Abigail Disney Is Deconstructing and Rebuilding the American Dream

Some employees of the “happiest place on Earth” can barely afford housing and food, while the CEO makes an annual salary in the multi-millions.

abigail-disney-documentary-the-american-dream-and-other-fairy-tales-review-workers-rights-union
Still from The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales. (Courtesy of Fork Films)

At its core, Abigail Disney’s new documentary, The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales, is about our social responsibility to ensure the welfare of those around us. It even begins with a quote from a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks: “We are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”

Granddaughter of Roy Disney, co-founder of the eponymous, multi-billion dollar company along with his brother Walt, filmmaker and activist Abigail Disney has been speaking out for years about the U.S. wealth gap, as well as asking the company that bears her name (but which she has no power over) to do better in its treatment of workers, community members and the American public at large. Her work and advocacy come together in this incisive and engaging new documentary, out in select theaters and on streaming Sept. 23, 2022.

The American Dream starts as a story about the Disney Company—interweaving the personal testimony of some of its lowest paid employees with Abigail Disney’s own memories and musings on the company’s origins—but it builds, with tremendous nuance, into something much bigger. Not only does the film call out the greed at the heart of many corporations’ exploitation of their workers, but it adeptly navigates economic and political history to tell us how we got to this point: a point where even some employees of the “happiest place on Earth” can barely afford housing and food while the CEO makes an annual salary in the multi-millions.

Highlighting the importance of labor politics and advocacy alongside the humanity and tenacity of workers living the reality of income inequality day-in-and-day-out, Disney’s documentary is insightful and persuasive, a sharply organized, artfully shot (including some truly fantastic animated sequences), and thoughtfully researched deep dive into American capitalism, corporate power and how we might band together to stop them.

The following interview between filmmaker Abigail Disney and Ms. writer Aviva Dove-Viebahn is included in full, with only minor edits for clarity.

The trailer for Abigail Disney’s new documentary, The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales.

Aviva Dove-Viebahn: It struck me right away while watching your documentary that many people you talk to have these fond childhood and even adult associations with Disney that are at odds with their experiences of working for the company. You even talk about having similar contradictory feelings yourself. I imagine viewers of the documentary are going to have some of those same feelings.

How can we can reconcile those two things: needing Disney to be this magical place and wanting more from it?

Abigail Disney: Isn’t that just the story of America? I get a lot of criticism for criticizing something nice, and I’m accused of hating it. I don’t understand that. When you really love something, don’t you look at it, really look at it, and you offer that thing and yourself the grace of seeing it whole and with truth? I consider it an act of love to understand the wholeness of Disney and all that it is in its good and its bad. I want to see it be better.

First of all, I allow myself to entertain the doubts and the anger and the bad feelings. Second of all, I want Americans to demand better from Disney. I want people to register their dismay. I want them, if necessary, not to go, if it means that you’re giving money to an operation that is treating people badly.

You see in the film toward the end, there’s a picket line, and you see people walking right through, not giving it a second thought. Twenty or 30 years ago, there would not be such blitheness about walking through a picket line, and we need to treat all the picket lines with that kind of respect.

We need to support the union movement in this country. Our middle class has been eviscerated. There are consequences to this. I think we need to put the well-being of this country ahead of our own personal happiness.

We need to retell ourselves the story of America through the eyes of workers. … We wouldn’t have weekends, we wouldn’t have child labor laws, we wouldn’t have safe workplaces, had it not been for collective bargaining and organized labor.

Abigail Disney

Dove-Viebahn: Since you’ve brought up unions, could you speak a bit more to how you see unions, workers’ rights movements, and labor politics as part of the larger field of social justice initiatives having a resurgence in recent years?

Disney: If you take a 30,000-foot view of this country, you can’t tell the story without a labor story—especially since the industrial revolution, especially since the end of slavery. We really need to retell ourselves the story of America through the eyes of workers. It hasn’t always been good news, but, in the beginning of the 20th century, the labor movement advanced a discourse around rights that we should all be very grateful for. We wouldn’t have weekends, we wouldn’t have child labor laws, we wouldn’t have safe workplaces, had it not been for collective bargaining and organized labor.

The labor movement writ large has a checkered history in terms of race and gender and immigration. I think that’s a shame, but, as with Disneyland, you look at it with enough love to be able to criticize it and then invest your energy in making it right.

What I know in my heart is that without collective bargaining, in some form, whether it’s unions or some other para-union type organizations, we all live at the mercy of Jeff Bezos, we all live at the mercy of Bob Iger. Is that really the society you want to live in? A society where the key decisions about the majority of people’s lives are made by billionaires who have entirely lost touch with, and have no motivation to care, about what happens to people who work every single day to make ends meet? Collective bargaining is the heart and soul of democratic society. We can’t live without it.

How can we can reconcile those two things: needing Disney to be this magical place and wanting more from it?

Aviva Dove-Viebahn
abigail-disney-documentary-the-american-dream-and-other-fairy-tales-review-workers-rights-union
Still from The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales. (Courtesy of Fork Films)

Dove-Viebahn: Along those lines, Disney is often thought of as a fairly progressive company that cares about diversity and inclusion, particularly in its programming—films, streaming, television—and in terms of representation around gender, race, and, somewhat ambivalently, around LGBTQ issues. There’s obviously a disconnect somewhere; where do you see it happening?  

