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How Does Disney Utilise Racial Stereotypes?

Abstract

Disney movies constitute one of the wide sort for movie collections in many American homes. Walt Disney Corporation produced the first animated film in 1937 and branded it Snow White. Over the years, it has produced about 45 animated movies. Amongst the most popular list includes Pinocchio: produced in 1940, Cinderella (1950) among others. More recent productions include Tarzan (1999) and Lilo and Stitch, which was produced in 2002. Majority of Disney movies have won various awards, among them Annie award and Oscar awards for their classic animations, lyrics or perhaps deployment of the best music and or songs while compared to other movies of the same category. However, Disney corporation movies have faced intense criticism for their portrayal of racism and stereotypic gender related responsibilities. Feminists show a lot of concern based on the way people depict women: weak and solely dependent on the men. The male figure stands out as masculine and strong. Some of the heroes and heroines in Disney films among them Pocahontas (1995) and Aladdin (1992) portray connotations, which foster racism and portrayal of the some cultures with disdain. Given the much-voiced concerns of the need to have culturally sensitive media, it is necessary to explore the various stereotypic representation of racism in various Disney movies with particular interest in Aladdin (1992), The Jungle Book (1967) and The Princess and the Frog (2009).

Introduction

Disney classics are forever engraved in the memories of children all over the World. However, they know remarkably little concerning the fact that, behind all the stories and the successful conclusions, the Disney Corporation has been portraying various racial stereotypes. Disney channel always airs out views that encourage children to visit Disney amusement Parks in many places especially in America. Throughout the last generation, referring to children born in the 80s and 90s, parents have continuously opted for Disney movies. This holds when it comes to choosing entertainment for their children. A sociologist argues, “Given the influence the Disney ideology has on children, parents, teachers and other adults must understand how such films attract the attention and shape the values of the children who view and buy them” (Giroux 4). However, one may argue that, the Disney corporation main interest is to create an atmosphere of magic. This is what many people aim to watch. To the corporation, the intent to harm the audience means dwindled popularity: something that has a detrimental repercussion to the company future presence in theatres. However, unknowingly or perhaps knowingly, the company’s animated films contain many stereotypic representations. It, therefore, stands out essential to explore the racial stereotypes in the movies, The Princess and the Frog, Aladdin and, The Jungle Book. The various variations in characterization that the Disney Company claims to employ in an attempt to satisfy criticisms presented by the antiracial communities, influence the choice of these films.

Before attempting to explore racial stereotype representation in the above-mentioned Disney films, it is crucial to begin by looking at the meaning of the term stereotype. Stereotypes “refer to the firm and over-generalized subscriptions or beliefs that people have about some classes or other groups of people” (Giroux 1). From a sociological perspective, stereotyping encompasses one of the biggest ways that people use to simplify their social world by reducing the amount and the depth of information analysis. In such a context, Stereotypical approach to the issues of people’s culture, racial and ethnic characteristics can make them ignore the existing differences amongst individuals hence making them concentrate on the negative side of the life of others. In other words, it hinders one’s capacity to think critically by invoking fallacious approaches to the way he/she perceives others. By stereotyping, people “infer that a person has a whole range of characteristics and abilities that they assume all members of that group have that…lead to social categorization, which is one of the reasons for prejudice attitudes” (Caraballo Para. 5.). However, cases of positive stereotypes exist. Examples are judges. The phrase, “sober as a judge” would suggest “a stereotype with an exceedingly respectable set of characteristics, overweight people (whom people see as “jolly”…television newsreaders usually seen as highly dependable, respectable and impartial” (Caraballo Para. 6). Over the years, people have conducted studies to investigate racial, cultural and ethnically instigated stereotypes. According to these studies such as Katz and Braly, every ethnic group exhibits stereotypes of other groups. Therefore, one can argue that stereotyping is a phenomenon that comprises a natural behavioural aspect of human beings. According to the findings of Katz and Braly, people viewed the white Americans as determined, reformists, and conscientious. On the other hand, they termed the black Americans as musical, ignorant and lazy (Ramsey 5). People spread ethnic stereotypes widely. They share them amongst other members of the social group. From 1930s, it remains anticipated that cultures must have changed given the various forces of dynamic cultural changes combined with technological advancement that foster intercultural collaboration. Consistent with these anticipations, studies in 1951 and 1967 concluded that racial stereotypes had changed from negative to positive despite the fact that “beliefs that some groups held characteristics still existed” [3]. However, good number of these studies have particular a drawback emanating from reliability on information sources employed in their execution. Consequently, the results of such scholastic studies face criticisms in terms of the results capacity to reflect real situations on the ground. Though it is possible to argue that Stereotypical representation in the television and films for instance Disney Classics can give rise to racial stereotypes effectively since media constructs what might end up appearing in reality, such a possibility is subject to the audience ability to construct intrinsic meanings. Similar to what many parents think, Disney corporation also thinks that children are to enjoy the characteristic crackerjack ending of the company’s movies, rather than attach meanings tantamount to what racial critics have behind their minds as they scrutinize the movies. After years of criticism for charges of racism, the Walt Disney Company has tried in many ways to steer away from the typical racial roles. Some may argue this as the reason behind the making and release of the most recent Disney movie The Princess and the Frog in 1999.

