traitors are my patron saint,” is probably the Magic Kingdom’s most disloyal royal. As the grandniece of Walt Disney and granddaughter of Roy Disney, Abigail was born into true show business royalty. But increasingly dismayed by the Walt Disney Company’s contemporary unfair business and labor practices, she became a dissenting heiress, who decided to speak out against inequality and injustice at Disneyland and beyond.
To do so, by 2006 Abigail parlayed her inheritance – in terms of both treasure and storytelling panache – into making films that stand up for the underdog. To do so Abigail co-created Level Forward and Fork Films, to make anti-racist, pro-gender equity, gun neutral, progressive pictures. The ensuing nonfiction and fiction productions have scored accolades, including co-winning Emmy Awards for 2012’s The Invisible War, about sexual abuse in the U.S. armed forces, and 2015’s The Armor of Light, about guns and abortion.
Abigail co-produced/co-directed the latter with Kathleen Hughes, who has also co-won two other Emmys for her work on Bill Moyers’ programs. Hughes has also been a veteran filmmaker for other PBS nonfiction outlets, including Frontline, Independent Lens and Wide Angle. Now, Disney and Hughes have teamed up again to co-make The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales, an 87-minute documentary chronicling Abigail’s critique of the family business gone off the rails in a relentless pursuit of profit, employees be damned. This hard-hitting expose is anything but “Mickey Mouse,” and uses the not-so-Magical Kingdom as a microcosm for what’s wrong with contemporary capitalism.
In this animated, candid conversation, the two co-directors/co-producers discuss: Disneyland’s dehumanization of workers; CEO pay; laissez faire capitalism; the “Asshol-ification of America”; Eugene V. Debs; Walt’s role during the Hollywood Blacklist; socialism; taxing the rich; racism at Disneyland; feminism in Disney movies; Patty Hearst; a certain piece of jewelry; and more. Abigail Disney and Kathleen Hughes were interviewed via Zoom in, respectively, New York City and Yonkers.
Fork Films produced The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales. What is Fork Films, what does it do and how does it select projects?
Abigail Disney: Back in 2006 I started my first film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. I needed a company in which to situate all the things, the comings and goings, the hirings and firings, and so forth. Fork Films is the legacy film company that came out of the production of that film. It went on to produce Women, War & Peace for PBS and The Armor of Light. It also has grantmaking I did for other films that documentarians were making that I felt were important. I had a committee around me that helped me decide on what projects to support. And mainly I just wanted us to support projects that felt like they were going to move the world forward in some way. I wanted to support voices of people who weren’t normally well-represented or given the chance to speak in their own voices. I’m proud of everything we did.
May the Forks be with you!
[Laughter.] That’s the only pun I haven’t used yet.
What are the main criticisms you have of the Walt Disney Company’s business practices? (CEO pay?)
AD: There are ways and ways to run a company. We are taking issue in this film primarily with the way they pay their employees. But actually, the problems run very deep and they really go to the heart of what a corporation is for and what it should be about. They seem to have swallowed hook, line and sinker the idea that the only thing that matters is shareholder value. They have swallowed hook, line and sinker the idea that the only people who matter are management and boards. And they treat their employees like interchangeable, endlessly replaceable cogs. So, in terms of how they treat their employees, that’s absolutely not in the spirit of what that company is about.
People come to that company – I know you from The Progressive magazine, so there won’t be a lot of Disney fans reading [this]. Yet, everywhere I go, and the most progressive people around me still have a story to tell me about taking their child to Disneyland or seeing a film that really changed their childhood. It affects people very deeply what that company does. And they need to take that very seriously, because it involves some responsibility. And right now, they are living the most Ebenezeer Scrooge version of capitalism when it’s not necessary to do that. And it’s not necessary to do that and make a profit. They’re a storytelling company and should be telling a different story.
KATHLEEN HUGHES: What Abbey is describing can be said for just about every major American corporation. This is a critique of the Disney corporation but it’s also a critique of corporate America. We hope that people walk away thinking that we’re not only looking at Disney.
You say a lot of [progressives] may not be Disney fans, but the very first Black [movie] superstar was Mickey Mouse.
AD: Yes, it’s true. You’re absolutely right about that. Do you know that Walt’s father was a socialist and –
What? Did he vote for Eugene Debs [Socialist Party candidate for president]?
AD: His father did. And then Walt, we found out while we were making this film, learned to draw cartoons by copying cartoons from Debs’ newspaper [the Appeal to Reason].
Your documentary is very critical of Reaganomics and free market capitalism, in general. What are your main critiques of the capitalist system today in the USA?
AD: There’s so much to say, so much to say.
