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Engaging thoughtfully with racist Disney

  • 28 November 2019


Even though I didn't watch many Disney movies as a kid, I certainly knew of them. I knew most of the princess movies, and I knew the plot of at least a dozen others. I wasn't really a princess kind of girl, but my favourite princesses were Jasmine and Mulan — because they were the only two non-white princess-like figures in the Disney universe. Mulan technically wasn't a princess, but I had slim pickings as an Asian girl.

I didn't know that Aladdin carried serious Orientalist undertones, or that Walt Disney was deeply racist, and that these attitudes of his inevitably made their way into his work. I don't think many kids were made aware of these thing — all in the name of avoiding difficult conversations, or adults deciding that these issues weren't worth explaining to children.

But the world has changed. The release of Disney's streaming service, Disney+, is now allowing a new generation of children to experience the 'magic of Disney'. However, many have noticed a small addition to the beginning of some of Disney's most beloved movies. 'This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions,' reads the warning attached to films like Lady and the Tramp, The Jungle Book and Dumbo.

Such an acknowledgement is a step in the right direction, but doesn't go quite far enough. The statement seems generic and vague, as if to make viewers skim over it to get to the movie itself.

Even though the depictions are outdated, many of the attitudes attached to them are still alive and well. Lady and the Tramp features two Siamese cats who are not only villains, but speak with exaggerated 'Asian' accents — something that is still used today to mock Asian-looking people in movies and in real life. Dumbo features a pack of crows, one of which is named 'Jim Crow', after the set of laws that enforced segregation in the southern states of America. We still don't have to look very far to find instances of racism against African Americans in the United States.

Disney's warning seemingly deliberately avoids using the words 'race' or 'racism', which leaves something of a sour taste in my mouth. True acknowledgement doesn't dance around the subject — the warning should at least include a more comprehensive description of what exactly these 'outdated cultural depictions' are. Instead, the warning seems tokenistic, a message only put in place to