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 continue to use ethnic casts and get advisers in the process, Disney will become more successful at it” (5). Disney is culturally biased in the sense that their products reflect the ideologies of, and are aimed at, the white middle class. Michael Rooney, a former worker of Disney’s publishing ompany “Discover,” said, “We target magazines for families and children. Median age 35, with kids, a certain income range; basically baby-boomers and kids of baby-boomers” (8). I personally viewed 13 Disney commercials from 1971 to 2007. The first commercial that showed any person of color was in 1987, and even then they were employees and not guests enjoying the theme park. The first commercial to have a person of color as one of the leading characters was in 1993, where an African-American father and son were shown for about a second. The first ommercial to have a person of color to be engaged in the entire commercial was in 2002. Earlier commercials depicted more white people as the main characters, however, more commercials are being produced with people of color, specifically African Americans, but there has yet to be a commercial that represents the Asian and Latino communities. An estimated 70% of African- Americans over the age of 12 see at least one film per month, according to Dinwiddie. He stated that “Hispanic moviegoers enjoy animation films and go at a rate higher than the general population.
They also tend to go as a group or as a family unit so family pictures tend to have wide appeal among Hispanic families” (3). Media images of white characters, including those of animated characters, contribute to the centering of the white experience as normal and natural. The orientalization of Disney’s cartoon heroines is described in the following way: “as Europeans or men construct themselves as civilized, rational, and objective, by ‘distancing’ and ‘exoticising’ the non-European other, American society constructs itself as objective, rational, and civilized by its ‘orientalization’ of minority women” (5).
In The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, this “orientalization” is achieved through physical representation and iconography. Through Disney’s cartoon heroines, we see a progression through increasing physical and sexual maturity-from girl to woman, and certain physical characteristics. For example, Pocahontas seems to be depicted as Amazonian almost with the tattered clothing and dark skin, and Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame seems to be very voluptuous. The Frog Princess is an animated film currently in development by Walt Disney Feature
Animation. The film will be an American fairy tale musical set in New Orleans during the 1920s Jazz Age, and Maddy will be the first black Disney Princess. The film is currently scheduled for release in 2009. Maddy joins 8 other Disney princess characters, who have generated $3 billion in global retail sales since 1999. Disney Princess is the fastest-growing brand for Disney’s Consumer Products division. The Disney Princess characters include: Jasmine, Pocahontas, Cinderella, Belle, Snow White, Beauty, Ariel and Mulan. There has been a lot of talk about how aving a Black Princess could open whole new avenues for Disney marketing with their Princess merchandise. Disney makes many attempts to create cultural diversity in its films and its other products. Disney tries to reach a broad audience and occasionally has marketing campaigns directed towards minorities; however, are these attempts and marketing strategies really successful? In my opinion, the white middle class “feel” still dominates Disney. Either Disney isn’t employing the right strategies or its status as being one of the largest and most well-known household entertainment companies in the world has gotten overwhelming.