Presentation of racial stereotypes in Disney movies

The Jungle Book (1967)

Upon the release of this film, critics argued that children watching it would always remember scenes of “brown” people, maybe Latin looking, young children sucking wolves and thus they will live seeing a wolf shrouded within a brown skin (Sommers The Jungle Book). With criticisms of racial representations, Disney holds the opinion that the tales seek to entertain rather than inculcate the spirit of racial differentiation.

Context: black American residential areas

The Jungle Book, released in 1967, features perhaps “Disney conservative, reactionary response to the social upheaval of 1960s” (Ramsey 20). Lyrics such as song sung by the gorillas who sound like black people who want to be like men but will never be. “I “won’t” be a man, man-cub, and stroll right into town, and be just like the other men…I want to be like you, walk like you…” (Sun & Picker 14) may exemplify the context of the movie set. From the lyrics, it is arguable that the movie represents Disney’s company portrayal of black Americans discontents in living in slums. Consequently, it attempts to subject Mowgli to a force, which would make him wake up and rise against undue race stigmatizations. This is perhaps consistent with endeavours of various antiracial movements of 1960s, which sort to mainstream the black American society perceptions before the eyes of the whites.

Characterization

Although an Italian and thus light skinned, Louis Prima stands out as singing similar to a black man together with his monkey. With regard to Giroux, “The ‘jungle-bum’ Baloo speaks for his stereotypical jive-talking self…In contrast to these ‘types’, creatures with dignity and power, like Shere Khan or Bagheera, tend to have upper class ‘English’ accents” (10) and bodily appearance implying some sense of class and authority” (Para. 10). The film presents Mowgli as a man who cares devilish little about the minute issues characterizing life, not by his predicament but according to the way, his teacher Baloo has taught him. All that he knows is how to eat fruits and get contented. The enormously expected confrontation with Spere khan emanates more of from his stubbornness and ignorance, as opposed to wisdom protection and need for self-preservation.

Close analysis of key scenes

In The Jungle Book, orang-utans and gorillas sound like black people. A child, about a year old, squeezes in between young wolves’ to feed of their mother. “Touched by his fearlessness, she protects him from the enraged tiger, and adopts him as one of her own, calling him ‘Mowgli, the Frog’…As a new ‘cub’, he acquires acceptance into the wolf pack by Akela, the leader of the pack, despite the protests of Shere Khan” (Sun and Picker 47). In this regard, one can argue based on how the piece portrays the “brown” people negatively in that they can easily adapt to the jungle conditions to the level of feeding on wild animals. Soon or later, they will have the rules of the jungle governing them, as reflected in fairy tales and traditional myths. As a repercussion, even if people argue based on the way the movie’s original content contains racial prejudicing information, Kipling’s film The Jungle Book, serves to increase the gravity of the racial stereotypes representations. By scrutinizing the life path of Mowgli, The Jungle Book attempts to provide a certain moral growth in a direction, which critics interpret as showing little respect for blacks and tints the position of women. For instance, the film depicts the issue of women as “unnecessary” to a child’s development; “Mowgli belongs to the long line of Disney orphans, and merely encounters one potential father figure after another” (Linn and Ponssait 52). Giroux Laments, “When a female of the man–cub’s own species finally appears at the end of the film, she seems diminished, housework-orientated and apart from singing singularly bereft of conversation” (Para.12). In addition, critics claim that blacks are ‘buffoons’ who are only comparable to wild animal since they can better establish relationship easily with animals rather than normal human beings: whites.

