The launch of Disney+ has blown open the Disney vault. That means I can introduce my kids to classic animated Disney movies that I loved growing up. So after signing up for Disney +, the first thing I did was browse the classic catalog for films like Peter Pan and Dumbo. But as I read the movie descriptions, like the one for classic Lady and the Tramp, one phrase was repeated again and again: “It may contain outdated cultural depictions.” And importantly, that message is a good thing for me and my kids.
Let’s face it, Disney has been making movies for a long time. And those films are inextricably linked to the cultural norms of the eras in which they were made. That makes Disney’s vault catalog a minefield of racist tropes, particularly for its earliest films. In other words, “outdated cultural depictions” is a freaking understatement about some of the deeply problematic racism in some of its early films.
I hadn’t forgotten, for instance, the jive crows in Dumbo’s third act, dressed in a broad cultural shorthand of post-reconstruction southern blacks, with spats, stub cigars, bowler hats and a jazz song thick with slang. And who could ever forget the villainous, almond-eyed Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp with their lilting, minor-key, Oriental song and their pidgin English vernacular?
What I had not remembered, because the film had been in the vault for so long, was one of the most cringe-worthy moments of racial insensitivity in Disney films: The “Indians” in Peter Pan and their song “What Makes the Red Man Red.” The Indian figures are drawn with a wildly racist brush, big noses, red skin, head-dresses, drums, and slow, barely-literate dialogue. It’s more than cringe-worthy and as a parent. And it gives me pause.
But, the more interesting question is why would Disney+ offer these racist gems unedited in their streaming service? After all, Disney is not beyond removing egregious racism from their films. For instance, a pickaninny centaur was long ago edited out of prints of Fantasia and a pickaninny doll was removed from the classic short “Santa’s Workshop.” Disney also agreed to change some lyrics in Aladdin’s “Arabian Nights” which some Arab Americans found offensive. And Disney+ subscribers will also notice that Song of the South, with its famous “Zippity-Do-Dah” tune, remains unavailable for public consumption due to its depictions of Uncle Remus.
All of this makes it’s pretty remarkable that Disney+ has left other classics with “outdated cultural depictions” alone, particularly in our modern era of cancel culture. But, actually, I’m impressed. And I think Disney deserves some credit here. There is no doubt that the racist tropes in the early films are a stain on Disney’s reputation. And they totally had the option to erase those tropes and wipe their slate clean. But, to leave those depictions in is to acknowledge their racist past. And, just so parents aren’t surprised by Peter Pan’s “injuns”; Disney is offering a warning.
In that way, rather than parenting for us, Disney has given parents an option. We can choose not to watch the cultural insensitive films, we can choose to watch them and ignore the racism, or we can choose to watch them, pause when appropriate and give our children context for the images they are seeing.
I intend to do the latter. Because when those crows, cats or Indians are on screen it gives me an opportunity to talk about fairness and honesty. I can ask them to consider if the depictions of people of color would make the people they depict happy or sad? I can ask if it feels like fun or bullying? I can ask if they believe it’s okay and talk about how the world has changed, and how it continues to struggle to change.
Is that a lot to talk about during what would be an otherwise breezy family movie night with Disney+? Absolutely. That’s the burden I’m placing on myself. I don’t expect every family will choose to watch films, and if they choose to watch the films that they will talk to their kids about racism. But that the choice I’m making when going through the Disney+ back catalog. And it’s a choice that I’m happy Disney has given me as a parent.
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