A History Of Disney Family Films Being Racially Insensitive

After watching the live-action Dumbo remake by Tim Burton -you know, the one about the flying elephant- there’s been a question that’s been plaguing my mind:

Where are the live-action versions of the crow brothers?

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I mean, if you want to talk about race representation in films back in the day, they have that by the boatload. Just not in a positive way. In fact, Disney’s family-friendly films have a LOT of these offensive stereotypes, that we can make a list out of it.

Keep in mind that this is a product of the times and a different period then, so cut them some slack; it’s not meant to be mean-spirited and hateful. Is it hilarious and shocking to look back at, knowing that an all-ages entertainment company are at least going out of their way to wash away these embarassments?

Yes. Yes it is.

Dumbo’s Black Crow Troupe (1941)

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Target Stereotype: African Americans

These jive-talking birds chastise Dumbo and his maestro pal so that he can fly at the tail end of the movie. The leader of the crow group is Jim Crow, a gravely-voiced heavily-accented bird who is named after the state and local laws that enforced segregation between white people and “coloured” people way, way back in the day.

Fantasia’s Sunflower In “The Pastoral Symphony” (1940)

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Target Stereotype: African Americans

Let it be said that Fantasia is one of the best-animated musicals then and now; it’s so timeless that many luminaries from Disney and Pixar still regard this as the apex of classic animated films. But there’s one section in particular that drew the ire of many people in the modern era: a centaur in “The Pastoral Symphony” who goes by the name of Sunflower.

From her portrayal to her demeanour as a servant to her white centaur sisterhood, this just screams “incredibly uncomfortable”, to the point where Disney re-released a “censored” version that omits her.

It’s just close-up shots that crop out Sunflower, but it works. Thank goodness they left in the friendly chaps at “Night on Bald Mountain” because blackfaces are more dangerous than satanic references, eh?

The Three Little Pigs and Big Bad Wolf’s Disguise (1933)

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Target Stereotype: Jews

I think The Nursery Rhymes Of England‘s James Halliwell-Philipps forgot to add in a key scene where the Big Bad Wolf wore an outfit that offends a lot of Jewish folks in an effort to trick the pigs into letting him in. Big nose, bushy beard, Jewish accent; it was really pivotal in enforcing….something.

Honestly, I don’t know what was going on in Disney’s animation studio’s heads at the time when this bit was greenlit early on.

Those Old 30s Mickey Mouse Shorts (1930s)

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Target Stereotype: Africans, African Americans

There are too many shorts that feature Mickey inadvertently demeaning an entire race of people. From his blackface stint in “Mickey’s Mellerdrammer” to him befriending an obvious servant caricature in “Mickey’s Man Friday”, many children back then who are adults now are feeling that huge sense of guilt when they laughed at these shorts during “the good ol’ days”.

Lady & The Tramp’s Siamese Cats (1955)

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Target Stereotype: Asians

These troublemaking twins, creatively named Si and Am, sing a song while trying to pin the blame on protagonist dog Lady for their mischief-making. They only made that one appearance just to forward the plot along and also reinforce the playfulness & naughtiness of cats, or was it movie Asians? The line’s pretty blurry at the time.

Props for this film to be a precursor for Asian representation in classic films like Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Or not.

The Aristocats’ Shun Gon (1970)

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Target Stereotype: Asians

True, there is more than one instance of racial stereotyping in Aristocrats, like the Italian cat with the red scarf and Billy Ross the Josef Stalin cat stand-in. But the one that stands out is the buck-tooth slanted eye chopstick-using pianist cat Shun Gon.

The only thing that can top this “harmless jape” at a race is to have him wear a cat-sized qipao.

Peter Pan’s Red Indians (1953)

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Target Representation: Native Americans

Another seemingly harmless jingle for the kids courtesy of Disney’s Peter Pan, until you watch it again wearing a politically-correct lens. Yeap, native Americans are basically caricatures for Peter Pan and his crew to interact and huff the peace pipe with as they sing about what makes them what they are. Cue bits where Peter Pan and the young white Darling kids do the Indian howl while dancing.

No wonder a lot of sites like The Guardian and Wired are uppity about a song made for its time; it really is about the animators being tone deaf while inadvertently demeaning an entire race for the sake of entertainment. Catchy song though, coupled with really awesome dancing animations from Tiger Lily.

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Damn, that little Indian can sure bust a move…

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…and make a play towards Wendy’s never-ageing boy toy.

The Little Mermaid’s French Chef (1989)

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Target Stereotype: French

A heavily-accented prideful cook with murderous intent focused on a singing Jamaican crab who parades around with blackfishes for song numbers? Say it ain’t so.

Aladdin’s Arabian Women Garb (1992)

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Target Representation: Middle-Easterns

Hey, I’m all for Jasmine doing her best in tricking power-hungry viziers and dressing up sensually for the adults accompanying their kids in this 1992 animated classic. But Agrabah and its denizen’s fashion sense is really laying it thick with the Arabian fantasy for the male gaze when you look at it further.

Imagine if at the time Disney makes up an animated tale of Singapore’s history and all of its female protagonists and side characters wore leg-revealing cheongsams and fall for the white colonists; that’s pretty much what the producers and animators are going for.

Mulan’s The Huns (1998)

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Target Representation: Asians

When you have your Asian heroes like Mulan and Shang purposely looking more Western than the Asian-looking pale villains with the right slants, you’re just asking for a beatdown. Then again, it’s a kid’s film made in 1998 where writers and directors still have no idea how to portray diversity in a non-stereotypical way.

Song of The South’s Uncle Remus (1946)

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Target Stereotype: African Americans

We save the best for last. A plantation worker tells a bunch of stories about redneck rabbits outsmarting dumb hick foxes and bears to two white children. Nothing wrong with the premise, really. It’s the context and era surrounding the story that offends everyone.

To be fair, Uncle Remus isn’t an original Disney creation since he’s a made-up character who narrates African-American folklore back in the late 1800s. But keep in mind that Disney’s adaptation never stated that it takes place post-Civil War down south, as well as not being able to handle its portrayal of African-Americans well.

Still, it’s hard to sweep this film under the rug when it has arguably one of the catchiest songs in Disney history thanks to easy-to-remember lyrics.

Author: Mr Toffee

Mr Toffee is a writer, editor, & all-around video game words guy for 9 years, give or take. He also did some story for games like Chain Chronicle and some podcasting on the side. Likes: bacon, Metallica, jogging. Hates: raccoons, oblivion. Twitter: @MrToffee

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