AD: It bothers me so deeply that when I talk about employee wages and CEO pay, I get calls on those things from different journalists. So, one guy is covering the pay of workers and then there’s a different guy who’s covering CEO pay. Because Wall Street and their handmaiden, which is the business press, don’t understand those things to be connected. Because they have developed a sensibility in which anybody above a certain level of income or a level of authority inside of a corporation isn’t really the same species really with the people who are pulling down hourly wages.
That is the natural outgrowth of the massive shift in understanding of the nature of money and the value of people that started in the seventies and eighties and was on steroids during the Reagan administration. That’s not the whole problem, but it’s emblematic of the problem, which is that we have ceased to see workers as fully human. We have come to believe managers are more than human. And we need to recast our whole understanding. Because if I were in charge, I would invert that. The people who should be honored, the people who should be lauded, are the people who sweat every day.
KH: What you see in the film, when you watch the work of the Disneyland “cast” members, as they’re called, is that Americans by and large are really hard workers. People go to work every day and do their job. Over the years, the different kind of stories I’ve reported out for Bill Moyers and other place, I’ve always met people who, I watched for 30, 40 years this downward mobility, of hard-working Americans. People who go out, they lose their jobs in the factory and get retrained, they sign on to a new job. But every year it seems that wages and compensation are either flat or going down. There has been this long-term devaluation of labor and workers. We see that at Disneyland, as well. We’re all aware of it but we don’t seem to be able to stop. We don’t say “basta!” this has just now got to stop and we’ve really got to figure out a way to value work. At some point maybe we said factory work has more value than service work. But work is work, and people have families. We really have to think about how we bring everybody back to a living wage.
Abigail, what do you mean by what you call in the film “the asshol-ification of America”?
AD: [Laughs.] Asshol-ification is the process by which our values became inverted. We never lived in a perfect country and fairness was never evenly spread, and we know that. What we called “the American Dream” was not shared broadly across the race lines and so forth – we know that. But the way we talked about ourselves publicly is that people deserved, everybody deserved a chance. That a person who goes to work fulltime, and play by “rules,” quote unquote, as they’re written, should be able to raise his kids, should be able to send them to good schools, all of the components of the American Dream.
And mobility was woven into that idea of the American Dream, too. And interdependence. There was written into this dream the idea that we relied on each other, that your business is my business, and that I care if something is really going wrong for you. That went away so quickly and the only explanation for the way it went away quickly was that it was made to go away consciously. Because a new story started to be told, very conscientiously, very planfully [sic], in every aspect of the media about the role of an individual in a society and the absolute irrelevance of the idea of interdependency. Once we chased interdependency out of the public square we have “asshol-ified.”
KH: I think greed became good. And that made for assholes.
Are you one of the so-called “Patriotic Millionaires” who favor higher taxes for the rich?
AD: Yes, I am.
You don’t pull any punches when it comes to critiquing the Walt Disney Company today. In The American Dream you mention an early strike against Disney Studios. 75 years ago, on Oct. 24, 1947, your granduncle Walt testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a “cooperative witness” and denounced what he called “commies.” Walt was a co-founder and served as a vice president of the rightwing Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals with people like John Wayne.
AD: Yes, he was.
What do you make of Walt’s anti-communist stance during the Hollywood Blacklist 75 years ago? [Watch Walt testify at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJLQ3efGG4k]
AD: It’s a source of incredible shame for me, personally. Many of us have family histories we’d like to apologize for, if we could, or correct, if we could. History is a crooked and cruel thing. I believe he was a complicated man and a lot of his motivation came from some anxiety and influence type stuff, because he really struggled with his father, and his father was a socialist.
When that strike occurred, as a paternalist he felt very betrayed by the folks that stepped out on strike against him. He felt that he should be able to pay them what he wanted to pay them because he wanted to, and not because it was their right. It was rank paternalism, and I’m ashamed of that as well. I can’t fix that. I know he was a man of his moment, for good or ill. I have to know that my job is to be the best person I can in my moment, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
Ironically, in The American Dream… you’re depicted testifying before Congress and Republicans call your ideas “socialism” and communistic. What do you think of democratic socialism? Do you “dream upon a star” and support a sweeping redistribution of wealth?
AD: [Laughs.] Well, I’m not sure if I’d go as far as the state control of capital. But I do believe there has to be a massive redistribution, in the sense that wealth taxes and considering every billionaire policy error, would be very healthy for this country. We have a long way to go to fairness, we have a long way to go.
The American Dream… makes points about racism, it talks about “white fear.” How did Disneyland play into that?
