We have all seen the classic Disney movies- Tarzan, The Jungle Book, and The Lion King. But very few notice the racial messages that lie underneath. It may be hard to believe but all three of these movies portray a message of Western supremacy
In The Jungle Book, Mowgli is taken in by a group of wolves, and a thoughtful panther named Bagheera. Mowgli, representative of man is seen as superior to all of the jungle animals. He is harassed by Shere Khan, the antagonist, for being human and is even kidnapped by a wild group of monkeys that want the secret to man’s power- fire. In this movie, fire is what distinguishes man from animal and it is fire that ultimately defeats Shere Khan. Man is the hero.
You’re probably asking yourself how does this relate to race? Well, in The Jungle Book, the jungle animals are representative of the primitive other and the fire is representative of the Western advantages that more developed countries possess. When Mowgli saves the day using fire, Disney is normalizing the concept of the white man’s burden.
Another example of this idea is Tarzan. In Tarzan, man is also portrayed as superior to the natives of the jungle. The gorillas in Tarzan are representative of African natives who are colonized by Western civilizations. Historically, African communities resisted colonization both culturally and militarily.
However, In Tarzan, the gorillas invite Tarzan to become their leader and accepts him as their protector and care-taker. Tarzan’s new title of “King of the Jungle” becomes a metaphor of colonialism, which Disney paints in an inaccurate light.
The pro-colonialism sentiments in both of these movies are certainly not meant to be obvious or analyzed. They are subliminal messages that attempt to normalize the white man’s burden and promote Western involvement in less-developed countries.
The Lion King, another Disney movie riddled with racial undertones, uses animals to perpetuate racial stereotypes and white resentment. Two of the main villains in the movie, the hyenas, are voiced by famous minorities- Whoopie Goldberg and Cheech Marin. By making the villainous voices of the movie African American and Hispanic, Disney paints minorities as villains
These hyenas (that represent minorities) are seen as invaders in The Lion King. They live beyond the realm of the pride land and the lions go to great efforts to keep it that way. A group of minorities not allowed within the borders. Hmmm sound familiar?
That’s right. The Lion King narrative closely resembles the immigration debate that America has been facing since its creation. When we look beyond the fun animation and the timeless music of Elton John, we see a patriarchy dominated by blonde lions. This patriarchy is only restored once the minorities are forced back beyond the borders and Simba, a blonde lion, takes power.
One of the more recent Disney movies, The Princess and the Frog, moves towards a more progressive message of racial tolerance. Tiana is the first African American Disney princess and has been an inspiration to many young girls. It is an important turning point in Disney’s history. It is important for children to see themselves represented in media.
While many have criticized The Princess and the Frog, contending that Disney ignored her race by turning her into a frog, I think differently. Tiana’s race is present in many other aspects of the film. The music that gives the film its New Orleans vibe is primarily jazz. In the twenties, the setting for the movie, jazz was a way of expressing Black culture and pride and to this day jazz holds a significant place in Black culture.
The role of animals in regards to race has notably shifted from the times of The Lion King. The Princess and the Frog serves as a second-line. It is the vehicle Disney uses to expose its white core audience to Black culture, without isolating that same audience. The movie uses Tiana’s green appearance both to make Black culture more accessible to its audience as well as promote the image of a colorblind America. Disney is calling us to look beyond Tiana’s race. In the words of Mama Odie, “Don’t matter what you look like… you gotta dig a little deeper”
The problem with this improved message that Disney is conveying is that a colorblind America is not necessarily and ideal America. Racial prejudice still exists today and has an enormous impact on our culture. To ignore race, and adopt a colorblind mindset, is to ignore the current racial issues America faces.
The most recent movie I’d like to look at is Zootopia. Zootopia provides, by far, the most in depth discussion of race in a Disney film. Zootopia uses animals to not only represent racial differences but also every day racial prejudices. Judy Hopps makes history as the first bunny cop and while she is celebrated for making history she is also undermined for her status as a bunny. She is serving a token role and is not given any real responsibilities. The token role is a prominent part of modern day discussions of race.
The most significant parallel in the movie is the acknowledgement of racial profiling. Judy assumes that Nick Wilde, a fox, is up to no good simply because he is a fox. The situation becomes more complex as predators begin to go ‘savage.’ In fact, Judy goes as far as to say that the rise in crime/savagery may be biological. These situations are meant to convey the existence of racial profiling and discrimination within the police force.
Disney is making a bold statement on the state of the American justice system. Zootopia promotes the idea that overcoming racism must be a collaborative effort between all races. The government and law enforcement are at the root of the problem and so they must make a change as well. In the movie, both the government and the police department attempt to improve predator-prey relations by increasing diversity and distributing power. Perhaps our government should do the same.
Unfortunately, Zootopia’s message is not without flaw. In the movie, there is no clear oppressed group. Historically, the minority is oppressed- which would be the predators in the film. However, bunnies and other prey also experience forms of prejudice. In Zootopia, most species are affected by prejudice equally. In reality, certain minority groups experience racial prejudice disproportionately to the rest of the population.
Zootopia is a big step from the previous movies discussed. Its racial message is quite obvious and much more progressive than even The Princess and the Frog. Even though the message remains flawed Disney’s interpretation of race relations is improving with every movie. One way we can keep Disney on this trend is by being critical viewers. Next time you watch a Disney movie, think to yourself: what message is Disney trying to send me? If Disney knows that its audience is watching and that it cares then perhaps they will continue their upward climb to accurate, open discussions of race.