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Disney's Moral Responsibility

In the modern world, the major media are almost inescapable. It is a handful of conglomerates that control the production and distribution of TV shows, radio broadcasts, information, news, magazines etc. Each medium these five global-dimension firms own, “whether magazines or broadcast stations, covers the entire country, and the owners prefer stories and programs that can be used everywhere and anywhere. Then media products reflect this” (Bagdikian 3). The leaders of these corporations have more communication power than was exercised by any despot or dictatorship in history. Among these powerful institutions is the children-beloved Disney.

The Walt Disney Company is a powerful force in creating childhood culture all over the world. It presents a worldview based on innocence, magic and fun, its products are endorsed by parents and teachers, and are enthusiastically embraced by children. Behind the images of innocence and fantasy, however, is a transnational media corporation that dominates most of the mass media in the world. This concentration of power is especially troubling. This is especially because of its role as a major distributor of the stories that will be used to construct children's imaginary worlds as well as their notions of the real world (“Mickey Mouse Monopoly”). The reason why is mainly the misrepresentations of females and races portrayed in Disney films. The female characters in Disney movies “present a distorted version of femininity – highly sexualized bodies, coy seductiveness, always needing to be rescued by a male” (Pettit 1). Race and ethnicity representation in Disney animated films are notable for their “general scarcity, and when they do appear, they tend to reinforce cultural stereotypes about these groups” (Pettit 1). Due to Disney's enormous conglomerate power to influence children ideologies of reality, Disney should take on a more responsible role in improving its current portrayal of women as being seductive and passive, and its affirmation of stereotypical views of marginalized racial groups.

There are many people who have no problem with the way Disney films portray the feminine role. In actuality, the mainstream audience view the Princess series of Disney films to be representative of strong, independent women (Watts 143). Pocahontas saves the life of Captain John Smith and averts a war, not by her figure but by her words. Hercules' Megara was modeled “on the strong female stars of old Hollywood such as Barbara Stanwyck ('See ya 'round, Herc!') and actually saves Hercules' life” (Watts 143). The Hunchback of Notre Dame's Esmeralda is every bit a match for Captain Phoebus in fencing and “verbal repartee” (Watts 143). Mulan saves the lives of Captain Shang and the emperor, and proves herself a war hero. Ariel's giving up her voice to win her prince in The Little Mermaid is a “strategy of emulation” (Watts 143). And if Shang comes to visit Mulan at the end of the film, it is because he is attracted to her strength and independence. Belle does not approve of or submit to the Beast's abuse or violent rages – she refuses to eat or come out of her room; she is attracted to his sweetness and kindness only after he begins to transform himself. Pocahontas and Esmeralda are both women who have political interests and dare to intervene in the masculine realm of power to challenge injustice and prejudice. According to Steven Watts, “The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life”, “to read these portrayals as unambiguously stereotypically feminine – weak and seductive – is to ignore much disconfirming evidence, and to ignore that as society has changed, so has Disney” (144).

However, despite the alternate interpretations of these ambiguous scenes, Watts is ignoring the continuity throughout these depictions that every female lead in Disney movies always has to be stereotypically beautiful – big breasts, tiny waist, highly sexualized. Every one of them has to find love and romance to be happy. And no matter how adventurous or empowered they may initially seem, they always settle for traditional roles of security and domesticity in the end. This continuity of gender stereotyping in our society is even more pronounced by “the process of cartoon animation and simplified scripting. And this is one of the ways – although surely not the only way – that these cultural depictions get transmitted from generation to generation” (Giroux 17). Because children see these representations at such an early age, this stereotype or idea is engrained in them. All their future experiences and notions will be built upon this basic foundation idea . If the ir founda tions are built around misconceptions and false interpretations of the world, then these children will grow up to represent the much frowned-upon white, male-dominate perspective. Disney also tends to reproduce these films every few years. This sadly results in each generation of children being exposed to the same inaccurate portrayals of women roles despite the fact that these views are no longer parallel to those of contemporary society.

