Disney and Race

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Disney’s Portrayal of Culture and Race
The Disney vision of fairy-tale love stories, benevolent nature, and classic American virtues such as hard work have remained unchanged since Walt Disney first created Mickey Mouse. In Disney films, stock characters and predictable plots have led to criticism that Disney films contain racist elements. Disney therefore faces a dilemma; how can the company maintain traditional American values while realizing the changing times of today's society? Three movies come to mind when examining Disney's portrayal of culture and race: Aladdin, The Lion King, and Pocahontas. Aladdin shows negative stereotypical imagery and lyrics in the movie. In The Lion King, jive talking hyenas were characters that lived in a jungle equivalent of an inner-city ghetto. Finally, the film Pocahontas is Disney’s answer to the previous criticisms on racial/cultural biases. In addition to these featured films, much can be said about Disney’s upcoming projects such as “The Frog Princess,” where, for the first time, Disney will depict a black princess.

One of the verses of the opening song of Aladdin titled "Arabian Nights," was altered

following protests from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (7). The lyrics were

changed in July 1993 from "Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face/It's barbaric,

but, hey, it's home," in the original release to "Where it's flat and immense and the heat is

intense/It's barbaric, but, hey, it's home." Entertainment Weekly ranked Aladdin on a list of the

most controversial films in history, due to this incident. Other stereotypical portrayals of Arabs

in the film include Aladdin riding on a magic carpet and the fact the narrator of the story was

depicted as “an unsightly, filthy Arab” (7). Surprisingly, however, Aladdin’s theme song, “A

Whole New World,” was performed by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle, two African-American

recording artists, and the music video for the song was played heavily on Black Entertainment Television (BET) in 1993. In addition, Disney did not launch any campaigns for Aladdin

specifically targeting Asian Americans. Donald Dinwiddie of Disney’s marketing company for

featured films stated that “for selected films, we've tried to generate publicity in Asian-American

publications, but we haven't done a fully targeted, integrated marketing program. They're a

smaller group, but an important one and a wealthy one” (3). Hyenas are savage animals of the African savannah. In The Lion King, the hyenas in the movie contained African-American and Hispanic characterizations. Using the voices of Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin, these animals resided in an inner city ghetto equivalent of the jungle. Their behavior and environment reinforced stereotypes of these two races. With racial/cultural criticism in Disney's movies of Aladdin, and The Lion King, the corporation set the goal of producing a movie that would be accepted by all cultures (5). The selected story line was Pocahontas, a love story between an English captain and a young Native American woman. For this film, Disney underwent sensitivity training for three years since production of the movie began (5). To assure an unbiased fair cultural portrayal of Native Americans, Disney sought counsel from actual decedents of Powhatan Indians as well as incorporating resources from academics, historians, and the leaders of American Indian organizations (3). To recreate the atmosphere behind the Pocahontas story writers, directors, animators, and composers made multiple visits to Jamestown, Virginia, the site of the original Jamestown colony (5). Director Eric Goldberg, who co-directed the movie, said this about the difficulty in creating a culturally sensitive film, "When you bring visual details to a film, you're also bringing a sense of the culture, you can't disengage the two. . . Hopefully, as we...
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