Professor Pat Sullivan
30 March 2010
Racism in Disney
During the last several decades, the media has become a strong agent in directing and controlling social beliefs and behaviors. Children, by nature, can be particularly susceptible to the influencing powers of the media, opening an avenue where media created especially for children can indoctrinate entire generations. Disney movies, like all other media “are powerful vehicles for certain notions about our culture,” such as racism. (Giroux 32). Racist scenes in Disney movies are often identified as simply being “symbols of the time” when the films were produced. Furthermore, Disney racism is often passed over as simple humor, or as a simple guide to children's understanding of cultures. These explanations of racism in the films are incomplete because they fail to take into account the fact that the primary audience members of Disney films are not old enough to see the movies as relics of a different time and place. This is not to say that Disney films indoctrinate children with racist tendencies; nevertheless, racist scenes in still-popular films cast a blanket of insensitivity over the subject of racism. Disney’s reputation of being racially insensitive has never been more evident than in the time leading up to the release of its latest movie Princess and the Frog. Nearly everything about this film has caused a storm of criticism both from the public and from people within the film industry itself. It is curious that people are so enraged and concerned with this movie, when they ignore potentially more offensive racist elements in other films. If one analyzes society’s response to Princess and the Frog as a single phenomenon, then it does seem a bit odd that a children’s film could start such a heated social debate; however, after taking into account Disney’s history with racism and racial insensitivity, it is not surprising at all that the first black Disney princess would be such a controversial figure.
Bombarded with accusations of anti-Semitism and racism, in the 1940’s Walt Disney was an avid supporter of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a “red-scare” anti-Semitic industry group that wanted to blacklist artists (Alan 12). Perhaps this is one of the reasons Disney’s past is filled with questionable cinematic material. Fantasia was released in 1940, the third theatrical full-length animation, as shown in Disney's canon of animated films. The original version of Disney's classic "Fantasia" (1940) features a character called Sunflower, a little black centaur handmaiden. Sunflower is an extremely insulting caricature, and a bluntly racist stereotype of the "servile grinning nigger" variety (Walker 22). In a featured scene during “The Pastoral Symphony” elegant white centaurs frolick through the woods and are waited on by Sunflower. She is noticeably smaller than the other centaurs—ostensibly because she is half-donkey instead of half-horse, but more likely to exaggerate her inferiority—and has a darker complexion. Her sole function in the film is to eagerly polish and shine the hooves of the tall, sexy Aryan centaur women who glare down their petite noses at this pathetic servant. Such scenes were later censored in the film due to the characters being considered “ethnically offensive during the civil rights movement" (Walker 26).
In addition to reinforcing the stereotype of blacks as inferior beings, the scene from the “Pastoral Symphony” also furthers racism by supporting segregation. Throughout the film the female Aryan centaurs pair up with the males of their “race,” leaving Sunflower alone and separated from the group. Rather than correcting the racism within the scene, Disney later chose to eliminate it from the film – as if it never happened. When the racial climate of America changed in the 60s, the portrayal of such insulting stereotypes in movies and television became politically...