When I started working at the Walt Disney World Resort back in (coughing fit), one of first things I was handed at my "Disney University" orientation was a booklet called "The Disney Look."
In this publication, Disney explained and detailed its appearance guidelines for theme park cast members (like me!) who would appear "on stage" - that is, in front of guests (i.e. customers). As a young white man from a conservative family, all I had to do to conform to the "look" was swap my loafers for tied dress shoes while at work. I wore no beard or mustache, kept my hair trimmed above the ears and collar and did not have any piercings or tattoos. Easy.
For women in the cast - including my future wife - compliance was a bit trickier. Earrings had to be smaller than a dime, makeup had to look "natural," and hair had to be a single "natural" color. That usually meant buying some different lipstick and laying off the mascara, but most young white women found sticking to the look not much more difficult than I did. After all, the "Disney Look" was designed for us - young, usually white, workers from households that had had enough money to take us to places like Disney theme parks when we were kids, drawing us to want to work at Disneyland or Walt Disney World.
Disney adopted the look as way to quickly visually communicate to its guests that Disney's theme park cast members were respectful and responsible people whom they could trust and who stood ready and eager to help them with their day. It was a shortcut. Rather than employing people with a wider variety of personal looks and allowing them to keep them, Disney sought to reassure its guests with a cast that sported a consistent look that reflected a specific, conservative standard of appearance.
That Disney thought that this particular visual shortcut would be associated with promoting a responsible and helpful image - and that other styles of appearance would not - tells us something about the inherent social biases that existed within much of American society, as well as the management of The Walt Disney Company, in the mid to late 20th century.
But that century is over now. Society has changed - not by happenstance, but because good, honest, responsible, and helpful people whose hair, faces, makeup, head coverings, and jewelry did not conform to conservative social ideals spoke up and fought for the right to be included as equals in communities from coast to coast. Today, Disney officially welcomed many of them into the Disney Parks family by announcing that it would again revise its cast member appearance standards.
Disney framed the change as an outcome of adding "Inclusion" as the Fifth Key in its theme park operations. But business considerations drive this change as much as lofty idealism might. The longer that Disney held to its traditional appearance guidelines, the smaller the percentage of an increasingly diverse labor pool that Disney would be able to hire from would become. That would make it harder for Disney to hire and retain an actually respectful and responsible cast who stood ready and eager to help.
Disney's long been able to get away with aggressive appearance standards by calling its employees "cast members" who were "cast" into positions rather than hired into them. You're not just doing a job at Disney, you are playing a role, and in that situation, maintaining a specific appearance long has been accepted as a part of the gig.
But that's still supposed to be your name on your chest when you work on stage at Disney. You might be playing a role inside the parks, but you're supposed to be playing yourself in that role. Cast members cannot act like themselves, however, when Disney's appearance standards demand that they compromise their identity.
Disney's increasingly diverse guests also want to see people who look like they do among Disney's cast and characters. Without that, a cast member's greeting of "welcome home" feels hollow, even cynical.
Yes, appearances matter. And that's the whole point. A welcoming, inclusive Disney theme park must employ people from the wide variety of races, ethnicities, cultures, religions, genders, and abilities that make up our society today. And it must not pull a Wanda Maximoff by transforming them to conform to the look of 1950s suburban, white America. To be truly inclusive - of both guests and cast - Disney's standards must accommodate a wider range of cast member appearances than it has in the past. Disney needs a new look for the 21st century - one that looks like the 21st century.
Disney ought to encourage and support a high level of customer service from its cast members. An outdated visual shortcut does not do that, however. Accepting and supporting its cast members can. That's why I was happy to see Disney take the step that it did today.
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