Disney: What you’re describing is the same disconnect you see at the center of the Democratic Party. [This] is where you see what you might call an average garden-variety, American liberal who is completely comfortable with diversity and wants to see LGBTQ rights, and they say all the right things, but when it comes down to how the money is divided up, all of a sudden, they’re different. That’s your classic, American neoliberal, right? They still are very invested in the market system and the idea that there’s a market answer to every problem. They still deeply believe that ownership should be rewarded more than work.

This is the heart and soul of the problem with the Democratic party right now and where we’re at odds with each other inside the party. Most corporations will say all the right things or many of the right things around social justice issues, but when it comes to divvying up the power and the money, they have a very different agenda.

Dove-Viebahn: It’s been a joke for a while now, that, for many corporations, as soon as it’s Pride month, for example, everything turns to rainbows.

Disney: Exactly. Corporations have one agenda, and it’s to make money. In the last 20 years, it’s not just that they’re being “woke.” There’s money in it for them.

Dove-Viebahn: And your documentary very persuasively connects the issues you’re describing with capitalism and corporate greed, and, in turn, connects those to white fear. That was not a direction I was expecting from the film. Why did you feel that was an important part of the story?

Disney: You know, Heather McGhee says a very important thing in her book, The Sum of Us, which is that if you’re going structure an economy around one class or several classes of people being suppressed, if that’s fine with you, what makes you think that that suppression isn’t going to come and bite you in the ass at some point? As long as that is happening, that festering sore right in the middle, it is always going to come back and swallow us all, is what she says.

So, it’s very important to say that the problems we’re pointing at for workers at Disney have been problems for workers of color, for disabled people, for immigrants, for women, for lots of different marginalized people, forever. This isn’t a new reality. This is a spreading reality. So, the festering [has] simply spread.

That’s why we’re very careful not to say, let’s go back to when it was the 1950s; that’s a terrible mistake. We need to rebuild this around the idea that everybody deserves dignity; everybody deserves full access and representation and rights.

The problems we’re pointing at for workers at Disney have been problems for workers of color, for disabled people, for immigrants, for women, for lots of different marginalized people, forever.

Abigail Disney
abigail-disney-documentary-the-american-dream-and-other-fairy-tales-review-workers-rights-union
Still from The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales. (Courtesy of Fork Films)

Dove-Viebahn: You also have a long-standing relationship with feminist advocacy, as well, including Ms. and its publisher, the Feminist Majority Foundation. Do you see labor issues as feminist issues?

Disney: Oh, absolutely. Labor issues are entirely feminist issues. One of the reasons we’re having this awakening now, one of the reasons we’re seeing the “Great Resignation,” as they keep calling it, is because these are primarily service jobs. And why are service jobs poorly paid? Because they were primarily held by women and people of color.

We used to call it the pink-collar ghetto, right? Teaching, waitressing, hotel maids—all of the service jobs that men have now increasingly moved into because the manufacturing jobs and the blue-collar jobs have disappeared from this country. Now we just call them service jobs. There’s a history of paying them badly for a reason: because they were low-power individuals.

Again, if you’ve structured an economy around the idea that there’s a certain class of people that doesn’t deserve full respect, that doesn’t deserve to be paid fairly for the work they do—let’s remember the justification for the pink-collar ghetto: They weren’t really raising families. Their husbands were earning the money. They were just earning a little extra on the side for their families.

That’s actually a thing that’s been said to me about Disney workers: Aren’t they just fresh out of college? Isn’t this their first job? 

How many people fresh out of college don’t have a debt to pay off, first of all? Second of all, if they did XYZ, you pay them for XYZ, regardless of the circumstances they bring with them into that job. Likewise with the pink-collar ghetto; they should have been paid fairly for the work they were doing, but because we dug such a deep hole by tolerating their abuse, we now live in the hole all of us together.

abigail-disney-documentary-the-american-dream-and-other-fairy-tales-review-workers-rights-union
Still from The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales. (Courtesy of Fork Films)

Dove-Viebahn: What do you hope that viewers take away from this film? Part of your message is about telling corporations like Disney, and other corporations, that they need to do better—but what can we do as individuals?

Disney: There’s a mindset shift that has to happen, and that’s why I focus so much on the Powell Memo in the ’70s and ’80s and how people consciously changed the agenda; they changed the story. I know that sounds like pie in the sky, that I feel like we can shift our sensibilities. But we have to. We have to shift the narrative in this country.

Heather [McGhee] says it best: “The economy is not the weather.” It is a constructed thing. We need to take it back and construct it so that it accommodates the real human beings who are living the consequences of it.

Dove-Viebahn: And if there’s one thing that people walking out of the theater could do, what would that be?

Disney: Vote. Vote, vote, vote. Let’s bring people in. I want people to feel encouraged by one thing. Those folks on January 6th—obviously our politics are night and day, mountains apart, around gay rights, race, a million things. But, you know, when they talk about elites and corporations not having their interests and shutting them out, they are not wrong. We are so much less far apart than we think we are. If there were a way to pull people together around that, we would have a very different politics.

A Fork Films Production in association with Chicago Media Project, The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales opens in select cities and via streaming on September 23, 2022. It is directed & produced by Abigail E. Disney and Kathleen Hughes.

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About

Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.'s Scholar Writing Program.