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Acknowledging a Violent Past: Disney’s Racist Fairy Tales

photograph of Walt Disney Statue with Disney Castle in background

After months of protests by the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s death some white people in the U.S. began to notice that perhaps the world is not as equal as they once thought. They also began to notice that this inequality was perpetuated by their lack of education on race in the U.S. This became obvious as book sales about race began to skyrocket from May to June with Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility topping the list. This gave way to the Anti-Racist movement, where white people take it upon themselves to unlearn their inherent racist behaviors that they have been educated in since childhood. People began to acknowledge that the history we learn in school is drenched in the long legacy of white supremacy that this country was built on.

Debate was sparked about how to teach a history that highlights, rather than hides, the violent and racist past of the U.S., and how to deliver this material in a form suitable for children. It’s necessary to have these conversations early on with kids as studies show that children as young as three begin to associate certain races with negative stereotypes, while most adults tend to think they should wait until their children are at least five to begin discussing race. Since children are visually recognizing not only physical race, but the behaviors attached to different groups of people made up of different races, it is important to start teaching children about the history of race, rather than shy away or leave it up to a school curriculum that will likely only perpetuate racist stereotypes and histories.

This debate has arisen again recently with the decision by streaming platform Disney+ to restrict the ability of children to watch certain films. Disney+ placed a warning of racist depictions on certain older films last year, but has now blocked those films from Kids Profiles, which include the ages of seven and below. Some of the films include classics like “Dumbo” (1941) because of depictions of racist minstrel shows and “Peter Pan” (1953), which includes racist stereotypes of Native Americans. On their website, Disney acknowledges the roles that stories have in shaping perspectives in the world and makes a pledge to review the films it provides in an attempt to spark conversation on history. Certainly, these moves by Disney are a step in the right direction, but perhaps the billion-dollar company can afford, and even has a responsibility, to do a lot more than take just a step towards conversation.

Disney is considered a blockbuster powerhouse by the film industry, and it certainly has an enormous cultural impact in America, as well as internationally. Children for generations have grown up watching their dark-folk-story-turned-romantic-fairy-tales, with young girls longing to be princesses in search of their long-lost knight. Now that screens have become even more accessible, children can sit with their own iPads at home for hours watching these films. A summer trip to Disneyland or Disneyworld is considered a rite of passage for tens of millions of families. Disney has literally become its own world with all of its theme parks combined taking up as much land as the entire city of San Francisco. Now that Disney has also developed a streaming service, its reach only widens as 55 percent of their subscriptions belong to families with children. Disney obviously plays a large part in a lot of American children’s lives by way of the education they provide through storytelling.

Given the formative power Disney wields, when these stories contain racist histories it is necessary to acknowledge and discuss that history. While Disney mentions “negative depictions” and “mistreatment” in their advisory statement that appears before certain films, they never once mention racism or white supremacy. Instead, it seems like they are trying to walk a fine line of appeasing new voices critical of not-so-hidden racism and a consumer base that is unwilling to believe that such a thing as white supremacy still exists in the U.S., or believe children are old enough to read its signs. Considering both the enormous fan base and amount of content made by Disney that children consume, they should be more aggressive in their policies towards rooting out their white supremacist past by using educational tools on their streaming platform.

Realistically, there are two different types of education regarding race that happen in America. For white children, race is evidently something that they notice at an early age, and then they begin to unknowingly recognize, learn, and perpetuate racism, perhaps without even noticing what they are doing. For children of color in America, especially black children, race is something that they become aware of through macro- and microaggressions they experience as a result of the white supremacy that encumbers and constructs life in America. When students of color start their schooling, they are immediately placed in an environment that is built against them.

If Disney is willing to acknowledge that stories matter, then they perhaps need more than just an alert regarding “negative depictions” in order to address the problematic actions and behaviors shown in their films. By recognizing stories matter, they must also recognize the influence they have in teaching children, often without any parental interference, as Disney is a most often considered a kid-friendly source. They owe the children of color watching these films more than an acknowledgement of the harm that they perpetuated for so long. They could use their platform as an educational opportunity to spread anti-racist awareness to the millions of children and even adults using this platform.

