I grew up on Disney movies. Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, The Jungle Book, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Tangled, and Mary Poppins, to name a few. Watching these movies taught me to judge people for their character, not their appearance; to take risks and step up to challenges; to stand up for what I believe in and make sacrifices for those I love. I learned from Mulan to be brave, from Jasmine to be independent and from Rapunzel to chase my dreams, as impossible as they may seem.
These movies did not, however, teach me to be racist, form stereotypes, or be prejudiced.
Yes, there are some elements of Disney movies that are racist. There are the crows in Dumbo, the leader of whom is named Jim Crow. There are the apes in The Jungle Book, who are supposedly portrayed as African Americans and sing “I Want to Be Like You”–meaning that African Americans want to be like whites. It took Disney 71 years to make a movie with an African American as the main character (The Princess and the Frog, 2009). Disney movies obviously have some racial undertones. But in no way do Disney movies brainwash their viewers and turn them into ignorant, racist bigots.
If they did, I wouldn’t even be able to write this article, much less concede that Disney movies contain elements of racism.
The first movie that Walt Disney ever made was Snow White in Feb 4, 1938. Cinderella was released in 1950, and The Jungle Book was released in October 1967. Movies, literature, art, etc. reflect the times in which they were made, for better or for worse.
The United States, during the time that several Disney movies were made, was extremely racist, segregated and biased. Events such as the Little Rock 9, “separate but equal,” and Jim Crow laws are permanent scars on America’s history. I’m not saying that it is right that Disney movies had such racial connotations, but the movies, to a certain extent, simply reflected the times during which they were made.
People make a conscious decision, a choice, to be racist. Disney movies that children watch when they are 5-10 years old do not affect them for the rest of their lives. If that were true, as a society, we would still be as racist now as we were in the ‘30s-‘50s when many Disney movies came out. Considering how much society has progressed–an African American president has been elected, twice–Disney movies obviously do not have the impact people assume they do.
Toys that kids play with with don’t have as much impact as people think they do. If they did, every teenage boy would become a school shooter from playing violent video games, and every teenage girl would want to look exactly like Barbie. And we would all be racist.
And we all know that’s not the case.
As kids grow older; as children become teenagers and develop and mature and learn to think for themselves, they make a definitive choice to have blind spots. Humans create a schema, a framework for future experiences that forms from past experiences–such as the death of a relative, how their parents treat each other, what they learn in school, and, to a much, much, much lesser extent, movies they watch as kids.
But a person’s real life experience beats his previously made schema. Whatever racism is contained in Disney movies doesn’t have a lasting impact and can’t compare to real-life experience.
So yes, there are elements of racism in Disney movies, just as there are elements of racism in almost everything from the early and mid 20th century. But that doesn’t mean that people grow up to be racist just because they watch those movies as kid. What matters more is real experience, real life situations that overcome any amount of racism from movies, books, or anything else.