There are many examples of the distorted portrayal views of femininity. Snow White cleans the dwarves' cottage to ingratiate herself; Ariel gives up her voice in order to win the prince with her body by making an unwise bargain with the devil (Ursula) that almost turned out disastrously in The Little Mermaid; Mulan almost single-handily wins the war only to return home to be romanced; and Beauty and the Beast's Belle endures an abusive and violent Beast in order to redeem him (“Mickey Mouse Monopoly”). Also, these popularized heroines are not only passive and pretty, but they are “unusually patient, obedient, industrious, and quiet. A woman who failed to be any of these could not become a heroine. Even Cinderella has to do no more than put on dirty rags to conceal herself completely. She is a heroine only when properly cleaned and dressed” (Rozario 40). Women, in Disney films, are portrayed back when society was aggressively patriarchal. This is the ideal, passive but beautiful, woman that men who run corporations want.

It is a view that is perhaps encouraged by the avuncular nature of the corporate image. However, society has changed. With more women entering professional fields, it is no longer acceptable for women to be portrayed as weak and dependent in the media. Women no longer need nor should use their bodies to get what they want in society. When children watch films that are supposedly age-appropriate, what they should take away from it is that both genders are equal. Women are just as capable as men in being heroes without having to seduce their way to their success.

The issue of race is also called into question. Although Disney has been accused of being racist in its depictions of ethnic groups, Robert B. Pettit, Professor of Sociology from Manchester College, thinks otherwise. He agrees, regarding Disney's depiction of blacks, that “there have been plenty of racist portrayals over the years – from the black centaurette shining hoofs in Fantasia (1940) right down to the total absence of black Africans in Tarzan (1999). But some depictions are not so simple. Take the black crows in Dumbo (1941). They are undeniably black, but I don't think they're negatively portrayed. They are strong characters, not stereotypes. They are witty, funny, and smart – it is they who devise and suggest the 'magic feather' stratagem to Timothy Mouse” (Pettit 8). Pettit expands that to criticize their black dialect is to criticize them on the basis of their regional culture (which is a Southern black dialect) and their class (their speech is assuredly not middle-class) (Pettit 8). The crows are not the only characters in the movie with accents either. Timothy Mouse has a working-class Brooklyn accent, and the ringmaster has a heavy Italian accent. This means that the crows were not the only characters to represent a marginalized racial group.

Pettit argues that in many of the films, there is some ambiguity in textual interpretations. There are several instances that could be conveyed as being racist, but at the same time, maybe they are not. The film, The Jungle Book, was criticized for having apes singing about their desires to be humans. Pettit says, “If there had been many and varied black characters in Disney films, this role would not stand out as racist. As it is, however, when you have only one black actor in the film, and he sings about wanting to be human like the others, the inescapable implication is racist” (Pettit 8). Essentially, if the apes had spoken Standard English and sung about wanting to be human, no one would have conceived it as racist. It would fit into the context of the movie: apes wanting to be human, just like Pinocchio wanting to be a real boy. If Pinocchio were black, then there would be an uproar about that as being racist as well. In fact, in The Aristocat (1970), Scatman Crothers (a black muscian) is cast as a Scat Cat singing about how “Everybody wants to be a cat, because a cat's the only cat who knows where it's at...A cat's the only cat who knows how to swing ...Everybody digs a swinging cat” (Watts 8). The message here seems to be that being a black (a cat) is cool, hip, and eminently desirable – quite a contrast to the message about the blackness in The Jungle Book.

The Lion King , Mulan, and Pocahontas are also films that received much criticism for being racist towards African-Americans, Asians, and Native Americans respectively. Yet, Pettit feels that many people are too quick to interpret it as being negative. In The Lion King , the hyenas' representation of being black brought much criticism, but the inner-city street dialect perhaps portray a class prejudice rather than a specifically racial or ethnic prejudice. There are African-Americans in positive leading roles in this movie as well such as James Earl Jones as Mufasa, Robert Guillaume as Rafiki, and Niketa Calame as Young Nala (Watts 9). Jiaohua Yang, a Chinese historian, says that the portrayal of Mulan is actually very accurate considering that it is a Western production and it did not misrepresent any Chinese traditions or culture (Giroux 20). Russell Means, a Native American activist and also the voice of Powhatan, described Pocahontas as an “important and historic achievement for Hollywood and, I believe, the best and most responsible film that has ever been made about American Indians” (Giroux 20). Despite that there may be a possibility that Disney's conveyances of racial groups can be objective, there are many glaring racial stereotypes that cannot be ignored. The coincidences are much too obvious.

