Walt Disney once said, “Being a celebrity doesn’t even seem to keep the fleas off our dogs — and if being a celebrity won’t give me an advantage over a couple of fleas, then I guess there can’t be much in being a celebrity after all.” Perhaps Walt had the right attitude about being a celebrity. However, in January of 2014, actress Meryl Streep decided to use her celebrity status to personally attack the legendary icon.
At an appearance to present an award at the National Board of Review awards ceremony she went after Walt Disney and said he was a man who “had some racist proclivities” and “supported an anti-Semitic industry lobbying group and [was] a gender bigot.”
Ms. 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.”
Now as you might imagine, the remarks created quite a stir and drew a lot of reaction. As you read them, depending on who you are, your life experience, and your opinion of Meryl Streep or Walt Disney you might have reacted as well. But when you read or hear what was said there are two really important questions to ponder…. The What and The Why?
The What is of course…what she said and more importantly… is it true?
So what about the what?
The letter she quoted written in 1938 found the Hollywood of the day to be an era where women were not a part of animation departments and were confined to inking and painting in all Hollywood studios. That was not a Disney created issue, that was the practice in the entertainment industry during that era.
However, if Meryl would have looked closer and done her research she would have found there were a number of women working at Disney on the creative side of film-making during that time, mostly in story development. Which was breaking the tradition and cultural norms of the day.
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.” That quote stands in stark contrast to the form letter Streep so passionately quoted. 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.” (* dates and quotes above from the Hollywood Reporter)
A little less headline grabbing and a little more research would have shown Meryl that Mary Blair, Retta Scott, Bianca Majolie and Sylvia Holland managed to emerge in an industry that was predominately male… and became some of Walt’s favorites. He trusted them, encouraged them, and helped make them successful. Disney was at the front of change and by the 1950s a group of talented women made their careers, their futures, and their legacy at the Walt Disney Studios.
According to Floyd Norman, Walt was not racist or an anti-Semetic. In his blog after Ms. Streep’s comments (Sophie’s Poor Choice), he penned… “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. (note- he was referring to himself as Floyd Norman was the first African American animator hired by Walt) 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?”
“It would be unfair to label him an anti-Semite himself,” wrote Neal Gabler in 2009. Gabler created the extensive biography on Walt entitled Walt Disney. “There is no evidence whatsoever in the extensive Disney Archives of any anti-Semitic remarks or actions by Walt.” Walt 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.
And the organization she hinted at, yes… Walt did indeed belong to a lobbying group when most in Hollywood backed away. But the real reason behind that was because of his staunch stance against communism. Which history reveals is why Walt joined the group at all.
Was Walt Disney perfect? No, of course not. Was he a saint? Saint Walt? Nope…he was far from perfect just like all of us. But as for the “What?” of Ms. Streep’s accusations. Well, if you look at history you discover they just are not true.
So then we move to the Why? …. Why did she say what she said?
Why… why… why?
The why is much trickier. Why would you say something untrue about a man you have never met? Why would you say something about his studio which you never worked for? Why would you comment on a history that you know nothing of? All of those are fair questions simply because Meryl Streep made the comments with the intention of getting some kind of reaction or attention.
Actors are sometimes much more fun to watch and easier to enjoy when they stay on script. They are masters at bringing stories to life on the screen from a script. It is when they don’t have a script or are reading from the wrong script that their storytelling can go horribly wrong. That seems to be what has happened here.
Walt himself said, “I have no use for people who throw their weight around as celebrities, or for those who fawn over you just because you are famous.”
This was a moment when Ms. Streep used her celebrity to grind an ax, share her unfounded beliefs, and make a point that was important to her… never considering whether it was based in truth or founded in falsehoods. She decided to tell a story. And the story just doesn’t have enough truth to back it up.
None of us, except Ms. Streep can accurately answer the “why” she said what she said. In the moment she made the statements she was presenting an award. She wasn’t really thinking about Walt Disney, his family, his history, his legacy, his fans, or his impact. It is easy to say hurtful and untruthful things when you are not thinking about the person you are saying them about.
Because, if you were thinking about them…well, you would never say them. Especially if you didn’t know for sure they were true. That just isn’t nice and is uncalled for.
Ah…that does sound critical doesn’t it? Yet, the criticism isn’t aimed at Meryl Streep, it is aimed at me, and perhaps at you (or at least someone you know if that is easier) Here is what I mean. All of us have said things that have hurt others at some point. When we did it, the person we were talking about was not as important at that moment as we were. The most important thing in that moment when we say such things is to be heard, to have someone notice what we are saying, and to find others who will agree.
In life, there is a lesson for all of us in this… when we say things that hurt, insult, or damage the reputation of others. Especially when we are spreading rumor, lies, and don’t really have a frame of reference we either feel satisfied when we have said what we said… or… in hindsight, wish we hadn’t done it. We might even feel sorry for the hurt we caused, regret it, learn from it, and become better for it.
So although her commentary on Walt Disney was bitter, perhaps the end result will somehow make Meryl Streep better.
Any bad moment contains that potential.
I thought the Walt Disney Family Museum (founded by Walt’s family) had a great response. They invited Meryl to come to the museum and take a tour. In doing so, they suggested she might discover the truth. When you know what the truth is, you can offer than kind of invitation. If Meryl Streep wants to really discover the truth, perhaps she will take them up on her offer.
Actors tell stories that can impact others.
Your life tells a story that impacts others.
Walt Disney lived a life that told a story.
Norman’s blog said this about Walt’s story, “He was not a perfect man nor did we expect him to be. Like most of us, he continued to grow as he moved through life and in time he recognized women could compete alongside men. He knew that talent had no color or ethnicity and he judged people by their ability to do their job and do it well. Walt Disney was a man of his time, but he was determined not to be imprisoned by it. He dreamed of a better world and even had the audacity to try and build it. Hardly an American to be vilified. Walt Disney deserves to be celebrated.”
Remember the story you are telling can change the world.
If you don’t know the truth about something, it is probably best to be quiet. Think before you talk. People are listening. Words can’t be taken back. Once they are spoken out loud, in our culture they can resonate for a long, long time.
Make sure you say things that build others, encourage them, make them better…those are the kind of words that will change the world. Then you have a story worth living and telling.
Jeff Dixon is an author, teacher, and transformational architect who lives in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom in Central Florida. He is the author of a series of mystery thrillers set in and around Walt Disney World that are loaded with Disney history, trivia, little known facts, and the trivia is never trivial. Discover more at www.DixonOnDisney.com (The Key to the Kingdom and Unlocking the Kingdom are available from booksellers everywhere)
For this article the sources referenced above are Floyd Norman’s blog – MrFun’s Blog, the Hollywood Reporter.com website, and Neal Gabler’s book, Walt Disney.