“You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story…”
It is hard to deny the salience of this lyric penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda in his Broadway smash Hamilton. Still, it is difficult not to catch a whiff of irony, as the show itself dramatizes and in some cases fabricates events in the life of Alexander Hamilton. Save a few pettifogging pedagogues, no one will bat an eye at Hamilton’s inaccuracies because it tells an enthralling, exciting story whose success have proven it is “not a moment, it’s the movement.”
Given Hamilton’s multigenerational cultural impact, it’s hardly any surprise its distribution rights were purchased by the Walt Disney Company, who has made (or at least acquired) some of the most enduring stories in modern times. Yet of the many stories it has told, none has been more marred, misappropriated, and misconstrued as that of its founder – Walt Disney. Just as culture has lionized Hamilton as a “woke” founding father, it has simultaneously endeared Walt Disney as America’s favorite uncle, trivialized him as a whimsical cartoonist, and vilified him as a vicious bigot. The story told by the Walt Disney Company differs starkly from that of his biographers, which differs still from the armchair sleuths and bloggers. Like a bad tee-shirt, Walt has been trichotomized into the “man, the myth, and the legend,” with “the man” being the least-known and most-ignored aspect of his narrative.
Studying the different spins history has put on Walt’s life, I have come to realize it is less often what you do or who you are that defines your legacy, but how history talks about it. The example of Walt Disney puts into perspective just how much power storytellers have when they decide to adapt another individual’s life. It is quite literally make or break.
Without a doubt, the most pervasive representation of Walt is that of a folk hero, or a pop culture god. Avid Disney fans practically worship him, reciting the liturgies of his overused quotes and critiquing every move of the Walt Disney Company based on what they think “Walt would want.” Indeed, this fanaticism has been fueled by the narratives spun by the company’s marketing machine during the Eisner era. One need only sit through the “One Man’s Dream” attraction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios to see the pixie-dusted history purported by the company. The film overstates his “small town” upbringing, ascribes him the sole authorship of Mickey Mouse (poor Ub Iwerks), and pretends the ultimate aim of his life was to fill the world with Disneylands. While they paint his merits and accomplishments with justified pride, they oversimplify him as a saccharine dreamer.
It is undeniable that this rose-tinted depiction of Walt is partially his own doing. He was a true marketing genius who understood the immaculate brand of Walt Disney had to be separate from the person of Walt Disney. Still, the Walt Disney Company has taken license with their founder’s story for the sake of commodity. For instance, the messaging around EPCOT’s remodel into the latest IP roll call feebly claims to take inspiration from Walt’s cutting-edge vision of a futuristic city and boldly assumes his imprimatur with a new statue of his likeness. Look also at the 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks, which establishes Walt as the hero who won over the incorrigible P. L. Travers with his adaptation of Mary Poppins, when the famed author actually despised the film to her death. History definitely is written by the victors; in this case, they are the Disney shareholders.
Perhaps Disney can be forgiven the commodification of its founder. After all it wouldn’t be the first company to do so (just look at KFC). At least the company line is far closer to reality than the sensationalists rumors that condemn him as a racist, anti-Semitic, and misogynistic quack. Born out of union smear jobs from the 1941 animator’s strike and codified in the slanderous pseudo-biography Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince, these rumors have fueled unfair parody and promulgation among the cynical side of pop culture. Despite having no factual basis, Walt Disney’s alleged anti-Semitism has been lampooned in mainstream programs like Saturday Night Live and Family Guy (ironically, now a Disney property). It has even gone so far as to inspire a bizarre opera by the talented composer Phillip Glass, which delineates Walt as a paranoid, quasi-Hitlerian powermonger. While these depictions may seem inconsequential, the mendacity that underlies them have brought some prominent media sources to ponder the removal of the famous “Partners” statues across Disney parks.
Far more scathing than antic stories of Walt Disney’s cryogenically head, the reliably debunked lies are commonly accepted as fact by the casual web surfer. While it is indubitable that a man born in 1901 had a different vision of society than modernity, some presumably credible sources would send his legacy the way of a Confederate general’s. Whether for profit, notoriety, or a cheap laugh, some storytellers have chosen to unfoundedly malign a man who can no longer speak for himself. In doing so, they have recklessly and dishonestly tarnished the reputation of a truly admirable individual. Sadly, their carelessness will have its own legacy.
Many biographers have attempted to excavate legend and myth to arrive at who “the man” Walt Disney was. Some have painted more full flattering pictures than others, but most correctly arrive at the fact that he was an extraordinary, flawed human being. While not exactly the Tom Sawyer-like figure he made himself out to be, Walt did rise from a difficult childhood and bet his fortunes multiple times on ventures that were insanely risky in their day. Although he was a man with big ideas, he had simple joys and a great love of his family. According to his daughter Diane Disney Miller, “No one understands that he was really just a dad.” He smoked, swore, and lost his temper, but he also loved, created, and dared the world to be a little better.
Biographies are not encyclopedia entries, and they certainly reflect the author’s bias for or against the subject. Still, storytellers like Jim Korkis and Neal Gabler have done exhaustive work to accurately frame Walt the person, warts and all. Sadly, these well-researched and compellingly written works are not the stories that most will ever know. To cite the Hamilton Effect©, people will flock to the most spectacular and alluring telling of history, not the truest to life.
Artistic license is important tool to the creator. It allows him or her to do what best serves the story without the trammels of messy reality. As Mary Poppins would say, it is the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. It is positive in the sense that it attracts more awareness and interest in a subject than would otherwise exist; but the stakes are high. If the work is successful, it will become the baseline knowledge on that subject for most of the public, sometimes well into the future. When that subject is a human being, there is added responsibility. How you represent them could become the dominant perception across time, for better or for worse.
People are complex, whether you’re a cultural icon like Walt Disney or just Jared Wells from Indiana. We have all played heroes and villains in the intersecting stories of those our lives touch. Remember that should you ever decide to tell another person’s story, because someday, someone might want to tell yours. History is not always kind, and once written, it is not always easy to retract.