Disney; for most, just the very word invokes a hearty feeling of magic, wander and fantasy. It fondly takes us back to our childhood. Even as adults, many people become especially excited when Disney releases a new movie to cinemas across the world. Starting out as just a small studio in 1929, the Disney Empire has now grown so large over the last 10 decades, that it’s actually difficult to grasp the magnitude of this (evil?) corporation.
Disney has created hundreds of movies that have lasted the test of time, or so it may seem. As we grew up, and became adults, many of us re-watched some of our favourite childhood movies. It’s no secret: we all just want to be kids again! Looking back on these childhood favourites, something didn’t seem right. Something resonated differently as an adult, but what? Inspecting the dialogues and appearances of the characters, as adults, we can see the blatant racism that heavily occurs in many of our childhood favourites.
Although these stereotypes mostly removed in the remakes, it is an interesting piece of history to look back. Especially considering how Disney shaped our childhood imaginations and social structures, i.e. the Princess always needs saving from a Prince. So let’s take a closer look into the times that Disney created very racist stereotypes that we definitely didn’t notice as kids! Let me know your thoughts on Facebook!
DUMBO (1941) – Jim Crow and his friends stereotyped
Dumbo is a heartwarming tale about a Circus Elephant that had the ability to use his enormous ears to fly. Although imagination was flowing in this lovable movie, it wasn’t free from Disney’s infamous racism. In Dumbo, the level of racism is sky high and far from subtle with one of the movie’s supporting characters: Jim Crow.
Jim Crow and his gang of feathered friends are over-the-top stereotyped with super-heavy Southern African-American ‘jive’. This alone is utterly racist, and used as a slapstick tool throughout the movie. But there is more to just the appearance of the crow characters. What you might not know is that Jim Crow was the name of a racial caste system, heavily enforced in the southern states of America during the late 1870s to the 1960s.
These anti-black laws were prominent when Dumbo was being created. Instead of Disney being ahead of its time, striving to break down stereotypes and racism, they promoted the concepts heavily in their movies. It’s ironic that Dumbo was such a moral tale of decency, but humanity towards people was not so strong. Disney ensured to abolish their racist past when remaking Dumbo in 2019, and Tim Burton didn’t include the crow characters.
Lady And The Tramp (1970) – Prejudice against Siamese (Thai) people
The Siamese Cat scene is notorious for its over-the-top racism and prejudice against Siamese people and their cultures (now called Thai). As if the visual appearance of these two cats wasn’t bad enough, Disney decided that it would be better to include an even more racist song to go with their scene. If you have seen the original 1970 Lady And The Tramp, then you will definitely remember the “we are siamese, if you please..” song. Disney ensured to do a remake in 2019, and honestly, it’s a great movie. The storyline stayed true to the original, the dogs were great and (most importantly) the Siamese Cat song finally truly gone. They even replaced the Siamese Cats with a Devon Rex breed.
Aladdin (1992) – Filled with subtle racism
Aladdin was a huge success for Disney in 1992, and the song “A Whole New World” was a major hit with international audiences. Although the movie has strong racial themes, they seem to be more subtle than other films (shout-out to Song Of The South).
Aladdin had subtle racism almost immediately, as the movie first begins and we see the landscape of Arabia. The opening song called “Arabia Nights” includes the line “where they cut off your ear, if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home!”. Although this line seems to be blatant racism, you have to be properly listening for it to hear all the words (it’s almost like sneaky racism on Disney’s part). When the movie released to DVD in 2002, Disney changed the lyrics to “where it’s flat and immense, and the heat is intense!”.
Aladdin didn’t get any less racist as the movie went on though, with many of the ‘bad guys’ (Jafar’s guards) having strong Arabian accents, while Aladdin and the ‘good guy’ characters all had soft American accents. Also, did you know that Aladdin’s character was shaped after the actor Tom Cruise? This is an example of how the ‘good guy’ characters seemed more westernized than the ‘bad guys’. Again, Disney made a 2019 remake, removing these incorrect cultural appropriations and the company ultimately remade Aladdin in an appropriate and respectful way and the movie was a huge hit for fans of the original.
Fantasia (1940) – Sunflower, a stereotypical African American child
Fantasia was one of the earlier Disney animated movies. Naturally, there is a lot of blatant racism that shows throughout the entire film. Without question, the most racist aspect of the whole movie is the character of Sunflower. They portray the incredibly insulting appearance of Sunflower to represent a stereotypical African American child of the same era. During the film, Sunflowers primary purpose was to serve the centaurettes. She grooms their tails and braids their hair. Her being a lot smaller and younger than the centaurettes, it seems blatant that she’s purposed to be a child servant of the white women. During the late 1960s, Disney removed the scene from the movie to coincide with the Civil Rights Movement of that time. Thankfully, you can no longer see Sunflower in any of Disney’s Fantasia footage.
