Disney is one of the most well–known corporations in the world.
After nearly a century of movie making, Disney is a household name with a widespread fanbase. Disney World is a popular vacation spot with endless Disney–themed attractions. Most recently, Disney has reached behemoth status thanks to its release of Disney+, a streaming service that holds all of their new and old catalog components, from Ratatouille (2007) to The Mandalorian.
While Disney is doing a better job at inclusivity now, they have a rough and problematic past. From Snow White being adored for how “fair” her skin is to Pocahontas being praised for her assimilation into the world of the white man, we can’t neglect Disney’s history in 2020.
Most prominently, Disney has a reputation of encouraging heteronormativity. Heteronormativity is the idea that being heterosexual is what’s “normal,” and that not being straight is against that norm. Similar to most young girls, I grew up watching Disney princesses being swept away by charming princes. In every princess movie, the woman's yearning for a man is idealized. The damsel must always be in distress, and the resolution is her knight in shining armor. Anything other than this was never discussed nor shown.
Not only is there a lack of non–heterosexual representation, but oftentimes, the way the prince and princess meet each other is itself problematic. For example, in both the stories of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, the princess never meets the prince before he plants a kiss on her lips while she’s asleep. Obviously, today, it's clear that making out with someone while they are not conscious to give consent is sexual assault. Rather than acknowledging this, Disney often romanticized the idea of a “true love’s kiss,” allowing children to grow up believing something like is not only acceptable but desired.
While some might point out that Disney did not actually create these stories but rather adapted old folklore into modern movies (most often, from the Brothers Grimm), it doesn’t change the fact that these scenes are damaging. Furthermore, it’s interesting that Disney would even choose these stories to adapt into children’s films. For example, the original story of Sleeping Beauty involves a king raping and impregnating a sleeping princess before waking her to marry her.
Beauty and the Beast (1991) is one of the more disturbing examples of Disney misogyny. Also based off of a much darker fairy tale, the original story entails a woman being imprisoned and falling in love with her captor. This idea not only encourages toxic relationships and romanticizes Stockholm Syndrome, but also justifies the Beast’s actions and never condemns him for how he treats Belle.
Other than misogyny, Disney also has a blatant history of racism in its movies. One of the first examples to come to mind is in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937). A famous quote from that movie is when the Evil Queen asks her mirror “Who's the fairest of them all?” Thoug children watching may not notice the preference given to fair skin, but it's still there, an easter egg of subliminal messaging. The story associates fair skin, or white skin, with being more desirable. Such an association is extremely damaging, especially when paired with the name of the princess, Snow White, in front of an impressionable audience that will grow up idolizing these characters.
In more recent examples of Disney's catalog, the racism isn’t as subtle. In the movie Dumbo (1941), the titular elephant is accompanied by a pack of crows who act as racist caricatures of Black Americans in the way that they act and talk. The lead bird, voiced by a white actor, is named Jim Crow. A horribly offensive musical scene features racially charged lyrics such as "We slave until we're almost dead / We're happy–hearted roustabouts” and “Keep on working / Stop that shirking / Pull that rope, you hairy ape” sung by faceless black circus “workers.”
Similar to Dumbo, Peter Pan (1953) includes problematic scenes with very stereotypical representations of Indigenous people. It represents them talking in gibberish and smoking a lot of tobacco. We see a similar issue with Indigenous representation in Disney’s film Pocahontas (1995). Specifically, in Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (1998), there’s a scene in which Pocahontas is dressed up to fit in with European culture. While this doesn’t seem outwardly problematic, the lyrics from the song “Wait 'Til He Sees You” implie that Indigenous people are less “civilized” and “lady–like” than Europeans. For example, at one point Ms. Jenkins says, “He’ll be so pleased you came down from the trees.”
The most contentious movie in Disney’s vault, though, is Song of the South (1946). The movie is set on a 19th–century plantation and gives a very romanticized and glorified view of slavery and life on the site. The movie is problematic enough that Disney refused to even put it up on Disney+. Still, Splash Mountain, a ride based on the movie, remains a popular tourist attraction at Disney World. Disney recently made a decision to redesign the ride so it instead represents "The Princess and the Frog." Even so, the fact that it took Disney this long to make such a change is disheartening.
There are plenty of other examples that demonstrate Disney isn’t free from its dark legacy. The biggest issue? The industry giant still makes a lot of these movies available on its channels and streaming platform, which are favorites of young, impressionable children. Even if the racism and misogyny is subtle, it can still lead to children growing up with implicit bias against minorities. In 2019, Disney added warnings in front of specific movies such as Dumbo and Peter Pan indicating them as possibly “includ[ing] outdated cultural depictions," but is a warning enough?
Disney has also recently started to release more inclusive movies, including Princess and the Frog (2009), which introduces Disney’s first Black princess, and Moana (2016), which lacks the heteronormative romantic aspect that most Disney movies include. While these are all steps in the right direction, they aren’t enough. These problematic movies are watched around the world. Little kids dress up as Disney princesses and princes when they head to the famous amusement park for vacation. This is disconcerting, as Disney princesses often portray Eurocentric standards of beauty.
Children should be exposed to a variety of cultures and beauty standards. If Disney truly wants to make up for its racist and misogynistic past, they need to make a statement condemning their actions to show that they no longer support such beliefs. Disney has gotten away with nearly a century of racism and misogyny, and must take a look at their own history and make immediate decisions to make up for their harmful past.