Earlier this week, a photo started circulating on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, featuring Mickey and Minnie canoodling on the front of a $100 Target Disney gift card. In the photo, Minnie is wearing a blue puffed-sleeve dress — yet the post, which was shared to a conspiracy theorist channel with more than 50,000 followers, saw something far more sinister.
The beloved cartoon mouse’s demure blue dress, the poster claimed, “looks exactly like a penis, which Mickey happens to be gladly holding.” The post went on to speculate about the potential connotations of said dick dress: “following the recent leaks from the company, chances this design is a mere coincidence and employees didn’t notice are slim IMO,” it concludes.
To be fair to the phallus-obsessed conspiracy theorists, the post was not totally without merit: when viewed from a certain angle, the dress indeed looks like a penis; or perhaps more accurately, a blue silicon dildo with a flared base. (Target no longer features that image on its website, instead showing Minnie wearing a decidedly less phallic-looking version of the garment; images of the gift card have been circulating around the internet since as early as 2015, and the Disney blog The Disney Details does include an image of the card displayed in stores, though Target did not immediately respond to our questions about how long the card was sold, or when it was pulled from circulation.)
What was somewhat unusual, however, was the dark message behind the post: that by featuring one of America’s most beloved cartoon characters holding what appears to be a dick, the Disney company is trying to inculcate America’s impressionable youth with a pro-LGBTQ “agenda.”
The Minnie penis dress meme, which has been cross-posted to some of the biggest conspiracy theorist channels on the app, was repeated by Oklahoma GOP state senate candidate Jarrin Jackson, who posted a rant on Twitter claiming “the people at Disney are pedophiles” pushing a “Satanic, godless, child predatory perspective.” It is also part and parcel with the current wave of anti-Disney fervor circulating on the far right, much of which attempts to link the company to baseless child trafficking or grooming accusations. Some popular far-right memes on Telegram include a Satanic-looking Mickey, spirals superimposed onto his eyes to give the appearance of mass hypnosis; a photo of Cinderella’s Castle, with “Groomers” written underneath in the company’s trademark font, accompanied by the caption “Sponsored and supported by PEDOVORES!!!”; and an ancient 4chan post linking Jeffrey Epstein’s Little St. James Island to a Disney Cruise Lines snorkeling excursion.
This uproar is largely in response to Disney CEO Bob Chapek’s announcement, following backlash from LGBTQ activists, that the company would no longer support new Florida legislation that critics have labeled the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The HB 1557 bill, which was signed into law last month by Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, prohibits public school teachers from discussing the existence of LGBTQ people in any capacity from kindergarten to third grade. In response to Disney speaking out against the bill, DeSantis — who many conservatives view as a potential rival or successor to Trump — has waged an all-out war in the media against the company.
Disney is one of the biggest drivers of tourism revenue to the state of Florida, but DeSantis is threatening to repeal its corporate status in the state as a largely self-governing entity. His outrage campaign against the company has prompted the hashtag #BoycottDisney to briefly trend on social media, with some far-right influencers tweeting screengrabs of their canceled Disney Plus subscriptions as proof of the breadth of the “movement.” #BoycottDisney has garnered almost 100,000 Twitter mentions, with use of the hashtag initially spiking on March 7 following news that Disney had initially donated to state representatives who supported the bill, according to data from Zignal Labs.
On March 28, however, after Chapek issued a statement saying the company would help facilitate a repeal of the bill, the hashtag started trending again, albeit for an entirely different reason. “Child groomers and pedophiles. They have now openly admitted they have a not so secret agenda with your children. This is the death of Disney. #BoycottDisney,” the far-right commentator Candace Owens tweeted, racking up more than 3,800 reposts. Indeed, between March 28 and April 5, ZignalLabs data indicate the hashtag #BoycottDisney has been tweeted almost 80,000 times.
Such discourse has also been promoted by politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who said recently that Disney “wants to completely take your children and they want to indoctrinate them into sexual, immoral filth.” (It is perhaps worth noting that despite these harsh words, Taylor Greene owns stock in Disney.) It has also found its way onto more mainstream platforms such as Fox News, with Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham hosting multiple segments decrying the company’s “woke” political agenda, calling for a boycott of the company among conservatives.
