A darker Disney: underlying racism and sexism in beloved films

Graphic by: Nina Zhong

People have often been criticized for the attempt to intellectualize the entertainment industry. “It’s supposed to be for fun,” or “don’t try to politicize this; it’s a harmless kid’s show.” But in reality, kids often unconsciously internalize the messages of the TV shows and movies they watch, and carry these—in the form of stereotypes and racial and gender roles—with them into adolescence and adulthood. Disney has wormed its way into the average family home in America—through movies and TV shows that turn into hobbies, Halloween costumes, birthday themes, and its own culture—and therefore has a profound impact on the way that kids grow up and view the role of race and gender in their lives. Implicit, and sometimes explicit, racism and sexism in Disney movies are buried deep under what are, for a five year old sitting in front of the TV, seemingly innocuous characters and songs that people don’t bat an eye at.

The most obvious permeations of sexist messages come from the roles of Disney princesses. If it is expected of every little girl to like the princesses, to want to be the princesses, then we are setting girls up for nothing good. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel wants nothing more to be with her prince. In fact, she is willing to sell her voice to Ursula just to be with him (never mind that the only character who is not thin is the evil one, a continuation of something introduced with Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts). True happiness, kids see, comes from being in a relationship. Supposedly only 16 years old, Ariel shows that she, as a human being, is completed only with a man, and that a simple makeover changes a girl’s quality of life and value as a character—a theme painfully apparent in Cinderella, too.

Princesses are also rarely portrayed as powerful. Although Jasmine of Aladdin and Rapunzel of Tangled both desire to break free of parental rule, they are still subjugated by those in power, and perhaps that is part of their appeal. If it is a women in the position of power—think the evil stepmother in Cinderella, Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty or Rapunzel’s adopted mother—they are almost always evil, scheming, old, and ugly to boot, displaying power and intellect as something to be shunned by young girls in pursuit of “true love.” Not only is this what they should pursue, it should consume them: We know Jasmine wants to be free, but all we know about who she is as a person—her likes, friends, hobbies, aspirations—is her desire to marry for love.

Disney movies also play a large part in the perpetuation of harmful racial stereotypes. Perhaps the most jarring of these is the portrayal of Native Americans, beginning with Peter Pan. Since indigenous people are vastly underrepresented in mass media, this representation could have been the only one that kids were exposed to, creating a dangerous perception fueled by the movies. In Peter Pan, the “red men” never speak coherently. Tiger Lily’s only line in the entire film is not even a line—she simply attempts to cry out for help. Otherwise, she is little more than an exotic object of desire for Peter. The chief uses only sign language or an incomprehensible and stunted jargon. These features build a stereotype of a savage and uneducated Native American, who is inferior to the intellect of the white man.

The film also draws on the idea that there are two types of Native Americans: the heroic and the savage, an idea perpetuated in Pocahontas as well. Pocahontas could be viewed as a small victory, since its protagonist was not white. This, however, did not stop the film from splitting  Native Americans into two categories: the good and the  bad, which further dehumanizes them, as often as this means characters without nuance.

Race does not stop and start with Pocahontas and Peter Pan, however. Though Tiana in The Princess and the Frog was Disney’s black princess, the use of black characters and voices long before its release began the process of painting stereotypical pictures of what it means to be black. In The Little Mermaid, Sebastian has a very recognizable Jamaican accent, and is also the one who implores Ariel to stay under the sea, because she doesn’t have to get a job. This trend of voice to define race continues in The Jungle Book, where the fat and lazy monkeys are the only ones who speak in “jive.”

In Aladdin, Aladdin is the good guy, speaking with an American accent and has light features, compared with his antagonistic counterpart, Jafar, who is characterized by his dark complexion. The same thing happens in The Lion King. Scar has a darker hair color and face than the rest of the “good side”: Nala, Simba, and Mufasa. On top of that, Scar and the hyenas’ feminized, evil laughter and personalities are at war with the manly Mufasa.

This list only scratches the surface of the messages that Disney movies are conveying to kids. Don’t get us wrong—who doesn’t love singing along with catchy soundtracks and finding true love? But what’s more important are the kids who grow up to internalize messages. We can do better than waiting to teach girls that they don’t need a relationship to be happy until high school, or dispelling myths about Native Americans until after the effects of racist songs have already set in. Some of these movies may seem too old to matter, but not many have been openly condemned. Their age is irrelevant when the child watching can’t distinguish it. And the children will continue watching because these are considered classics. Must-watches. If we are going to change how race and gender are perceived by the masses, we need to start with changing the content that our children sit down to watch, and we need to do it quickly—after all, the next Disney princess movie is sure to come out soon.

1 Response

  1. Simon Corello says:

    Because censoring media is the way to curb racism in the United States ( “If we are going to change how race and gender are perceived by the masses, we need to start with changing the content that our children sit down to watch” ). What a cute yet naive approach to race relations in America. Because its not like children as they grow up see the overwhelming liberal media every single day .

    This is turning into another one of those inaccurate racial hypotheses, that people are racist because they actually believes that stereotypes are true. You should know better than that !Sure its really bad to have racist and stereotyping movies but great job thinking that it is an issue of a magnitude so large that it can change race relations in USA. The problem doesn’t lie with what we expose children to and what they end up believing: Heck the overwhelming majority of media in the status quo is super liberal wish groups like Black Lives Matter gaining large support in youth communities.

    But groups like Black Lives Matter actually understand how to approach race relations instead of diverting the attention of people.

    Right now in the Princeton community there is a multitude of companies and organizations that campaign to ‘increase racial awareness’ by publishing the stories of perceived racism. However, in an environment as diverse as this, the vast majority of people understand how perceptual racism works. But, stuff like this makes them complacent.

    People think “Oh look I understand there are these issues of racism in society and I sensitive with them, Game over”. But that stops them from ever approaching the actual issues of structural racism. See the white majority that wholes power both in American politics and society doesn’t give a crap about sensitizing to racial issues. Its a game of who gets to stay on top and control the power. And unless we mobilize people to overthrow such a white dominated hierarchy it doesn’t matter if millions of people boycott Disney movies.

    Ultimately, media that mischaracterizes racial issues and their mechanisms of solvency only makes people complacent to the wrong ideals. After reading this article I bet some readers went out and promised to slowly move away from watching racist and sexist media. But thats it. Nobody actually did anything that could push for meaningful change.

    I retain my anonymity because I do know the author and she’s great. I’m not trying to point fingers at anyone, rather this is just my commentary on why news sources like the Tower should publish media that would create meaningful change instead of diverting attention.

    Move on from petty issues of stereotyping and butt heads with more realistic issues of structural racism and how it manifests in our laws and social norms.

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