Despite the long shadow of her family name, Abigail Disney (the granddaughter of Disney co-founder Roy Disney) has carved out her own space as a philanthropist, activist, and Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker. She also considers herself a peacebuilder, hell-bent on seeking justice — even when that means taking the company her family built to task.
In April 2019, Disney spurred nationwide conversation when several of her tweets about Disney CEO Robert Iger went viral. In the tweets, she criticized the huge pay gap between Iger and other employees, saying, "By any objective measure a pay ratio over a thousand is insane."
“Figuring out what to say and how to say it was tormenting me for almost a year,” Disney says. “Every time I checked in with my heart, it would say, ‘I don't care how uncomfortable [speaking out] makes everybody. You have to say something.' From time to time, I’m going to enrage people on my own side, and that’s hard. But there’s incredible strength in stepping into danger, trouble, or conflict on behalf of others. It’s the right thing to do.”
Contrary to conflict: In 2007, Disney launched Fork Films, a production company for "change-driven nonfiction media" that often highlights women. She was inspired in part by women participating in nonviolent protests in Liberia in the late ‘90s who were seeking to end the country's civil war. She says her path towards seeking peace stems from a lifelong aversion to conflict. “There was conflict in my house when I was growing up and that turns you into a person who has strong feelings about conflict. Either you love it or you avoid it at all costs,” Disney says. “It never made sense to me when people would lose their tempers and go off.” She goes on to say that she wrote her PhD dissertation on the irrationality of war and conflict. “I ended up writing about war novels in part because war fascinates me — of all the irrational things we do, war is one of the most.”
What’s in a name: Disney almost gave up her last name when she got married (to film producer and philanthropist Pierre Hauser). “There's no place I've ever been on the planet — and I've been to some crazy places — where someone wasn't wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt or there wasn't Mickey Mouse on a wall on the side of a school or something. Even in North Korea, there were Mickey Mouses. Once you notice it, that's all you see,” Disney says. “I used to say, ‘I can't wait to get married so that I have an excuse to give it up.’ Then right before I got married, I thought, ‘Well is that what you really want to do?’ Because it seemed like I was giving away a superpower.”
Disney held on to her name but says it took her years to figure out how to use her platform to further the social-impact projects that meant the most to her. “You know how Peter gets bitten by a spider and then he's really clumsy until he figures it out? That's what I was like,” she says. “It took me into my 50s to really start figuring out how to use my superpower.”
Pay parity: In May 2019, Disney took her public condemnation of the pay gap between C-suite executives and their employees all the way to Congress. “Testifying before Congress was the height of my badassery,” she says. “I felt so good and confident and in my element there. I didn't feel intimidated even a little and that's kind of a big deal.” Disney testified before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Financial Services to advocate for the lowest paid workers, not only within the Disney company but also across the board. “I've had a lot of years of trying to be a moral actor in the world. It’s hard because all money is dirty in some way, and when you start with money it's really hard to know how to make it clean,” she admits. “But over time I’ve learned to trust that my instincts are pretty good and my moral compass is pretty firmly in place. And when the opportunity presented itself to raise the issues I've been raising — and they are so much bigger than Disney and so much broader than just CEO salaries — not weighing in seemed really problematic.”
Point of pride: “I'm proudest of building a film company without any help,” Disney says of the female-led Fork Films. “I’ve never gotten help from the Walt Disney company or my parents or my family in general and I'm profoundly proud of that.” Disney’s first documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which followed the lives of Liberian women peacefully protesting civil war, was further developed into a five-part PBS series. Her second documentary, The Armor of Light, which follows a conservative minister as he attempts to convince his community of the growing danger of gun violence, earned an Emmy in 2017. She has since produced over 100 films that speak to timely and tough social issues. The company works in tandem with Disney’s nonprofit, Peace Is Loud, to affect change.