The Disney company has never been a bastion of tolerance and acceptance.
“Disney has become a place where most of us are just going to refuse to spend any of our hard-earned money,” Ingraham said in a March 30 segment. “It’s shown itself to be a haven for radicals, who are hostile to anyone who has any sort of traditional conceptions of morality.” The segment was, bizarrely and hilariously, accompanied by a graphic of Mickey Mouse crying, followed by Ingraham opining, “why not just rename the roller coaster Sex Mountain. Come on, kids. It’ll be a blast.” (There are three major attractions with the “___ Mountain” nomenclature in the Disney theme parks, and it’s unclear to which Sex Mountain Ingraham was referring.)
As one of the five biggest conglomerates in the world — and one that produces children’s entertainment, no less — Disney has long been a target of far-right ire. Yet this latest full-court press is highly unusual, says Matthew Parrish, an adjunct professor of media studies at Missouri State University and host of the Disney history podcast The 3028. “Disney has become so big and intertwined with politics in so many ways [that people on the right] can’t help but be involved, whether it’s a social or cultural issue or an economic issue,” he says. “[But] I don’t think there’s any precedent for this.”
The right’s push against Disney is all the more ironic considering that the company has skewed conservative almost since its founding in the early 1920s. A longstanding champion of self-made wealth and bootstrap-pulling entrepreneurism, Walt Disney was virulently anti-union and anti-labor, a position that was only strengthened by a five-week animators’ strike in 1941. The strike “soured Walt to the idea of unions,” says Michael Crawford, author of the book “People in his ear were saying this was because Communists had infiltrated his studio.”
Though Disney initially supported Roosevelt, inviting him to take a tour of the studio, he since became what Crawford refers to as an “Eisenhower Republican,” supporting the former general during his presidential run and frequently inviting ardent Disney stan Nixon to Disneyland after it opened in 1955. Yet despite Disney’s own political leanings and the brand’s emphasis on all-American conservative nostalgia, the company still nevertheless managed to attract some ire from right-wing trolls, with Crawford citing backlash to a cartoon showing Clarabelle Cow reading a novel by then-considered racy novelist Elinor Glyn as just one example. “As Disney has changed with the times, as has any other company, they’ve embraced a larger and more diverse audience,” he says. “And the people opposed to that have become louder.”
The Disney company has never been a bastion of tolerance and acceptance, especially when it comes to LGBTQ issues. LGBTQ historians have long pointed to stereotypically effeminate villains such as Scar from The Lion King and Captain Hook from Peter Pan as examples of negative queer-coding, while Disneyland itself only abolished a rule banning same-sex dancing in its parks following a four-year extended court battle in 1984, with a patron who had been booted from a dance club for dancing with his boyfriend.
Nonetheless, opposition to what has been viewed as Disney’s espousal of LGBTQ issues, or pushing a “gay agenda,” dates back to the 1990s, when right-wing Christian groups called for boycotts of the company over Gay Days, an unofficial Disney theme parks event for queer people and their families. (The outrage was even more ironic considering that Disney has never officially sanctioned Gay Days, or even formally acknowledged their existence.) Disney was also the subject of backlash from the Christian right after announcing it would offer spousal benefits to employees in same-sex partnerships in the mid-1990s. “It’s been a target of the evangelical right for probably the last 15 years,” says Jared Holt, a resident fellow at Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab who tracks the far right, citing opposition to Disney opening its Fairy Tale Weddings program to same-sex couples in 2007 as an example.
Such outrage grew during the 2010s, when same-sex marriage became legal and the corporation felt increased pressure to feature LGBTQ characters in their media. While the company has flirted with introducing openly gay characters in mainstream studio films, the screen time of such characters has been significantly reduced following immense backlash. “Disney does not have a great track record on queer representation quite yet,” says Sabrina Mittermeir, PhD, author of A Cultural History of the Disneyland Theme Parks, who has written extensively on Disney and LGBTQ issues. Though some of its television programming, such as Disney Channel’s The Owl House, has been lauded for its portrayal of queer characters, that has not yet extended to its mainstream film releases. Indeed, it was only after the uproar over the Don’t Say Gay bill that a previously-cut same-sex kiss in the upcoming release Lightyear was put back into the film. “Creators within the company have advocated for more representation and higher-ups have pushed back,” says Mittermeir.
