Racism in Disney movies: a tale as old as time

by Kylie Chen (’24) and Amaya Malik (’22) | March 21, 2022

Art by Sharbani Patnaik (’24)

Disney animated films are a staple in our lives, functioning as both entertainment and a way of teaching children important life lessons. In recent years, Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek has promised to make films and shows with “an increased commitment” to diversity, and with the release of Encanto this past year, Disney seems to have been making good on this commitment. However, if we look into Disney’s past, we can see that many films throughout Disney’s history lack representation of diverse groups and have multiple negative racial implications.

Early Disney movies displayed some of the most blatant instances of racism. Dumbo, released in 1941, features “Song Of The Roustabouts,” a scene and song that dehumanizes African Americans by drawing them without faces. The lyrics, sung by Black workers, express enthusiasm towards their enslavement. Later in the film, Dumbo meets a group of crows that behave in ways associated with African American stereotypes from the time: they talk with jive-like patterns and sing jazz-gospel songs. Voiced by white actor Cliff Edwards, the ringleader of the crows is named Jim Crow, an insensitive reference to the Jim Crow era in which state and local statutes legalized racial segregation.

Later, in 1946, Disney released the movie that is arguably the most notorious for its racial insensitivity. Song of the South includes racist portrayals of African Americans, basing most of the characters on stereotypes. It also glorifies plantation life, perpetuating the myth of slaves being happy in the cotton fields. While it cannot be found on any streaming services in the United States and was never released on any home video format, it’s still present in the form of Disney’s Splash Mountain ride at Disneyland, which plays the famous song, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”

Even after facing backlash for Song of the South, Disney continued its use of racial references and slurs. Released in 1953, Peter Pan features frequent use of an anti-indigenous slur and perpetuates stereotypes through its portrayal of indigenous peoples as “fat and ugly.” Additionally, white characters mock the traditional native clothing and culture. This racism is explicit in “What Makes the Red Man Red,” which has garnered controversy because of its use of racist and derogatory terms. Stereotypical representations of indigenous peoples are also seen in Disney’s 1995 film, Pocahontas, which romanticizes historical occurrences, hypersexualizes indigenous women using high-cut, one-shoulder dresses with plunging necklines, and includes violent and offensive language toward indigenous peoples.

In 1955, Disney included discriminatory portrayals of Asians in Lady and the Tramp. In the film, Lady gets attacked by two Siamese cats which are clearly racist caricatures of East Asians, depicted with prominent slanted eyes and heavy stereotypical accents in their duet, “The Siamese Cat Song.” This representation of East Asians was also seen in Disney’s 1970 animation, The Aristocats. In the film, a Siamese cat is drawn with the same features and has a stereotypical accent performed by white voice actor, Paul Winchell. In addition to playing the piano with chopsticks, the cat’s part in the song, “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat” also ridicules the Chinese language.

In Aladdin (1992), the most common instances of racism are seen through the difference between the skin colors of the heroes and the villains. In the film, it’s noticeable that villains have darker skin, exaggerated Arabian features, and choppy accents compared to characters Princess Jasmine and Aladdin who have American accents and lighter skin. The movie also promotes damaging images of Arabs, with the lyrics in “Arabian Nights” containing phrases like “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home,” which ridicules Middle Eastern culture and heritage.

In the late 90’s, Disney’s racial insensitivity appeared in more covert, yet still painful ways. Released in 1998, Mulan is based on a traditional Chinese story about a girl who joins a war disguised as a man. However, much of the story is Americanized, and while Mulan and Li-Shang (Mulan’s love interest) are drawn with Eurocentric features, the emperor, his assistant Chi Fu, and Shan Yu (the villain) are drawn with very stereotypical East Asian features. 

Lilo and Stitch (2002) features Disney’s first Polynesian main character, Moana (2016) being the second. While both give relatively accurate presentations of Polynesian culture, critics see the films as examples of cultural appropriation. As defined by The New York Times, cultural appropriation is “the use of a minority group’s customs or culture by people who do not belong to it.” Lilo and Stitch and Moana weren’t initiated, owned, written, or illustrated by Polynesian people, yet both use aspects of Polynesian culture.

Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, featuring its first black princess, was released in 2009. While the film serves as one of Disney’s first positive representations of Black people, it still has its pitfalls. Many critics point out that Tiana spends the majority of the film as a frog, unlike her white counterparts. By not allowing Tiana to learn and grow in a human form, she is dehumanized—a pattern evident in many of Disney’s other films featuring diverse main characters: Kuzco, an Incan prince from The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), turns into a llama; Kenai, an Inuit boy from Brother Bear (2003), is turned into a bear; and Joe Gardner, an African American music teacher from Soul (2020), is turned into a teal blob. Even Disney’s latest animated film, Turning Red, features a Chinese-Canadian girl who turns into a red panda. As award-winning journalist Ernest Owens writes, “while representation matters, how such imagery of diverse characters is depicted in film matters even more.”

In 2014, Disney finally had success in representation with Big Hero 6. The film is able to blend multiple cultures together, as seen in Hiro, the main character. Hiro is biracial (half white, half Japanese) and grows up with influences and interests from both cultures. San Fransokyo’s design, a skillful mesh of Japanese and American architecture, cultures, and language, also reflects this multicultural world.

Some of Disney’s more recent animated films, Coco (2017) and Encanto (2021), built on the success of Big Hero 6. Both garnered a lot of praise from the Latinx community, with many commenting on Coco’s accuracy in how it captures Mexican tradition and Encanto’s references to Colombian pop culture and inclusion of mixed-race characters in the Madrigal family. Coco was one of Disney’s first movies made using consultants to ensure the film’s cultural awareness, and this continued with Raya and the Last Dragon (2021). However, despite trying to stay culturally sensitive, the film took a step back, grouping all Southeast Asian cultures together, cherry-picking specific aspects from each culture and mixing them together, forming a world with very little representational value.

Disney movies have been cherished by fans for many decades, but it is important for viewers to realize how many of its films are deeply rooted in racism, promoting stereotypes and misrepresenting minority cultures. Time and time again, Disney has failed to address and take measures toward eliminating its part in perpetuating the fundamental discrimination in America. Based on Disney’s history with lack of accountability, it’s hard to know for certain what action will be taken in the future, but we can only hope for positive social change—or, as one might say, a “happily ever after.” 

Categories: Entertainment

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