Disney’s Offensive Past: Racism
March 10, 2021
Hello fellow movie lovers. Today, we are back with another story about Disney. This time, we will be enlightening you on some of the offensive things found in old Disney movies, particularly those involving racism. This is not necessarily a ranking, review, or recommendation, but it is covering an important movie related topic.
There are some more obvious cases of racism found in Disney movies. Most of these come from older Disney movies made before the 2000s, but that does not change the fact that they are indeed racist. On Disney+, Disney is acknowledging that these racist tropes were wrong by placing a warning at the beginning of the movies that contain offensive or stereotypical things.
Dumbo, for example, includes a scene where five crows appear to Dumbo and Timothy Q. Mouse after they get stuck in a tree. These crows are fun, cynical, hilarious, and they even help Dumbo discover his ability to fly, but unfortunately, they are also slightly racist. The depiction of the crows and the way they speak belittles African-American mannerisms and the play on words regarding the Jim Crow laws falls flat decades later.
Racism is not limited to just black people. There are other ethnicities, such as Native Americans, Arabs, or Asians who are also incorrectly and offensively portrayed. In Peter Pan, for example, many of the Native Americans have extremely red skin and exaggerated facial features. In addition, the Native Americans are all singing a song called “What Made Red Man Red.” This song and dance sequence not only mocks the way that Native Americans speak, but it also calls them two derogatory labels: “Injun” and “red man.” Prior to this scene, the Native Americans kidnaps the lost boys and threaten them. In general, the Native Americans are negatively and stereotypically portrayed.
Pocahontas is not inherently racist, but it is a misinterpretation of an actual historical event involving Native Americans. It is one of the many stories that romanticized history. In reality, Pocahontas wasn’t even a teenager when she encountered the settlers of Jamestown. This, however, did not stop the white settlers from kidnapping her, killing her husband, and forcing her to give up her firstborn child. Later, she married John Rolfe to form a tobacco alliance, changed her name to Rebecca, and converted to Christianity against her will. She went to England with her husband and died before she even turned twenty-one. Some historians suspect that she was poisoned. Pocahontas never saved, warned, or had a romantic relationship with John Smith.
Overall, Aladdin is not too racist. The main offender happens to be in the first few minutes of the movie. The opening song, “Arabian Nights,” contains the lyrics “Where they cut off your ear/If they don’t like your face/It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” This naturally angered many Arab-Americans, as it is stereotypical and mocking.
There are very few people that claim Song of the South to be their favorite movie and for good reason. With stereotypical vernacular, a glorified plantation setting, and just offensive African-American portrayals overall, the entire thing is undeniably racist. We barely have to elaborate on this one.
Not only are there the blatantly racist parts of Disney movies, there are some scenes that are more subtle in their discrimination. These softer and less noticeable moments are still wrong, despite not seeming as bad. We ourselves do not one hundred percent believe that these are intentionally racist, but they were misinterpreted, and it ended up looking that way to some audience members.
Within the movies The Aristocats and Lady and the Tramp, there are Siamese Cats that portray stereotypical Asian appearances with their eyes and accents. They also both sing about typical Chinese cultural aspects. The Siamese twins in Lady in the Tramp also have an entire song to themselves that negatively portray Asian culture and lifestyle. From the gong that plays at the beginning of the song to the actions that occur throughout the song, Asian concepts are mocked. Although the cat in The Aristocats is slightly less noticeable, the fact that it exists at all is problematic.
The much-beloved classic Disney film, The Jungle Book, also uses painful stereotypes of black people similar to the way the monkeys are portrayed. The monkeys all have exaggerated features that one might find on a black man rather than a white man. The way they speak; raspier, lower, and less intelligently is racist as well, especially since they are voiced by white voice actors. It is akin to white actors putting on blackface and acting mockingly as African Americans in the Jim Crow era.
Similarly to The Jungle Book, The Little Mermaid shares the racist stereotypes against black people, but to a much lesser extent. Sebastian’s Jamacian accent raised some red flags, especially because his song, “Under The Sea,” is about staying below the waters to avoid having to work hard. This portrays people with voices like Sebastian’s to be lazy and lethargic without any drive at all.
In addition, The Princess and the Frog (2009) showcased the first African American Disney Prince and Princess, Naveen and Tiana, but concerns arose when it was revealed that the two of them would be green frogs for the majority of the movie. People claimed that because the characters were frogs, it was erasing the representation they deserved.
There is definitely not a shortage of racism in some of the older movies, Disney movies included. Things that were not considered racist then are considered racist now. Times change and people’s opinions change along with them. Still, these things cannot simply be dismissed because of the times. Nowadays, movie creators walk a thin line between being inclusive or accidentally being racist. Trivial things may offend people and things can be misinterpreted as being racist, despite the movie makers’ intentions. Hopefully, in the future, there will no longer be any racism portrayed in Disney movies, subtle or otherwise.