The Ugly Side of Disney | Columnist Ji In Erin Lee
Founded by Walter Elias Disney in 1923 in Los Angeles California, The Walt Disney Company stands as one of the largest, most diversified mass media companies in the world. From the classic black-and-white Mickey Mouse films to modern TV shows such as Hannah Montana, Disney has had a striking influence in the world of 20th-century entertainment. In addition to its continuous release of TV shows and films, Disney has gone on further to delight children with Disneyland and Disneyworld, Disney Cruises, and enormous Disney stores in shopping malls all around the world. These places are a dream-come-true for young children, where the characters and settings of their favorite animations come to life. To children, the world of Walt Disney is enchanting, dreamy, and just pure magic.
Yet for years, Disney has been in the center of controversy for implicitly incorporating messages with negative influences in their animations geared towards their young audience. Difficult for children and even adults to notice, such hidden messages have been proven to be terribly offensive and unacceptable by today’s societal standards. This article highlights some of the inappropriate stereotypes and imageries regarding race, drug use and gender embedded in these seemingly kid-friendly Disney movies.
Racial Stereotypes and Historical Inaccuracies
“We slave until we’re almost dead
We’re happy-hearted roustabout
Keep on working
Stop that shirking
Pull that rope, you hairy ape”
A story about a small elephant believing in himself and learning to use his excessively large ears to fly, Dumbo (1941) portrays hidden stereotypes towards the African American race. The crows in this cartoon, actually voiced by African-American actors, are depicted as poor, lazy and uneducated beings that speak in heavy African-American jive. Jim Crow, the name of their leader, also happens to be the name of the laws that started segregation in the South in the late 19th century. Disney also depicts the Asian race offensively using its characters. In Lady and the Tramp (1955), the villainous Siamese cats named Si and Am have thin, slanted eyes, yellowish skin and a heavy Asian accent. They present the typical negative stereotype of Asians while the civilized protagonists, Lady and Tramp, do not have these stereotypical Asian features and speak fluent English an American accent. In addition, Disney films such as Pocahontas (1995) have been criticized for inaccurately portraying the Native American race and their history. Pocahontas creates a devastating categorization of Native Americans, implying that they are either noble savages or violent savages. The scene that best exemplifies this is perhaps the song “Savages” which European settlers sing to the Native American tribes.
“What can you expect
From filthy little heathens?
Here's what you get when races are diverse
Their skin's a hellish red
They're only good when dead
They're vermin, as I said
They're savages! Savages!
Barely even human
Drive them from our shore!
They're not like you and me
Which means they must be evil
We must sound the drums of war!
They're savages! Savages!
Dirty shrieking devils!
Now we sound the drums of war!”
Just by taking a look at the first stanza and chorus, we recognize themes of xenophobia, othering, and dehumanization of Native Americans. Phrases such as “filthy little heathens”, “barely even human”, and “they’re not like you and me” embeds an image of Native Americans as distanced, lesser human beings. The portrayal of Native Americans in this film is also critiqued as quite outdated. Scenes showing these individuals speaking to trees and animals create a reputation of Native Americans as different from “ordinary” humans, influencing the audience to perceive them as primitive, mystical and not “normal”. The happy ending of Pocahontas is also critiqued as an inaccurate representation of Native American history, for it packages and euphemizes the ugly reality of the violent oppression of Native Americans by white settlers.
Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951) continually portrays imagery of drugs. The abstract, dreamlike events that Alice encounters after she falls “down the rabbit hole” and the film’s overall atmosphere that seems disjointed from reality have been interpreted to be influenced by drugs. Specifically, a walrus and a dodo bird smoke pipes while a caterpillar smokes a fancy water pipe resembling hookah. Alice consumes white powder which can be seen as cocaine, drinks potions and bites off of mushrooms to change her physical condition. As if this isn’t enough, one of the flowers that Alice talks to introduces herself as a “weed” and coughs a puff of smoke. Such imagery fits well into the historical context in which this film was published, as drugs were quite popular and widely-used this era. According to a Children's Literature lecturer at Cardiff University named Dr. Heather Worthington, culture was a significant contributing factor to the symbolization of events encountered by Alice as drug-fuelled dreams. He points out that LSD was “widely-circulated” and “commonplace” from the 1960s to the 1980s and that opium was also legal at this time. Given that the United States has intensified its prohibition of drugs since then due to its devastating, strongly addictive characteristics, it was quite irresponsible of Disney to create such a dream-like and magical imagery of drug use in such a widely-known children’s animation as Alice in Wonderland.
Perhaps the most well known of Disney controversies, the stereotypical gender roles depicted in the traditional Disney princess movies have been in the center of criticism for years. Recall the stories of Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), and The Little Mermaid (1989). What do they all have in common? Princesses encountering problems, having them solved by princes who they later marry and live happily ever after with. Cinderella goes from being a poor girl abused by her stepsisters and stepmother to a princess overnight, thanks to Prince Charming who falls in love with her beauty at first sight. Ariel from The Little Mermaid gives up her voice and identity as a mermaid in order to marry the Prince she falls in love with. Snow White’s life, in danger after she takes a bite out of the poisoned apple from the wicked queen, is saved by the Prince’s kiss. Critics comment that such stories do not give a positive message to young girls, enforcing stereotypical gender roles that influence girls to be less independent.
Disney princesses are also fed by unhealthy expectations for beauty. For instance in Tangled (2010), the aging mother openly shows jealousy towards her young, beautiful and unrealistically skinny daughter. She relies on Rapunzel’s magical hair to help her stay young forever, making this the primary reason she kidnaps and keeps Rapunzel in the isolated tower. This enforces the dangerous stereotype that expectations for women to stay young and beautiful are not only set by society but also desperately wanted to be achieved by women themselves.
Although we are all aware of the overwhelming influence of media on young audiences, it is often difficult to immediately pinpoint all of the problematic stereotypes and imageries especially when they are well-hidden by Disney magic. As a fan of Disney myself, I did not notice any of the subliminal messages in Disney films before researching for this piece, let alone as a child. With most children not being able to pick up on these hidden ideas, why should Disney care at all? As deeply hidden as they are, these messages most likely become inserted into the children’s more susceptible, gullible minds. While watching their favorite movies, children naturally and unconsciously receive an image of Native Americans as different and less human, drugs as magical and perhaps even fun and exciting, and princesses as always beautiful, young, and in need of a prince.
Therefore, there is definitely a need for media companies with younger audiences to pay careful attention to the messages, both explicit and implicit, portrayed in their publications. In fact, Disney has recently been showing efforts to pay attention to reduce stereotypes and inappropriate imageries that had been ingrained in its earlier films. Asian and African-American princesses have been added to the traditional, white-dominated group of Disney princesses after the publication of Mulan (1998) and The Princess and the Frog (2009). Particularly, during the production of Mulan (1998), a movie based on a story about a Chinese princess, Disney hired Asian producers to direct the film in order to avoid racial stereotypes and historical inaccuracies about the Asian race. In more recent productions Brave (2012) and Frozen (2013), Merida as well as Anna and Elsa who are also Disney princess take care of conflicts and dangers on their own, without depending on a Prince. Regarding older films that Disney has received criticism on such as the ones discussed in this piece, it may be unrealistic for children to completely avoid watching given how prevalent they are in countries all over the world. It is therefore crucial for children to be aware of what is wrong and what is right, by way of education in schools or simply through parental advisory at home. As important as it is for mass media companies such as Disney to continue making efforts to avoid sending negative messages to their young audience, it is also the responsibilities of parents and teachers to ensure that their children know how to distinguish between the rights and wrongs in the media they are exposed to.
Cover photo: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/541276448947227080/