In Dumbo , the lead crow's name is “Jim Crow” which is an allusion to the racist “Jim Crow laws” that enforced segregation in public facilities between 1876 and 1965 (Watts 14). No one can possibly interpret this coincidence in a positive way. Any name would have been suitable, yet “Jim Crow” is chosen. It is a blatant racist commentary about blacks and their social standing. Another example would be The Jungle Book , where the apes yearn to be human and King Louis (the ape king) is casted by the black bandleader Louis Prima (Watts 11). It is clearly a negative portrayal of blacks when they are marginalized in casting and then given lines about wanting to be human. The Lion King was released in 1994, years after the initial cultural changes wrought by the civil rights movement. However, the villainous hyenas are represented as racial and ethnic minorities speaking inner-city street dialect with Whoopi Goldberg and Latino Cheech Marin in those roles (Gutierrez 15). This cannot possibly be excused in this day and age, especially after the civil rights movement fought so hard to erase these stereotypes.

In The Aristocats, there is a Siamese cat who plays the piano with chopsticks, wears a cymbal as a “coolie” hat, is cross-eyed and bucktoothed, has a maniacal laugh, and sings out, “Oh boy, ferras, ret's rock this joint!” (Pettit 14). That is quite a compilation of offensive stereotypical Asian characteristics. The Siamese cat reappears in The Lady and the Tramp where they are depicted as sinister, cunning, manipulative, and insidious, a sort of “Yellow Peril” (Pettit 14). Those are not the only negative portrayals of Asians in Disney films. In Mulan, Disney portrayed China as an extremely oppressive and sexist society. Along with that, the Mongols did not come off too well either in the film (Gutierrez 14). These are very pronounced versions of stereotypical views of Asians. The Siamese felines accentuated the flaws of Asians and stigmatized the race even further by its not-so-subtle depictions. It is hard to interpret these scenes as otherwise.

Pettit explains how these portrayals could have been influenced by historical events going on contemporary to the films. Lady and the Tramp was released in 1955, which was soon after the Korean War and in the midst of Cold War when fear of China was at its peak (Pettit 20). The story is set in turn-of-the century America, a time when fears about Chinese were running high. However, despite the reasons why there are racist representations of Asians and other marginalized racial groups, it does not take away from the fact that Disney still did represent racist and stereotypical views of ethnic sectors in its films. Children, especially under the age of 11, do not have the analytical capability to realize that many of the representations in these Disney films are highly offensive. Before they can even conceive their own opinions of a specific race, Disney has already formed a foundation of how they will perceive it. What is worse is that Disney's portrayal is profoundly inaccurate.

Former CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner, claims that it is not Disney's responsibility to represent the world accurately because its films are “purely for entertainment” (Gutierrez 17). However, if a conglomerate has as much power and influence as Disney does, and its main audience consists of children, then it has an ethical duty to represent women and race in less offensive and stereotypical ways. Women are indeed a lot more independent and self-dignified than compared to how many of the Disney princesses are portrayed. The United States is often times described as a “melting pot” and therefore, Disney should represent different cultures with more equal connotations. As Walt Disney mentions, “I think of a child's mind as a blank book. During the first years of his life, much will be written on the pages. The quality of that writing will affect his life profoundly” (Giroux 16). If the man himself believes in the quality of writing in the children's first figurative pages, then these pages should be filled with objective views. Let the children's gradual life experiences accumulate and allow them to form their own opinions of the world.

Works Cited

Bagdikian, Ben H. The New Media Monopoly . Boston: Beacon, 2004. Print.

Giroux, Henry A. The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence . Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. Print.

Gutierrez, Gabriel. "Deconstructing Disney: Chicano/a Children and Critical Race Theory." Aztlun 25.1 (2000): 1-43. Print.

Mickey Mouse Monopoly: Disney, Childhood, and Corporate Power . Dir. Chyng Sun and Miguel Picker. Media Education Foundation, 2001. DVD.

Pettit, Robert B. "Study of "Mickey Mouse Monopoly"" Manchester Media 1.72 (2001): 1-21. Print.

Rozario, Rebecca-Anne C. Do. "The Princess and the Magic Kingdom: Beyond Nostalgia, the Function of the Disney Princess." Women's Studies in Communication 27.1 (2004): 34-59. Print.

Watts, Steven. The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life . Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. Print.

DMU Timestamp: December 31, 2010 20:26

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