Published on Friday, December 5, 2003 by the Guardian/UK
The Logic of Cruella de Vil
by John O'Farrell
The boardroom battles at the Disney corporation were always more heated than most. Donald Duck would always lose his temper and get even madder when nobody could understand what he was saying. Minnie would stick up for her husband when he was accused of having a Mickey Mouse job. Then Baloo the bear would start going on about the Robin Hood film again and how Little John had ripped off his act, and finally Bambi would pop his head round the door and there'd be an embarrassed silence when he asked: "You haven't seen my mum anywhere, have you?"
But this week saw a milestone in the history of the world's best-known entertainment group. The last remaining member of the Disney family has resigned from the board and launched a bitter attack on the corporation's chief executive. The final straw had been the meeting when they were going to talk about Euro Disney. He'd queued for 30 minutes to get a seat, but loads of French teenagers kept pushing in ahead of him.
It's going to be tough for Roy Disney to get a job anywhere else. "So you've been at the Disney corporation for 37 years, Mr Disney. What made you decide you'd like to work here at Warner Bros?"
"Well, I've always sort of personally identified with the whole Warner Bros brand."
With Disney now controlled by its chief executive, Michael Eisner, the revamped Eisnerworld theme parks are going to see a few changes. As your boat enters the magical cave you will gasp in excitement as you hear the model executive announce the rotation of committee and chairmanship assignments among independent directors! Tell your six-year-old daughter to cover her eyes as you pass the merging of the executive performance working party with the compensation sub committee!
In his resignation letter, Walt's nephew Roy Disney accuses the current management of "always looking for a quick buck". But it was always the aggressive marketing and ruthless corporate drive rather than the erratic quality of the product that turned Disney into an economic powerhouse.
From its earliest days Disney was accused of dubious labor practices. At the time of its first full-length feature, critics pointed to the blatant exploitation of dwarf workers living in cramped conditions in a remote cottage in the woods. Despite digging out truckloads of diamonds every day, the dwarves were forced to share one small bedroom between seven. Disney aggressively refuted accusations of ripping off its workers, denying rumors that it had negotiated the price for the diamonds with Dopey. But even if property prices were particularly high in Disneyland you'd have thought that it might have been able to afford a spare bedroom for Snow White and maybe a proper door to stop the animals coming in all the time.
Little has changed and today those Pocahontas dresses that cost six months' pocket money in the Disney Store are stitched together for a few cents in third world sweatshops. When Mowgli tried so hard to get back to the man-village nobody told him that he'd be spending the rest of his childhood assembling Monsters Inc lunchboxes.
Disney executives say that labor practices in Haiti or wherever are not their responsibility since these workers are not Disney employees. By this logic, Cruella de Vil could deny any connection with the killing and skinning of any dalmatian puppies. "How those raw materials are obtained is not my responsibility, darling. I simply purchase animal by-products from independent subcontractors called Jasper and Horace."
It is the extreme contrast between the magical world that Disney tries to sell us and the grim reality of its corporate practice that is particularly galling. Why can't it be honest about its values and beliefs? Why can't the prince in Sleeping Beauty slay the dragon because it tried to unionize the workforce? Why can't the crocodile chase Captain Hook over the horizon because he tried to broadcast anti-Disney news stories on the Disney-owned ABC channel?
Since it is currently expanding its theme parks into the Far East, why not push its exploitation one more step and have a Disneyland Bangkok where you could hire prostitutes in the character of Disney heroines? Western sex tourists could keep Cinderella out after midnight, sleep with Sleeping Beauty and be a beast with Belle, leaving the Little Mermaid to wonder why nobody ever picks her.
But of course Disney would never let the magical mask slip. The company knows that we still somehow imagine that the fairytale land it presents us with is the world we buy into when we eagerly hand over our cash. And we thought Bambi was naive...
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003