Modern Disney is known for being the frontrunner when it comes to sensitivity regarding gender, sexual orientation, racial and other politically correct issues relevant in today’s society. That’s why it comes as such a shock to learn that House of Mouse used to, and to some extent still does, have an issue with depicting any character that wasn’t English and/or white in some sorta of racial stereotype.
We’ve dug through the last eighty years of Disney-approved animation, including some Silly Symphonies animated shorts, to uncover some of the worst racial stereotype offenders they’ve ever put to celluloid. This is not to say that Walt Disney and his team of animators were racist, but there are clearly some ideas presented here that cross the line from being funny caricatures (exaggerated simplification of basic character types), to down-right wrong representations of offensive stereotypes.
Let’s take a look at the 13 Shocking Times Disney Animated Movies Portrayed Racial Stereotypes…
The Entire Movie – Song of the South (1946)
It would be easy to point at Song of the South and shout “racist” (as the NAACP did several years ago) for its depiction of happy slaves living on a plantation in a post-Civil War Atlanta, but the stereotyping problems with the film run much deeper. Having only made animated films up to this point, the movie was Walt Disney’s first live-action film and he was extremely proud of how it turned out. The story was based on folklorist Joel Chandler Harris’ book Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation, and the film even earned an Oscar for the original song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”.
However, well before modern audiences were finding offense with multiple aspects of the film, even the original audience in the 1940s had problems with it. Walt Disney found the audience’s reaction to be so unexpected that he actually walked out of a preview screening of the film in Atlanta. Those reactions mimicked racial tensions in the country at the time. Even though actor James Baskett earned an “honorary” Oscar for his portrayal of Uncle Remus, he wasn’t allowed to attend its premiere due to segregation laws in Atlanta. The film has never been released on home video (it most likely never will) but video clips still exist online. It was also the inspiration behind the Disney World theme park ride Splash Mountain.
Sunflower the Centaur – Fantasia (1940)
Fantasia is one of Disney’s most beloved animated films, comprised of a series of short animated sequences which is most often associated with Mickey Mouse and the wizard hat featured in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. However, while the groundbreaking film did open up new audio avenues in the area of stereophonic sound, it unfortunately presented some awful racial stereotypes in the form of Sunflower the Centaur. Sunflower is a small black centaur girl with over-sized lips, acting as a servant to the thin, beautiful and white female centaur, Otika.
It’s not hard to see why this character would present an offensive stereotype to most people for several reasons. The character was so offensive that, while she made an appearance in the 1963 TV broadcast, she was digitally removed from future appearances, including the home video release in 2010. The late Roger Ebert said it best: “While the original film should, of course, be preserved for historical purposes, there is no need for the general release version to perpetrate racist stereotypes in a film designed primarily for children.”
Japanese Soldiers – Commando Duck (1944)
Walt Disney may have built his business around a little mouse named Mickey, but it was Donald Duck who proved to be the most popular during the forties – mostly due to starring in war propaganda cartoons making fun of the Germans and Japanese during World War II. Donald would star in several of these shorts – Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943) and Education for Death (1943) – each made with the sole purpose of dehumanizing the Axis enemies and making them look foolish.
This is not to say the German and Japanese armies deserved sympathy for their wartime atrocities. It’s well known that not all of the German and Japanese people agreed with what their leaders were doing at the time. Still, the Japanese soldiers in Commando Duck are grossly stereotyped. They are featured wearing glasses, having a large overbite with big teeth, speaking in broken English, constantly bowing to each other, and saying “It’s Japanese custom to shoot enemy in back.” You can watch the short – HERE.
“What Makes the Red Man Red?” – Peter Pan (1953)
Even though J. M. Barrie’s boy who never grew up, Peter Pan, is a classic tale remembered fondly by adults and children alike, people tend to forget about the cringe-worthy representation of native americans in both the original play and the animated film. In the animated movie, after Peter rescues Princess Tiger Lily from Captain Hook, she takes him to meet her father Big Chief and his tribe of “Indians.” As many Disney films are wont to do, they break into song and that’s where things go awry.
“What Makes the Red Man Red?” was supposed to be a light-hearted song about Peter and the Lost Boys learning who these Native Americans truly were, but it ends up reinforcing highly-offensive stereotypes. Even one of the supervising animators on the film, Marc Davis, said this about the sequence: “I’m not sure we would have done the Indians if we were making this movie now. And if we had, we wouldn’t do them the way we did back then.”
