Welcome to the ninth and final installment of NPI at Netroots Nation 2022, a special limited podcast series recorded live from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh. NPI staff journeyed to Steel City this past week to participate in the nation’s largest annual gathering of progressive activists.
As part of our conference coverage, we’re bringing you a series of conversations with key movement leaders and elected officials.
In this installment of NPI@NN, we’re honored to be joined by Abigail Disney, activist and filmmaker. Press play below to listen to the audio, or read the transcript below.
Read the transcript
(Note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity)
CAYA: Welcome to NPI at Netroots Nation 2022, a special limited podcast series from the Northwest Progressive Institute, recorded live from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I’m your host, Caya Berndt. We’re glad to have you with us for this installment.
We are excited to be joined by filmmaker Abigail Disney!
Abigail, thank you so much for joining us!
CAYA: And we’re really thrilled to have you, too. So, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Who are you, and what do you do?
ABIGAIL: Well, my name is Abigail Disney, and that’s usually the first thing people notice about me, is I have this very funky last name.
My grandfather was Roy O. Disney, who co-founded the Walt Disney Company with his brother, Walt. They called it the Disney Brothers Company for a few years at the beginning there. My father worked at the company for fifty years. So, you know, I kind of grew up under the shadow of the Walt Disney Company.
CAYA: And tell us about this film that you are making. We had that screening at Netroots.
ABIGAIL: Yeah, we just had a great screening at Netroots, I’m very happy to say. Standing ovation. A lot of appreciation for the film, which is… I can’t tell you how much that means to me. I grew up going with my grandfather to Disneyland. That was one of the perks of being a “Disney Princess.”
And we used to go through the back entrance, the employees entrance. So when he parked in the employee parking lot, or the cast members, as they call him at Disneyland, he would get sort of mobbed by employees who were so happy to see him. He was a really, really nice man. And, and I know that I’m saying this, I’m very conscious that I’m saying this, about a guy who belonged to the John Birch Society, right? So it’s a little hard to you know, reconcile one thing with the other. I understand that. But I only knew him as this lovely man. It wasn’t until, as an adult, that I began to put into a perspective his political ideas.
But I knew him as this man who was sweet and kind and warm, and who really cared about everybody. The experience of walking into the park with him was that he remembered everybody’s name. He cared. He asked about their kids.
He hated when they called him “Mr. Disney,” he hated it. He didn’t see himself at the top of a hierarchy. He was just a guy. And when we’d come in, and the reason I know this, is because when we’d get inside the park, within about a hundred feet, he would always find a piece of garbage and pick it up off the ground.
And I asked him one time why he always did that. And he said, “because nobody’s too good to pick a piece of garbage. And I want you to know that. And I want everybody who works here to know that.”
That really shaped me a lot. And he was really strong with me about like, “you treat these people with respect, they work hard. There’s no bad behavior for the employees here, you treat them well.” So he, in spite of what we know to be his public politics, the personal side of him was very human, very caring, and he taught me that. That was the legacy he left behind for me.
CAYA: And can you tell us about the content of the film, and why you made it?
ABIGAIL: Yeah, so I kind of answered the first half of the question and not the second! It’s kind of something I do.
CAYA: It’s all good!
ABIGAIL: Yeah, so, flash forward many, many years. I’m in my sixties, and I get a Facebook message from a guy who works at Disneyland. And what he says is: “For years we’ve been fighting for better pay at the parks and better treatment. It’s really bad here. And I wonder if you would help us.”
So my first reaction to that was, There’s nothing I can do to help. I don’t have a position at the company. I don’t even own that many shares. Like, what can I possibly do? And then my second reaction to it was, Well, you know what? Just saying “no” isn’t really a satisfactory answer.
So I went out to Anaheim, and I sat with him and some of the other folks who worked at the company, and listened. And what I heard really just made me so angry, because of the way it came into conflict with my every memory, every good memory, I had of the way that place started.
In the 1950s and 60s, as a custodian at the Walt Disney Company, in the Disneyland, you could afford a middle class life. You could afford a house, a car, and food in the fridge. You could afford these things. Now, two-thirds of workers are on food stamps. Two-thirds of the hourly workers at Disneyland in California are on food stamps. One out of ten of them has been homeless in the past year.
