The crimes of the magic kingdom

Words: Carlotta Stewen

Since its founding in 1923, Walt Disney Animation Studios has been at the centre of childhoods across the world. But most kids were, and remain, oblivious to the difficult histories that taint the animations they love – and as we saw statues fall in June and July, it’s important to question all the icons we hold up as worthy of emulation, no matter how innocent they seem.

The cultural power that Disney wields is incredible. Princesses and heroes are the vehicle through which many of us learn our earliest binary notions of good and bad, right and wrong – the importance of doing battle with evil, and remaining true to ourselves. But these messages are superficial when twinned with the stereotypes Disney peddled for decades and directed towards a selective audience. It isn’t just niceties about friendship and loyalty that kids assimilate, consciously and subconsciously.

In recent years, Walt Disney has been denounced as a Nazi sympathiser and an anti-Semite. He attended meetings of the ‘German American Bund’, considered by many the American Nazi party, and these sentiments show in cartoons from the time. Disney’s 1933 rendition of The Three Little Pigs, for example, shows the ‘Big Bad Wolf’ disguised as a stereotypical Jewish peddler, with a beard, big nose and Yiddish accent.

As well as legitimising global stereotypes related to political movements of the time, the company’s pictures also played a major role in sanitising American history. The most notorious example is Song of the South (1946), which tells the story of a young white boy who visits his grandmother’s plantation in Georgia and befriends Uncle Remus, an African-American man. Without any explicit mention of slavery and its effects, the plot revolves around a wholesome depiction of its aftermath. It received heavy criticism at the time of its release: Walter White, leader of the NAACP at the time, stated that year that the film justified slavery and portrayed it as ‘an idyllic system’. 

Disney sent Song of the South back into theatres in 1986, and released the film as a home movie in Europe and Asia in the 1990s. The animation also lives on in Disney’s amusement parks, forming the basis of the ride ‘Splash Mountain’. It was only in June 2020 that the company announced plans to replace this attraction with one based on The Princess and the Frog (2009), which featured Disney’s first Black princess.

In 1942, during segregation under the Jim Crow laws, Disney released Dumbo. The heart-warming tale about embracing personal eccentricities includes a group of jazz-singing crows, clearly coded as Black, the lead of which is called ‘Jim Crow’. There’s no cinematic value in this: at best, the name is a strange joke included for the satisfaction of the filmmakers and the white adults watching it with their kids – and at worst, it’s an attempt to neutralise and infantilise a vicious system of oppression. Crow was also voiced by Cliff Edwards, a white actor.

Earlier in the film, the ‘Song of the Roustabouts’ shows faceless Black characters working in the night to transport and build the circus. Their labour is animalised as they mirror the work of the elephants: ‘We work all day, we work all night, we never learned to read or write, we slave until we’re almost dead,’ the figures sing. This is the only time Black humans are depicted in the film – as physical labourers without agency, in contrast to the rest of the (white) circus workers, who direct the shows.

Other minority groups suffer similar fates at the hands of the animators. Peter Pan, released in 1953, features a caricatural depiction of a Native American tribe in Neverland with bright red skin – other than Tigerlily, that is, whose features are Europeanised in order for her to be coded as attractive. The tribespeople are contrasted with the civilised white Darling children, and the white Lost Boys, who join in the tribe’s ceremonial activities like they’re a game. 

A later depiction of Native Americans in Pocahontas (1995) gives its characters more autonomy. But the film we know is a whitewashed, romanticised version of the true story of colonial oppression. In reality, the Powhatan tribe attempted to save their territory from English invasion, and Pocahontas never had a romantic relationship with Captain John Smith, which Disney makes the focal point of the film.

Changes, albeit small, are being made. Disney is perhaps most famous for its iconic princesses, idolised by children of all nationalities. The long-awaited arrival of Disney’s first Black princess, Tiana, in 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, was a watershed moment. The company even hired a team of consultants and worked with NAACP representatives on the production – although some have criticised later representations of Tiana for being too white, and others pointed out that Disney’s only Black princess spends most of the film as a frog. The introduction of a Polynesian princess in 2016’s Moana furthered optimism, but in celebrating the new, we still need to reckon with the damage that continues to be done by the old.

Disney’s attitude to their own history is encapsulated in their new streaming service, Disney+. Launched at the end of 2019, the platform has all those childhood favourites in one place. The company left off the most shocking films (like Song of the South) but has only acknowledged the racism present in other works with a brief mention of ‘outdated cultural depictions’ hidden in the plot summary. I’m not sure how many kids would read this in the first place, let alone understand its meaning. It seems as though Disney wanted to tick a box to ensure they had covered the ‘question of racism’ in their older films without making any change to the effect those films will have on young minds.

As the leading company in the animation industry, Disney’s $70 billion annual revenue places it in a position of influence. Many better remember the lyrics to Disney songs than dates and facts from their history lessons at school. The company can’t change its history, but it can acknowledge the role it plays, and has played, in the formative years of hundreds of millions of people. Perhaps Disney has been unfairly scrutinised for its past, but at a time when campaigns to diversify the justice, governmental and educational systems have gained ground, we must analyse just as critically the most seemingly harmless material that children are exposed to. Disney has a duty to share an inclusive message and depict representative characters that everyone can look up to – as white children have been doing for generations.

learn more

  • BOOK: Walt’s Original Sins: Disney and Racism – Josh Spiegel
  • PODCAST: Not in the Mood – Darrell Moody (episode: ‘Disney and Racism’)
  • BOOK: Who’s Afraid of Song of the South? And Other Forbidden Disney Stories – Jim Korkis

Carlotta Stewen is a first-year undergraduate student reading History at Durham University.