Jim Crow, Preacher Crow, Glasses Crow – Dumbo (1941)
Dumbo is one of those classic Disney animated films that continues to delight children of all ages with glee. It’s a heart-warming story about being yourself and using your differences to stand out in a good way, while not listening to criticisms others. However, the film about an elephant that flies using his overly-large ears wasn’t without controversy. At a turning point in film, Dumbo and his friend, Timothy the mouse, meet a group of free-spirited crows who teach him that being different is something to be praised, not hidden.
All of that by itself would be fine if it weren’t for the fact the leader is Jim Crow (allegedly named after the infamous segregation laws) was voiced by white actor Cliff Edwards, while his gang of crows were voiced by members of the all-black Hall Johnson Choir. Some defenders say the racial stereotype of the characters is mere coincidence and the negative assertions are just people being overly-sensitive, but it’s easy to see why detractors would have a problem with it.
“We are Siamese (If You Please)” – Lady and the Tramp (1955)
Who can ever forget the timeless Disney classic film Lady and the Tramp? It’s a tale as old as time – a boy (dog) from the wrong side of the tracks falls in love with a girl (dog) from the upper crust of society. If you ask any adult or child who has seen Lady and the Tramp what scene they remember most, it would probably be the adorable “spaghetti and meatball” scene where the two pooches kiss while sharing a noodle – ah, love.
However, the cutesy canine romance movie managed to stir up some controversy by including a pair of Siamese cats, Si and Am, who give poor Lady lots of headaches and cause mischief in her name. Because this is a Disney movie, the chaos-causing felines break out in song during their introduction. Everything about the cats and their song is rife with offending stereotypes, because not only did the animators give the cats “slanted” eyes, but they sing in broken English with a harsh Chinese accent.
Blackfish & Fluke, the Duke of Soul – The Little Mermaid (1989)
Ever since debuting in 1989, The Little Mermaid has had its share of controversies. There’s the hotly debated issue of a teenage girl giving up everything special about herself in order be with a man (presumably much older than she). The original VHS cover for the movie had a hidden phallic symbol on it (though Disney pulled it from shelves once it was discovered). And then there’s the song, “Under the Sea.”
The happy little tune is sung by Sebastian the crab (who has a Jamaican accent) and his assorted friends about how life is so much easier when you live carefree and do a little as possible – allegedly a reference to how lazy Jamaicans can be – or so the speculation goes by those critical of the song. What’s not up for debate, however, are Fluke, the Duke of Soul and Blackfish the soulful singer. With their droopy eyes and large lips, both characters are the only ones in the song with noticeable African-American voices, and both drip with offensive stereotypes.
The Hyenas – The Lion King (1994)
The Lion King is another one of those Disney films that won a slew of awards and gave the world so many catchy songs that you’re most likely singing one as you read this. However, for all of the great moments, musical numbers and colorful characters the movie gave us, it also included a number of controversies, including the word “SEX” spelled out in pollen (though the animators swear it spells “SFX”) and the hyenas, typecast as a blood-thirsty street gang.
The racial stereotyping isn’t as strong in The Lion King as it is with other Disney animated films, but the hyenas – Shenzi (Whoopi Goldberg), Banzai (Cheech Marin) and Ed (Jim Cummings) – are clearly a gang who all speak in inner-city slang. Anti-immigrant allegories are another theme allegedly surrounding the hyenas. The hyenas, (representing the blacks and Latinos) who live in the Elephant Graveyard, aren’t allowed to enter the Pride Lands where all the food is located and are quickly banished once they cross the border.
The Alley Cats – The AristoCats (1970)
The AristoCats isn’t the most popular animated film in Disney’s vault – most people forget about it until they hear the name – but it manages to reinforce several stereotypes related to sexism, classism and diversity. Duchess is a white, upper class cat who teaches her kittens about being a proper cat in high society, but she’s is rarely happy with her life. Meanwhile, tomcat Thomas O’Malley lives in the streets, has no permanent home, yet he is constantly surrounded by friends and happiness.
The stereotypes are ramped up when Duchess and her kittens are introduced to the Alley Cats – a singing jazz troupe made up of a culturally diverse and one-dimensional stereotyped cats. There’s Billy Boss, the Russian cat who looks like Stalin, Peppe the womanizing Italian cat complete with a red scarf around his neck and a gold earring, Hit Cat, and Shun Gon the Chinese cat – the bucktooth, slant-eyed feline who plays the piano with chopsticks while singing the following line from “Ev’rybody Wants to be a Cat”:
Shanghai, Honk Kong, Egg Foo Yong
Fortune cookie always wrong
That’s a hot one!