Peter Pan (1953) – Over-the-top stereotypes of the Native American tribe
Peter Pan is a beloved story of the boy who never grew up. The tale has been long lived through generations of people, and they have made many remakes of the original animated movie. Although the overall story of Peter Pan isn’t inherently racist, the 1953 classic is far from wholesome when you look at the over-the-top stereotypes of the Native American tribe of Neverland. The Native American tribe, offensively referred to by Peter Pan as “red skins” and “savages”. It also accompanies the slur’s very own song called “What makes the Red Man, Red?”
Not only is the appearance of the Native American Tribe incredibly prejudiced, the Lost Boys also seem to be racist. Especially when they march through the grass of Neverland singing “We’re off to fight the Indians” as part of their “Following The Leader” song, while holding sticks as guns. The reason they’re doing this in the first place is because Peter Pan says to them “alright men, go out there and capture a few Indians!”.
The Aristocats (1970) – Racist portrayal of Piano-Playing Siamese Cat
The Aristocats is a great childhood movie! There was excitement and adventure for these cats throughout the whole movie. However, what we didn’t notice as children is that Disney stereotyped Asians as cats once again in The Aristocats.
During a jazz session of Thomas O’Malley the Alley Cat and his musical feline pals, a piano-playing Siamese Cat sings the words: “Shanghai, Hong Kong, egg-foo-young. Fortune cookie always wrong!”. The lyrics are incredibly inappropriate. We can see the cat playing the piano with chopsticks, adding even more insults to an already bad scene.
The Jungle Book (1967) – King Louis wants to be a real person
The Jungle Book is a childhood favourite for most people. However, as adults we see a lot more racist moments in this classic movie than we did as children. We often find Southern African-American, jive-talking stereotypes in the older animated Disney movies. For example, King Louis had a southern African-American accent in The Jungle Book, but the intellectual characters all had posh English and soft American accents. To add further insult, King Louis and his group of loyal primates sing about how they want to be “real people”. Regardless, during any era, that’s just SO wrong.
It’s interesting how Disney took the Sunflower scenes out of Fantasia in the late 1960s to support the Civil Rights Movement, but still created King Louis scenes in a casually racist way.
They released the Jungle Book remake to cinemas in 2016, when Christopher Walken played King Louis. The movie was a great success with modern-day audiences around the world.
The Little Mermaid (1989) – Sebastian & The Blackfish
The Little Mermaid is a questionable movie to begin with. Many women have come out to say that the concept of Ariel having to change who she is to be with a man is sending the wrong message to younger generations. With the sexism aside, Disney also seemed to get it wrong once again, with cultural appropriations and just general racism. Sebastian the crab is the only character to have an accent other than American. Although his heavy Jamaican accent is recognizable by all Disney-lovers, it may not be for the right reasons.
Disney came under fire in more recent times, for their visual representation of a “blackfish” during the Under The Sea scene. The character clearly has a powerful singing voice and a visually different appearance to the rest of the underwater creatures.
Created at a time when one shouldn’t even consider it as acceptable in the first place, much like Alladdin. Disney interestingly enough continued to allow these blatant stereotypes and racial figures to be in movies throughout the 80’s and 90’s.
Darby O’Gill & The Little People (1959) – Filled with Irish stereotypes
Stereotyped constantly are the Irish. Although it may not technically be ‘racist’, it can be over-the-top. Darby O’Gill and the Little People is a good example of this. A beloved movie by Irish people themselves, so it was never a topic of conflict in the movie industry. However, the movie has its moments where Irish stereotypes serve the purpose of slapstick comedy.
The movie itself is crazy, with a plot that surrounds Darby O’ Gill and his dealings with the King Of The Leprechauns. Although the use of a Leprechaun itself may seem insulting, this movie is for children. And what is more magically Irish than a Leprechaun and his pot of gold under a rainbow? The movie uses great Irish folklore with the Banshee (a fairy woman who wails when someone is about to die), and an army of angry Leprechauns. But there are a lot of Irish stereotypes, i.e. a bad drinking habit from Darby O’Gill himself, and some major public fist-fighting.
Song Of The South (1946) – Overly racist stereotyping
Most of us are familiar with the lively song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”. The movie of which the song originated does not evoke the same kindness and joy. Song Of The South, intended to be a warmhearted tale of a man befriending a young boy. It would have been the case, if it wasn’t for the overly racist stereotyping and cultural appropriations seen throughout the entire movie.
Song Of The South is so blatantly racist. Disney even stated that they will never be re-releasing this movie to audiences ever again. That is really saying something. On promotion of the new Disney+ streaming service, Disney has said that there will be a few movies from the past that may not make it onto the site. They stated that Song Of The South will absolutely never appear on Disney+ at any stage.
James Baskett, (who plays the hugely stereotyped, Uncle Remus) received an Academy Award for his portrayal in the movie. He is the first African-American man to win an Oscar. So, although it made history for recognizing African-Americans for their achievements in cinema, the Disney movie is not as progressive as its real-life outcomes.
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