Friday, 16 June 2017

Black & White Stereotypes in the Disney Renaissance

This is a transcript of a lecture I gave at the Film For Thought Festival 2017 at Radboud University in Nijmegen. This year, the theme of the festival was Black & White.

The perfect pick-up line

I know we’re all here for Disney, but I’d like to start with a little story of my own, if that’s OK with you.

Last summer, my friend told me about this guy she’d met at Shoeless festival in Amsterdam. He’d asked her about her favourite Disney film. She’d said it was Jungle Book, and he’d been like “no way!”
“That’s my favourite Disney film too!”
“No way!
 “I’ve got it on DVD!”
“We should totally go watch it together!”
So they cycled to his place together, singing “Ooh-bi-doo, I wanna be like you / I want to walk like you, talk like you, too-oo-oo!”
His place, the DVD, hot chocolate milk, candle light – I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what happened next.
So my friend and I are on the bus together and she tells me about him. Two weeks had gone by, and despite everything they had in common, he still hadn’t returned any of her calls. It turns out he wasn’t quite Prince Charming after all.
When the bus pulls over, two other girls get on and sit right in front of us. It’s pretty much impossible for us not to listen in on their conversation. One of them has just met this guy, apparently. Not very attractive, but quite cute. And guess what…
“His favourite Disney film was Jungle Book as well! And he even had the DVD to prove it!”

The moral of the story: it’s a sure-fire way to chat up girls asking them about their favourite Disney Film and then confessing that it’s your favourite film as well. Of course it’s anecdotal proof, far from scientific, but it does make me wonder: why does this work so well? I reckon it’s because pretty much every girl out there will have fond memories of a Disney film. Perhaps I’m just reinforcing a harmful stereotype here, but I’d say it’s these happy memories that may evoke a sense of safety, thereby rendering an already tipsy girl that little bit more prone to "love at first sight".

The fact of the matter is that Disney is one of the six largest media companies in the world, and they have a 100 % penetration in our society. Their imperium is no longer limited to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. It’s also much more than Pocahontas, Frozen and Moana. They also own Pixar (think The Incredibles, Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Brave), Lucasfilm (Star Wars) and Marvel Studios (Avengers, Spider-Man, X-Men, Deadpool, Thor, etc). Apparently, there are about 1,9 billion children under the age of 15 in this world, and they’ve all been exposed to Disney.

What Disney does to little boys and girls

Now I’d like you to think back of your own favourite Disney film. Mine was The Little Mermaid. But if yours was Aladdin, or the Lion King, or Mulan or Pocahontas, that works fine too. Are you with me? Ok. Now, do you remember how many times you’ve seen that film? Chances are you don’t. I don’t. But I do know that it was heaps of times. And even today, when the amount, variety and accessibility of media has exploded, kids willingly watch their favourite scenes in films like Frozen hundreds of times. And it doesn’t end there. There’s also a range of toys and costumes that are so similar to the films, that they trigger kids to copy the exact behaviour from the film in play.

You know what repetition is to the brain?  It’s the process of learning. Disney is teaching us more than just catchy songs. They’re teaching us how to behave in public, the difference between right and wrong, how to be a man or woman, how to make friends, they even teach us the very language we use to think.

Keeping it close to home, what sort of a role model has Ariel been for me? She starts out as a bubbly, cheeky, curious and lively mermaid, but then falls head over tail in love with, essentially, a hot guy on a boat. At first she’s strong enough to rescue him, but ultimately, she becomes a weak, meek and quiet woman who needs to be rescued by him. In order to be loved, she has to change who she is – have her tail split into legs (what would Freud make of that?) and get rid of her voice. Lesson learned: the key to a guy’s heart is to shut up and spread your legs.

“But Deborah,” you may point out, “The Little Mermaid was released in 1989. Surely, Disney has come a long way since then? What good does it do to criticize the company for something made almost 30 years ago?”
And you’re right, for modern day art critics, it’s not done to isolate a work of art from its historic and cultural context and subject it to anachronistic criticism. Of course a piece of art will absorb and reflect the culture in which it came to be. What matters, is what sets it apart from that culture, how it departs from its surrounding values, how it criticizes the time.

Dumbo (1941)

Take Dumbo and the band of crows, calling each other ‘brother”, jive-talking, dressed in rags and smoking cigars. 

In case you’re still in the dark as to what ethnicity the crows are meant to depict, the leader is called Jim, which has to be a reference to the Jim Crow laws (the laws that reinforced the racial segregation in the States). And what’s the first thing Timothy says to them? 
“What are you boys doing down here anyway? Fly up a tree where you belong.” 
We’d be outraged if it were released today, but it was acceptable at the time. And what made Dumbo stand out is that the crows fulfilled a positive, likeable role in the film, thereby helping fight negative image of African-Americans.
If a piece of art fails to induce reflection on commonly held, oversimplified images of a particular group of people, it’s not art, it’s peddling stereotypes.

