Engaging thoughtfully with racist Disney

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Even though I didn't watch many Disney movies as a kid, I certainly knew of them. I knew most of the princess movies, and I knew the plot of at least a dozen others. I wasn't really a princess kind of girl, but my favourite princesses were Jasmine and Mulan — because they were the only two non-white princess-like figures in the Disney universe. Mulan technically wasn't a princess, but I had slim pickings as an Asian girl.

Still from MulanI didn't know that Aladdin carried serious Orientalist undertones, or that Walt Disney was deeply racist, and that these attitudes of his inevitably made their way into his work. I don't think many kids were made aware of these thing — all in the name of avoiding difficult conversations, or adults deciding that these issues weren't worth explaining to children.

But the world has changed. The release of Disney's streaming service, Disney+, is now allowing a new generation of children to experience the 'magic of Disney'. However, many have noticed a small addition to the beginning of some of Disney's most beloved movies. 'This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions,' reads the warning attached to films like Lady and the Tramp, The Jungle Book and Dumbo.

Such an acknowledgement is a step in the right direction, but doesn't go quite far enough. The statement seems generic and vague, as if to make viewers skim over it to get to the movie itself.

Even though the depictions are outdated, many of the attitudes attached to them are still alive and well. Lady and the Tramp features two Siamese cats who are not only villains, but speak with exaggerated 'Asian' accents — something that is still used today to mock Asian-looking people in movies and in real life. Dumbo features a pack of crows, one of which is named 'Jim Crow', after the set of laws that enforced segregation in the southern states of America. We still don't have to look very far to find instances of racism against African Americans in the United States.

Disney's warning seemingly deliberately avoids using the words 'race' or 'racism', which leaves something of a sour taste in my mouth. True acknowledgement doesn't dance around the subject — the warning should at least include a more comprehensive description of what exactly these 'outdated cultural depictions' are. Instead, the warning seems tokenistic, a message only put in place to prevent any backlash from those who may not have seen these films before.

Warner Brothers has also attached warnings to cartoons like Tom and Jerry, but its message provides more depth: '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. While these cartoons do not represent today's society, they are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.' The message acknowledges and condemns these attitudes, leaving no excuse for people who might want to continue living in the past.

 

"Removing scenes or films that have racist material from the public consciousness is tantamount to rewriting cultural histories."

 

What about other Disney films that are problematic? What about depictions of gender? What about films that emphasise the girl-princess boy-prince narrative, let alone the damsel in distress/prince charming trope?

Aladdin and Mulan don't include these warnings, but have similarly offensive attitudes. The opening song of Aladdin includes the line, 'It's barbaric, but hey, it's home'; the protagonists, Jasmine and Aladdin, are whitewashed, and the villains of the film all sport darker skin. Aditi Natasha Kini calls Aladdin 'a misogynist, xenophobic white fantasy', and Jasmine a prime example of 'white feminism as written by white dudes'. The live action remake attempts to remedy some of these issues, but still runs into the issue of presenting brown people as a homogenous group, as opposed to a plethora of groups with their own distinct characteristics.

As an Asian woman, I feel conflicted about Mulan, because it co-opts a 1500-year-old Chinese story without acknowledging its roots — many of my friends thought it was an original Disney story. It also plays into 'Chinese' or 'Asian' stereotypes, including that of the typically 'meek' Chinese woman, and the notion that the only way for a woman to ensure 'honour' for herself and her family would be to adopt traits associated with being a warrior (read: masculine).

All in all, I think Disney made the right decision to include these films. While there is value in pointing out incorrect or inappropriate behaviour, we are also at a point where we are perhaps a little too quick to declare someone or something 'cancelled'. Many problematic depictions have occurred over the years, and we do ourselves no favours by ignoring them or pretending they did not exist.

Some of these works are representative of society's values at the time at which they were made, and this should be fully acknowledged. Removing scenes or films that have racist material from the public consciousness is tantamount to rewriting cultural histories. Many have suffered and continue to suffer to bring wider public awareness to these issues, and their work should not go unacknowledged.

Work still needs to be done. But for now, I'm glad these messages exist. Hopefully the next generation of Disney fans will have more of an awareness of the media they consume, and this will spark more conversations that need to be had.

 

 

Yen-Rong WongYen-Rong Wong is a Brisbane-based writer, and the founding editor of Pencilled In, a literary magazine dedicated to showcasing the work of Asian Australian artists.

Main image: Still from Disney's Mulan.

Topic tags: Yen-Rong Wong, Disney, Warner Bros, racism, sexism, Aladdin, Mulan

 

 

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Existing comments

Arts and entertainment are frequently defined by the times; Punch and Judy were still "in" as popular kids entertainment until late last century and who could've condemned Peter Pan for cutting off Hook's hand then feeding it to the crocodile? We would now... Spielberg's movie E.T. has been digitally remastered and re-released such that the FBI agents now carry CGI handheld radios, not guns as in the original. How is it that Michaelangelo's David is depicted as classic Greco-Roman male form or innumerable masters art works feature a "white" Christ? Were they "racist" in their actions or just defined by a "pop" culture? Disney didn't write Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Bambi, Poppins or Snow White; he was an entrepreneur who saw a niche for children's entertainment. He may have been a racist by today's standards but perhaps we can term it "racique" that to describe the style rather than define the man. Thanks for the article...I hope the awareness of the entertainment doesn't interfere with the audience enjoyment.
Ray | 28 November 2019


Were there no Asian movies for children in Disney's time?
Henri | 29 November 2019


Hi Yen Yong, I am a 70 year old guy who grew up watching Disney pictures and cartoons .I enjoyed them as a child. It has never occurred to me to analyse them in the manner you have done. I am a student of history and taught this delightful subject for three decades at high school level. One thing I learnt from the study and the teaching of history is that you need to see the way people thought, acted and lived in the context of the times. Today, I fear, we are judging events of the past in the light of present experience and thought. That is a form of political correctness gone ballistic. I always taught my students to learn from the past , in order to understand the present ,so as to avoid the errors of the past in the future! It is absolutely important that we see such portrayals whether in film, audio recording, writing , drawing , inscription, scripture etc. in the context of the time they were composed.
Gavin | 29 November 2019


Three challenging responses - presumably from Straight White Males - which rather proves the point you make, Yen-Rong, about the power differentials at play in ignoring the profound cultural implications in any form of cartoonery. At my Calcutta Jesuit college some fifty years ago Fr Antoine went beyond the easy recall of Fred Quimby's name as "the Walt's" ubiquitous producer to ask us what we thought was wrong with his films. Ali Rahim shot his hand up and observed that Muslim women were invariably underclad and portrayed as sexy. In post-independent and overwhelmingly Hindu India this was deeply provocative and a provocation for Hindu hotheads to de-veil Muslim women. Perchance Gavin's teaching missed out on the deconstruction expected of any educator in today's Language class. One has to also ask where this analysis takes the moderators of Eureka Street in deciding what to publish in such an interrogative e-journal. Quite recently one conversationalist decried the inclusion of a culturally-appropriate Indigenous statue in the Papal Mass at the Amazon Synod in Rome. My counter-argument that this was culturally appropriate was published but later excised with the explanaation that moderation is an "inexact science", thereby exposing some gaps in ES's vulnerable discourse.
Michael Furtado | 30 November 2019


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