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Disney's Portrayal of Race and Culture In Films

Trisha Bhardwaj. 9/15/20

Lately, on Tik Tok, one sound has risen up in popularity. With the lyrics, "I'm mad at Disney, Disney. They tricked me, tricked me," numerous interpretations of how Disney negatively altered their perception of the real world. Mad at Disney by Salem Ilese was written just to tackle unrealistic perceptions of love that Disney ingrained in the author; however, it goes beyond even that. With relations to race, Disney has a great deal of power to influence kids in their beliefs on social structures. When it comes to cultural portrayal and depiction of racism, Disney has to walk the line between representation and appropriation. On the positive side, Disney can shine their spotlight on various countries and cultures, depict diverse people and ideas, and promote openness and understanding. 

Until recently, portraits of families on television have been mostly White and middle class (Holtzman, 2000). While enormous people of color are shown on television today, Nelson (1998) argued that diverse and accurate portrayals of these characters or cultures are rarely provided. Nelson (1998) argued that Black sitcoms “are not Black in that they exhibit an African American worldview or a Black philosophy of life. Rather, they are Black because the performers are Black.” Between 1930 and 1945, Black actors and actresses were limited to the roles of slaves or servants (Holtzman, 2000). After WWII, themes related to the exposure of racial discrimination began to emerge. In the 1970s, the stereotypes revolved around “blaxploitation” action films, which featured Black heroes winning over White “bad guys” (Holtzman). Currently, a trend exists where Black and White actors are shown working together in “buddy films.” According to Artz (1998), the buddy film embodies “new racism”; Blacks are shown in successful middle-class roles, while the conditions of poor and working-class Blacks are ignored. Artz argued that this imagery works to construct perceptions of harmonious race relations.

Asians have been mostly invisible in the media. When they are shown, the various Asian cultures are “collapsed” into one group. Asian males tend to be portrayed as either the evil martial arts expert or the non-sexualized, non-masculine male. Asian females tend to be described as attractive and submissive or as an overtly sexual exotic beauty. In an informal content analysis of Asian characters, Mahdzan and Ziegler (2001) discovered that Asian men are often depicted as imperfect life partners for women of their own racial group. This is emphasized in the media when producers pair Asian women with White men instead of Asian men. The message conveyed in the media is that Asian women prefer to be with white men. In further analysis, they found that while white men are often shown having a sexual relationship with an Asian woman, an Asian man is rarely portrayed as having an intimate relationship with a white woman. Mahdzan and Ziegler also found that in battles between whites and asians, white people typically win. 

The typical Five themes emerged related to race and culture:  negative representations of non-dominant cultures;  exaggerated class stereotypes; only Western values and Christianity depicted;  characters who share similar values should stay/be together; and  characters who share different values can be friends and create another  community together. Non-dominant cultures are represented negatively. Negative representations of non-dominant cultures were present in 10 movies (Pinocchio, Dumbo, Alice, Peter, Lady, Dalmatians, Aristocats, Robin, Oliver, and Aladdin). In Dumbo, the crows appear to have African American voices; they depict stereotypically negative characteristics often associated with racist depictions African Americans, such as being poor, unintelligent, and naive. 

In Dumbo, there are images related to slavery, with Black workers doing manual labor while a White man is in charge. They sing, “We work all day, we work all night, we have no life to read and write, we’re happy...we don’t know when we get our pay, and when we do, we throw our money away. . .”. 

In the very popular, Peter Pan movie, Peter refers to the indigenous tribe as “red skins”; he describes them as being cunning, but not intelligent. 

The caterpillar in Alice has stereotypical Middle Eastern characteristics, and is portrayed as smoking, lazy, and short-tempered. 

In Lady, the Siamese cats are portrayed with slanted eyes and buck teeth; they are dangerous and speak with poor grammar and accents. In Oliver, Tito, a Chihuahua, is portrayed as a Hispanic character that fights, chases women, and hotwires cars. In four movies (Pocahontas, Hunchback, Lion, and Mulan), both positive and negative portrayals of other cultures were present, with more positive portrayals. For example, in Hunchback, the gypsies are described as poor, evil, and thieves, but in the end, Esmerelda breaks the stereotypes about gypsies and talks about the prejudiced way in which they are treated. Although the hyenas in Lion receive a negative portrayal, there is also the message that different cultures can get along. For example, Rafiki and Mufasa are different animals but good friends. In three movies (Lion, Pocahontas, and Hunchback), non-dominant cultures are accurately represented. Pocahontas’s village is presented in a natural setting, with Native American characterizations that are respectful. In Lion, the setting is Africa, and the movie depicts some African culture without relying on stereotypes. One movie (Mulan) has both exaggerated and accurate portrayals of the same culture. For example, ChiFu is given exaggerated Chinese features, with a long mustache, slanted eyes, and bad teeth. However, the movie is set in China, and shows Chinese characters, dress, architecture, and names in a realistic way.

