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Exploring the claim that Dominant Cinema has Supported a Eurocentric view of Colonialism on Screen.

Updated on September 29, 2012
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A look at Disney's Racial Stereotyping

Hollywood cinema has always been the dominant cinema. They produce films that portray the American people as a righteous, brave and privileged culture. In many Hollywood films it is other ethnic cultures that are represented unfairly and often incorrectly. There are countless films that don’t appear to address ethnicity or race issues, but they are in fact defining and stimulating the subject. Disney is a perfect example of this lethargic racial stereotyping and misjudgement in Hollywood films, creating movies such as ‘The Little mermaid’, ‘The Lion King’, ‘Dumbo’ and ‘Pocahontas’. With ‘Mickey Mouse’, ‘Snow White and the seven dwarves’ and ‘Tom and Jerry’ portraying traditional American values, it is ‘Aladdin’, ‘Dumbo’, ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Pocahontas’ that depict other cultures stereotypically and often racially. While widely loved by both children and adults of all ages for their fairy tale love stories and delightful music pieces, they have often been criticized on their racial elements and stereotyping. ‘Aladdin’ contains negative stereotypical imagery and lyrics. ‘Dumbo’ portrays African Americans as only slave workers. ‘The Lion King’s’ hyenas are wicked talking characters that live in the African plains equivalent to a ghetto while ‘Pocahontas’ blatantly stereotypes native Americans and the English.

‘Aladdin’ has many racial elements including negative imagery of the culture. The narrator of the story is shown as an unattractive, dirty Arab, Aladdin takes Jasmine on a ‘magic carpet’ ride and the lyrics in some songs are prone to racial stereotyping. The opening song in particular contained offensive dialogue for some time before the American- Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee protested[1] and Disney was forced to change the words. At first the lines were “Oh, I come from a land, from a faraway place, where the caravan camels roam, where they cut off your ear, if they don’t like your face, it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” But after just six months the line “Where they cut off your ear, if they don’t like your face” was changed to “Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense”. With racial views told through music and song, it is almost brainwashing the children that watch the movie. Children will sing along regardless of the words because they don’t understand the context of the song. In doing this they, unbeknownst to themselves, are acknowledging the lyrics as acceptable.

‘The Lion King’ is a story of a lion cub’s passage from cub to adult and king. Although it doesn’t portray a human story it still managed to stereotype human culture and race. While Samba’s journey is depicted as a courageous, empowering and soul-finding voyage, the meddlesome hyenas are illustrated as nasty, wicked creatures that reside in a metaphorical ghetto. Their home is called a “shadowy place” by Simba[2] and it is also forbidden for them to leave their land and step onto the ‘Pride land’. There are three main hyenas, one is the voice of Whoopie Goldberg, the second is Cheech Marin and the third is a blatantly stupid hyena that doesn’t speak and constantly hangs his tongue out of his mouth. The hyena’s conduct and surroundings just reinforce the stereotype of African American and Hispanic races. Compared to the brave, dependable and friendly animals of the African plains, the hyenas are “slobbering, mangy, stupid, poachers”[3] that are designed to be disliked by the viewers. This on its own is not an unacceptable detail, however mixed with the African American and Hispanic over characterizations it is an unfair racial prejudice. Another aspect of prejudice is seen when Scar takes over as King. His plan is to bring the hyena and the lions together and he is met with hostility for trying to unite the two races. Also under his and the hyena’s control, the animals starve for lack of food and get sick. This may well be Disney’s opinion of non-American cultures being in command.

‘Dumbo’ is a story of a young elephant finding it difficult to fit in with the crowd because he has unusually large ears, but soon finds himself to be very special. It’s the standard Disney, inspirational story line but with massively racial elements in the background. The crows in ‘Dumbo’ are over characterized as African American saying things like ‘I dun’ seen an elephant’ and wearing ragged clothes. Another racial aspect of the film is when the circus is being unloaded and built by black men. Its nighttime and raining and the men, wearing tattered clothes, are singing “We work all day, we work all night. We never learned to read or write. We’re happy hearted working hard.” This insinuates that they are only good for work as the white workers are sitting, dry, in a caravan drinking. It also suggests that they enjoy slave labour as they are happily singing about working all day and night.

