As a parent in these sensitive times, with the unabated plague of white nationalistic sentiment choking the planet, it’s hard to know where to turn for quality children’s movies.
Smurfs, trolls, babies that are bosses… it’s a wasteland.
And so we turn to good ol’ reliable Walt Disney and his entertainment empire. Surely, our children are in safe hands with Disney, right?
What effect would they have on my six-year-old son? To find out, I watched a bunch of the movies with him and asked for his thoughts…
Dumbo (1941) – “Hm, what should we name this crow? I know! Jim! Just like the dehumanising racial segregation laws!”
Jim Crow was the name of a set of anti-black laws put in place after the American Civil War. They cruelly enforced racial segregation in the South and elsewhere from the late 1800s to the 1960s.
It’s also the name of a jive-talking minstrel stereotype of a black man (played by a white actor – Cliff Edwards, who did Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio) in Dumbo!
Which is a children’s movie!
Because that wasn’t enough (this is a kids movie after all), the circus workers are all black and faceless. And they sing a toe-tapper called “Song of the Roustabouts”, which has lyrics like:
We never learned to read or write…
Grab that rope, you hairy ape!
The good news is that my son didn’t notice any of it. His favourite character is Timothy Q Mouse, who he thinks is hilarious – especially when he and Dumbo accidentally get drunk. Absolutely hammered. (Once again, this is a children’s cartoon.)
But this movie is a classic for a reason. There may not be a more heartbreaking moment in all of cinema than when Mrs Jumbo cradles Dumbo in her trunk from inside solitary confinement.
Cinderella (1950) – “If I don’t find a man to marry me at this ball, I’m stuffed”
These princess movies are full of older women getting jealous of young girls. Cinderella’s stepmother is jealous of her “charm and beauty”. As if she’s Hugh Jackman or something! But all she does is condemn her to a life of servitude. The nasty queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the nasty queen wants to murder (murder!) Snow White because she's so beautiful – even though the animation makes her look like a potato with a wig.
When I asked my son why Cinderella needed a man to rescue her from her terrible family, he said he didn’t know. And he didn’t seem to care. He was much more entertained by the mice, especially Gus, who’s mercilessly fat shamed throughout the movie.
Peter Pan (1953) – Lost Boys vs “savages”
If no one else is going to say it, I will. Peter Pan is an obnoxious elfin ignoramus. But he can fly, so my son loves him.
“Do you like Wendy?” I ask.
“No. She gets sad and wants stories but she doesn’t get stories anymore.”
I have no idea what he means by that, but it probably has something to do with the fact that Wendy, the main female in the story, is an all around wet blanket.
The boy doesn’t notice it, but the Native Americans as noble savages stuff is really off-putting. The Indians who fight with the Lost Boys are referred to as “redskins”, “cunning but not intelligent” and “savages” and they do a lot of stereotypical whooping and dancing while singing something called “What Made the Red Man Red?”
I tried to explain to my six-year-old that the “Indians” are like Indigenous Australians, but in America and it’s not nice to think of them that way. Unless you’re a big fan of the MLB’s Cleveland Indians or the NFL’s Washington Redskins – then it’s apparently totally cool to openly parade these stereotypes.
After all, it's not bigotry if it's related to sports.
Lady and the Tramp (1955) – “The Siamese will ruin your life”
If it weren’t for the Mickey-Rooney-in-Breakfast-at-Tiffany’s-looking Siamese cats and the dumb Mexican Chihuahua, Lady and the Tramp would be a celebration of immigration and diversity.
Somehow, it takes place in an early twentieth century American neighbourhood populated by dogs of varying class from Scotland, England, the American south and Russia. And there are people from Italy, Germany and Ireland. Sure, they’re all stereotypes, but they have a certain amount of dignity. (It’s like Louis CK says – stereotypes are wrong, but the voices are fun.)
All of this went over my son’s head. He thought the “mean cats” were German and that the Mexican and Scottish dogs were French.
But now that we’re trying to live in a world where we don’t think Mexicans are stupid and Asians are bucktoothed schemers (We are, right? Right?!) are movies like this unhelpful? Or does it not matter if the kids are too young to understand how sneaky and nasty the stereotypes are?
Disturbing side note: Lady’s owners feed her coffee and donuts like it’s totally normal.
