A whole new world: how Disney is fighting to rectify its stereotypical past


Monday 7 November 2016 by Melissa Towriss

Next year marks 80 years since the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was the first of nearly 60 animated films released by Walt Disney Studios via its raft of subsidiary film studios and partners to date. The Disney animated canon has impacted generation after generation and shaped our perceptions of the world from our earliest years. But its influence has not always been a positive one.

Uncomfortable beginnings

History is littered with examples of Disney’s questionable portrayals of different races. Some are inaccurate; others are downright offensive. One of the earliest and most notable examples of racial stereotypes reinforced in a Disney film is Dumbo, released in 1941. From “Jim” and his band of “crows” (said to be named after the segregation laws in the southern US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) to the lyrics to “Song of the Roustabouts”, Disney cast people of colour in a less-than-endearing light.

1953’s Peter Pan has also come in for criticism for its stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans, particularly in the song “What Makes the Red Man Red?” while in Lady and the Tramp, released in 1955, a pair of mischief-making Siamese cats are shown to have slanted eyes and caricatured accents. This particular distasteful depiction is said to have roots in tensions between the US and Japan and its allies, coming less than a decade after the end of World War II.

Widening the gender gap

Worryingly, we can’t just confine these negative racial stereotypes to a less-enlightened past. They persist in Disney's animated films until as recently as Aladdin in 1992 and Mulan in 1998, despite the company attempting to embrace more cultures. And, arguably, Disney’s reinforcing of gender stereotypes has gone on even longer. Sexism and rigid gender roles are present in almost every animated Disney film, from the blatant patriarchy on display in Snow White to the gendered toys in Toy Story – and every single “Disney princess” in between.

These examples of sexism have been highlighted in a number of essays and articles over the years. The counter argument oft heard – that children, at whom Disney’s animated flicks are primarily aimed, aren’t culturally aware and don’t view the films through a feminist or racial lens – misses the point. The issue is that these films help form children’s views of the world around them. And that is problematic.

Redressing the balance

Of course, society has changed a lot in the last 80 years. And while there is still some way to go, such blatant displays of racism and sexism are no longer tolerated in society. Since the turn of the millennium, it seems to me that Disney has made a concerted effort to address the way it portrays its characters and stop perpetuating negative stereotypes in its films.

The most recent example is this summer’s animated blockbuster Zootopia. Many have been quick to praise Disney for the creation of lead character Judy Hopps, a female rabbit making her way in the police force. Director Rich Moore consulted female police officers to discover the real-life challenges they face in their fields in order to gain an accurate view of a typically male-dominated industry.

Tenacious bunny Hopps was part of Zootopia’s wider plan to subvert established stereotypes of race, gender – and animals.

"For a while we were saying, 'every animal should be their cliché,'" Moore recently told the Los Angeles Times. "But that's not servicing the theme at all. And then it turned into, 'every animal should be the opposite of their cliché.' It was a journey to get to the point of: the world is not black and white. There's so much grey.”

It’s these shades of grey that Disney is now starting to recognise and reflect in its films. There are numerous examples throughout recent releases, from the archery-loving princess who doesn't want to marry in Brave to the introduction of Jessie the cowgirl in Toy Story 3. Disney is finally acknowledging that the stereotypes it has portrayed for decades are long outdated.

Frozen is considered by many to be a watershed moment for Disney’s changing attitude to stereotypes. Protagonist Anna is portrayed as a modern-day heroine rather than Disney’s traditional “damsel in distress”. From Anna’s love for her sister Elsa being the film’s main relationship (as opposed to the pursuit of a lead male) to Anna landing the deciding blow on the movie’s villain Hans, Frozen throws out the rulebook on gender roles. The message that true love doesn’t have to be found in a romantic relationship, but can be just as powerful between siblings, is also at the heart of Maleficent. Disney obviously feels that it bears repeating.

Big Hero 6 is another departure from the rigid “girl gets guy” (or vice versa) storyline. The movie’s main character, Hiro, is a talented robotics enthusiast, though he uses his skills to partake in illegal robot fights. But when his older brother Tadashi takes him to his robotics lab at university, Hiro’s view on life is transformed and he becomes determined to go to university. This idea of bettering yourself through education remains a strong thread throughout the film’s narrative, something that wouldn’t feature at all in the Disney films of old.

Realisation

So why has Disney spent the best part of 20 years distancing itself from its stereotypical past and made a concerted effort to break, rather than make, stereotypes? It is largely down to societal pressures. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter give everyone a voice. And brands are accountable for their actions, whether they offer products, services – or entertainment.

Disney is trying to ensure that it follows – and perhaps leads – these changes. It wants to acknowledge these societal shifts and target younger generations because they are the ones questioning society today. Disney realises its younger audience isn’t naive – it is forward-thinking and fresh. Of course, it’s about money, too – evidenced by the $1.3 billion Frozen grossed globally.

Disney now heads into the next 80 years atoning for its dubious past by better understanding its role in helping to form the perceptions of generations. This realisation may be long overdue, but it’s certainly welcome. After all, in fantasy worlds – as in real life – what you see isn’t always what you get.

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