AD: [Laughs.] That’s a really good question. Disneyland was structured to be a dream, a dream state. And everybody should walk into it and step into a world where the cruel realities were suspended. And not a terrible thought could possibly come into your head. It was impossible for the people who designed and built Disneyland to think about it as somebody who wasn’t a white male sis gender living in mid-century America. They didn’t know how to imagine their way out of the little paper bag they grew up in and lived in all their lives. In many ways they wrote race out of that story, they wrote gender, immigration and disability out of that story as a way of dismissing the questions that may complicate that dream state.
KH: When our editor put together the images of Aunt Jemima waving and happy African American children tapdancing, and Native Americans gladly shaking hands with, you know, proudly being with their conquerors, you understood they were telling a story that white Americans wanted to hear and see. It was shocking to see it on the screen like that. We forget how, it’s a subtle but powerful way of helping us all stick to our own preexisting ideas about how things work.
Kathleen Hughes, you co-made 2015’s Emmy Award-winning The Armor of Light with Abigail. And of course, you also co-made The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales with her. So, what’s it like working for this Disney? How is she as a boss.
KH: [Laughter.] She’s great. “Boss” is not always the word I think of when I think of Abigail. I think of her as an innovative thinker and someone who is tirelessly going out and trying to make a difference in the world, to be honest. It’s actually a lot of fun; sometimes it’s a little crazy because we are doing these – going up against, making a film that’s critical of the largest media conglomerate in the world is something a person might only do with Abigail Disney.
If the film makes money, is there any sort of profit-sharing plan for the four Disneyland employees interviewed throughout The American Dream…?
AD: The four Disneyland employees that appear throughout the movie are going to be fine and I can’t share details with you about that… That’s not paternalism, that is me just choosing not to share things they would find to be very private.
What do you think of the Disney Company’s fight with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis?
AD: Wow. You know, if you go look at the junta in Argentina and look at the tactics they used to solidify the fascist regime they constructed in that country in the sixties and seventies, you would recognize a fair amount of Ron DeSantis’ playbook. The capricious enforcement of law is a great way to create perpetual anxiety and fear. He deliberately took on the most powerful company in his state, not because he was particularly concerned about that company, but because he was sending a message to every other company in his state. And he was sending a message to every company in the country if he’s elected president. We should be very afraid of what he pulled down there. I’m no fan of the special [tax and district] status Disney has; I don’t think they should have it. Created by my grandfather, by the way – but, you know, what can I do? I can’t be responsible for him. But I can say enforcing a law like that capriciously has the effect of intimidating potential critics and dissenters.
Abigail, in The American Dream… you show a piece of jewelry designed like [a clitoris]. When do you wear it and why?
AD: [Laughs.] I like to wear it wherever I go that is especially patriarchal. So, Congress, boardrooms, things like that. Because it just feels like I have a little superpower on my hand that just helps me, guides me, as I go through my day.
Hopefully multiple times.
AD: [Laughs.] That was funny!
Are any Disney characters over the years feminist?
AD: Oh god, that’s like a dissertation level question. Because the ones that are cast as feminists are very complicated feminists. When we made Pray the Devil Back to Hell way back when, the most difficult, challenging thing about that film, it was about a group of women who helped end the civil war to an end in Liberia. One of the hardest stories to tell is a collective story, a story about people working together towards a common end. It’s so much easier to tell a story of an individual or hero or a particular thing. So, invariably, when Disney tells a story about a feminist they turn her into an individual who isn’t that interested in the collective and they drain all the feminism out of her in that way. Feminism at its most powerful is a collective story and an intersectional story. And a story that is invested in everybody else’s wellbeing. So, the limits to storytelling, the way Disney does it, makes it hard for them to create what I would think of as a genuine feminist.
You also make features, not just documentaries. Forks produced a story about another famous female class traitor, Patty Hearst, called American Woman. How do you go about selecting those narrative, fictional films.
AD: I’m not the only person who does the selection for Level Forward, which is the company I helped co-start a few years ago. I love that film; I think that’s a really important film and I’m so glad you’ve seen it. Because class traitors are my patron saint; I just want to talk about them all day long.
Is there anything you’d like to add about The American Dream?
KH: I hope it stands on its own merits in terms of what it has to say. I don’t see it as partisan, necessarily, in the sense that it has chosen between Democrats and Republicans. We need to stop thinking of the future of this company in terms of two sides at war with each other and understand that we’re a lot closer on a lot of things than we’ve been led to believe that we are. So, when you listen to the folks on Jan. 6 who were talking about the elites and corporations not being trustable, I don’t think they’re wrong when they say that. We need to hear it and we need to figure out a way to bring people together. That may sound very pie in the sky but I think it’s possible.
What’s next for Kathleen Hughes and Abigail Disney?
AD: [Laughs.] What is next, Kathy?
KH: We’re working on it.
The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales’ theatrical release started September 16 at Orlando, near Disneyworld. For more info on other screenings and the film see: https://americandreamdoc.com/.