Was Meryl Streep Correct in Calling Walt Disney a 'Bigot'?

Meryl Streep National Board of Review Awards - H 2014
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Meryl Streep National Board of Review Awards - H 2014

The actress accused the mogul of being sexist, racist and anti-Semitic, but experts who have dug in to the icon's controversial legacy say the truth is more complicated.

Meryl Streep caused eyebrows to raise throughout Hollywood with her appearance Jan. 7 at the National Board of Review awards ceremony at which she attacked Walt Disney as a man who “had some racist proclivities” and “supported an anti-Semitic industry lobbying group and [was] a gender bigot.” Streep, who is starring in the Disney studio's big-screen adaptation of the musical Into the Woods, which will be released next Christmas, was on hand to present a best actress trophy to Emma Thompson, who plays Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers opposite Tom Hanks’ Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks.

“I thought, ‘Oh, wow, she didn’t have to do that,’ ” says one startled awards consultant. “She’s giving an award to Emma Thompson for a film that’s sort of a love letter to Disney! But she’s Meryl Streep -- she can say whatever she wants.” Says one male Academy member of Streep: “What a silly woman! How the hell does she say that? Pick on a dead guy whom she didn’t know.”

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While Streep’s remarks spread like wildfire, industry observers doubt any reputations were seriously harmed in the process. “Her film [August: Osage County] was not going to get nominated for best picture anyway,” says the awards consultant, so Streep likely didn’t hurt its chances. Saving Mr. Banks – which THR awards analyst Scott Feinberg rates as a frontrunner for best picture, actress (Thompson), supporting actor (Hanks) and score – has more to lose. But according to a female Academy member, Streep’s anti-Disney comments won’t harm Disney’s film either. “I am a huge fan of Ms. Streep, Ms. Thompson and that old anti-Semite himself, Mr. Disney, and I'm a Jewish feminist,” says the voter. “I long ago learned that my idols frequently hold values very different from my own and, up to a point, I'm OK with it. It wouldn't keep me from voting for anyone in Saving Mr. Banks, that's for sure.”

In fact, that was part of the point Streep was making. While hailing her friend Thompson as a fellow “rabid, man-eating feminist,” she argued that art can redeem an artist who harbors prejudices and that Disney, for all his flaws, “brought joy, arguably, to billions of people.”

"This wasn't her intention, I'm sure, but what Streep did fits elegantly with the positioning strategy of the film,” says David Hajdu, Columbia University film and music scholar. “The Disney company made it, with the encouragement of the Disney estate, to help boost the Disney brand by showing that Walt Disney was actually a real person, and not merely a logo that signifies industrialized blandness and cheer. To be a real person is to be flawed in your humanity, and Meryl Streep reminded us just how deeply flawed Walt Disney was as a human being. A misogynist? You bet. An anti-Semite? That, too. In terms of the Disney company’s strategy, Streep was right on script.”

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Spokespeople for Streep and Disney had no comment on the incident. However, several Disney experts THR consulted contend that Streep wasn’t being fair to Walt. Here are their reactions to Streep’s three charges against Disney:

Racist? Although Disney shared the racial insensitivity of his day – thinking it would be funny, for example, to have a watermelon-eating black centaur girl in Fantasia -- he also attempted to be sensitive. Disney biographer Neal Gabler notes in Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination that he sought input for his live action/animated film, Song of the South, from NAACP official Walter White and other leaders and removed some offensive phrases and words like “darky” from the script.

Sexist? Streep quoted Disney animator Ward Kimball, who said, “He didn’t trust women or cats,” and she read from a 1938 letter from Disney informing a female job applicant, “Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that task is performed entirely by young men. For this reason, girls are not considered for the training school. The only work open to women consists of tracing the characters on clear celluloid sheets with India ink, and then, filling in the tracing on the reverse side with paint according to directions."

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But women were indeed shut out of animation and confined to inking and painting all over Hollywood in the ’30s. “That was an industry-wide practice,” says one animation expert. “There were, however, a number of women working at [Disney] in a creative capacity during that time, mostly in story development.” In 1941, Walt told male artists working on Dumbo, "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.” Retta Scott became Disney’s first female animator on 1942’s Bambi, and in the ’40s and ’50s, Mary Blair was art supervisor and color stylist for Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.

In 1959, Disney wrote, “Women are the best judges of anything we turn out. Their taste is very important. They are the theatergoers, they are the ones who drag the men in. If the women like it, to heck with the men.”

Anti-Semite? That may be the most misunderstood aspect of Disney’s legacy, say some scholars. “It would be unfair to label him an anti-Semite himself,” wrote Gabler in 2009. “There is no evidence whatsoever in the extensive Disney Archives of any anti-Semitic remarks or actions by Walt.” He employed a Jewish man, Herman "Kay" Kamen, as his merchandising chief, and he once said that Disney’s New York office “had more Jews than the Book of Leviticus.”

Disney gave to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of the City of New York, Yeshiva College, and the Jewish Home for the Aged, and was voted 1955 Man of the Year by the Beverly Hills Lodge of the B'nai B'rith.

So why did Snow White animators Art Babbitt and David Hilberman claim that Walt was anti-Semitic? Gabler and other experts say that, while Babbitt’s and Hilberman’s charges are hard to prove or disprove, they were deeply angry over the animators’ strike of 1941. Disney was paternalistically convinced he was a great boss, which in some ways he was, and the strike also left him bitter, convinced that it had been fomented by communists to damage him.

Streep was correct to note that Disney joined the anti-Semitic, anti-communist MPA – the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Other big studio chiefs avoided the group, but Disney was either politically naive or willing to put up with its anti-Semitism to advance the cause of bashing communism.

Douglas Brode, the proudly Jewish author of Multiculturalism and the Mouse: Race and Sex in Disney Entertainment, says, "There is zero hard evidence that Disney ever wrote or said anything anti-Semitic in private or public. His films feature a wide array of great Jewish actors in the most diverse roles imaginable, more so than any other studio of Hollywood's golden age, including those run by Jewish movie moguls. Finally, there is no evidence in the work of anti-Semitism via negatively portrayed Jewish characters. Disney, let's recall, was the first filmmaker ever to cast a Jewish actor, Ed Wynn, as Santa Claus, in Babes in Toyland. We ought to give Disney the benefit of the doubt. Such attacks, including the recent one by Ms. Streep, constitute the repetition of a vicious rumor that has no basis in anything that can be thought of as fact."