Disney's dark past as important platform for young minds
// JJ Brewis

“I won't watch Aladdin, that movie's racist!" The words spouted out from an acquaintance riding next to me on a long drive home. Initially, the sentimentalist in me was riled up. I was ready to tell her off, insisting of the great values of friendship, loyalty, and social justice in such a film, but I bit my tongue and rode home. It is true, many Walt Disney movies are indeed racist; but that should not disqualify them as a resource for both entertainment and historical purposes. Many state that the films, whose target audience is undeniably children, are inappropriate for their intended market, with film critic Roger Ebert stating in his book Questions for the Movie Answer Man , “While the original film should be preserved for historical purposes, there is no need for the general release version to perpetrate racist stereotypes in a film designed primarily for children."

It is true that racial stereotypes should never have happened in the first place, but all we can do is change what material is being made today. As someone who grew up with a wide range of media, I believe that Disney movies really shaped my imagination and interest in the arts. I am also someone without racist tendencies, which would argue against the blanket statement that Disney films create racist seeds in children. I watched these films with my parents, and they were able to provide me with a context and assemblage of the components. Parents just need to be a bit more active with their children. Simply sitting them down in front of the television and abandoning them isn't quality parenting, and that's the bigger issue here. Perhaps if mom or dad were able to watch the film with their children and explain to them, "Look, that Latino chihuahua from Oliver and Co. is an exaggeration, and not every Latino person would be keen to steal a car," they’d be less worried about what they were learning from these films.
Disney Company has done their own part to censor what they believe to be too much in terms of racist characterizations. A scene from 1940's Fantasia was removed from the film for a 1960 theatrical re-release and never added back in, even on home video releases. The scene mentioned is from the Pastoral Symphony section, in which a short, frumpy-looking stereotyped black centaur is cleaning the hooves of a magnificentlooking white counterpart.

Disney has also tried to make the public forget about an entire motion picture, 1946's Song of the South, which uses both live-action and animated segments. The film was recognized by the Academy Awards, but uses a strong narrative that implies positivity towards slavery and black racial stereotypes. Disney Company has made statements as recently as 2010, when Creative Director Dave Bossert announced, “We know we want people to see Song of the South because we realize it's a big piece of company history, and we want to do it the right way.” Despite this statement, the company has not made the footage available or made any concrete announcements to do so.

Preserving history and creating a proper context that children can learn within is a win-win situation. Covering up a brutal past and pretending it never happened is not going to be beneficial for any of us. Take Disney's Dumbo for example. The film, released in 1941, features a scene in which black men are hard at work setting up the circus overnight, singing, “We work all day, we work all night, we never learned to read or write”. In 2011, this seems offensive, but the fact is that in the early 40s, equality was far away for African Americans.

Conversely, in 2009, Disney released their 49th full-length animated film The Princess and the Frog, whose entire cast, as well as lead heroine, Tiana, is black. This is, of course, following the inclusion of other minorities represented in past films, including Native Americans (1995's Pocahontas) and Chinese (1998's Mulan). Disney is at least improving their representations: the native peoples in Pocahontas are a lot more socially acceptable than their counterparts in 1953's Peter Pan.

All in all, the arc of Disney films presents a history that very much mimics the American timeline well. The movies, like the country and society they come from, match up well with society's acceptances through the years: a Black princess would not have been an option when Walt Disney began making films in the late 1930s. The films would have bombed at the box office, leaving no chance for future decades to make up for the injustices in previous works. In learning from mistakes, the company has a great frame of work to remember what is and isn't acceptable for the future.

So, yes, Disney has successfully worked on its racist tendencies. And I will keep this in mind next time I'm in the back seat of a car on a long ride home. "Well, I won't watch The Little Mermaid either," she quipped. "It's sexist."

// JJ Brewis
// Illustration by Shannon Elliott

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com