Disney Stereotypes: Race & Gender

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
This lesson discusses the controversial nature of Disney feature animated films due to racial and gender stereotyping, which occurs in many of their early as well as recent films.

The Problem with Disney Films

Since Walt Disney's first sound synchronized animated cartoon, 'Steamboat Willie', in 1928, people have regarded Disney as the standard in animated entertainment. The movies they have produced over the years are standard fare in many houses. Young girls grow up wanting to be princesses, and boys like the dash and bravery of the handsome prince.

Unfortunately, there is an undercurrent to Disney's productions which has caused a great deal of controversy. The princesses were at one time all white; though that has changed in recent decades, and there seemed to be serious racist undertones. This can be seen in several Disney movies and though likely not a theme, demonstrates a serious flaw that has always been evident. By supposedly enforcing racial and gender stereotypes, Disney has come under fire from critics.

Racial Stereotyping

One of the first examples of serious racial stereotyping occurred in the feature film 'Song of the South' which debuted in 1946. The story took place in the South after the Civil War was long over, but Uncle Remus and other workers on the plantation were all Black, lived in slave cabins, sang traditional spirituals, and were subservient to Whites. From the time the film was released, it bred controversy and has never been released in its entirety to video.

Disney studios made several movies that prominently featured voice overs done by people of color after the death of Walt Disney; among these were 'Aladdin' and 'The Lion King'. Critics saw problems in the racially charged language in 'Aladdin'; lyrics such as 'I come from a land…where they cut your ear off if they don't like your face' and in the depiction of Arab people. Jafar, the villain, and the storyteller were seen as respectively evil and dirty, while Aladdin had the appearance of being European. In 'The Lion King', Simba's voice actor was a White American, while some, but not all, of the bad guys' (hyenas) voice actors were people of color.

Gender Stereotypes

From the very beginning, Disney was in trouble with its depictions of women. Fainting, fawning princesses being rescued by men who were handsome and strong was the subject of many of the stories. There were no strong female leads with whom young girls could connect.

'Snow White', 'Sleeping Beauty' and 'Cinderella' all had female leads who were in desperate situations and all needed a strong male to rescue them. Both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty needed their prince's true love's kiss to awaken them from a deep sleep. Cinderella was dominated by her stepmother and stepsisters and she also needed to find a way out of this predicament. By not allowing the women in these stories to become stronger through their own devices and overcome their difficulties through personal strength, many critics believe that Disney did a disservice to young girls and women.

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