Some disparaging remarks that Meryl Streep made about Walt Disney in 2014, spouting the typical load of nonsense that is brought up periodically without any context to back it up, have been making the rounds on the Internet again. If there is one person whose life I’ve researched and studied, it’s Walt Disney. I’ve spent the last two years listening to audio books and history-based podcasts during my commute and watching documentaries about him in my spare time. I know all the rumors, and I know they are unsupported by Walt’s actual actions.
Walt Disney was a product of the early 20th century, and his life is best viewed in that context. But even when you do that, you see that Walt himself was really rather progressive in many ways.
The “gender bigotry” claim often rests on a letter that Walt penned in 1938, in which he says “women do not do creative work [at the Studios].” I will counter that letter with this quote by him: “If a woman can do the work as well, she is worth as much as a man. The girl artists have the right to expect the same chances for advancement as men, and I honestly believe they may eventually contribute something to this business that men never would or could.”
History shows that Walt hired many women who did much more than the “ink and paint” department alluded to in the memo on which people hang the sexist tag. Here’s a brief list of some of the women he hired who played key roles in some of the most beloved animated films ever made and in creating Disneyland.
- Bianca Majolie — story department (quite a prestigious area to work, by the way);
- Sylvia Moberly-Holland — story department;
- Retta Scott — animator (Bambi, Fantasia, Dumbo, etc.);
- Mary Blair — animator and one of the most influential artists in Disney history (Three Caballeros, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and the entire “It’s a Small World” attraction);
- Retta Davidson — animator (Fox and the Hound, The Great Mouse Detective);
- Harriet Burns — Imagineer (she helped create Disneyland and many of the rides you love).
There are many more, but you get the point.
As far as anti-Semitism, people love to bring that up, citing his association with the Motion Picture Alliance, which had the goal of keep Communism and Fascism out of Hollywood. Indeed, there were some in the ranks of the MPA who were anti-Semitic, just as there will always be haters in any cause.
Again, it’s better to judge Walt by his actions. Hollywood historian Neal Gabler wrote, “Of the Jews who worked [with Disney], it was hard to find any who thought Walt was an anti-Semite,” writes Gabler. “Joe Grant, who had been an artist, the head of the model department, and the storyman responsible for Dumbo… declared emphatically that Walt was not an anti-Semite. ‘Some of the most influential people at the studio were Jewish,’ Grant noted. He was probably remembering production manager Harry Tytle; animator and Imagineer Marc Davis; composers Richard and Robert Sherman; and head of merchandising Kay Kamen, who once quipped that Disney’s New York office had more Jews than the Book of Leviticus. Maurice Rapf agreed that Walt was not anti-Semitic; he was just a “very conservative guy.”
As Floyd Norman, Disney’s first black animator, noted in his blog in 2014 after Streep made her remarks: “There was Joe Grant, Dave Detiege, Lou Appet and Ed Solomon. There was Mel Levin, Robert and Richard Sherman, and the list goes on and on. Can you guess where I’m going with this? Why were so many talented Jewish writers, song writers and artists employed at the Disney Studio? Did Walt simply not know? Yeah, he probably had no idea. I can also guess he had no idea why the young black man was in his story meetings. And, how did the famous ‘Hollywood racist’ failed to notice Victor Haboush, Tyrus Wong, Dick Ung, Iwao Takamoto, Willie Ito, Ray Aragon and Ron Dias?”
Walt Disney carefully built a brand that, during his lifetime, became associated with him, well the image that people had of him. This is likely due to the fact that, as a TV pioneer, he found himself in front of the camera (not a role he particularly liked), introducing his weekly TV show, sharing his vision for amusement parks, and hosting live specials. However, Walt Disney would have been the first to tell someone that he was no saint, citing that he drank, smoked, and swore. He knew the TV image was just that, an image, but it was an image upon which his brand was built.
He was human, like the rest of us. But he also was a fundamentally good man. Yes, he was, at times, culturally insensitive in some his creative work (especially in the 1930s), but such insensitivity does not immediately translate to racism. If you’ve ever told a joke based on any stereotype (gender, race, creed, etc.) or laughed at a joke based on the same, does that make you a sexist, racist or anti-Semite? Perhaps by today’s definition, some would say yes. But I prefer to look at what was said by those he knew him, those who worked for him, and those who have told his story, and those folks say that the aspersions cast by Meryl Streep and others misguided individuals simply have no merit.
Every biography and documentary seems to get to a similar point, one that I will end with. Walt cared more about whether you could do your job well than your gender, race or creed. To quote Floyd Norman, “Walt made me an animator, which (is a job) I wouldn’t have been able to get at any other studio. Then he promoted me to a story man… which in terms of status at the Walt Disney Studios was very prestigious. Walt treated me just the way he treated everybody else, that none of us knew anything and that he was going to make us do the best we could possibly do, more than we thought we could ever do.”
His standard was excellence. If you could meet that standard, regardless of your gender, race, or religion, you’d likely have a place on his team for a long time. That’s about as close to color-blind, gender-blind, creed-blind as you can get.