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Bob Iger says 'woke' Disney is over, but it may not silence his critics

Lucia Moses,Madeline Berg   

Bob Iger says 'woke' Disney is over, but it may not silence his critics
  • Disney CEO Bob Iger wants people to know the company isn't trying to advance a political agenda.
  • Conservatives have criticized the company for having LBGTQ+ and diverse roles in its storytelling.

Disney CEO Bob Iger emphasized that the company would focus on entertaining over advancing "any kind of agenda," just after the media giant survived a proxy fight waged by activist shareholders.

Asked during Disney's annual shareholder meeting Q&A on April 3 if the company would just provide entertainment and stay out of politics, Iger said Disney's job was to "entertain, first and foremost."

"I've always believed that we have a responsibility to do good in the world, but we know our job is not to advance any kind of agenda," he said on the live-streamed meeting. "For as long as I'm in the job, I'm going to continue to be guided by a sense of decency and respect, and we'll always trust our instincts."

It's a message Iger has been keen to send since his return as CEO in November 2022.

During an April 2023 analyst call, he was asked a similar question about "promoting the woke agenda."

"I'm sensitive to that," he answered. "Our primary mission needs to be to entertain and then through our entertainment to continue to have a positive impact on the world. And I'm very serious about that. It should not be agenda-driven."

Then, in September, he told investors that the company would "quiet the noise" when it came to culture wars, Reuters reported.

He doubled down on the message at November's DealBook summit when he said his company's movies were too focused on messaging and did not prioritize quality storytelling.

"Creators lost sight of what their number one objective needed to be" — to entertain — he said at the summit.

"I've used 'Black Panther' as a great example of that just in terms of fostering acceptance, or the movie 'Coco,' which Pixar did about the Day of the Dead," he added. "I like being able to do that, entertain and if you can infuse it with positive messages, have a good impact on the world, fantastic. But that should not be the objective."

Iger was even willing to put a pin in the long-running feud between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Disney over the state's so-called "Don't Say Gay" law. In a surprising move, Disney and Florida settled their legal dispute in March.

Over the last several years, Disney has become a target of conservative politicians like DeSantis and social media voices — including, most recently, Elon Musk. Some criticize the company for including LGBTQ+ characters and elements in stories — like a same-sex kiss in "Lightyear" and nonbinary character in "Elemental" — while others took issue with a Black Ariel in the recent "Little Mermaid."

Iger's distancing from what some have called a "woke agenda" came as he battled a proxy fight from activist investor Nelson Peltz.

Peltz made "woke" Disney a plank of his campaign, questioning Marvel's "Black Panther" and "The Marvels" that cast Black and female leads, respectively.

"Why do I have to have a Marvel that's all women? Not that I have anything against women, but why do I have to do that? Why can't I have Marvels that are both? Why do I need an all-Black cast?" he said in a Financial Times interview last month.

No matter how much Iger insists that the company's focus is entertainment, Disney will likely still produce content that reflects the world around it and introduces new characters — Iger has made clear that those movies can still be perfectly entertaining.

But even that will continue to agitate social conservatives. Just take the vicious online reactions to its new "Star Wars: The Acolyte" series on Disney+, made by a female showrunner.

With a company as embedded in the culture as Disney is, it doesn't take much for it to upset longtime fans, much less culture warriors. And with Iger promising the company will lean more on its beloved franchises, Disney is likely to continue being a magnet for criticism from social conservatives.