I’ll be the first to admit that, as a child, nothing brought me more joy than Disney movies. Aladdin, Peter Pan, The Lion King– you name it, I’d seen it, likely on more than one occasion. Brave heroes fighting evil villains? Talking animals and beautiful princesses? Disney had me, and the rest of my generation, under their spell.
Growing up did little to calm my affection for Disney. Even as a high school freshman, I had no problem with blowing an entire weekend watching The Jungle Book and Dumbo on VHS, for nostalgia sake if nothing else. It wasn’t until very recently, though, that I began to realize the deeper, darker messages hidden under all the “Disney magic.”
Take my childhood favorite, The Lion King. In the film, a young lion, Simba, seeks to avenge his father’s death by defeating the evil Scar and his henchmen, a pack of hyenas. I’m all for beating the villains, but when I rewatched the scenes involving the hyenas, three of the film’s main antagonists, I noticed something different about them: all three spoke with inner-city, African-American dialects.
The bad guys were made to sound African-American. Unfortunately, The Lion King was only the beginning of this racist trend.
In Dumbo, another beloved Disney classic, Dumbo learns to fly from a flock of crows. The crows, with their jive-talking, smoking ways, seemed to represent the conventional Coon stereotype of African-Americans as lazy simpletons. Listening to the band of birds felt like watching a modern-day minstrel show, not a “harmless kid’s movie.”
To make the prejudice even more in-your-face, the lead crow, voiced by a white actor impersonating a black actor, is ironically named Jim Crow. A brief history lesson: Jim Crow laws, prevalent in the United States from the mid-1870’s until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, supported the “separate but equal” doctrine that effectively segregated all public areas.
Yet again, Disney chose to stick with the racism, ignoring the offensive stereotypes and cultural references they were encouraging. It was becoming clear to me that Disney was not as harmless as I had originally thought. Where I had once seen happy talking animals, I now saw only derogatory racial remarks.
In The Jungle Book, every character speaks with a variation of a British accent– that is, every character except King Louie, ruler of the apes, who sounds and behaves similarly to the crows in Dumbo. Louie’s big musical number, “I Want to Be Like You,” features the king, as a symbol for blacks, singing about wanting to be a real man, suggesting that African-Americans are not real men. As if these clear symbols weren’t enough, original author Rudyard Kipling developed the concept of “the white man’s burden,” an idea that whites are obliged to rule over and conquer ethnic minorities. Enough said.
Some critics argue that while Disney may be racist on occasion, they also have entire films dedicated to minorities, including Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan and most recently, The Princess and The Frog. Surely these films cancel out the offensive elements in all the other films, right?
Wrong. If anything, it’s more offensive that Disney had to create an entire film featuring Asians before they had an Asian protagonist in Mulan. In the “racially equal” America we live in today, why can’t an African-American prince star in a film without any other black characters? If Americans are as “progressive” as we claim to be, a minority protagonist should be able to star alongside an otherwise all-white cast with no issue. The truth is that the answer to this question lies deeper within the culture than many ordinary people would dare to go.
For almost all of our nation’s brief existence, racial segregation and inequality were the standard; blacks, American Indians and Hispanics were viewed as inferior to their white counterparts. Sadly, even with the progress made during the Civil Rights Movement and in the fifty years since, the United States have failed to become racially equal. Circumstances may be better, but each new generation somehow still manages to learn the racist ways of the past.
Some learn preconceived ideas of race from their families, but the biggest culprit behind the perpetuation of racist stereotypes is the media. Through advertising and movies, television and music, the media subtly and continually introduces younger generations to offensive representations of different races, such as with African-Americans as overly-aggressive predators or coons. Disney isn’t the only company spreading these stereotypes, but as one of the most influential companies in the world, they deserve to be held accountable.
My criticisms aren’t going to force Disney to shut down their operations, and I don’t believe they should; some of the messages ingrained in their stories– taking responsibility, being brave, striving to be the best– are valuable life lessons. Do I think Disney should actively look to eliminate racism in their films? Of course, as they should in our supposedly progressive modern-day society. But do I think Disney on the whole deserves to be closed for good? Absolutely not.
My point is this: Disney films, even if it may pain our inner child to say so, are oftentimes littered with racist undertones. Because we view these misrepresentations from such a young age, as well as the fact that they come with Disney’s stamp of approval, we come to believe these stereotypes as fact. Preliterate children grow up with inaccurate, preconceived ideas of what it means to be a minority, ideas that then must be overcome as we grow up and mature.
These generalizations, despite their backing from Disney, infringe on our decision-making and overall belief systems as we grow older; in order to remain progressive, we must essentially unlearn and ignore the stereotypes Disney presents. Ultimately we all have the option of whether or not to succumb to the racist standards in the media, but because of corporations like Disney, that decision becomes less obvious. When stereotypes are normalized within the culture, as Disney has succeeded in doing, it becomes difficult to reject racism because of the difficulty in identifying racism.
Disney is not the sole cause of the perpetuation of racism within our culture, but it is naive to claim they do not play a significant role. It is time we stop mindlessly consuming the prejudiced attitudes Disney throws at us. It is time we break free of Disney’s spell, once and for all.