Under the Sun: The Cultural Shift from Disney to Chick-Fil-A

Each week in “Under the Sun,” Jonathan Sircy examines the history of a cultural practice that’s generating buzz at CaPC.

This dog heard that all good Christians should eat Chick-fil-A. He did his part.

The Chick-Fil-A kerfuffle has inspired so many smart, insightful pieces (the pieces by our own Alan Noble  and Drew Dixon being good examples) that it feels like every angle has been examined five, six, or twenty-seven times. The thing I’ve learned from the best of these articles (Alan’s included) is that this chicken-flavored brouhaha is representative of the worst parts of this nation’s culture wars. That is, if you want to see how bad public discourse is in this country *right now,* simply plug “Chick-Fil-A” into Google.

I’d like to add a historical hypothesis to this insight: ten or twenty years hence, we will see the Chick-Fil-A uproar as the tipping point where the “boycotters” publicly assumed the position of the “buycotters.” I know that Christian groups have buycotted before, just like groups have previously boycotted businesses that promote anti-homosexual rhetoric. This felt different, however, as though some invisible pendulum had swung.

Mention “Chick-Fil-A” and “boycott” in a decade, and we’ll remember the social media torrent of messages and pictures in and around August 1, 2012. Then we’ll (probably) laugh and go eat a chicken sandwich. This future moment of nostalgic dismissal is important, however. This controversy shows, in Doctor Who parlance, that some basic cultural polarity has been reversed. It means that the same people who once made news with their public disapproval of Disney will now have to make do pledging their allegiance to businesses others have already condemned.

It seems appropriate, then, to revisit the eight-year—yes, eight-year—boycott the Southern Baptist Convention and other church groups levied against The Walt Disney Corporation because of its “anti-Christian and anti-family” policies. That moment is gone.

In 1997, activist consensus came via national conferences and FM radio rather than Facebook or Twitter. At that year’s annual meeting, the Southern Baptists publicly voted to boycott Disney, urging its members to withhold $100 that they would normally spend on Disney products or at Disney locations. Focus on the Family’s James Dobson called for his listeners to follow suit. Soon, members of the Assemblies of God and Presbyterian Church of America were on board.

There wasn’t a single reason for the boycott. It was a more of a convergence of issues. First, there was Disney-owned ABC sitcom Ellen with its lesbian lead character portrayed by its lesbian lead actress. Second, there was WDC’s employment policies, namely extending benefits to the same-sex partners of its employees. Third, there were the “Gay Days” sponsored by and held at the corporation’s popular theme parks. Fourth, there was the fact that the ostensibly family film company owned Miramax, which tended to produce its fair share of violent/profane/anti-family cinema.

Baptists were far from unanimous in their support for the boycott. Some were upset because they didn’t agree that homosexuality was a sin. Some were upset because they really liked The Lion King.

Anti-family Mickey “mouse.”

When it was all over, it wasn’t clear that Disney felt the economic repercussions of the boycott. The SBC’s decision to lift the ban coincided with the departure of much maligned CEO Michael Eisner. There’s little to suggest a causal link between the company’s profits either pre- or post-2005 and the boycott. The company certainly didn’t stopped offerings benefits to same-sex partners. The boycott is now something people name-check (see this Urban Faith article, which gets the reasons for the boycott wrong) but easily dismiss. It has become a byword for a particular moment in this country’s religious activism.

It’s certainly not like opportunities for boycotts have disappeared. If Chick-Fil-A patrons restaurant looked deep enough into their ice-cold lemonade yesterday, they could see ample opportunities to speak with their wallets instead of their poultry-filled mouths. Amazon, Microsoft, and Starbucks all publicly supported Washington state’s same-sex marriage bill. That’s the corporate trifecta, an opportunity to take your media, computer, and coffee-buying dollars elsewhere. Even though 1997 was only fifteen years ago, it seems like it hails from a different boycotting era. It’s hard to imagine the SBC issuing public economic sanctions against these three companies.

I understand why Rachel Held Evans insists that “it’s going to take a heck of a lot more effort than either eating or avoiding a chicken sandwich” to heal our cultural divide.

However, I think the unspoken reason why people showed up to Chick-Fil-A in droves yesterday is that they sensed that the day was important even if they couldn’t necessarily articulate why. Their side was no longer dictating policy. Their position had irreparably changed. They were there to pour out a 40 oz. lemonade and—at least figuratively—proclaim, “I participated in a cultural tipping point, and all I got were these delicious waffle fries.”

About Jonathan Sircy
  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Well, if this is a cultural tipping point, I’d say it is going the right way now for conservatives by this logic. If boycotts are dumb, then the same-sex marriage folks have made a major error in boycotting Chick-Fil-A. Do you think that this will make them look as silly in 15 years as the Disney boycott?

  • Jonathan Sircy

    It’s a good question, Brad. I think the Disney boycott currently looks like a death-rattle from the evangelical right. I don’t see this being the same for same-sex marriage groups. I think the “buycott” and its constituents have dominated the story. Look around for a similar kind of reaction re: Disney in 1997. No constituency had to be invested in “buying” movie tickets or theme park admission passes b/c the SBC, Focus on the Family, etc. had come out against Disney. The fact that the right felt like they *had* to respond this way re: Chick-Fil-A shows me they’re on the decline.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    J Sircy,

    Not necessarily. It shows that they feel solidarity with Dan Cathy. If a business owner had been boycotted by traditional marriage folks, and the gay community organized a “let’s support this guy” day, would you have taken it as a sign or decline or solidarity?

  • Jonathan Sircy

    Brad,

    The point is this huge news story didn’t involve that. When the SBC announced its boycott in 1997, news organizations took note (NY Times, CNN, Newsweek, Washington Times and Post, WSJ, etc.). I don’t think it would get the same coverage today.

  • John Taylor

    I didn’t participate in the “buycott” but I can understand why it would be more popular than a boycott for the simple reason that it’s an event. It was a one day opportunity to do something memorable for a cause you support. Even though as you mentioned in your article the reason for your support or even the cause itself might be hard to articulate. Another bonus is the fact that you are likely to be surrounded by like minded individuals which is a boost to the ego and confirmation that you are in fact “right.” We must never underestimate the entertainment factor.

  • Jonathan Sircy

    Great points, John.

  • Lee

    Jonathan, good read. At its core, the whole buycotting idea is useless and just serves to enrich those who “maybe” have an view with which the customer agrees. Your point on Amazon/Microsoft/Starbucks is well made, and it would be interesting, if possible, to get statistics on whether any of the Chick-fil-A zealots also consumed any of those products on “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day”. To completely trust a corporation based on its public utterances is ridiculous. That won’t keep people from doing it in the future, though, and based on the traction this deal was able to get, this definitely has some tipping-point potential.


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