Starting these conversations is a helpful step, but Disney has both the money and influence to be able to help spread awareness and education through a far more extensive system. It is important to remember that it is not Disney’s sole burden to undo the racist history that is perpetuated in history books and through word of mouth, nor would it even be possible for them to do so as that is a task people have struggled with and will be struggling with for decades. Ideally, schools and parents would be able to have truthful and as unbiased as possible conversations about the racist history of America, but realistically this does not seem to be possible for most American children. As can be seen from the protests and politics of 2020, white adults struggle to talk about race or even accept that racism is systemically ingrained in life in America. If adults struggle to talk about racism with each other, how can they be expected to have productive conversations with their children?

If talking about racism in America is normalized for this generation of children, then perhaps a productive cycle can begin for future generations about reckoning with a white supremacist past. This is not yet the reality, therefore, Disney has such a reach and connection with families that they might have a better opportunity to recount accurate histories of peoples in America. And they may have a moral obligation to do so given their not insignificant contribution to the problem.

Gay Representation and ‘Onward’

photograph of Disney castle

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

Disney-Pixar’s latest film Onward has generated a mild flurry of controversy in the week before its release. The film, which is set in a modernized fantasy world, features Pixar’s first openly gay character, a police officer (who also happens to be a cyclops) voiced by actress and writer Lena Waithe. Christian right-wing groups have protested the character’s existence, viewing her inclusion in the narrative as a blatant attempt to peddle the “LGBTQ agenda” to children. But surprisingly the LGBTQ community has evinced mixed feelings about the film as well. Disney’s frank attempt at inclusiveness could be seen as a groundbreaking move away from heteronormativity in mainstream film. Representation is a certainly good thing; the limits of our imagination is at least partly determined by pop culture, and when we see something treated as acceptable within the bounds of fiction, that thing starts to feel more possible in real life. But some have taken issue with the nature of LGBTQ representation in Onward, for two main reasons. First, they argue that it’s problematic to herald Disney as a champion of progressiveness in any context, and second, they take issue with the type of character Disney has chosen to make LGBTQ.

Any gesture towards inclusivity feels hollow when delivered by a mega-corporation like Disney, which has a checkered history with the LGBTQ community to say the least. In the same week that Onward announced their lesbian character, Disney also announced that they would be removing Love, Simon, a television show based on the movie of the same name centered on the life of a gay teenager, from the Disney + streaming service. Apparently, the show’s frank discussions of the main character’s sexuality pushed it out of the “family friendly” category, despite the fact that other shows still hosted on the service contain decidedly non-family-friendly themes, like explicit violence. Disney is a monstrously large company, and despite its many attempts to shape itself into a homogenous brand, it can still send out contradictory messages, like taking down a show for being “too gay” and proudly announcing the existence of a gay character in the same week. Part of this comes from the company’s desire to appeal to everyone, both the “family values” advocates and a more progressive crowd at the same time. In that sense, Disney’s form of representation will always feel false. It comes across as an attempt to make money and not a deep-seated commitment to equality.

In an article for Slate, Sam Adams further breaks down the problem with Disney’s gay representation, beyond the scope of just Onward. He explains that “From the ‘exclusively gay moment’ in the live-action Beauty and the Beast to a kiss between two minor female characters in last year’s The Rise of Skywalker, each baby step has been preceded by a flotilla of coverage proclaiming the advance—and each has been followed by the inevitable sense of confusion and betrayal when viewers see the movie and realize, “That’s it?” He correctly points out that the way these movies often use their landmark gay moments as a marketing tactic, drawing both positive and negative press (which, in terms of a company’s bottom line, often amount to the same thing). The marketing is often loud and expansive, in proportion to the half-second of actual screentime for the gay characters themselves. According to Adams, “The problem is often less with the movies themselves than with the self-congratulatory buildup to them.” It’s an attempt to capitalize on “woke points,” or credit for inclusiveness without actually being progressive, which ultimately translates into box office sales.

