Dis­ney clas­sics need a more hon­est warn­ing about racism they con­tain

Orlando Sentinel - - OPINION - BY ANNE EL­IZ­A­BETH ZIMMERMANN Anne El­iz­a­beth Zimmermann is a lec­turer in the Rollins Col­lege English De­part­ment. She teaches a class on Dis­ney and its im­pact on cul­ture.

This week, Dis­ney’s launch of its new stream­ing ser­vice was met with a crash — and a con­tro­versy.

Ex­cited cus­tomers were greeted with warn­ings in­tro­duc­ing some of its an­i­mated clas­sics with a state­ment about “out­dated cul­tural de­pic­tions” in the con­tent. While Dis­ney may hope to re­vise its racist past, this ap­proach is too vague to ac­com­plish this ef­fec­tively.

In to­day’s po­lit­i­cally charged cul­ture, it is more im­por­tant than ever to rec­og­nize the im­pact of edu­tain­ment, es­pe­cially on our chil­dren. The com­pany has ac­cepted this re­spon­si­bil­ity in other ways, such as more re­al­is­tic ex­pe­ri­ences in the World Show­case at Ep­cot and more di­verse char­ac­ters. As a cul­tural teacher with the largest class­room, Dis­ney can and should uti­lize these con­tent warn­ings as valu­able lessons about tol­er­ance.

Over the past decade, I have dis­cussed these films in my own class­room. In “Dumbo” (1941), the Jim Crow char­ac­ter re­calls South­ern seg­re­ga­tion laws as well as the painful mem­ory of Amer­i­can min­strelsy. Re­leased at the height of the civil rights move­ment, the orang­utans in “The Jun­gle Book” (1967) also por­tray cruel car­i­ca­tures of black Amer­i­cans. An Asian char­ac­ter in “The Aris­to­cats” (1970) speaks in an un­flat­ter­ing stereo­typ­i­cal ac­cent. The same is true for the Si­amese cats in “Lady and the Tramp” (1955); these two char­ac­ters are also por­trayed as dan­ger­ous and sneaky, fur­ther­ing in­ac­cu­rate per­cep­tions about Asian cul­ture. The song “What Made the Red Man Red?” from “Peter Pan” (1953) mocks Na­tive Amer­i­cans’ ap­pear­ance, be­hav­ior and tra­di­tions. All of these ap­pro­pri­ate the cul­tures in ques­tion, es­pe­cially as white char­ac­ters are shown as morally su­pe­rior. Even as these films may hold a pos­i­tive place in our cul­tural mem­ory, the de­pic­tions in them are “out­dated” — and racist.

To ig­nore with an amor­phous “warn­ing” is to dis­miss this truth when pre­sent­ing the film to a gen­er­a­tion of young view­ers. Di­rect and hon­est lan­guage would con­tinue Dis­ney’s tra­di­tion of edu­tain­ment: sto­ry­telling that clar­i­fies right and wrong.

In con­trast, the con­tent warn­ings adopted by Warner Bros. for its Looney Tunes car­toons are hon­est and straight­for­ward: “The car­toons you are about to see are prod­ucts of their time. They may de­pict some of the eth­nic and racial prej­u­dices that were com­mon­place in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. These de­pic­tions were wrong then and are wrong to­day.”

With this ap­proach, Warner Bros. suc­cess­fully po­si­tions its clas­sic an­i­ma­tions as the cul­tural ar­ti­facts that they are. We don’t have to re­ject them, but we must ac­knowl­edge the re­al­ity of these in­sen­si­tive de­pic­tions. They are not only a sign of the times in which these films were made that must be un­der­stood as such, but also racist per­cep­tions that still ex­ist in the world around us.

Since the com­pany’s in­cep­tion, its films have func­tioned as re­flec­tions of cul­ture. By avoid­ing more spe­cific lan­guage, per­haps the com­pany hopes to pre­serve as­pects of its lu­cra­tive and care­fully crafted im­age. These con­tent warn­ings com­prise Dis­ney’s im­age as moral ed­u­ca­tor moral­ity; its iconic prom­ises of magic and hap­pily-ever-af­ter now come at the ex­pense of a re­spon­si­bil­ity to be cul­tur­ally sen­si­tive.

Sto­ry­telling is about lessons. Dis­ney cap­tures our imag­i­na­tion for much longer than the run of a movie. Its val­ues are em­bod­ied in these films and by the char­ac­ters. As a cul­ture, we cham­pion them; as con­sumers Dis­ney re­lies on them. What is to be learned by com­mod­i­fy­ing racism? What mes­sage do we re­ceive with a sub­scrip­tion that in­cludes ex­clu­siv­ity (or: in­sen­si­tiv­ity)?

One of these lessons has al­ways been learn­ing. Ariel is “ready to know what the peo­ple know” (“The Lit­tle Mer­maid”). What we the peo­ple know to­day is that racial and eth­nic in­sen­si­tiv­ity is not only painful but dan­ger­ous. Black Amer­i­cans live in fear of those meant to pro­tect them. Our coun­try’s re­la­tion­ship with China and with the Mid­dle East is fraught with dan­ger and sus­pi­cion.

Dis­ney should take a cue from Aladdin, who fa­mously prom­ises Jas­mine that he “can show her the world.” They have the power to show all of us im­por­tant cul­tural truths, and they have noth­ing to lose and much to gain from tak­ing a di­rect ap­proach.

Clear con­tent warn­ings that ac­knowl­edge right and wrong would strengthen the moral­ity lessons the com­pany has long es­poused.


Princess Tiger Lily, In­dian Chief and Peter Pan in the 1953 Dis­ney clas­sic.

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