Due to the immense criticism received for ‘Aladdin’ and ‘The Lion King’s’ cultural stereotyping, Disney decided to produce a movie that would be accepted by all cultures. They chose the story of a Native American girl meeting an English captain; Pocahontas. Taking a historical story and bringing it to life through animation, Disney thought it would be more accepted because it is based on a true historical event. For the film Disney took sensitivity training to ensure their cultural portrayal of Native Americans was unprejudiced and fair. To even further educate themselves on the subject and to recreate, accurately the atmosphere of the events that took place when English soldiers first landed in ‘The New world’, the story-writers, animators and directors visited the original Jamestown settlement[4]. Eric Goldberg, the director of ‘Pocahontas’ said “Hopefully, as we continue to use ethnic casts and get advisers in the process, Disney will become more successful at it"[5]. This, however, was not the case. Even with all of the training and meetings with descendants of the Powhatan tribe, they managed to make an even more prejudice and racial film.

‘Pocahontas’ illustrates the conflicts between the Powhatan tribe and English settlers. Disney is stereotypical of both cultures in the film however, as the settlers are seen as greedy, cowardice and racist, the Powhatan tribe are portrayed as magical and mysterious but also barbaric. Governor Ratcliffe, in charge of the settlers, is an overweight, insatiable, lazy, gold digger, prepared to kill off a whole culture and land in order to find gold. He sings a song to the settlers in order to get them to trust him called “Mine Mine Mine”. The title of the song has a double meaning. He is trying to tell all the workers to mine for the gold but also letting them know he’ll be taking all the gold found, “It’s mine, mine, mine, for the taking, it’s mine, boys”. It appears that Disney is suggesting that the English conquered land for no reason other than gold and since Radcliffe’s room on the ship is covered with jewels and other treasures they are also insinuating that they were covetous. Other areas of discrimination in the animated film are concerning magic or the ‘Spirit. The belief in the ‘Spirit’ is an important aspect of life for the Powhatan tribe, but it is not the only thing important to them. In the film the ‘Spirit’ is portrayed as the only significant aspect if the Native Americans, the most vital part being the Grandmother Willow tree. She appears to the tribe and helps them with their problems. This over-spiritualism and the emphasis on supernatural spirits is in itself a racial stereotype. One of the most racially prejudice elements in the film is the song “Savages, Savages”. Here both cultures sing about the other, the English saying “Their skin’s a hellish red, they’re only good when dead” while the tribe sing “They’re not like you or me, which means they must be evil.” Both of these remarks are racial but were seen as acceptable because they were the belief of both races before they properly understood each other. Is it, however, a way for Disney to openly stereotype other cultures and races? Some believe the answer is yes.

Hollywood and Disney have set the bar for racial stereotyping and also somehow made it acceptable to viewers. Using songs and cartoons to illustrate their own beliefs on different cultures and races, they are aiming at children and persuading them with bright colours and pretty characters to accept their theories as correct. While depicting the brilliant achievements of America and the first world, they are patronizing and disgracing other races and societies. A number of Disney’s animated films have depicted stereotypical gender roles and racial prejudice, for example, the men are created as masculine, courageous and strong, while women are portrayed as delicate, sensible and dependant on the male figure. Disney has shown a moderate progress with diversifying the characters and including ethnic heroes and heroines like’ Aladdin’ and ‘Pocahontas’, however, the films contain racial connotations and distorted portrayals of other cultures.


Filmography:

Aladdin: Clements. Ron, Musker. John, Walt Disney feature Animation, 1992

Dumbo: Armstrong. Samuel, Ferguson. Norman, Walt Disney Feature Animation, 1941

Pocahontas: Gabriel. Mike, Goldberg. Eric, Walt Disney feature Animation, 1995

The lion King: Allors. Roger, Minkoff. Rob, Walt Disney Feature Animation, 1994

References:

[1], Marvin Wingfield and Bushra Karaman, ‘Arab stereotypes and American Educators’, Adc.org, (March 1995)

[2]‘ The Lion King’, Simba, chapter 5

[3] ‘The Lion King’, Zuzu, chapter 6

[4] Dunnes. Lauren, ‘Disney's modern heroine Pocahontas: revealing age-old gender stereotypes and role discontinuity under a facade of liberation’, The Social Science Journal, (1st July 2001)

[5] Sharkley. Betsy, Redesigning Pocahontas,Disney, the "White Man's Indian," and the Marketing of Dreams’, The Disney Version, 1995

More examples of Disney's racism:

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