Event Probes Possible Disney Stereotypes

A packed audience took a critical look at Disney films last night in Boylston Hall, examining the popular childhood movies and their portrayals of race, gender, and class.

The event, “Mickey Mouse Monopoly: Disney, Childhood and Corporate Power,” involved a screening of the documentary of that same name followed by a discussion led by Michael Baran, who teaches Expos 20: “Race in the Americas.”

The event was the brainchild of Jessica M. Ch’ng ’12, who saw the documentary in Baran’s course last fall.

“I wanted to encourage people to examine popular culture more critically and to encourage dialogue about race and gender,” Ch’ng said.

The documentary incorporated scenes from Disney classics like “The Little Mermaid,” “Peter Pan,” “Hercules,” and “Mulan,” and argued that they negatively shape children’s conceptualizations of race and gender beneath a guise of innocence and fantasy.

For instance, the documentary showed clips from “Aladdin,” “The Jungle Book,” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” contending that they contain highly sexualized representations of females, and that “Oliver Twist,” “Pocahontas,” and “Peter Pan” communicate stereotyped, white supremacist messages.

After the screening, Baran turned to the audience for reactions, sparking a discussion about whether the films’ messages were innocuous or harmful, how portrayals have changed over time, and Disney’s social responsibility.

“Children are being socialized with very strong images,” said Ryan P. Mahoney ’12, recalling stereotypes of torn dresses and headdresses in “Pocahontas.”

“Disney is so omnipresent, so it needs to take responsibility for its messages,” he said.

Audience members said that the documentary made them realize how deeply certain values had been ingrained in them.

“I was conditioned to believe in true love and love at first sight without fail—an idealized notion of romance,” said J. Alex Mays ’12.

The screening and discussion was sponsored by the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations and the Race Relations Proctors.

Brendan W. Randall ’88, a race relations proctor for Ivy Yard, said he was thrilled with the turnout and students’ engagement in the discussion.

“I can safely say that this is the most successful race relations event in the last few years,” he said.

—Staff writer Liyun Jin can be reached at ljin@fas.harvard.edu.