Sleeping Beauty (1959) – “I just turned 16. Time to get married!”
Sleeping Beauty, if that is her real name (it isn’t – it’s Aurora), is on screen for about three minutes, which is enough time to fall in love and then slip into a coma, only to be woken by true love’s kiss.
What a wild ride!
My son says he likes the fairies, who fail spectacularly at protecting the princess from Maleficent. She curses Aurora to eternal sleep at the age of 16, which, according to Disney movies, is the perfect age for a girl to fall in love and get married.
The Jungle Book (1967) – In defence of orangutans who scat
It’s a bigger deal to me than my son, but Mowgli is one of the very few non-white heroes in all of these movies and he’s definitely the only Indian (I'm half Indian and half Puerto Rican and positive representation is very hard to come by).
So I don't mind that the boy loves this movie and is totally unaware of the theory that the orangutan King Louie and the monkeys are lazy, dumb, jive-talking black caricatures. And I respectfully disagree with this characterisation for the following reasons:
- The monkeys sound a lot more like white guys adopting black culture, rather than appropriating it.
- King Louie is played by Louis Prima, a great white jazzman (check out his Italian songs from the 40s) and his scat game, I believe, is extremely strong. It might not compare with someone like the Louis Armstrong, but it is very good.
- “I Wan’na Be Like You” is hands down the best Disney song of all time. Don’t try to come around here with “Let It Go” or “When You Wish Upon a Star” or, God help us, “Hakuna Matata”. The case is closed.
Of course, not helping matters is the fact that Rudyard Kipling, who wrote the original book, was an imperialist AND a racist. Way to go, Rudyard.
The Little Mermaid (1989) – “Get yer clam bras out!”
We’re back to having fun with voices and accents, like the Jamaican crab, who sings about staying under the sea where they don’t have to work. Again, my son thinks he’s from France, so he has no idea if the crab is offensive (I’m not too sure myself).
And he certainly doesn’t notice these fish, which some argue are crude caricatures.
In a bit of a departure from his other male favourites, his favourite character is Ariel because “she finds very special things”, whatever that means.
Of course, Ariel has to give up her voice for the man she loves - after listening to a catchy song about how boys don't like girls who say things. Thankfully, the boy thinks it’s good for girls to talk. And he’s blissfully unaware of any perversion potential with the fact that she’s only 16, yet described as a “vision”.
Ursula the sea witch even calls her a tramp.
“What’s a tramp?” my son asked. (Thanks Disney.)
“Someone who kisses people a lot,” was the best I can come up with.
But the most offensive thing in this movie might be that Ariel, the hero driving the action throughout the story, has to be saved by Prince Eric at the end and then marries the creep.
Aladdin (1992) – Getting tired of all these princesses…
There are lots of complaints with this one…
- The opening song refers to the Middle East as “barbaric” – which Disney eventually changed after an Arab organisation condemned it.
- Aladdin is light skinned and has an American accent. The bad guy Jafar is darker and looks and speaks more stereotypically.
- Jasmine is also heavily sexualised with those outfits – and she’s only 15.
But the boy isn’t aware of any of this. He thinks the story takes place in India and has never heard of the Middle East.
His favourite characters are the Genie and Aladdin. He doesn’t like Jasmine because he doesn’t like princesses.
“Because they have to marry and do everything their father and mother says,” he says. “They have to keep listening.
There you have it, people. The articulation of the very young male’s anti-princess stance.
Frozen (2013) – Get ready for some gender bias
Despite Elsa’s obviously cool powers, the boy’s favourite character is Christoph. Yep, this guy:
I didn’t even remember that he was in this movie, which is about the true love between sisters.
So despite the story’s best efforts to subvert the Disney princess tropes – true love’s kiss, falling in love with a prince, needing to be saved by a man, etc – the male characters are still the boy’s favourites. My son loves Christoph because “he’s funny, he has a reindeer and he can drive a sled.”
Ultimately, I’m thankful that neither the reindeer nor the sled appears to be a racist caricature. For now.
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To better understand the man behind the classic movies, watch the two-part documentary Walt Disney - part 2 airs on SBS on Sunday 7 May at 8:30pm.
Watch the first part on SBS On Demand right here: