Friday, January 9, 2009

allow their children to absorb racist entertainment

The following clip, from the film Mickey Mouse Monopoly: Disney, Childhood & Corporate Power, reveals some of the sexism and racism that are woven throughout the long history of Disney productions. These productions permeate American childhood, influencing how children learn to perceive and react to other people around them.

Of course, it's not just Disney; most entertainment products for children are presented within a white racial frame. Can we let our children enjoy this stuff, but be critical of it at the same time? Or should we just refuse to let them watch it?

Do you remember watching Dumbo when you were a kid? If so, do you remember anyone explaining to you what's wrong with the following scene? If you have kids, or plan to, how would you handle such scenes with them?

To its minimal credit, the Disney corporation has made some concessions in this regard. Some of the racist caricatures were excised from "The Pastoral Symphony" sequence of the 1940 film Fantasia (though not until 1969--here's the uncut version), and Arab stereotypes were edited from a song in Aladdin (1992).

Personally, I do have some better childhood memories, from other entertainment outlets--Sesame Street, for instance:

But have more recent films and TV shows really been any less objectionable? And again, since children generally absorb so much of this stuff, how do we watch it with children, if at all?

[h/t for Mickey Mouse Monopoly clip to Lisa @ Sociological Images]


  1. Thanks for this post, Macon. It's particularly relevant to me as a white parent. Racism is everywhere in children's television programming, movies and literature. I have found that a lot of children's media is overtly racist, as in the examples you provide in the post. There's also a lot of media that very subtly promotes white as the racial norm. For example, there are a lot of young children's books out there with only white characters and protagonists, or animal characters that are pretty obviously "white".

    I've had to look very hard for books and other children's media with people of color in them who aren't stereotyped or tokenized. Sesame Street is awesome. When we used to have cable tv we found a show on HBO about fairy tales with people of color as the protagonists, like an African American Pinnoccio. This was my son's first exposure to the tale, and when he saw a white version of it, he said, "This is not the 'real' Pinnoccio." Pretty telling, huh?

  2. I hate Disney. They have been consistently pushing out racist and sexist shit for years. I can't watch "The Little Mermaid" without losing it. I think what's frustrating is that these films and TV shows are going to be hailed as "classics" for decades, no matter how much they warp kids' minds.

  3. this also sort of reminded me of george lucas' jar jar binks.
    but yeah, it's appalling how little disney has changed over the years, and few people seem to recognize that disney is still racist.
    i liked that the first video you included talked about women's bodies too...and how little that has changed. i would like to point out that even as a child i always thought it weird that Belle ended up falling in love with a beast. i mean, she was like his prisoner and then suddenly it's her job to change him. why the hell are young girls taught that this is acceptable teach that you should stick with your abuser and take all the shit he gives you. ugh.
    and i think it's also important to point out that accents play a significant role in these disney films. the evil characters have different accents than the good ones, the good ones generally speaking with an american accent. and the bad guys generally are severely stereotypical (Jafar, anyone?). disney is evil...and their upcoming movie with the black princess probably won't make up for any of this...

  4. Thanks for the post. i was just thinking I needed to see Dumbo after hearing about Jim Crow in the film. I saw it when I was young but it never dawned on me until recently. It's weird though how I don't think about the sexism of the films until it's pointed out to me, but I can always recall the racism.

  5. the beauty and the beast thing also reminded me of a series of books by Sara Douglass called The Troy Game. i don't know if anyone else is familiar with these books, but they were difficult for me to read. basically this one character kept getting raped by various men, and eventually realized she loved them and despite the disgusting physical abuse she was determined to heal them.

    in response to Mr. M. i think that was true for a lot of a kid i didn't question the crows in Dumbo, because i just figured that's how the characters're too young to realize there's a terrible history associated with this portrayal...

  6. A couple months ago Entertaintment Weekly had a long article on race in television. Turns out the areas that are doing best at hiring actors of color and portraying their characters as regular American families are the kids' shows. Turn on the Disney Channel or maybe Nickelodeon and watch the live-action shows. You'll see black folks, Latino folks, and Asian folks, and not just in supporting roles.

    Wall-E was disappointingly white and male. The spaceship captains were a bunch of white men and one token white woman, I think. And the people living on the ship--how hard would it have been to animate a sizeable percentage of them as people of color? This is what's left of the U.S. or of earth, a bunch of white folks? Completely unrealistic. I expected better, though I suppose Pixar is not known for skewing diverse.

  7. much of the media exists to indoctrinate into thinking white is the norm/standard

    Wall-E was pure wish fulfillment for the white supremacist

  8. I really hate Disney. So many women and girls have very damaging views of how relationships should be, because of Disney. It has a powerful effect on people's real life actions.

    Disney and McDonald's are two corporations that target the young and impressionable, and by the time the children grow up to think for themselves, they have to fight years of indoctrination, if at all, and few do.

    I think you need to watch these shows with your children and make snarky critical comments, rather than prevent them from watching it, provided that their friends are watching Disney. If you try to keep them ignorant, they will resent you for it, and for making them a cultural outcast against their will.

    I say "snarky" comments, because that's the only alternative I can imagine to the paternalistic tone, which is annoying and condescending. Maybe your kids will repeat your snarky critical comments in front of their friends and impress them. (I don't have kids, though.)

    On the other hand, talking during a movie is really, really annoying. And if they already watched it once without critical commentary and loved the movie, they might get defensive.

    When I was in school, the teachers sometimes showed us Disney movies during class to entertain us. Hopefully, teachers are smarter now, but I doubt it.

  9. on a side note, Restructure!, i actually hate it when people don't talk during a movie (not at the movie theatre of course). i get really pissed when people shush me. anyway, i've had teachers show disney movies in school too, even recently in college, but with that it's different because we're watching them to analyze, not for entertainment...maybe little kids could interpret after the movie? ah, in a perfect world...

  10. It is insane how racist all the media I grew up on is/was. I didn't even *remember* some of it -- has anyone seen Peter Pan recently? I did not remember the part with the Indians, and then it was on and I didn't want to make a big scene and imprint it on my 3 year old...but he will not be seeing it again if I can help it.

    But also books - when my grandmother died, my aunts gave me a bunch of books she had kept forever. Some of them were from the '40s - in one, a bunch of forest animals went to a school taught by Jim Crow. And the pictures in some of the books from the '50s were just awful. I didn't want to resell them, I couldn't donate them, I don't feel right throwing them away... my mom gave me her collection of Little House books and I know I have to re-read them before I decide whether to read them to my son.

    We stick with PBS kids shows, and are learning to pre-screen other stuff.

  11. I LOVED HBO FAMILY! They had the best fairytales and they all different races in them. I also loved their education shows. I also loved how they would use African American voices for the narrators. It was very good, but I watched a lot of Disney. Thinking back on it, I've always told people that I thought the cartoons I use to watch were kind of demented. I find it very hard to watch nowadays.

  12. Racist children's entertainment? How about this
    seating arrangement
    on the Thanksgiving episode of Peanuts? Once they find out the Black kid, Franklin, is coming, they change where they will be sitting. Even Snoopy.

  13. OMG, Ticklish Fat Chick, I had totally forgotten that.

    I just realized today there's a "Chinese man eating with sticks" in To Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street" and I'm trying to decide if it's enough of a problem that we should stop reading it :(

    We did OK with the picture books (thank God for Ezra Jack Keats) but now that we're into books with more words it's getting harder and harder to flip through them at the library or the bookstore & catch everything.

  14. I love the doc Mickey Mouse Monopoly. In regards to your question if films are getting any better my reply is, for the most part, heck no. Have you see Tale of Despereaux? The Rat world is "exoticized" with a Middle Eastern flair with touches of harem and eastern music. The rats, who are "bad" are thus cast as racial Others. I have not read the book and don't know if this representation actually comes from the text.
    As per Orange's comment on Walle, the token female captain was Asian, not white. So the whole "kill two birds with one stone" type of tokenism...

  15. Hey Macon,
    I haven't watched Dumbo in years but I did notice how the crows were colored Black and how their voices were "Black." I wasn't offended by it as a child but I am put off by it now.

  16. This is a great post. I wish there were more forums for this type of discussion on the web, at kids' schools, in parenting groups, etc. I would like to offer some hopeful experiences/thoughts.

    My two kids are inevitably exposed to lots of stuff on television at their friend's houses and at my ex-husband's house. I have found, though, that the little that I do watch movies with them counts for a lot because I do make comments and call their attention to racist and sexist undertones.

    The other day, my son and daughter were doing a kids yoga tape together. I hadn't screened it since I didn't think there was room for a lot of offensive stuff in a yoga video. However, after about 1/2 hour, my son, who is 10, came running in to me and said, "Mom, this yoga tape is racist. Every parent and child on it are White."

    So, teaching kids to be media literate in small doses can actually go a long way.

    In some ways, I think parents can look at the racist, sexist media as a blessing in disguise. It creates opportunities to teach our kids critical thinking skills. Also, the fact that so much of it is so objectionable might just make us, as parents, stop relying on it as a babysitter/form entertainment and get our kids to read and play actively instead.

  17. I couldn't recall racism or sexism watching these when I was little, but I can definitely see it now. I'm not an Amish Puritan (if I was I wouldn't even use a computer) but I think the way women are portrayed as sexual objects in even G-rated films is bad.
    As for the racism, it's added garbage that makes you wonder if you should boycott it.
    It's been done before:

  18. This is the problem with a Left-controlled media. Racist, sexist, as well as pro-gay garbage.

  19. Heh, its timely that I would find this now. Just the other day some of my seminar classmates were talking about racism in "Dumbo", which had been my favorite movie for a while as a little kid (loved elephants). They mentioned the scene with the crows, and I had no recollection of it, though I've seen the movie more then a dozen times. Had to look it up on youtube.

    Its amazing what sorts of horrors disney has been able to, and continues to, get away with. Freshman year of college I saw a documentary about racist/sexist themes in Disney movie sand was shocked. I didn't remember any of these things, and am afraid to re-watch as an adult, don't want to ruin my fuzzy childhood memories.

    Some commenters are concerned with being unable to pre-screen their kids media for racist/sexist imagery as they get older, and I wanted to second some comments that suggested that prohibiting access to popular culture can lead to being socially outcast (don't have the same frame of reference as other peers), and frequently makes the prohibited item (or ideas?) more tantalizing and desireable. Exposure to subtle racism or sexism is something you can talk to them about, and when they've seen it, and had it labled what it is they will be better able to recognize it in the future.

    Rosa: The original Little House on the Prairie books are pretty tame. I don't know that they contain any references to African Americans, and I'm 50% sure that they don't mention Native Americans either. The later books, surrounding Laura's daughter Rose, mention suffrage, and I believe discuss Rose's confusion at segregation when a black man makes a stop at the train depot in town. Later there are books that involve relatives in Louisiana, but I was a little old for them when the later books in the Rose series were released.

    Oterhog: I was a little confused by "animal characters that seem pretty obviously white", at first. I see where you are coming from (frequently setting stories with all animal protagonists in some sort of analog for way-back-when England or France), however I think that the portrayal of animal characters as "pretty obviously" anything else would be seen as horribly racist and dehumanizing to the POCs being represented, particularly if done by a white author.

    Orange: another interpretation of the white-ness in Wall-E is that the people on the ship represent those who are creating, perpetuating and supporting a consumer culture that is destroying the planet. Also, making the humans look similarly (almost androgynous, heavy, all white, identical bathing suits) is a common visual tic used in movies to signify unity. The token Asian/Woman captain stood out against the uniformity of all the others. It was easy for the robots to get lost in the uniformity of the humans, etc. I dunno. I liked Wall-E a lot, and think that the conservation message is incredibly important. Its easy to write something off as racist without thinking about it.

  20. The Little House books do mention Indians in several different books. Ma is clearly terrified of them. There is also an instance of black face being performed by Pa and Co. at the town Church for entertainment in Little Town on the Priare

  21. In honour of the grandmothersJune 16, 2009 at 7:18 PM

    Just got home from "Up" (2009 film). Can you guess? Yes.

    As a white person, anti-racist work means WORK. It is not good enough to perform screening and hope the topic will never come up. Of course I have done this. It is not good enough.

    "Up" was a colonial film, as is "Little House," and white people must recognize the status of IMMIGRANT, to put it nicely, in what is now known as North America.

    I expect to get a lot of defensiveness over this. Surprise me!

  22. In honor, I don't think anyone can get defensive over incoherence.

    Or, in other words,


  23. I'm really tired of seeing Disney thrown around as if it's some overflowing cauldron of racism and sexism. Frankly, much of that rhetoric strikes me as devoid of much thought.

    Animation history is something I am very knowledgable about, so I know the context of all these "shocking" scenes. But more importantly, when analyzing this stuff through a "looking for racism and protecting our kids" lens, people get rather lemming-like and fail the nuance test.

    There is an enormous difference between something with ill-intent and something that simply reflected white-dominated ignorance of another time. The crows in Dumbo have their roots in historical stereotypes, yes. No denying that. But the important distinction one has to make in the modern era is, are they MALICIOUS caricatures? And anyone other than the most militant rabblerousers would have to say no. They are not meant as objects of ridicule and are not meant to be loathed by the audience--particularly since they are crucial to the story's positive ending.

    To those who get all up in knots over the "sexism" in the fairy tale stories, I ask them how is it that millions of little girls absorb this stuff and grow up strong, without distorted relationship ideas?

    It's also odd how people act as though the fairy tales with princesses don't exist outside of a Disney context. Despite the Disney dominance, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty do exist in their more traditional form here and there, and if anything the passivity of the heroines is even more pronounced there. Disney didn't create these stories, and the issue of passivity goes much deeper than them.

    And if I see one more person cite the King Louie number from "The Jungle Book" as racist, I'm gonna lose it. Louie was voiced by Louis Prima, a WHITE jazz legend. That was him genuinely scat-singing.

    There are definitely scenes from old films, like the Fantasia shot, that ARE downright embarrassing now. But the fact is, these elements are in the minority, which is amazing considering how no white filmmaker 60 years ago would have had any reason to censor themselves.

    The fact is, much of this Disney stuff is intellectual masturbation with complete disregard for common sense. The only reason people jump on old Disney films is because, unlike many of their 1930s, 40s and 50s contemporaries, the Disney stuff is still very much in the public eye. Ergo, the films' reflections of their time, good and bad, have "carried over" to a mass audience in a way that many other old films have not. And because of a widesprad, rather perverse desire to tear down cultural institutions without regard for whether doing so is constructive in the least, and also because of a misguided sense of what constitutes fighting racism and sexism, go after Disney as if it's TRYING to promote racism and sexism. It's illogical, ahistorical, and paranoid.

  24. So, Marbles, if one looks at Disney films and rationally spots racism and sexism, they are themselves racist and so forth because they ACKNOWLEDGE these "isms" instead of IGNORE or ARROGANTLY STATE that these "isms" don't exist.

    Let me guess: You're a white male, right?

    If my assumption is correct, it's because you've decided what groups most affected by said "isms" would see, think, and hear.

    Marbles, someday I hope you find yours if you truly want to know what lurked in the world of animation. Just because the medium is based on artistic ability doesn't make it void of reality's vices.

  25. honeybrown:

    "So, Marbles, if one looks at Disney films and rationally spots racism and sexism, they are themselves racist and so forth because they ACKNOWLEDGE these "isms" instead of IGNORE or ARROGANTLY STATE that these "isms" don't exist."

    Not what I said.

    Aspects of the old films reflect racial ignorance and chauvanistic sentiments of the time. That point isn't debatable.

    What I take issue with is the canard that Disney studio ever actively had an AGENDA to spread racist/sexist sentiments. This assertion is, frankly, ahistorical and lazy. It reflects an unwillingness to actually explore the subject at hand and a preference to glibly project one's own biases onto it. People who assert this put themselves in the embarrassing position of standing against recorded, established record.
    This matters because there is an ENORMOUS difference between ignorance with an agenda and ignorance without one.

    "Just because the medium is based on artistic ability doesn't make it void of reality's vices."

    Of course it doesn't. Art would hardly be art if it did.

    But since Disney is such a monolith, people blow this stuff out of proportion and don't look at things in context. And context matters.
    (I'm leaving out the outright LYING that goes on in discussions like this....)

    Furthermore, the fact that I'm a white male is also of little weight, since agreeing with my basic position does not require one to be a white male---and you'll find plenty who aren't.

    Now if you want unfiltered, MALEVOLENT racism from old popular culture, check out the Jim Crow Museum's online exhibition (if you haven't already).

  26. Much as I agree that racist stereotypes and imaging and sexist portrayals are most definitely apparent in all Disney films, I also think that it is not intended to breed racist opinions and closed mindedness in young children today.
    Yes, it does not take a genius to figure out that some scenes in many or all films are racially obscure and inaccurate in many of their proportions. It can be interpreted as somewhat malicious and in the most extreme of cases offensive. But remember still, that although these "Black" and "Asian" stereotypes may be perceived, forget not that people who are white are also contrived in many scenes, moulding many children's attitudes to believe that they must conform to this 'Disney standard' of idealism, and it is this that we all should be focusing on as a key issue here more-so than racist elements.
    Conversely, by perceiving children's animations in this way, are people not racist themselves? When a child watches the crows from 'Dumbo' it merely sees a group of crows acting in a comic fashion, and is more likely than not finding it amusing rather than commenting on the racial connotations. Consequently, why should there be anything wrong with this. White stereotypes are portrayed even more-so and nobody kicks up a fuss. It is apparent henceforth that people are in a racist disposition from the start if this is such an issue for them.
    People are people whether they are white or black or any race, and it is a shame that when you people watch a Disney film or any for that matter you feel the need to perceive a "white" or "black" stereotype rather than just enjoying the film. Oh and by the way, "stuff WHITE people do" is the name of this blog. I fail to see why you're all so outraged at "racist Disney"? You're just as bad.

  27. Here we go again with that old, tired derailment meme: If you point out racist tactics, then you are being racist.


  28. The one thing that has always bothered me about Disney is that almost every time they portray POC, the good guys are white-washed/Anglocized, and the bad guys are ethnic stereotypes.

    Take for example Mulan:

    Jasmine and Aladin:


    Shan-Yu (the Mongolian bad guy):

    The Arab palace guards:

    And street merchant:

    Now along the same lines as The Little Mermaid, the new princess might look ok:

    But the Cajun community is really taking issue with ray the firefly:


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