That is not the sort of question often asked about Disney cartoons, but Wurfel’s cynicism reflects the indignation of a small but vocal movement against Snow White and her animated peers. Since the animated heroine’s 1937 debut, nearly every Disney cartoon has been accused of sexism or racism. The criticism peaked during the 1990s, when Aladdin and Pocahontas drew the wrath of advocacy groups enraged by the films’ racist stereotyping and revisionist history.
Such issues were revisited last Saturday in Boylston Hall, where a mini-film festival and series of faculty discussions sought to address Disney’s cultural and commercial impact on America. Opening with the critical documentary Mickey Mouse Monopoly, the film festival—entitled “Gender, Ethnicity and Disney”—came out early against Disney’s powerful influence.
And with good reason: Disney’s cartoon history is riddled with often offensive representations of women and racial minorities. The portrayals are made all the more insidious by their ability to slide under the radar of the Disney’s prime audience: unwitting children.
Take the 1993 animated release Aladdin. Set somewhere in the “barbaric” Middle East, the movie was assailed for its stereotypical, inaccurate depiction of the Arab world. As reported by the New York Times, Disney was presented with two sets of lyrics written for the opening song, “Arabian Nights,” and chosen to record the more racist version. Borrowing from the song’s lyrics, the Times headlined its article, “It’s racist, but hey, it’s Disney.”
Embedded messages about race and gender are arguably even more damaging. Harvard Medical School professor Carol Newberger argues in Monopoly that Beauty and the Beast implicitly encourages young girls to stay in abusive relationships. With the title characters’ relationship at times resembling domestic violence—she is isolated from her family and imprisoned—the film suggests to viewers that it is the job of the abused to, in Newberger’s words, “socialize and excuse” the abuser.
Yet despite the deeply troubling elements of Disney’s cartoons, the festival’s overall theme was encouraging. While some critics find it impossible to overlook any racist or misogynist elements of Snow White and her descendants, last Saturday’s event also revealed a trend towards better depictions of women and minorities. After a screening and discussion of the widely condemned Aladdin, organizers presented Mulan, Disney’s 1998 retelling of the classic Chinese story in which a young woman disguises herself as a male soldier and proves her worth in battle.
A product of the politically correct 1990s, Mulan unquestionably takes liberties in reinterpreting elements of the traditional story, but the movie is ultimately a celebration of its subject and her choices. Unlike the female leads in Disney’s earlier features, Mulan’s physical being is expressed through training and battle, not in low cut tops and thigh-baring miniskirts. Though some will grumble that the film’s conclusion undercuts its empowering message (the triumphant heroine returns home for marriage and traditional filial piety), Mulan nevertheless represents a clear break from the Snow White archetype of a helpless, male-dependent maiden in distress.
Pocahontas, the third and final film screened last weekend, requires a somewhat more complex analysis. The 1996 film is unforgivable in its delusional approach to the historical reality of the Algonquian princess Pocahontas. The cartoon Pocahontas continues Disney’s tradition of the scantily clad female lead, and the film almost explicitly suggests that the clash between Native Americans and English colonists was due merely to cultural misunderstandings. The film ends with the settlers sailing back to England—and away from the conquest and genocide that actually took place.
Given these criticisms, there appears to be little to praise about Pocahontas. Indeed, on its own terms, the film is a disturbing revisionist document that knowingly indoctrinates its viewers with an inaccurate portrayal of the past. Yet in spite its undeniable faults, Pocahontas is also the product of a film studio conscientiously working not to repeat past mistakes.
This is not to say that Disney has achieved—or come close to achieving—a cartoon feature that exclusively portrays women and minorities in constructive terms. Yet they are slowly inching in the right direction—a clear indication of the power the American public wields in controlling its culture.