The Mixed Bag // Issue #03
Not only do we love to relax with a good book, but we also enjoy spending time watching movies and TV shows. It feels like there are limitless options for streaming content, and now with the launch of Disney+ last month, there are even more movies and shows to choose from.
Disney+ launched with a variety of shows and movies, both old and new, with more blast-from-the-past favorites coming soon. With many of the older movies, we were particularly fascinated with the way Disney+ chose to handle many of the inappropriate and offensive characters and storylines that have made their way onto the screens. Before the screenings of old animated movies, which include Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp, and The Aristocats, just to name a few, there are content warnings for outdated cultural depictions. While many felt this was a good way to handle the outdated depictions, others felt that it wasn’t enough and that they didn’t apply the warning to as many movies as they should have.
Seeing this disclaimer made us think about what other elements may have been, or may currently be, misrepresented or lacking in Disney content. With all the content that The Walt Disney Company (which includes the companies that it owns, such as Marvel, Lucasfilm, Touchstone pictures, ABC) release every year, it’s important to be critical about what’s being shown, especially since their movies and shows target everyone from children who are discovering Disney for the first time, to adults, who may be soaking in the nostalgia or encouraging their children to watch their own personal childhood favorites.
Ultimately, it’s a huge bummer when your childhood favorites aren’t quite what you remember, and even more horrifying to discover just how much of it was stereotypically damaging and downright hurtful. And, not to mention, that still so few people are represented. The past can’t be erased or denied, and corrections occasionally need to be made along the way. We don’t expect anything to be perfect, but we do expect progress.
LOVE AND FAMILY
Love and family are already filled with complicated emotions, now add Disney into the mix. In more recent movies, Disney has portrayed love in a different kind of way: family love. What used to be a princess rescued by her true love’s kiss is now a love where family members help one another, make amends, or are reunited. Not only is love being redefined, but the idea of what a family means is also being reconsidered.
When it comes to showing a variety of people on-screen, this can also account for their personalities. In Disney movies, the lead female characters tend to be more outgoing and demonstrative. But what about the introverted, clever, quiet heroines? While children’s literature is filled with introspective lead female characters, movies could use more of them. Children should see girls on screen that are extroverted, but also girls that exhibit a more quiet strength.
In movies like The Lion King, have you ever noticed that the “bad guys” have foreign accents? While Mufasa, Simba’s father, has an American accent, Scar, Mufasa’s younger brother and the “villain” has a British English accent. According to Calvin Gidney, a sociolinguist, “Foreign accents and non-standard dialects were being used to voice all of the “bad” characters.” This pattern spans a variety Disney movies: Aladdin, Snow White, 101 Dalmatians, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and so forth. Through these patterns, kids may come to associate outsiders as having foreign accents – a dangerous message to send to anyone.
When children watch movies, they may internalize the messages and come to understand life as they see it play out on screen. One of the messages young ones might internalize is that of class, in particular the concept of the American Dream. Most of the characters in the films are portrayed as being in the upper classes, and those that are in the working class are depicted as not being worried about the inequality. It was this statistic from the research that blew our minds: “Four percent of the total number of primary characters in the 100 children's movies surveyed can be classified as "poor." In comparison, roughly 25 percent of American children live in poverty.”
While there is still a long way to go in Hollywood in general, it looks like progress is starting to take shape at Disney. The president of motion-picture production at Disney claims that “inclusivity is not only a priority but an imperative for us, and it’s top of mind on every single project.” While this is good to say and nice to hear, the proof is in the pudding. While there are more diverse projects in development, only time will tell just how inclusive Disney will be, both in front of and behind the scenes.
What was the last Disney movie you watched that gave you pause about its messaging?
Originally published in the Issue #03: December 06, 2019 newsletter, The Mixed Bag. Sign up to receive weekly newsletters and updates.