That just made me livid, and I came away thinking, “Well, what can I do? What can I do?” And that’s how I made this film. I guess I could maybe try and make a film about it, and see if I can get people to watch because it’s not a Disney story. It’s really, everything Disney has done to destroy the work environment for people at that park, has been done by every company in America.
They’re just being typical. I’m disappointed in their wish to be typical, of course, but more than anything, it seemed important to track, because when it happens at Disney, it hurts more. You know? Because Cinderella is sleeping in her car, for God’s sake. It just, the feeling of that gets you in the gut, when you know that, it’s really important, and you should take that with you into your encounters with every story you hear from Amazon, and Starbucks, and everywhere else.
So it just seemed like if I could tell the human story of what’s changed, and how it’s changed, and why it’s changed, and really connect with people’s hearts at the Walt Disney Company, and tell it in a way that really shows that this is a broad problem, that it was man-made, and caused by individual people with a plan… then maybe we could try to start to imagine our way out of the situation.
CAYA: Yeah. And going back to what you were saying about the gut punch: I think the greater the cognitive dissonance between what you’re seeing and the backstages, and especially for something as emotionally charged as Disneyland. A lot of people have really strong feelings around Disney. This is nostalgia. This is family. And when you realize that perhaps your enjoyment is at the expense of other people’s livelihoods, or that it’s built on the backs of some really inhumane practices, that is painful.
ABIGAIL: It’s very painful. And also, one of the reasons we’re where we are is because it happened gradually. And I think Americans are not very good…they’re good at the sudden, tragic disaster. Everybody shows up with money and blankets and all the rest of it. But when it happens slowly? Actually, we’re terrible at it.
And we were warned! Everybody said, “this is what’s gonna happen.” And here it is, happening. And look, I’m telling you, this is happening. We have a million Cassandras littering the road behind us, trying to warn us. So we’re at a place that we could easily have known, and prevented, had we had the will, or the resources, or anything else. And that’s a whole other story.
So now that we’re here, let’s have a look at where we are.
Let’s really, suddenly, stop the train that’s been moving this slowly, and take stock of where we’ve landed, and ask ourselves: is this really the society we wanna live in? Is this really a representation of our values?
Are humans being prioritized here? And if the answer to any of those questions is “no” … well, then how do we go about making it better?
CAYA: What are the biggest priorities that the Disney Company can do in order to create a more equitable, better work environment for its employees?
ABIGAIL: It needs to start… I mean, for me, what’s formed at the Disney Company is typical of any corporation in America, which is there’s a C‑Suite class. So the people in the C‑Suite are the executive suites, the top management at the company. What happens in corporations is they are so separated from the work and life of the people who are employed there, that they cease to feel they have any relationship to it at all, which is why one set of reporters will call me to talk about work life at Disney and a whole second set of reporters, totally unrelated to each other, will call me about CEO pay.
I never get a call from somebody who wants to ask those questions together, because they’re not seen as having any relationship to each other! That is how thoroughly the culture has swallowed the idea that the people who inhabit the top have nothing to do with the people who inhabit the bottom.
I hate calling it “the bottom” for normative reasons, but I’ll just use it for now. So the first thing that needs to happen is the nobody’s too big to pick up a piece of garbage thing. Which is that the CEO needs to understand he’s no better than anyone else. He’s no more deserving than anyone else. That the people who break a sweat every day aren’t being paid for their sweat. While I know he works hard, there’s no planet on which he works hard enough to justify that difference.
CAYA: I’m curious to know a little more about your experiences, if you’d be willing to share them: you mentioned that when you introduce yourself to people, the first thing that people notice is your name. And you were talking a little bit before we started recording about how that presence has shaped [you]. How do you think going, moving through life, with such a recognizable name has shaped you as a person, and as a filmmaker and artist?
ABIGAIL: Well, you know, like anything you’re born with, whether it’s that you’re breathtakingly beautiful or that you have a horrible, horrible problem of some kind, whatever it is you reckon with it, or you live in peril of, living a very, well…not well-formed life. I have spent a lot of years reckoning with it, and when I was in college, it was everybody was like, Oh my God, have you met the Disney girl yet? Oh my God, what’s the Disney girl like? So that happened. That was the first time in my life that happened, really. And I was a little shocked by how much people cared. It was my first glimpse into just how big a thing it was.
And as I began to travel internationally, just how big a thing it was, was a little overwhelming, because there isn’t a country I can go to, or a corner of a country…I mean, in the Congo, they asked me if I’m related.
So, it’s a moment that you have at the beginning of every interaction with every person when they find out your last name. You have to make a decision about whether or not you’re gonna lie when they say, are you related?
For the first many years after college, I lied and said I wasn’t related, and it seemed easier. But you know, I used to watch a lot of “I Love Lucy.”
She was always lying, and then always wound up being the worst thing. I kind of form my ethics from Lucy! But I did realize it was actually complicated to lie, and there was something. When it came time to be married, I of course had the opportunity to change my name. And I had always said I couldn’t wait to change my name! And I didn’t. And I didn’t, because part of me understood that something was being asked of me by it, and that to just duck it like that would be… I’d miss something important. That sometimes felt like a burden, but was truly, in fact, an opportunity. And I had to admit that I loved it in a certain way.
So the rest of my adult life, I’ve been trying to figure out what’s being asked of me by it. I carry a responsibility and a legacy. And it’s a legacy that is complicated, especially if you’re a progressive, it’s a really complicated legacy, ‘cause, you know, Walt picked up the phone and called Joe McCarthy and said, “May I please testify?” And you could find him on YouTube testifying, and not only naming names, but spelling them, and giving home addresses!
I mean, he was not kidding! He was a serious business right-wing dude!
And what we know about how the Song of the South was made, and everything. So there’s all kinds of stuff in there that’s so yucky and hard… and yet, you love your family, you know? So you have to find a way to make one thing mesh with the other thing. And that’s what I spent my adult life doing, is trying to find a way. And there is a lot to be proud of.
One of my favorite moments with my name was meeting Medgar Evers’ daughter in Jackson, Mississippi, and she was taking us on the tour of the family home. And I noticed there were a lot of Disney books on the bookshelf, because it’s been kept exactly as it was when he was shot.
And I asked her, “So, were those important to you? Did you read them?” And she said, “Oh my God. I read them constantly. They were everything to me.”
She said, “after my father was shot and we had to leave, the harassment didn’t stop just because my father had been killed.” And so they moved to San Bernardino County and she said it was worse there than Mississippi for one thing, which is… kind of an amazing thing to know.
And she said, “My mother worked so hard as a maid, [she] raised the five of us, and she saved and saved and saved and saved, and every chance we got, we went to Disneyland. And the reason we did that was because we felt so whole there, we felt so seen and welcomed. So in spite of all that we know about Walt’s history and all of that, what he created there didn’t have that. Or at least not insofar as many, many, many people experienced it.”
And when I stand at the gate of that park and watch people coming out of it, I mean… it’s a cliche, every description, every race, every nationality… but that’s what you see coming out of Disneyland. And they’re all homogenized in a way by the fact that they’re so happy. That these families came together, that they made memories together, that they were joyful, bonding memories. I don’t want that not to exist in the world. I don’t want that not to exist in the world. I really don’t want that not to exist in the world. I feel like, and especially, of all the awful things this country has had to offer the world, this is actually the good thing.
We should remember that we offered this to the world too. And I don’t want greed and shortsightedness and all the problems that come with modern corporate culture to eat that alive, too. Along with all that it’s eaten.
CAYA: Yeah, it sounds like… I think the cognitive distancing is the part that I keep coming back to. You know, you have some people who could just as easily argue, well, as long as the end product is creating this illusion, or this world for people to kind of come in, and exit, and just feel those happy moments, then who cares about what goes on behind the scenes?
ABIGAIL: Yeah. And there are plenty of people who come and go from the park feeling that way, and know perfectly well what’s going on behind the magic curtain. There will always be people like that.
But I think that one of the special things about Disneyland, especially, is that a real relationship forms between the people who work there and the people who come there, because from the beginning, those people who work there were seen as part of the experience of being at Disneyland. They help you take pictures, and they help you find a bathroom, and they help calm your crying baby. I mean, they’re very much woven into the ideal experience of a visitor to Disneyland.
So there’s a natural affinity that forms between the people who work there and people who come there, especially the people who have scrimped and saved for so long because the prices have gotten so high.
So I think that making solidarity between the people who come there, and people who work there is a pretty easy task.