Critical note on my method

Modern art critics would not approve of what I’ve set out to do today: apply a 21st-century morality to films made in different times. I will focus on the Disney Renaissance of the nineties and highlight the stereotypes they reinforce.

Why? Because these films are still relevant today.

Films no longer bloom and die in one season. In the Digital Era, they play again and again, year after year, decade after decade. And what’s more, Disney is still merchandising the characters. If you walk into a Primark today, you’ll find that these rolemodels are still actively promoted.

What's a stereotype? The word comes from the Greek “stereos” (solid, stiff, fixed) and "typos" (blow, impression, image, form etc.). What we mean by it today is an “image perpetuated without change”. Stereotypical visuals and stories make people think less about ideas they are already familiar with; perpetuation and acceptance are very closely intertwined. Art, on the other hand, has the to power to provoke thought. 
Media and arts may not define what we think, but they define the arena within which we can think, they point us in the direction of what to think about and they define the black and the white for our imagination to work with. 
So when a media company has the reach and impact of Disney, we should really be asking ourselves: what kind of stories are they telling us, what are the contrasts they’re teaching us, and why?

Disney's black-and-white history

The little African centaur you’re looking at is called Sunflower. After making an appearance in the 1940’s edition of Fantasia as a… well.. a hoof-polishing servant, she wasn’t invited back to the set for the remake of 1969, nor Fantasia 2000. What started out as a racist stereotype, has met a fascist solution of eradication.

Another example: King Louie, in the Jungle Book, who sang that lovely song “I wanna be like you” for man-cub Mowgli.

Mind the accents though, and note that King Louie and his apes are the only creatures with an African-American accent. Not Baloo, Bagheera, Kaa, the vultures – only the apes. And to add insult to injury, this king of the apes sings about his inferiority to even a ‘man cub’. That’s white supremacy, and I grew up lapping it up. I still can't help but love that song.
But let’s skip the golden oldies and fast-forward to the Disney Renaissance of the nineties.

The little mermaid (1989)

As well as the blatant misogyny going on in this film, there’s also some not-so-subtle racism at play. Let’s have a closer look at Sebastian the crab. He’s one of the characters with full ‘negro’ lips and a Jamaican accent. I’m sure you’ll remember his “under the sea”. But did you notice the explicit reference to slavery, and that he advocates staying under the sea because you don’t have work there? “Up on the shore they work all day / Out in the sun they slave away / While we devotin' / Full time to floatin' / Under the sea.”

Portraying coloured people as lazy is a nasty stereotype pointing directly and explicitly back to slavery. It grinds on me having to pointing out these faults with the character, as Sebastian was one of my favourite elements in the film. I liked him better than Ariel. Why couldn’t they make a film about him? Why does the black character always have to be the comical side-kick?

Aladdin (1992)

There’s many issues with this film. I’ll stick with one example. In 1993, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee took Disney to court over the racist lyrics of the opening song. (“Where they cut off your ear/If they don’t like your face/It’s barbaric, but, hey, it’s home”). Disney cut out the ear-cutting thing, but stuck with “it’s barbaric”.

Pocahontas (1995)

I started out with great expectations for this one. At least the lead character isn’t white! The film is inspired by the known history and folklore surrounding the Native American woman Pocahontas. And at first sight, it seems to give a more accurate portrayal of native American culture than the rather racist stereotypes in Peter Pan.
True, Pocahontas’ historical encounter with Englishman John Smith had nothing to do with romance, but hey, for the sake of storytelling I can live with that. Right?
What’s worse than the misportrayal of a personal history, is how the film edits away the oppression and genocide. Some would even say it’s a good effort to erase it from collective memory. There’s a word for that – propaganda.
And then there’s the frequent use of terms such as 'savages', 'pagans', 'devils' and the divide between 'primitive' and 'civilized'. Implying white superiority. Take the song 'savages'.

True, in the film both sides call each other savages, but the fact is that, following the release of the film, Native American children came home in tears when school children or playmates sang "Savages, Savages" to them, not the other way around. You cannot step over the past so easily.
Interestingly, according to Chief Roy Crazy Horse of the Powhatan Nation, Disney refused the tribe's offers to help create a more culturally and historically accurate film. If not intended as nationalist propaganda, what it comes down to, is white people mining Native American culture for profit. Modern day colonialism.