Beyond the film’s marketing, the lesbian character and the way the filmmakers have chosen to portray her is a source of controversy. Adams noted that “Waithe’s character is, like pretty much every character in every Pixar movie, essentially sexless; her girlfriend never appears on screen, so whatever intimacy the two of them might share happens only in the viewer’s imagination.” It’s worth asking whether this approach is better or worse than making the character’s sexuality more apparent, which might fall into the trap of harmful stereotyping. At the same time, treating gay characters in the exact same way as straight characters with the aim of normalizing them can has the effect of erasing difference completely.

Furthermore, the character is a police officer. This may seem like an innocuous choice, and given the light tone of the movie and the little amount of screentime given to the character, it probably is. But at the same time, LGBTQ cops are often difficult to portray in works of fiction. One has to balance both the reality that LGBTQ cops exist (and that they often become police officers with the aim of improving the way law enforcement treats their community) and the history of police brutality against gay people who protest against the state. This troubled relationship between gay people and cops is evident throughout the latter half of the 20th-century. In 1974, for example, the police department of Alamedea County in California began recruiting gay officers, because gay people in San Fransicsco were deeply uncomfortable reporting crimes to straight officers. In January of 2020, the San Francisco pride parade voted to ban various police departments from marching, and issued a statement that “[Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies can participate in Pride] so long as they do not visibly identify as deputies of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office while doing so.” This small example is a microcosm of the relationship between police officers and gay people on a larger scale, which involves both opposition and intersection. In that sense, portraying a gay character as a police officer, especially if that character is the first gay character in your animation company’s history, inevitably comes with baggage.

We might compare this problematic representation with NBC’s hit show Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which has been ensnared throughout its run in the same controversy as Onward. One of the main characters of the show is both a black gay man and a high-ranking captain within the NYPD. Funké Joseph, a black fan of the show, has written about the whiplash he experiences every time he sees this character, and how he balances between enjoying the show’s jokes and remembering the brutal reality behind the script. He explains that,

“Real life cops have abused their power countless times against me and people who look like me. It still feels like almost every other day there’s another black police brutality victim being turned into a post-mortem hashtag. That’s why cheering for the utopian version of cops is a moral dilemma for me.”

That same moral dilemma is evident on a much smaller scale in Onward. The film encourages gay viewers, who may have a deeply negative relationship with the police, to cheer for a lesbian cop.

The fact that there is a gay character in Onward at all is a good sign; at the very least it signals that Disney thought it was more profitable to market to a LGBTQ or LGBTQ-friendly audience than the “family values” group. But it remains crucial that we understand Disney’s profit-based motivations for this move, beyond the empty rhetoric and marketing strategies. One solution for the moral problem of representation, perhaps, is to stop giving Disney credit for every new “first gay character,” and begin to ask what kinds of gay representation are considered acceptable for mainstream audiences and why.

Disney’s Moana and Cultural Appropriation

The soon-to-be newest Disney movie, Moana, will be a refreshing addition to Hollywoods animated films. Set in the Pacific Islands, a Polynesian protagonist sets out on a journey to save her people, discovering her own identity and potential along the way. Disney has released a trailer for the film, which is scheduled to premier in late November. As a corporation potentially making over a billion dollars from this film, Disney teeters a fine line between cultural appreciation and appropriation. It has an obligation and responsibility to maintain cultural accuracy and respect. Though Disney claims that it has taken great care to respect the cultures of the Pacific Islands that inspired the film,” it did not apply that same diligence to its marketing strategies and has already made a massive blunder in a profit-driven move. Though the movie will come out in November, Disney began offering costumes of the characters in time for the Halloween season. The costume of  Maui, the demigod who assists Moana on her journeys, has galvanized people to speak out about the costume’s inappropriate representation of the Polynesian culture, inducing Disney’s decision to issue an apology and pull its product from the market.

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