Despite Disney’s refusal to take a firm stance on LGBTQ issues, during the Trump administration and the proliferation of far-right conspiracy theory spaces online, the company has only become more of a target. Supporters of QAnon, for instance, the baseless conspiracy theory postulating the existence of underground child sex trafficking rings run by liberal elites, have long whispered of Disney’s involvement in such rings, though there has only been one 2017 Q “drop” (the term for posts made by the anonymous poster Q), that has explicitly referenced the company, and did so only in passing, says Mike Rothschild, author of The Storm Is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything.
“Any time you involve any kind of messaging or branding geared towards kids and you are coded to see comms and subliminal messaging in everything, they start looking at these things for the comms and the hidden meaning,” he says. “Then you get these kinds of backlashes against a company that is nominally quite conservative and is not particularly labor friendly.”
In light of the Don’t Say Gay bill, the pump was primed for the far right to trade conspiracy theories about Disney.
During the 2020 pandemic, for instance, in the midst of a surge of anti-child-sex-trafficking hysteria driven by the #SaveTheChildren movement, there was a brief movement on social media for mothers to throw out their kids’ Toy Story merchandise, on the grounds that the protagonist of the movie, the cowboy Woody, is voiced by Tom Hanks, a frequent target of QAnon believers. And as recently as last August, a slew of prominent QAnon influencers posted a news story about a sex trafficking sting in central Florida, in which three low-level Disney theme parks employees were arrested. (For context, the Disney company employs 203,000 people worldwide, according to Forbes data.)
In light of the Don’t Say Gay bill, the pump was primed for the far right to trade conspiracy theories about Disney — even though, as recently as just a few weeks ago, Chapek had said in a leaked internal memo that he did not plan to publicly oppose or support the bill to begin with. Following public outrage and walkouts from LGBTQ employees, Chapek reversed his stance and announced the company’s “goal” would be to move for the repeal of the Don’t Say Gay bill, unleashing a barrage of outrage against the company.
The backlash against the Disney company has also created prime opportunity for aspiring far-right influencers to grow their brands. Manhattan Institute senior fellow and right-wing activist Christopher Rufo, who had previously been best known for campaigning against “critical race theory,” went massively viral after posting footage of an internal meeting in which Disney Parks’ diversity and inclusion manager, Vivian Ware, said the company had “removed all of the gendered greetings” at its theme parks. Ware’s comment evoked horror in right-wing parents, who had grown up with Disney princesses as a purveyor of conventional femininity. A tongue-in-cheek comment by Disney Television Animation executive producer Latoya Raveneau, who said in the meeting the company has been welcoming to her “not-at-all secret gay agenda,” also prompted revulsion in parents primed to view Disney as a vehicle for left-wing indoctrination. By leveraging the anxieties of the right-wing base, Rufo “rightfully identified this as something that could be leveraged” into a media opportunity, says Holt, “and seemingly has decided to take it to the doorstep of a billion dollar company.”
Though targeting Disney may prove to be a boon for up-and-coming trolls angling for a seat as a Fox News commentator, it’s unclear what effect, if any, the conservative uproar may have on Disney itself. “I feel like the same people running around concocting all of these theories, I don’t know if they have much political power,” says Parrish. “Are people watching Disney films and subscribing to Disney Plus? Yes. Are the parks filled up? Yes.” Yet those who follow the far right — and have watched, with horror, as its increasingly unhinged and bizarre talking points get absorbed into the mainstream discourse — are less certain. While they note the irony of a not-very-progressive corporation becoming the target of the right for supposedly being a bastion of left-wing propaganda, they also don’t see such distinctions mattering to those inclined to see signs of child abuse in whimsical castles and talking cartoon mice.
“It definitely will [go mainstream],” says Rothschild. “It already is. If Tucker Carlson is talking about it, that’s as mainstream as it gets. This is similar to what’s been going on [with the far right] in general. They may not be seeing the QAnon roots, but they’re embracing the mythology and the tenets of it.”