King Louie and the Apes – The Jungle Book (1967)
When Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book hits theaters in 2016 it will be the third time Disney has brought Rudyard Kipling’s beloved book to life. The story of an orphaned boy, Mowgli, who is raised by animals in the treacherous jungles of India, has been a favorite of audiences since it first came to life in 1967. Songs like “Colonel Hathi’s March”, “The Abba Dabba Honeymoon”, and of course, “The Bare Necessities” are still popular today. However, it’s when Mowgli meets King Louie and his tribe of apes singing “I Wanna Be like You” that stereotypes begin presenting themselves.
While some people say the character of King Louie was supposed to be a stand-in for the great jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, it was thought that drawing Armstrong as a “jive talking” ape would appear offensive. To that end, Disney had Louie voiced by Louis Prima instead – a popular white jazz singer/actor from the sixties. Some critics have pointed out that the apes are asking Mowgli to teach them how to be humans, which is allegedly an allegory on black people wanting to be like white people – though that seems like a stretch.
Arabian Nights Lyrics – Aladdin (1992)
Aladdin was arguably the most popular animated movie Disney released in the nineties, thanks in part to the stellar performance of the late Robin Williams as Genie – however, the film wasn’t without its share of controversies. Before Aladdin the street urchin was teaching us that stealing is ok if you really need it, and that lying to a girl was the best way to get her attention (which ended up backfiring, but he still got the girl, because Disney!), the movie was giving audiences a lesson in awful stereotyping in the opening song alone.
In “Arabian Nights”, an unnamed merchant sings about life in the desert, painting the Middle East as a blood-thirsty environment “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric but, hey, it’s home!” The offensive line caused such an uproar among Arab-Americans that Disney changed it to “Where it’s flat and immense, and the heat is intense” for subsequent home video releases. You won’t find the original lyrics on the DVD or Blu-ray versions of the song but clips of it still exist on YouTube – HERE.
The Siamese Twin Gang – Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers (1989)
Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers isn’t technically an animated movie but since it is a Disney-based property we’re going to count it. Chip and Dale, along with their pals Gadget Hackwrench, Monterey Jack and Zipper, are private eyes, sleuthing their way around the world solving whatever crimes they come across. The show is filled with all sorts of interesting characters who often mimic real world personalities, like Sugar Ray Lizard and Arnold Mousenegger.
Those characters are fun parodies to watch, but unfortunately, the writers may have gone over the line a tad when creating The Siamese Twin Gang. The Twins are, of course, Siamese cats and like previous Siamese cats in various Disney cartoons, they, too, have slanted eyes. As if that character trait wasn’t enough stereotyping for you, the Twins also run a gambling establishment from inside a laundromat.
Cartoon Shorts from the 1930s
We’ll finish things off with a series of shorts Walt Disney created and produced during the early thirties that are easily some of the worst stereotypes of Africans, Arabs and Jewish people ever animated – at least during that time period. Unfortunately, back in that era it was socially acceptable to represent these cultures as goofs with large lips, uneducated savages, blood-thirsty sultans or cheap Jewish salesmen. We won’t describe them all here but they’re linked below for you to watch. Each one is about three minutes long and they have to be seen to be believed.
- Mickey in Arabia (1932) – Watch it HERE
- Trader Mickey (1932) – Watch it HERE
- Mickey’s Mellerdrammer (1933) – Watch it HERE
- The Three Little Pigs (1933) – Watch it HERE
- Mickey’s Man Friday (1935) – Watch it HERE
- Mother Goose Goes Hollywood (1938) – Watch it HERE
Not every Disney animated film is overflowing with racial stereotypes, and some of these entries can be accused of nitpicking. Still, it’s amazing that such potentially (and blatantly) offensive material was allowed to be produced during any decade – some as recent as the last 20 years. Even though arguments can be made to include Mulan, Pocahontas, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame in this list, it would appear that Disney is attempting to leave out offensive stereotypes from its featured films.
Did we miss any potentially offensive racial stereotypes in other Disney animated films or do you not agree with all of the ones in this list? Sound off in the comments below and let us know.