When it comes to Aladdin, Aladdin represents a common conflation between different geographical cultures in South and West Asia. Before even getting into the story itself, the setting already reveals implicit biases within society. According to a survey in the Washington Post, Americans are down to bomb Agrabah, an anagram of Baghdad and a fictional city, only because it sounded Middle Eastern. It’s a fantastical imagining of a Middle Eastern landscape with an assortment of stereotypes including nonsensical “Arabic” text and some lazy depictions of characters.

Despite being set in the Middle East, the film’s setting pulls a lot of cultural and architectural inspiration from India (ex. the Sultan’s palace in the film, which houses a tiger named Rajah, is undoubtedly based on the Taj Mahal in India. As a result, the film and its characters don’t fully constitute either the Middle East or South Asia; it is an aesthetic and characteristic squashing of these two regions and their respective cultures. This showcases how the Disney productions were misinformed by the indian culture.

The documentary film Reel Bad Arabs (based on the book of the same name by Jack Shaheen) does an impressive job of unveiling the insidious ways Hollywood vilifies Arabs and Aladdin is up there in the list. The documentary takes particular issue with the opening musical lines of the song “Arabian Nights” from the original cinematic release: “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but hey it’s home”. It is one aspect of the film that recycles tired, degrading stereotypes of Arabs.

The scimitar-wielding, lascivious Arab brute is a recurring image in Aladdin and a characterization not too far off from the demeaning portrayal of Arabs as un-emotive, bomb-wielding terrorists. These are issues within the film that were addressed by Arab Americans at the time of its release and not just as part of a critical retrospective today.

The racial coding goes further with the “bad” Arabs speaking in thick, foreign accents while Aladdin and Jasmine speak in standard American English. Aladdin the character was also modeled after Tom Cruise and Jasmine after Jennifer Connelly. A lot of Anglo-American leanings here to put it lightly.

Aladdin is complicated by its critical and commercial acclaim despite its generally regressive portrayal of Arabs. It’s the only Disney film featuring “Middle Eastern” heroes, and Jasmine to this day is the only “Middle Eastern” Disney princess. That is the unpleasant side of problematic minority representation in film: it’s all we have so it’s the only thing we can claim as our own despite its issues. What’s more important: 1) fighting a multinational film corporation driven by mass appeal and profit to responsibly represent a culture or stay away from portraying these stories all together, or 2) supporting efforts from said corporation for the joy of seeing yourself on screen and in the hopes of increased efforts for representation in the future?

Disney films replete with negative and stereotypic images of marginalized racial groups. Characters of color were portrayed as villainous or scary in many movies. The crows in Dumbo and the apes in Jungle appear to be based on racist notions of African Americans.Jungle Book was written by Rudyard Kipling, the author of a White Man’s Burden which justified colonialism.  In the Jungle Book, the apes sing with African American voices to a Caucasian boy, “I want to be a man. I want to walk like you, talk like you. I want to be like you.” In addition, Disney’s adaptation of the book included a line about Shere Khan “He hates man. And Shere Khan is not going to allow you to grow up to become a man.” In this analogy, man is supposed to represent whiteness. Even though, the character was Indian, Rudyard Kipling’s interpretation shines through with numerous connections to whiteness. The Media Education Foundation (2001) argued that these lyrics indicate that Blacks and Whites are not equal, and that Blacks want to be like Whites. Even 40 years after the production of Jungle, Lion’s portrayal of the hyenas mimics stereotypes of inner-city minorities; they are portrayed as sinister and thieving, and they often complain that the lions maintain power in their society. Shanti is technically the second Indian character here but her role is so minor beyond seducing mowgli that it’s not worth discussing. “Shanti” isn’t even specified as her name until the direct-to-video sequel released almost 40 years later.

Tarzan, a film produced in 1999, makes strides in its portrayal of a male character who has an emotional life; however, this film also contains racist overtones. Tarzan, a White man,is shown in control of African jungles, without even one portrayal of a Black character. 

Misconception about culture and race also occurs in Disney films. In Hunchback, the gypsies are denigrated for being dirty thieves. In the end, however, Esmerelda defends the Gypsies, redeeming their character. In Mulan, China is depicted in a visually realis-tic way, and the likable characters have non-exaggerated Asian facial features. However, within the same film, Chi Fu, who is power hungry and rude, has stereotypically exaggerated Asian facial features.

Bad representation is better than no representation? With live-action casting, the criticism that film tends to treat brown people as interchangeable applies here more than with the 1992 animated film. Many are provoked, but some feel  it is fine since the animated film was so conflated anyway. What’s more important now for the upcoming generation : 1) fighting a multinational film corporation driven by mass appeal and profit to responsibly represent a culture or stay away from portraying these stories all together, or 2) supporting efforts from said corporation for the joy of seeing yourself on screen and in the hopes of increased efforts for representation in the future?Is [colorblind casting] the ultimate goal for APIDA (Asian, Pacific Islander, and Desi American) representation in film? For Asian characters to occupy space just as naturally as white characters would? The main objective here is to normalize APIDA actors and narratives to achieve an “economy of narrative plenitude”.


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