CAYA: Actually, fun fact: I have never been to Disneyland. I have never been to Disneyland! I have never been to Disney World. I’m at the age now where I don’t want to go to Disneyland. Not because I feel like I’m too old for kids movies, because I’m absolutely not, but because I’ve heard too many stories from former employees, from backgrounds and I could not, in good conscience, walk into the happiest place on earth and know that that happiness doesn’t extend to everybody.
ABIGAIL: Right. And that’s exactly why it needs to be saved from itself. That’s exactly why it needs to be saved. You can hide that information for only so long.
CAYA: And it’s really encouraging because I feel like our public’s appetite for that is growing, especially with [the] renewed labor union organizing that’s been happening across the country.
ABIGAIL: Absolutely. And in 2018, when I started filming, the unions had come together for the first time, because, you know, it’s almost surprising that there are unions at Disneyland, because it opened in 1955, and they were both such anti-union guys that you wouldn’t have expected… but of course, in 1955 the government was powerful, and it supported unions. And so you couldn’t open that park without unions! Those unions were literally grandfathered in, so you can’t get rid of them, which is great, but they were pit against each other, and they just constantly used a divide-and-conquer strategy to keep wages low.
And so it was finally in 2018 when they said, “Oh no, we’re not doing that anymore. We’re not just negotiating this contract and that contract, we’re gonna come together and we’re gonna make a case for… there used to be one base pay, and it can’t be as low as it’s been.”
When I started talking to people, it was $11.25, $11.15, maybe.
In 2018 or 2017, I can’t remember which year, by the time we started shooting, it had gone up to $15, which felt like a victory, but it wasn’t a victory, because the living wage in Anaheim is $24 an hour. So a lot had to be done, and a lot of ground has to be made up. I will say that, and I’m very proud of this, there are noises coming outta the union. The negotiations are still quiet right now, but the noises are that there’s gonna be a big move by Disney.
A big move, in offering a substantively large raise to the hotel workers, the custodians and janitors at the hotels. So if that’s true, and God, I hope it’s true, that means that the unions have figured out exactly what’s the right combination of noise and negotiation, and they have come together in solidarity, and worked together to enhance their power. And I hope that this film had some effect already, even before it’s out. And that feels like a dream come true.
Talk about a Disney story!
CAYA: I wanna see a Disney movie about a union organizer.
ABIGAIL: Yeah, exactly!
CAYA: So, we are just about at time. I just have a couple more questions for you. One of the things about unionization is that both employers and employees can fall prey to disinformation, misinformation, and anti-union propaganda, even though, historically, unions benefit employees as well as employers. What can people do to convince management, or have those conversations, to convince them that unionization benefits everybody?
ABIGAIL: You know, I’m all over the place about this, because I really think that the anti-union belief system is so deeply wired into the contemporary crop of CEOs, who are all of one particular generation, and who really cut their teeth on an ideology that came from Milton Friedman. They were told not only that unions are evil, but that if they weren’t making as much money as possible, they were bad people. They were given moral cover for bad behavior, and they cling to that like it’s the last lifeguard on the boat that’s sinking. I sometimes wonder that they’re a lost generation, and that there needs to be a new generation.
What I’m hearing from business schools, especially my friend at the Harvard Business School, who teaches the ethics class, which, when she started, was an optional class that was three weeks long and nobody paid any attention to it.
It’s now a required two-semester class, and it’s one of the most popular classes at Harvard. And what she says is, what she’s teaching is, it’s possible to do this well. It’s possible to do this without destroying people, and let me show you all the ways. And she said half of the first year business students are already there.
She doesn’t have to persuade anybody of anything.
And that’s really heartening, because business school classes are self-selected groups of people who are very committed to capitalism, but at least, regardless of what you think of the future of capitalism, at least it will be populated, at least at the highest level from the Harvard Business School, by half of them, people who are determined to do it differently and better.
I don’t count on the idea that the kindness of CEOs, everybody just locking arms and singing “Kumbaya,” it changes anything. But I also don’t think locking arms and “Kumbaya” singing is to anybody’s detriment, and it wouldn’t hurt for people to expect better behavior from themselves, and from everyone around them, in the business community. That will get us halfway there.
CAYA: I’m sure you’ve gotten this question quite a bit, but what was the most challenging part of making this film?
