Cinderella May Be Sleeping in Her Car

Abigail Disney Dissects the Family Business

Abigail Disney is a millionaire many times over. Granddaughter of Roy Disney, who founded the entertainment empire with his brother, Walt, she always has been and always will be rich. Throughout her newest documentary, The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales, she acknowledges her privilege time and again. But she manages to make the story less about her and more about the workers in Disney theme parks who cannot afford apartments or groceries. More broadly, she presents an easy-to-watch primer on how U.S. workers have been losing ground since the Reagan administration. 

The film follows a handful of workers at Disneyland. The Walt Disney Company, now a publicly traded multinational, calls theme park employees “cast members.” They organize hoping for better wages through their union. A couple with children and two single women appear throughout the film talking about the struggles of working at the Happiest Place on Earth. All are living with friends or family because they cannot afford a place of their own. One talked about a period where she lived in her van. They volunteer together in a food pantry specifically for “cast members” and use it themselves. Disney is co-director of the film with Kathleen Hughes and also serves as the onscreen interviewer. When she asks a large group of park employees if they know coworkers receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits,, most raise their hands.

Disney reminisces about the Disneyland of her childhood, when she says that park employees could afford to raise families and buy modest homes. We see footage of Abigail testifying before Congress that “Yes, managers have a fiduciary obligation to their shareholders. But they also have a legal and moral responsibility to deliver returns to shareholders without trampling on the dignity and rights of their employees and other stakeholders.”  

Indiana Rep. Trey Hollingsworth angrily accuses her of advocating “socialism.” Far from it. Disney is calling only for reasonable limits on capitalism, such as the reinvigoration of organized labor and limitations on skyrocketing CEO pay. She tries to talk with Disney’s then CEO Bob Iger about his compensation, which was $47 million in fiscal 2019. The film was shot in 2020, when Iger took a pay cut because of the COVID crisis and had to live on just $21 million. Those figures are hard to hear when the camera rests on workers, sorry–cast members– furloughed from their jobs during the pandemic and fearing permanent layoff. 

Disney emails “Bob,” whom she describes as a “nice.” Iger refers her to his head of human resources, who talks about the company’s education program. Disney finally sends a copy of the film to him as a follow up. The filmmakers solicited comment from the Walt Disney Company, but no one sat down for an interview.

The film is strengthened by extended interviews with Heather McGhee, author of The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. McGhee provides the critical perspective that the good old days of the growing middle class, when a janitor at Disneyland could buy a house, were not so good for everyone. Government subsidies that made home ownership possible for so many excluded Black and brown people by design. The good union jobs that created a decent standard of living went overwhelmingly to white men. McGhee and Disney give a history lesson on how neoliberalism removed capitalism’s muzzle and how government investment was directed away from families in favor of corporations. The city of Anaheim, for example, paid for a Disney resorts behemoth parking garage that it rents to the company for $1 a year.

DSA members won’t see much they did not already know about wealth inequality and government giveaways to the rich. But the film is a very clear and convincing introduction to these ideas for your friends and relatives who have not gotten the memo yet.

Though, as I said, Disney does not make it all about her, her own reaction to the company that shares her name is instructive. She has no role in the management of the company and has actively spoken out to its executives about their immoral treatment of workers and other social justice issues. But as a shareholder she profits from that corporate evil. It is a wonderful frame for understanding white privilege, which is a wonderful frame for understanding original sin. You don’t have to do anything to be tainted. 

The only salvation for white people like myself, of course, is to face the truth, to be aware of the years of injustice that still smile on us, and to tear down the structures that prevent equity. That’s what The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales tries to do. Of course, no single act of advocacy can finish the job. It’s the work of a lifetime– at least. 

That work is struggle. A bit of entertainment can help keep us going. Several times since watching the documentary, I have imagined Bob Iger opening an email and seeing a film about the obscene gap between him and the people who do the work to make Walt Disney Company profitable. That’s something close to magic.