Disney classics need a more honest warning about racism they contain
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Excited customers were greeted with warnings introducing some of its animated classics with a statement about “outdated cultural depictions” in the content.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 Even as these films may hold a positive place in our cultural memory, the depictions in them are “outdated” — and racist.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.