Mulan (1998)

My favourite character in Mulan was Mushu, the little dragon, voiced by Eddie Murphy. But wait, what’s an African-American voice doing in ancient China? Of course, he’s a side-kick, just like Sebastian the Crab. That explains.
I also liked Mulan, she was a strong woman. But wait, in order to make her look good, they have to make the whole of ancient Chinese culture look terrible. The film is based on the ancient Chinese Ballad of Mulan, a legend about a female warrior taking her father’s place to fight in the army. Funny thing is, in the original ballad, her parents support her decision, she fights for twelve years and is rewarded and offered an official post, but she turns it down and asks only for a swift horse to carry her home, where she is welcomed with joy by her family. When she dons her old clothes and meets her comrades, they are shocked that in their years traveling together, they did not realize that she was a woman. However, this does not change their good friendship. Disney chose to portray Mulan’s parents, the spirits of her ancestors and the rest of the army as sexists opposed against the idea of a strong woman. Not to mention the added “romantic” ending. Or, as Mulan’s grandma says: “Great, she brings home a sword. If you ask me, she should’ve brought home a man!” 

Tarzan (1999)

Based on a very colonial story by Edgar Rice Burroughs, essentially, Tarzan is a tale about white man bringing order to ‘the dark continent’. Even without the support structure of other colonials (he is raised by the Gorillas), this white man is supposed to be stronger and smarter than the locals. One could wonder why Disney wanted to revisit this story in the first place. They’ve made it very hard for themselves not to be racist. And what was their solution to avoid stereotypes and white supremacy? Not to depict any African people in the film at all. It’s Africa, but all we see is monkeys and white people. That kind of reminds me of the way Disney dealt with Sunflower, the little black centaur from Fantasia. Not OK.
Tarzan was officially the last film of the Disney Renaissance. I promised I wouldn’t go into great historic context, but at this point, it seems hard to avoid.

The Disney Renaissance

So, a bit of historic context. In 1966 and 1971 respectively, Walt and his brother Roy died. The films released over an eighteen-year period following this change of management did not perform as well commercially as previous films. Animation seemed like a vanishing industry. Then, in 1984, a new CEO was appointed, Michael Eisner. A man with a vision and a mission for the company. As he put it in his Film Manifesto:

“We have no obligation to make history.
We have no obligation to make art.
We have no obligation to make a statement.
To make money is our only objective.”

This is the corporate background that gave rise to the likes of Mulan, Pocahontas and Tarzan.

Disney is as much a reflection of modern culture, as it is an influence on it. And under Eisner, it rejected the responsibilities that come with the latter. Which was a successful strategy. Over the time that Eisner was at the head of the company (1984 to 2004), the operating income of Disney rose from 100 million dollar to 4.5 billion. Yes, the company grew 45 times bigger.

The reason why this was such a good move – at least financially speaking – is that it’s much easier to be popular when you confirm stereotypes, than when you try and change the way people think. 

It does seem like Disney has made attempts to atonement after Eisner’s departure (2004). For example with Lilo&Stitch, or more recently Zootopia and Moana. There’s one film in particular that I’d like to draw your attention to:

Princess and the Frog (2009)

This film is set in early twentieth-century New Orleans and features the first African-American Disney Princess, Tiana. She’s ambitious, hard-working and amiable.

It’s by the same directors as The Little Mermaid, Clements and Musker. At least this time (contrary to Pocahontas), Disney got the Afro-American community involved (including Oprah Winfrey, which kind of makes you wonder if it’s just a media stunt. But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt).

Princess and the Frog has met with criticism. As the previous speaker, dr. Domitilla Olivieri, pointed out: “We finally get an Afro-American princess, and she spends the majority of her time on screen as a frog?” Fair point. 
Many bloggers think it’s not right that Tiana's prince isn’t black (he’s some indistinct mixed race). Personally, I think that’s racist criticism. 
Other critics have pointed out that its portrayal of the cultural background is accurate, but what good does it do to reconfirm the inequality of the past? Personally, I’m not convinced that’s fair. 
I could go on, but I’m not here to look at Princess and the Frog and simply add up the racist vs. not-racist points to see which label holds up.
My point today is that the film provides a helpful example of the complicated cultural space a film can occupy. Rather than categorically denying the difficulty of ethnic stereotypes in modern day culture (see Sunflower the centaur and Tarzan), films can help draw attention to complicated cultural space, which is exactly what art is supposed to do.

Princess Tiana is not a stereotype, she occupies a more tenuous middle ground, not black, nor white, nor grey - a space of conflict and tension that must be acknowledged and explored, not overlooked and denied. 
And I am hopeful that Disney will continue to explore that space in future films, encouraging people to reflect on their own values and challenge the stereotypes they themselves adhere to.


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