Updated: Apr 13, 2020
With the possibility of reopening a rather contentious can of worms, I approach the subject of Disney and race apprehensively. Though a topic rife with controversy, anger and disgust, the topic is a prominent contemporary issue worth discussing. That said, I will put the modern era on the ‘to do list’ and begin in the 1930s.
It is important to understand society in the early days of Disney moving pictures. Primary target audience, America, had a very different culture to that of today, with racism prevalent in society and discrimination a more commonplace occurrence. Though morally abhorrent in today’s society, it was more acceptable at the time for Disney movies to showcase a full white cast, or even make subliminal racist remarks.
Furthermore, the Great Depression had led to an additional divide societally with the more diverse population far more likely to live in poverty. African-Americans were the first be laid off as a result of this and thus Disney’s production and distribution methods directly reflected the zeitgeist. In short, consumers that were unemployed, poor and living impoverished lives were less likely to consume Disney’s product. As a result, Disney targeted an audience that were more likely to go to the movies, purchase merchandise and generally spend money on entertainment – principally the Caucasian population.
Fast forward to 2019 and we live in a far different society in terms of culture, diversity and equality. Whilst xenophobia is still present, the gap and divide between races has clearly diminished, and Disney are under increasing pressure to portray diversity within their productions. Thus, in 2009 we saw the debut of Princess Tiana.
Smashed it! Disney had successfully promoted diversity and quietened the critics, right? Well, that’s debatable. Whilst Tiana represents significant progress for Disney’s commentary on race, the inaugural and only black princess is depicted far different to her white contemporaries. Unlike the Caucasian others, Tiana is a princess by marriage and not birth, furthermore Tiana aspires for a service industry career rather than being cast into the ‘happily ever after’ mould of a profession-less bliss in the castle. One could argue this shows independence, but the contrast remains glaring.
The character of Tiana is successful in displaying the message that that who you are or where you come from does not matter in the quest to achieve your dreams. However, Disney's commitment to altering its rhetoric on race is questionable through other underlying messages.
The modern bias in Disney films may be subconscious or subliminal, but the concerted effort to display racism in the past is hard to ignore. This deliberate inclusion of discrimination is particularly evident in the 1940s feature Dumbo, an animated film seemingly based on an innocent animal kingdom, through the pack of crows – not least the lead crow’s name.
Jim Crow is the name given to a racial caste system between 1877 and mid-1960 that saw African-Americans relegated to second-class citizens. Jim Crow is also the name of the lead crow in Dumbo.
The blatant xenophobia does not stop there, the pack of crows as a whole are all black in colour, talking and acting in offensive, stereotypically ‘African-American ways’. The depiction of the birds as uneducated, constantly smoking and experts on ‘all things fly’ is a clear racial commentary aimed at amusing the largely Caucasian audience. To add salt to the wound, Jim Crow is voiced by a white actor doing his best ‘black voice’.
Again, Disney were aware that this representation would likely be unrefuted and encouraged by the majority of its audience, with a strong possibility that the viewers at the time would in fact find it comical and entertaining.
Conversely, Disney are often praised for their ‘stereotype-breaking’ film Pocahontas. A strong, powerful Native American female, protagonist Pocahontas is depicted as a beautiful, adventurous heroine. That said, a white man is portrayed as the love of her life.
Critics and consumers alike have hailed the film as instrumental in showcasing females as strong and powerful individuals. However, the portrayal of race is not as revolutionary.
Based on a true story, Pocahontas’ inability to portray an honest, true -to-reality narrative offers a first sign of potential discrimination - at times, the film displays the English settlers and Native Americans as equal offenders, when the English colonists were in reality the aggressors.
Comparatively, the representation of Native Americans as ‘savages’ is a clear and blatant racist depiction. The term ‘savages’ perpetuates the idea that Native Americans are uneducated, uncivilized and not ‘normal’. Furthermore, the fact that that the natives sing the ‘Savages song’ that is offensive to them serves as a further inference of their stupidity, as well as the singing itself being paradoxical.
The lyrics to the aforementioned song are noticeably repugnant in the modern age, with lines such as “kill their evil race”, “they’re only good when they’re dead” and “they’re not like you and me which means they must be evil”, providing an insight into the institutional and systematic xenophobia running through Disney productions.
Critics could argue that reviewing somewhat ‘archaic’ Disney is irrelevant due to how different our current society is from the past, and that we should instead look to the modern era to evaluate the company’s view and utilisation of race.
A recent deluge of live-action remakes has seen Disney’s classic titles reinvented for the modern age. Has this allowed for a reinvention of Disney’s portrayal and representation of race as well?
This year’s feature-film Aladdin saw Disney select and recruit an extremely diverse cast. Will Smith and Mena Massoud played the roles of the Genie and Aladdin respectively, whilst London-born actress of Indian descent, Naomi Scott, was cast as Jasmine.
Prior to the audition phase of the film, producer Dan Lin had said that there was a concerted and active effort to recruit a diverse cast. However, this was more of a necessity than a ‘choice’ for the production team.
The setting of the film itself – the Arabian city of Agrabah – requires a cast predominantly compiled of Middle Eastern or Indian descent. In fact, the aforementioned decision to hire Scott to play Jasmine drew much criticism. Commentators argued that an Arab or Middle-Eastern should play the role, and thus accused Disney of colourism. Fearful of venturing into a never-ending topic, I halt myself here.
One can somewhat accept that live-action remakes and animation have their own freedoms and limitations to take into account. Disney, however, possesses the opportunity to make a concerted and conscious effort to ensure their productions are both appropriate and honestly representative. The latter genre, animation, evidently follows the same principles and rules as a traditional motion picture, but theoretically it should not be bound by any limitation other than the animators' imagination. By this notion, all racial bias and xenophobia present in Disney's animated films is deliberate and blatant. Similarly, 'proper' films are also mostly limitless in terms of their portrayal and depiction. Yes, there may be limitations on time and place, but in terms of casting and script the production is limitless. Therefore, one could also argue that any racial bias or xenophobia present in Disney's non-animated films is also both deliberate and blatant.
Still, I am wary of labelling Disney as a wholly racist organisation - at least in the contemporary era - but do acknowledge that there remains severe upheaval and work to be done; room for improvement is an understatement.