The Racism You Never Saw in Disney BY MAYA ISKANDARANI

As little kids, we all loved the bright colors and catchy tunes of Disney. What we missed, however, were the racist undertones of some of our favorite Disney blockbusters through the years, from Peter Pan (1953) to The Princess and the Frog (2009).

To many of us, Disney is more than just an animation studio. Disney is a force of nature, an institution so deeply embedded in modern pop culture that it’s hard to imagine a world without it. Can you imagine your childhood without The Little Mermaid? Without Aladdin? I certainly can’t.

Because Disney occupies this unique cultural space of childhood innocence and joy, we are often reluctant to muster the will to criticize it. If you take a hard look at your favorite Disney movies from when you were growing up, however, you will find one major flaw glaring at you: Disney is pretty racist.

Don’t get me wrong—Disney has made huuuuge strides in the arena of race since its early days. Its films have evolved from blatantly waving stereotypes around to carefully trying to tread around them. To prove this to you, I’m going to trace the development of racism in Disney, from the studio’s founding to the 21st century. What I want you to take away, however, is that, though they may be subtle or diluted, Disney’s racist messages most definitely still exist.

Exhibit A: Peter Pan (1953)

Peter Pan may very well be the most racist of the Disney classics. The film makes one massive, insulting caricature of Native Americans, lumping together every stereotype you can imagine in its portrayal of the “Indians”, who inhabit the “Indian Camp” of Neverland. In the song “What Made the Red Man Red”, the Indians sit cross-armed and cross-legged, beat drums, chant, blow smoke rings, and dance in circles. If that doesn't seem a bit racist, read the song’s lyrics:

What made the red man red?

Let's go back a million years

To the very first Injun (Indian) prince

He kissed a maid and start to blush

And we've all been blushin' since

Listen for yourself if you don't believe me.

There's no denying that this is blatant racism. Disney has been jabbed at by critics time and again for Peter Pan, and rightly so. However, Peter Pan was released in an America of 60 years ago, where segregation was legal and racist movies were probably more common than not.

Exhibit B: The Jungle Book (1967)

The Jungle Book, another Disney classic, isn’t much better. Remember the lively King Louie and his band of apes? They’re caricatures of 1960s black Americans.

It doesn’t take a hard look to figure this out. The apes all have black accents, prominent lips, and perform catchy jazz numbers. King Louie even shares the name of the King of Jazz, black musician Louis Armstrong.

Moreover, the “kingdom” Louie rules over is really a slum in the “man-village ruins”, not unlike an inner city or black ghetto. Most alarming about this movie, however, is the message of the jazzy “I Wan’na Be Like You”. In it, Louie sings to Mowgli:

Ooh-bi-doo, I wan’na be like you

I want to walk like you, talk like you, too

You see it’s true, an ape like me

Can learn to be like you, too.

An ape like Louie—that is, a black person—can learn to be a man. Disney’s basically saying that black people aren’t really people.

But, once again, those were different times. What was acceptable in 1967 isn’t acceptable today, and probably wasn’t even acceptable 20 years ago. Or was it?

Exhibit C: The Lion King (1994)

Let’s fast-forward a bit. By 1994, Disney’s been skewered many times over by critics for the likes of Peter Pan and The Jungle Book. The U.S. has gone through the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement, and all manner of liberal upheavals. There’s no way Disney could still be racist, right?

Wrong, and The Lion King proves it. The hyenas, minion villains to Scar, are animalized versions of blacks and Latinos. In fact, the whole movie is symbolic of a U.S.-Mexico border conflict.

Trust me, I’m the last person in the world who wants to hear this. I’m part Latina, and The Lion King is one of my all-time favorite movies. But the evidence is too much to ignore.

Two of the three main hyenas, Shenzi and Banzai, speak in street accents; Shenzi is voiced by Whoopi Goldberg (black) and Banzai by Anthony “Cheech” Marin (Mexican-American).

Like King Louie in The Jungle Book, they live in a wasteland that looks like an inner city or “the projects”. All three hyenas are vulgar, petty, dark-skinned, and criminal—stereotype on top of stereotype of blacks and Latinos. This, on its own, blew my mind when I realized it.

I was truly dumbfounded, however, to learn that all of TLK represents American xenophobia towards Mexican immigrants. Think about it: the border between the Pridelands and the hyenas’ territory is like the U.S.-Mexico border. The hyenas want to emigrate to the Pridelands to seek a better life. The lions want to keep the hyenas out at all costs. The Pridelands waste away when the hyenas flood in: there are too many immigrants for the land to support. Peace is restored only when the lions push the hyenas back beyond the border.

It’s sad, it’s astonishing, and I almost wish I’d never read it. But it’s true: The Lion King proves that Disney was still racist in 1994.

Exhibit D: Pocahontas (1995)

Considering that Pocahontas came out only one year after The Lion King, Disney was surprisingly careful in the way it portrayed minorities this time around. Granted, critics had given Disney so much heat for Peter Pan that Disney probably meant to make up for it Pocahontas, its first big shot at portraying Native Americans since then. Though Disney certainly made enormous improvements in the accuracy of its portrayal, Pocahontas still puts forth a stereotype of Native Americans: not the crude ones of Peter Pan, but the misguided one of the Noble Savage.

It’s hard to deny. In the movie, Pocahontas literally runs barefoot through the woods, talks to trees and raccoons, and sings in “Colors of the Wind”:

The rainstorm and the river are my brothers

The heron and the otter are my friends

And we are all connected to each other

In a circle, in a hoop that never ends

While wanting nothing but peace between her tribe and John Smith’s British colonialists. Quite noble indeed.

Not to mention that almost no blood is spilled in the clash between the Brits and the Powhatan. Historically, this was hardly ever the case: European settlers actively hunted Native Americans, and Native Americans often responded with violence. Pocahontas reflects none of this.

It’s a much subtler racism than Peter Pan and even The Lion King, but it’s still there.

Exhibit E: The Princess and the Frog (2009)

Finally, we reach the new millennium. Almost a full century after the debut of the first Disney princess, Snow White, Disney finally inducts a black princess, Tiana, into the club. The anticipation for The Princess and the Frog was unprecedented.

No matter what, Disney was going to get heat for this movie. Considering that, I think the studio did a pretty good job with it. Nevertheless, the movie still has hints of racism—ironically enough, because it tries to dodge racism altogether.

Though The Princess and the Frog is set in 1920s New Orleans, the movie makes no mention of segregation, Jim Crow laws, the tradition of slavery, or any other aspect of America’s once-institutionalized racism. Instead, the movie dances around the subject: Tiana lives in a small house near a bunch of other black families’ small houses, while Tiana’s rich white friend Charlotte lives in a mansion. Her parents work in low-wage service jobs, while Charlotte’s father is a sugar baron.

More problematically, the movie exalts hard work as the thing that will get you to your dream, no matter your station in life. For a black woman in 1920s Louisiana, no amount of hard work could do this—particularly if the dream is to own and operate a restaurant. The law would have made Tiana’s dream virtually impossible. Paradoxically, Disney is being racist by ignoring racism.

What do you think?

Disney has progressed lightyears from Peter Pan to The Princess and the Frog in its depiction of race, though hints of racism and stereotyping are ever present in its recent movies. Next time you crash on your couch to watch one, keep this in mind.

Credits:

Created with images by amyr_81 - "WDW - Cinderella's Castle"

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