It is, in fact, impossible to give an exact explanation of the wherever Disney obtained the various characterizations. Disney oversaw the process of production of the animations. However, one thing, which one cannot critically comment on, is the role and the involvement of Disney. For instance, Richard Schickel raises concerns about how “distracted Disney was by the many projects he was now managing ahead of expanding Entertainment Empire” (Caraballo Para.5) at the time of creating the movie. As a response to many racial presentation criticisms, Disney argued that “I do not know the fellows; I guess I am getting too old for animation” (Caraballo Para.7). The point here is that, it does not matter whether Disney took proactive roles in the direction of the films racial images in the jungle book. Some other contributor and or creator (who he says he does not know), brought up racial characterizations. However, Disney is subject to criticisms based on his portrayal of race in the various movies amid the marvellous and entertaining tales.

Racial stereotyping in Aladdin

Publicized in 1992, The Disney classic celluloid Aladdin comes in as an improvement of the highly criticized film: the jungle book, the film does not deploy animal characters playing racism roles. Upon its release, it was hugely successful amongst viewers of all ages. Audiences praised the movie, raving about the soundtrack, characters, as well as the endearing storyline. While not paying keen attention to the ardent success of the movie in theatres, critics argue that the movie inculcates racism towards Arabic communities. They further claim that, incidences of racism are even evident in the pure openings remarks of Aladdin.

Context: Middle East

The production of this piece took place in 1991 when 34 countries that are part of the UN were warring Iraq while attempting to restore order in Kuwait: during the Gulf war. The movie is perhaps reflection of the odds done against the Iraqis by Saddam Hussein: the then president of Iraq. America was trying to fight against such vices. Various lyrics used in the film exemplify the Middle East context. For instance “Oh I come from a land from a faraway place, where the caravan camels roam, where it’s flat and immense, and the heat is intense, it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home” (Clements Aladdin). This may be reflecting an over generalized perception of the Middle East countries. However, indeed, some Middle East countries are largely a desert. Aladdin, however, opposed to the Jungle Book, mixes up the racial stereotypic qualities like for instance, Aladdin stands out as a thief (a stereotypic quality of Arabs) but his appearance and values held are depictive American qualities.

Characterization

Clement portrays Aladdin as a poor character living in an abandoned building that overlooks Agrabah. As previously mentioned, he is a thief who steals food in a quest to survive. For instance, there is an instance when he steals a loaf of bread.

Aladdin, for instance, saves princess Jasmine from “socially acceptable punishment of having her hand cut off for stealing and saves Arabah from Jafar’s evil wrath” (Nelson Para. 6). Him being the hero, he has a lighter complexion compared to the villains who possess the stereotypic Arabic characters. For instance, Jafar facial appearance, character and actions are more of reflective of stereotypic attributes associated with Arabs. Aladdin does not fit in the list of the evil characters since entirely all his actions are justified just like American acts were justifiable during the Gulf war in 1991. Jafar stands out as unattractive, thin, tall and dark. His nose seems over exaggerated and hooked. His neck is overly elongated and possesses feminine eyes. Feminizing Jafar’s deducts his masculinity with repercussions of depreciating his manly values. Jafar, in fact, categorically states that he intends to rule the world and endeavours to be a dictator. On the other hand, Aladdin loves the idea of freedom and envies to attain American life style. Compared to other characters in the film, Princess Jasmine and Sultan, appear quite lighter. They have “the pure-brilliant white characters” (Nelson Para.10). In addition, they are the “rich characters”.

Close analysis of key scenes

The opening remarks give messages that portray Arab people as mysterious, untrustworthy, and perhaps even dangerous. The readers raise voices of concern with regard to introductory lyrics, which carry a strong message of racism profiling. The lyrics start like “Oh I come from a land from a faraway place where the caravan camels roam, where it’s flat and immense…the heat is intense, it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home” (Clements Aladdin). This lyric depicts countries of the Middle East as vast deserts inhabited by people who ride camels. Ideally, this description has gone absurd since not all parts of the Middle East are deserts. To be precise, although countries like Kuwait and UAE remain far removed from the generalization, they form part of the Middle East. The movie creates a vivid allegation of the Middle East by associating it with violence-engulfed region by claiming that it is barbaric though people still call it home. Furthermore, the song claims that “a fool off his guard Could fall and fall hard, out there on the dunes” (Clements Aladdin) and goes further to suggest that guards at work should fully be cognizant of their surrounding lest they die. Watching this movie consequently creates shockingly enough mental images to make one never to dare step on Middle Eastern soil.

