It’s the new tale as old as time. A young woman or girl goes to an amusement park. She wears a light top. She goes about her day — until somebody flags her down. The reason? Her outfit de ella, which has been found to be in violation of the park’s nebulous dress code. Depending on where the incident is unfolding, she’s either told to find something else to wear or given a free T-shirt. She recounts it all in a video, which she then uploads to social media. The footage goes viral.
The latest example of this dates back to a few days ago, when a woman said she was made to change during a visit to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida (where temperatures have been hovering between 70 and 80 °F, or 21 and 26 °C). In her video of her, which she shared on TikTok, she’s seen wearing a black crop top with sleeves after reportedly being told the garment is in violation of the park’s dress code. She then goes to a gift shop to retrieve a free round-neck, short-sleeved yellow T-shirt with the park’s name on it, which apparently matches the park’s rules in ways her own top de ella did n’t.
A similar incident was reported in June last year, when a woman said she was told her top was inappropriate and made to change into the same free T-shirt. (Does Disney just keep piles of yellow T-shirts in anticipation of alleged dress code violations? This specific model doesn’t appear to be on sale anymore, though it’s reported to have been a hit in 2020. And, listen, it doesn’t t please me to admit it, but the retro design is indeed quite fetching.It’s also for sale on several second-hand websites.Are these people who actually bought the shirt, or did they all get dress-coded and are now trying to offload their scarlet letters? No judgment either way!)
This apparently isn’t only Disney’s doing: In February this year, a woman said she had been told to change into a different top by officials at Universal, also in Orlando. (No free T-shirt this time around: the woman said she wore a top a friend had in the car.)
On its website, Disney says it expects guests to wear “proper attire, including shoes and shirts.” “The parks are a casual, family-oriented environment,” the rules add. “Ensuring that the parks are family-friendly is an important part of the Disney experience. In that spirit, we ask you to use your discretion and common sense.” It goes on to list several examples of “inappropriate attire”, including “clothing with objectionable material, including obscene language or graphics” and “clothing which, by nature, exposes excessive portions of the skin that may be viewed as inappropriate for a family environment ”.
At first glance, it all seems rather reasonable – it’s Disney, so the idea of family values doesn’t come as a huge surprise. Sure, there might need to be a smidge more nuance here and there – perhaps showing up in an outfit that “exposes excessive portions of the skin” isn’t quite as bad as turning up in a T-shirt bearing “obscene language or graphics ”, but this is an FAQ, not the Constitution, so I’ll try not to overthink it.
The problem is when “Let’s keep it all family-friendly” turns into the specific policing of the female body. For decades, the concept of what’s appropriate and what isn’t has been used to control women, creating fertile ground to criticize them if they get it “wrong” under rules that are kept deliberately vague and ambiguous. “Common sense” is a shaky notion — perhaps too shaky to provide the basis of any set of rules, even a dress code.
This gets all the more interesting when you consider Disney’s dual identities: on one side, a purveyor of theme parks all claiming to be “the happiest place in the world”, and on the other, a purveyor of astronomically successful movies. Obviously, the two are linked, but you can easily enjoy one without the other. (Space Mountain isn’t inspired by a Disney film, but is it the company’s most iconic ride? Indisputably.) I’m not what I would call a committed Disney superfan, but, reader, I do dabble. Paris, where I’m from, got its own Disney park the year after my birth, so, yes, I’ve been there. I grew up on Disney films. As an adult, I’ve always had a soft spot for Pixar movies, and I wish they had been around when I was a kid. Soul was the existential fable I didn’t know I needed. inside-out was moving and unexpected. Disney’s own animated films are just as enjoyable – Charm was fantastic. Moana? Frozen? People loved these movies! As they should!
Pixar has just released Turning Red, a movie about Mei, a 13-year-old girl who turns into a red panda when she experiences strong emotions. The film has been praised for its portrayal of adolescence – “Mei’s transformation is clearly a metaphor for the onset of puberty, when your body betrays you and becomes unrecognizable overnight,” noted NPR, praising the way the movie tackles themes such as “shame, repression, and social anxiety”. rolling stone called it “a bright, moving, funny, happy film about adolescent angst, that doesn’t condescend but also doesn’t overload.”
Part of the discourse around Turning Red has revolved around the fact that the film openly discusses periods and menstrual products, still a rarity in films aimed at younger viewers. There’s been some backlash from people who felt this made the movie inappropriate for kids, and in turn, plenty of people pointing out that normalizing periods is probably good for everyone involved. “Of all the things parents have to be concerned about when it comes to raising children, a normal bodily function like menstruation should not be one of them,” Elizabeth Schroeder, a sex educator, told New York Times. “There is so much shame wrapped up in how bodies work, when instead we should be celebrating them.” And it’s just as important for boys to realize that, rather than growing up in a world where the opposite sex is shrouded in mystery, As one headline aptly put it: “Let Your Sons Watch the Pixar Period Movie, You Cowards.”
So on the one hand, we’ve got Disney reportedly policing female guests’ attire at Disney World, and on the other hand, we’ve got Disney starting important conversations on menstruation. To add to the dissonance, we’ve also got Disney initially declining to speak out against Florida’s terrible “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would ban teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender issues with students up to the third grade, and restrict such conversations in other grades. (In a statement released on March 11, Disney CEO Bob Chapek apologized for not speaking on the matter sooner, admitting that “this is not just an issue about a bill in Florida, but instead yet another challenge to basic human rights”. He also told shareholders he called Governor Ron DeSantis “to express our disappointment and concern that if the legislation becomes law, it could be used to unfairly target gay, lesbian, non-binary and transgender kids and families.” Disney workers have made further demands, including asking Disney to stop making donations to a list of Florida politicians.)
Disney has tried to portray itself as apolitical, leaning instead into values it once viewed as “universal”, defined by Chapek as “values of respect, values of decency, values of integrity, and values of inclusion”. But there comes a time when silence is no longer enough, and – crucially – no longer neutral. It’s time for Disney to display in real life the same open-mindedness and tolerance it has portrayed on the big screen.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.