Disney’s Demographic Fantasia and the ‘Underrepresentation’ Con

Anyone over 30 probably remembers a refrain, common among influential people in business, politics, and media at the end of the 20th century: “We need a [fill in the blank] that looks like America!” That blank could be filled in any number of ways: We need a Congress that “looks like America,” or TV sitcoms that “look like America,” or a student body that “looks like America.” 

Always implicit in this assertion was a condemnation and corrective to the nation’s history of discrimination. That history, we were told, ensured certain groups were “underrepresented” in many of the country’s institutions. The assumption was that in a just society, the demographic composition of every organization would mirror the make-up of the American population.

We still see this project playing out today. For example, the elite handwringing over the “underrepresentation” of women in science and engineering fields extends from an assumption that this can only be due to discouraging obstacles meant to exclude girls from scientific inquiry. But as American institutions have gone woke, the chorus demanding a “[fill in the blank] that looks like America” has fallen silent. 

This is because all the people who did the sloganeering no longer really want things to “look like America.” Instead, they want to depict an America that looks the way they want it to look

The goal is not to ensure that the composition of organizations reflect the nation’s general demographics: rather, it is to propagate a particular reimagining of the American people. By changing the public perception of what America “looks like,” elites wish to change American attitudes, beliefs, and values. Fittingly, the construction of such a demographic illusion or fantasy can be observed in the recent revelations about the Disney corporation.

Journalist Christopher Rufo recently acquired video from Disney’s “all-hands” meeting. This event, attended by employees from across the corporate operation, details the entertainment giant’s short and long-term goals. One might expect that these goals would relate to the continued vitality of their business. Instead, the company’s executives described Disney’s cultural plans for America, and how their product would work to advance those objectives. 

Executive producer Latoya Raveneau admitted to having a “not-at-all-secret gay agenda,” which involves “adding queerness” to Disney programming. Other executives echoed these initiatives. Karey Burke, president of Disney’s General Entertainment Content, announced to virtual attendees that she was at the meeting “as a mother of two queer children,” “one transgender child and one pansexual child.” She went on to promise “many, many” more LGBTQIA characters on Disney platforms and franchises.

Well, one might wonder, how many more? According to their website, Disney promises that “by 2022” 50 percent of “regular and recurring characters” across their “scripted content” will “come from underrepresented groups.” Bear in mind: This is not a simple promise that 50 percent of programs will include minority characters. It’s a promise that within any given program at least half of the characters will be from “underrepresented groups.” 

This raises the question: does this plan actually represent the reality of American life? Is it true that everywhere we go—whether in Topeka, or Buffalo, or Spokane—that half or more of the people that we come into contact with in any situation come from “underrepresented” groups? And if it is, then are they really underrepresented?

Of course, the answer is “no.” If you go to Des Moines, Iowa, you will not find that 50 percent of the population are heterosexual white people and that the other 50 percent are comprised of LGBT people, disabled people, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and so on. Given that Disney’s preferred amount of minority representation exceeds the proportion of minorities in the general population, what does Disney claim to be “representing”?  Because clearly, it isn’t reality. 

Today it seems the very groups Disney claims to be including on the grounds of “underrepresentation” are, in fact, overrepresented. The America Disney displays to its audience looks no more “like America” than television looked when it was populated almost exclusively by white, straight, Christian men and women. What are we to make of this?

As I have noted elsewhere, our institutions aren’t really interested in ensuring their organizations “look like America.” Instead, they want them to look like Manhattan. It’s not that they don’t know what Topeka looks like. They know. It’s that they don’t think Topeka should look like it does. Even if corporations like Disney ultimately can’t achieve that feat, they can at least create an illusion for the people in Topeka that the rest of the country does, in fact, look like Manhattan. At least they can teach children in Topeka to adopt the values, biases, beliefs, and pieties of Manhattan. If they can do that, then Topeka will become a little less like Topeka. 

And that’s the point.

As the 2020 census showed, black people make up a little more than 12 percent of the U.S. population. In some parts of the country, that percentage will be much higher; in others, much lower. But any casual viewer of popular American media will immediately concede that the screen-presence of African-Americans far exceeds 12 percent. Thus, this “underrepresented” minority group is actually overrepresented in many parts of American life. This is equally true of other purportedly “underrepresented” groups. 

So why do institutions continue to insist that these overrepresented groups are underrepresented? Because it’s never really been about representation at all. Their real concern is norms. 

Back when elites insisted upon a “[fill in the blank] that looks like America,” the vision of a just society was one that achieved an accurate proportional representation. If LGBT people made up 4 percent of the U.S. population, and 4 percent of our organizations were LGBT, we were told this was a sign that LGBT people weren’t being unfairly excluded. But somewhere in the 21st century, our elites realized that proportional representation wasn’t enough to change norms—and that was the overriding goal. If 96 percent of Americans identify as heterosexual, then heterosexuality is normal

Recognizing that fact doesn’t mean it is necessary to denigrate the LGBT community. Nevertheless, simply acknowledging this reality implies that LGBT identity is “abnormal” (in the most basic, nonpejorative sense of the word, meaning it’s not common or what’s usually to be expected). 

Just because something is not the norm doesn’t, by itself, mean that it is wrong, or bad, or anything of which one should be ashamed. But in the eyes of Disney (and other woke corporations), majoritarian norms perpetuate unearned “privilege,” and that encourages individuals to identify and align with said norms due to the benefits that accrue from doing so. Because majorities and norms do, in fact, wield a disproportionate amount of cultural power (a truth that holds the world over), key players in the culture industry see it as their obligation to erode that power. In short, the mere existence of any minority requires (and authorizes) inequities of power and prestige. Thus, whatever norms or majorities exist must be “dismantled.” 

Understanding that the elites’ goal is to eliminate the existence of the “normality” of actual demographic majorities helps explain why entities like Disney would want to ensure that 50 percent of its characters come from “underrepresented” groups. By overrepresenting those groups, Disney creates a kind of American “Fantasia”—a depiction of what a perfected America would look like by their lights. That “ideal America” would consist of many different groups (diversity must be maintained), all of which will be equally (rather than proportionally) represented. 

When there is no majority, there can be no minority. And when there is no minority, every group making up the population wields equal power in constructing values, beliefs, and practices. This is what our institutions mean when they talk about “equity.” 

Of course, there is a contradiction here: once this equity is achieved, norms will again be allowed to take shape. But the things that will then be positioned as “normal” will be much different than what was normal before our elites took it upon themselves to annihilate the old norms by reverse-engineering the population they want. 

This effort on the part of American institutions, in essence, is a war against America as it currently exists. Through the depiction of a new America—not a depiction that represents reality, but one that reimagines it—Disney and their fellow travelers don’t simply invite viewers to participate in their imaginary America. They seek to bring that world into being, transforming the nation into one that better reflects their own biases, tastes, wishes, values, and hatreds. Anyone who loves the existing America must resist the efforts of the Imagineers at Disney and elsewhere. If they win, we will be consigned to a walk-on role in their demographic fantasies.

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About Adam Ellwanger

Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston – Downtown where he directs the M.A. program in rhetoric and composition. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, will be released from Penn State University Press in 2020. You can follow him on Twitter at @DoctorEllwanger

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