Upon completion of the first song, encounters are made of an Arabian attempting to strike a sale of broken pot. This not only invites negative perceptions of the Middle East occupants but also tend to portray them as people driven by deceit, the power of manipulation and dishonesty. People watching the movie thus see Arabs as people who cheat throughout their life in an attempt to eke out their living. Next to follow in the story development is the fairy tale hero, Aladdin who makes an effort to escape from the police who yell at the top of their voices at him indicating how they genuinely wanted to chop off his head. This can give a reflection how Arabs ensure the fulfilment of justice is in their land: through brutality and bloody interventions. Arabs appear as ogres with fatal weapons welded on them to make sure they always have something to hurt their neighbours, either at will or at the slightest provocation. This is a stereotypic representation since the fact is that Arabs are human beings with feelings and humane characters just like everyone else. Opposed to Aladdin’s generalization, some inhumane characters occur within every societal setting: no society is truly free of such people.

More shocking in the film is the way locals seem related to the stereotypic presentation. The residents have Arabic looks while the hunted one’s by the bloodthirsty and cruel law enforcers speak standard American English and possess’ lighter complexion. The sad part is the probability that the young viewers may grow thinking that, whether the stereotype holder is right or wrong, is not a critical issue as long as he belongs to Aladdin’s race. On the other hand, Arabs are ever wrong under all circumstances. This line of thought seems to be in line with the perception that, boss (in this case a non-Arab: an American) is always right.

Aladdin has another alias name Ali, while the princess has the alias name Jasmine. Westernization of main heroes makes the audience draw closer attention to them, hate, and repel from the losers mainly presented as pure Arabs. Aladdin and Jasmine remain depicted as “fresh-faced American children, while the evil characters like Jafar are remarkably Arab looking” (Giroux Para. 8). Again, the bread-police face presents police as heirs of Arabic genes. On watching any compelling movie coupled with a careful analysis of any other artistry work, the audience tends to behave and act in accordance to the heroines as opposed to the villains. Therefore, by differentiating the hero of Aladdin in terms of facial statics and skin pigmentation may make the audience believe that people with lighter skin are better in relation to those with darker skin. This can aggravate the problem of racism.

The Princess and the Frog

Context

Released in 2009, Disney Corporation describes The Princess and the Frog as a classic family film destined to entertain and delight kids for many generations. The film was set in the outskirts of New Orleans in early 20th century. Despite heavy critics, even much earlier before its release, it hit the market strongly showing in over 3000 theatres. However, it comes in as an improvement of racial stereotype representation since it was “the first Disney fairytale to have an African American princess” (Matea Para. 1). Critics have raised a lot of criticism surrounding the ethnicity of the film’s main character since, for the mere first time; the Disney princess is a black woman. In addition, critics of this film argue that, the use of alligator sidekick, voodoo magic make the film seem somewhat pointed and racist.

Characterization

The opening scene of the princes and the frog appear in a manner likely to depict realism. Referring to mise-en-scene, the film begins with a dissolve as the image of the mighty mansion come into the frame as the camera tilts down from the sky. To every viewer, it is apparent that the movie is set within the neighbourhood of white people, as white people are seen driving flashy cars that were the in thing. As the camera zooms the house to give a quick view, it shows a princess on shelves, all of which are white. At this stage, the film begins to emphasize on the existing differences between the white and the blacks to create and shape minds of the viewers into that of racial stereotypic inclinations. Matea argues, “The movie has received some criticism for being stereotypical to African-Americans due to characteristics such as Princess Tiana’s dialect, wide-hips and wig” (Para. 5). By contrasting the pigmentation of the princes to the background, the film develops a concept of misplacement of blacks who live amongst whites based on the force exerted on them to adopt the lifestyle of the whites, and thus they have no identity of their own.