ABIGAIL: I got shadowed by the publicity department at Disney every step of the way. As an example, when I went to speak before Congress, I found out that the Disney lobbyists had personally called and harangued people on both sides of the aisle to prevent me from speaking at all. This is a very powerful company. This is the largest media company in the history of the universe, and how much they own, and how much they control, and how much they control just by being scary is… if we were at any other time in history, we would be talking about antitrust laws. Because they should not have the power they have.
So there’s been, for me, a certain amount of fear. That I might get smeared, that I’ll get attacked. And I probably still will, I think they’re waiting for the film to come out to do that. And then, dealing with the fear of other people who don’t wanna piss them off, in terms of distribution, getting trailers cut, and all that kind of thing. I had five different animators say, “I would love to work with you, but I’d like a future too.” So, there’s… I have to deal with that. And I knew I would, and it’s not the worst thing, but it does make me sad.
CAYA: Yeah, it’s sad to confront that in real time. I mean, I’m, kind of feeling like, my palm started sweating just a bit while you were talking about having this big corporation looming over your shoulder, and hearing from people, “Hey, I want to help you, but I can’t because I’m afraid, too.”
ABIGAIL: Yeah. And I can’t tell you how many times that’s been the case. So, that is a challenge. And it only makes me madder. So, that’s actually kind of, like a supercharged…
CAYA: It has the effect of actually getting you going even further. Like, “that’s why I need to put this film out!”
ABIGAIL: Yeah, exactly.
CAYA: I just realized we never actually said what the film was called!
ABIGAIL: Oh! Let me just sum it all up for you. It’s called “The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales,” and it opens on September 23rd.
CAYA: That was gonna be my next question.
ABIGAIL: And it opens, well, it’s gonna play in Orlando first, and then in Anaheim night, one night, and then the next night, because I want to put out a red carpet, and I want the workers to walk the red carpet. That’s been my fantasy since I started this freaking film! And then on the 23rd, we’re gonna open in, I think, eight cities, and on the online platforms that charge TVOD – it’s called transactional video on demand – so, unfortunately, one of them is Amazon.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry….
CAYA: I mean, you gotta do what you gotta do!
ABIGAIL: But it is what it is. I can only get outside the system so far. I’m a salmon swimming alone up the stream. So, it will be available. And if you come to our website, which I cannot remember, come to the Twitter page or whatever, we’re @americandreamdoc, and you can find a place where you can sign up to host screenings. We’re gonna have a discussion guide. We really encourage people to host screenings because the conversation after the screening is really, really important. And we really wanna screen as much as possible in the run-up to the elections because people like Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada and other places, they need all of the bodies to show up at the polls.
This is huge. We can’t let Nevada go down the rat hole.
We can’t let Florida go any further down the rat hole. We want everybody to come stream, host, sign up, whatever it is, please, please.
CAYA: Thank you very much. And I will put the information in our post on the Cascadia Advocate for our listeners. So if you’re interested in checking out, more about this film, how to sign up and host your own screening, if you have any local indie movie theaters at home that you want to maybe kind of nudge and say, “Hey, have you considered this?”
ABIGAIL: And I should tell you, we just got a standing ovation here at Netroots Nation.
CAYA: That’s so amazing.
ABIGAIL: I’m very proud of that.
CAYA: You should be proud! You have a lot to be proud of! So my final question, I end all my interviews this way, is: what is bringing you joy lately?
ABIGAIL: What is bringing me joy lately? This conference is bringing me actually some of the first genuine joy that I’ve had in a while.
I’m an extrovert. And there was a period during the pandemic where I was thinking, “Oh my God, have I been transformed into an introvert? This is terrible!” And I was like, even for a long time after we were set free, I was kind of hating being in public. And this conference is the first time where I’m genuinely in heaven being among people, my people, people I love, people I admire. And I’m feeling this new energy coming back, and it’s great.
CAYA: That’s fantastic. Thank you very much for joining us, Abigail.
ABIGAIL: Thank you. That was Abigail Disney at NPI at Netroots Nation 2022. Thank you very much for joining us again! Stay tuned for all of our installments. You can find them on the Cascadia Advocate. Again, I will be dropping the information about the film in our post.
So, for NPI, I’m Caya Berndt, we’ll see you next time!