Just in time for the 90th anniversary of Disney's founding comes a necessary question: have we really moved past the racist and sexist stereotypes that marked Disney's earliest films? From the older classics like Peter Pan to newer films like The Little Mermaid, Disney has moved away from some sexist and racist tendencies, but preserved more than many think. There are a lot of examples to choose from in the Disney vault, but here are my top six. Feel free to comment with other examples from your own lists.
There's a lot to work with in the original release of Disney's Fantasia, but we will focus on the centaurs. In the beginning, the centaurs all get matched up (heterosexually, of course) based on their color. What people don't realize is that, originally, the "scene included a pickaninny slave to the centaur females and exotic, brown-skinned zebra-girl servants."
The 1941 classic, Dumbo (which I grew up loving), has a particularly racist foundation. The film is excessively light in its handling of southern racism. The crows are extremely stereotypically black characters. Never mind that the lead crow's name is JIM Crow (that's a whole different article). However, the song "When I See an Elephant Fly," contains heavy-use of southern black vernacular, including: "I'd be done see'n about everything / When I see an elephant fly!"
The fact that the crows are the color black and speak in a stereotypical manner could only have reinforced stereotypes. It gets worse. With the "Song of the Roustabouts," Disney features faceless black circus workers working while singing, "We slave until we’re almost dead / We’re happy-hearted roustabout" and "Keep on working / Stop that shirking / Pull that rope, you hairy ape."
As Indigenous People's Day/Columbus Day just passed, I couldn't talk about racist and sexist Disney examples without talking about Tiger Lily and the Red Man in Peter Pan. As the main characters of the film appropriate Native American culture via feathered headressings and tomahawks, none of Tiger Lily's people speak. Only the male chief speaks, and he does so in a stereotypical, broken jargon. Given the limited presence of American Indian culture in mainstream America both in the 1950s and even today, this misrepresentation was symptomatic of a trend that persists today.
The whole narrative of The Little Mermaid is that a young girl disobeys her father and her family, sells her soul (and her voice) to the embodiment of evil, and goes from being a mermaid to a human being. The motivation for her complete change is her love for a man (who later get's confused and almost marries someone else). This can't possibly be a positive example of finding and being with someone who loves you for who you are, and isn't the only example of Disney teaching young girls that a makeover can change your life.
To add insult to injury, there's also the beloved song, "Under the Sea." If you watch the video again, you'll see the Duke of Soul and Blackfish characters that are made to look and sound like popular black musicians and singers.
Aladdin is a bit of a double whammy, and it is sad that this popular movie from 1992 has a lot of sexist and racist moments. Jasmine's entire wardrobe is socio-historically incorrect, even if you include the "weather" as a factor. Sadly, her costume has more to do with contemporary objectification of women than it does historical accuracy.
There's also the fact that Aladdin's skin color gets fairer when he wins the heart of Jasmine, defeats the evil Jafar, and let's Genie go in the happily-ever-after-style conclusion.
This is where the sexist/racist lens gets a little foggy. The 2011 film was a huge step towards inclusiveness and intersectionality in Disney films by having a black princess named Tiana. However, there are still issues within the film that many argue do more harm than good for much of the viewing public.
The most prevalent of these issues is the fact that, despite Tiana being "obvious phenotypically" black — meaning that her skin tone and other features have been drawn to be "identifiably" black — her suitor, and later husband, Prince Naveen is not. In fact, for half the movie, you don't even know where his home country, Maldonia, is, nor can you place his accent. Some viewers believe that Disney would not have made Naveen "identifiably" black because that would put a black male in a position of power in their films.