As the film progresses, the audience encounters an African American child who happens to be the main character: Tiana. Tiana’s mother serves as a house cleaner and is also black. Tiana’s image brings out amicable differences between black Americans and their white counterparts. The white girls are dressed as a princess in pink with prominent dress, and Tiana is just in normal green clothes: colour of the frog. More importantly, the film portrays disparities in clothing styles, which may create racial stereotypical minds. The little white girl together with her father is dressed in clothing associated with wealthy people. The farther is presented as fat, a character choice seen as portraying opulence among whites and poverty amongst the blacks. In fact, during the days when the film was developed, skinniness was a likely indicator of challenged living styles attributable to poverty.

Tiana and her mother leave the sitting room and walk in darkness. As they do so, sadness stands out in the little black’s child face. Meanwhile, the white little girl receives a promise of a dress by her opulent father. Tiana and her mother take public transport and remain portrayed as having bitter reactions toward the houses of the wealthiest as if they possess feelings of being left out in destitution. Unfortunately, this may install a wrong belief, as there are blacks who are equally or even more wealthy than white Americans as we all know it today. Looking at the public transport it is more of a sight of common encounter to see both black and white Americans opting for public transport. The film portrays dissolved effects. The viewers move from enormous white inhabited mansions, with clean streets to prefab, tiny and unfenced houses with every one confused outside the shelters. Does it mean that blacks only inhabit un-conducive residential areas especially in the new generation? This is not right. The movie, Princess and the Frog, seems not to present reality.

Shockingly enough, the environment seems presented in such a way that it can distinguish between the black and white races. The colour change goes from a lot of light in the streets to a dark environment with a darker sky in the blacks residential. The substantially tremendous variation in the manner in which Tiana’s mother work at home and differences of the whites and the black houses fosters racial stereotypic differentiation.

Close analysis of a key scene

At the background, Tiana and her mother put a song that seeks emphasis on the existing differences between housing. The lightning strikes, and acting as the only source of light in the black Tiana’s house, emphasizes that she walks in the darkness together with her mother. In contrast, whites are in the lighted zones. To emphasize on the differences in living standards between the poor blacks and the rich whites, differing level of illumination is crucial. As many critics perceive The Princess and the Frog film, the falsified beliefs about the differences between the whites and the blacks result to the general association of blacks with poverty and living in health-wise inappropriate environments for human inhabitancy. Consequently, blacks seem less portrayed as human since they do not suffer from such conditions, which is false. All human beings are the same and have similar perceptions to issues. The racial differences are just physical. In conclusion, the Princess and the Frog though filled with racial stereotypical presentations, is a classic masterpiece produced using innovative and remarkable techniques.

Conclusion

As concerned individuals, we should question the credibility of the Disney movies in terms of their capacity to foster intercultural cohesion despite their entertaining power disguised within racial presentations and consideration of the position of women. For instance, after carefully scrutinizing the film The Jungle Book, the issue of women arises as well. It depicts them as “unnecessary” to a child’s development; “Mowgli belongs to the long line of Disney orphans, and merely encounters one potential father figure after another” (Linn and Ponssait 52). Giroux Laments, “When a female of the man–cub’s own species finally appears at the end of the film, she seems diminished, housework-orientated apart from singing singularly bereft of conversation” (Para.12). The Jungle Book, made in 1967, is as famous as it was back then. Moreover, the sequel goes on for many other Disney classic. The Princess and the Frog did attempt to break racial barriers. However, it merely reinforced them. The creators of Aladdin probably attempted to hide the racial issues through a terrifically entertaining and action packed motion picture.

Works Cited

Caraballo, Lidia. National Stereotypes, 2010.

Clements, Ron, dir. Aladdin. Twentieth century Fox, 1992. Film.

Giroux, Henry. Animating youth: The Densification of Children’s Culture, 1995. Web.

Linn, Susan, and Ponssait, Alvin. Watching Television: What Are Children Learning About Race and Ethnicity? Child Care Information Exchange 128.1(1999): 50- 52.

Matea, Rachael. Racial Issues in Disney’s ‘The Princess and the Frog’ Considered by DePaul community, 2009. Web.

Nelson, Alyssa. Disney Movies and Racism: The Aladdin. Web.

Ramsey, Plumpton. Growing up with the Contradictions of Race and Class.

Washington, D.C: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2003.

Sommers, Stephen, dir. The Jungle Book. Twentieth Century Fox, 1967. Film.

Sun, Chyng, and Picker, Miguel. Mickey Mouse Monopoly. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2001.

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