Even as the far right has consolidated its power, rallying sizable numbers to attack fundamental civil and human rights, it’s nevertheless noticeable how, in mainstream popular culture, certain norms of representation have shifted dramatically over the last four decades. It’s striking that when scanning the commercials on an average TV network in 2022, no matter what is being sold — cars, jeans, breakfast cereals, vacations, those ready-made dinner boxes, booze, pet food — the actors in the ads of late are often people of color, and sometimes include queer couples. It isn’t every ad, but it’s a hell of a lot of them, and it speaks to some larger shifts in mainstream culture.
The fact that mixed race and LGBTQ couples and families are highly represented in TV ads does not mean that some sort of righteous plateau has been reached by American culture. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and every other person of color murdered by the police remain dead. Racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia and ableism remain deeply ingrained within large swaths of the populace, as American as apple pie and the Ford Motor Company. A multiracial family peddling Cheerios has barely made a dent in the underlying systemic crisis.
Yet the fact that some capitalist enterprises have had to make a show of being multiracial and LGBTQ-inclusive represents a long-term nightmare for right-wing culture warriors. See, the companies running these ads are not boldly forging ahead into a just and progressive future with such endeavors. They are chasing the money, and likely spent eleventy zillion dollars on experts and panel tests to determine one simple thing: Do we make more than we lose by running with these images? The prevalence of BIPOC and/or LGBTQ actors in these ads makes it clear that it is safe and lucrative in the U.S. to do just that.
There’s nothing heroic about it. Advertisers generally follow the same morally bleak formula car companies do when deciding to issue a recall: Are lawsuits over crashes caused by this faulty part more expensive than the recall? If the recall is more expensive, they don’t do it, because they actually save money getting sued. This kind of thinking is how the word “business” became a slur in the mouths of millions: First, it’s all about the money. After that, it’s all about the money. In the end, yep, the money.
Yet even this cynical view is cold comfort to the right-wing culture warriors, for they correctly see that trends become fixed in cement over a long enough span. Their long-smoldering racist nightmare of being “replaced” crashes headlong into their deep-seated confirmation bias every time one of these ads appears on their screen.
This is why these people have taken to attacking large multinational corporations that have dared to hint that Black lives matter (generally, to turn a buck).
I’m so old, I remember when conservatives were the defenders of big business. Now? Some of these same corporations have to pass some right-bent purity test, lest the dogs start barking in the yard.
Enter Florida, where nothing strange ever happens. Chris Walker of Truthout explained the ground upon which the latest culture clash has erupted back in March:
The Parental Rights in Education bill, which LGBTQ activists and allies have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, passed in the Florida Senate by a vote of 22 to 17. Two Republican senators crossed the aisle to join all Democratic lawmakers in the chamber in voting against the legislation.
If the bill is signed into law, it would ban discussion on LGBTQ topics in primary school classrooms, and place strict limits on what can be taught or discussed in high schools. It would also allow parents to sue school districts if information about their children is withheld, or if instruction on LGBTQ topics is not “age-appropriate.”
Disney Corporation, after some hemming and hawing, came out loudly against the bill when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law, pledging among other things to cease donations to Republicans who support it. Florida’s congressional Republicans rose in high dudgeon, flashed a whole new bill meant to punish Disney through the legislative process, and slapped it on Gov. Ron DeSantis’s desk for final signature. Among other things, the anti-Disney bill ends that corporation’s decades-old virtual autonomy in Florida, and puts local residents on the hook for billions in taxes that would otherwise have been covered by the company.
The culture warriors are not pulling their punches, either. The most bizarre and dangerous line of anti-Disney rhetoric casts the company as a giant corporate pedophile ring seeking to “groom” children for their inevitable sexual exploitation. It is no coincidence that this rhetoric matches the equally bombastic nonsense peddled by adherents of QAnon, the online conspiracy cohort that accuses pedophiles of running both the Democratic Party and Hollywood. This is not a bug; it’s a feature — the platform the GOP intends to run on in 2022.
The complications surrounding this strange squabble are legion. Has DeSantis violated Disney’s First Amendment rights with this punitive attack? Does a First Amendment defense further buttress the legal fiction of corporate personhood? Will the courts uphold this legislation? Did DeSantis and the Florida GOP pass this bill from the grandstands, full in the knowledge that it will not survive legal challenge, and thus sparing DeSantis from having to explain why he just dropped more than a billion dollars in new taxes on a couple of his counties? Is there any concern about levying vicious attacks against a giant institution beloved by millions, with its own megaphone that is approximately the size of Jupiter?
More ominously, is this now the new normal for the GOP? “Other members of that New Right movement recently told me they envision a ramped-up use of the state to impose a post-liberal moral order, justified by hyperbolic visions of the supposedly hegemonic power of the left over our institutions,” writes Greg Sargent for The Washington Post. “Meanwhile, GOP elected officials seem to be moving this way. Congressional Republicans have vowed retaliation against companies for opposing Georgia’s voter suppression bill and for cooperating with the congressional investigation into Trump’s coup attempt. And DeSantis is a front-runner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.”
The possibility of blowback against DeSantis and his crew is also very real. There’s a South Park episode DeSantis should have watched before putting ink to the anti-Disney bill, which he did on Saturday afternoon. In the episode, beloved cartoon character Mickey Mouse is revealed as a ruthless and violent tyrant who beats the boy-band Jonas Brothers bloody for refusing to wear “purity rings” onstage. When his will is ultimately thwarted in the end, Mickey swells to the size of a blimp and takes flight, raining fire and destruction down on people fleeing for their lives below.
After DeSantis signed the bill, I wondered if he would meet the same version of Mickey Mouse that ran over the Jonas Brothers on South Park. Disney Corporation is no small wheel in Florida, the largest single-place employer in the U.S. at 80,000 workers, and the crown jewel of Florida’s vital multibillion-dollar tourist industry. Companies like that don’t need to leave the building to destroy a governor who gets out of line, much less transform into a Cthulhu-like engine of destruction. A few phone calls usually do the trick.
However, the right wing is its own giant institution in this country. And as the last several years have told us, ruthless and violent tyrants aren’t always thwarted in the end.