October 2008

The Beautiful and the Beastly in Disney

A survey of the Magic Kingdom offers an intriguing look at shifting American cultural attitudes

By Helene Ragovin

The lights dim an upstairs classroom at Tisch Library. Soon bunnies, raccoons, gophers, mice and a shy little skunk—all rendered in pale pastels—prance across a screen, getting their first glimpse of a spindly legged, big-eyed fawn named Bambi.

“Magic is different when adults look at it and when children look at it,” says Sarah King. “And Disney is the master of playing to both sides.” Photo: Alonso Nichols

But there’s more than meets the eye for the students watching this Disney classic. The discussion that follows touches on themes of father-son relationships, gender roles, sexual orientation, natural disaster and world war. And that’s just for starters.

For the past 10 years, Sarah E. King, an instructor in the department of English, has been teaching a class called “Disney and the Childhood Canon.” The course looks at Disney films from the 1930s through the present, and analyzes them in light of their original literary sources—the “childhood canon” referred to in the course’s title—and as works in their own right.

Viewed this way, the movies—many of them beloved childhood favorites of the students—offer an intriguing look at shifting American cultural attitudes. “I’ve seen these films a million times,” says King. “And yet I’m always thinking something new when I leave.”

The idea for the class came not because King is a Disney fan—she flinches slightly at the idea—but from her research on Latin American writers and magic realism and a longstanding fascination with children’s literature. “Magic is different when adults look at it and when children look at it,” she says. “And Disney is the master of playing to both sides.”

Race Matters

It’s much easier for her students to cast a critical eye on early Disney films and children’s stories than more recent ones, King says. They have no trouble recognizing and dissecting the questionable racial elements of say, Dumbo, released in 1941, or the 1967 film The Jungle Book, or considering ideas of colonialism and racism in the Babar the elephant books.

Dumbo, for instance, features a flock of “jazzy” crows, led by none other than “Jim Crow,” which seem to speak in black dialect (although they are voiced by white actors); The Jungle Book has similar, scat-singing apes with features and mannerisms that draw on historical African-American stereotypes. In the Babar book series for children, written between the 1930s and 1960s by the father-and-son authors Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff, Babar the elephant goes to France and brings back “civilization”—a European lifestyle—to the “jungle.”

“The students are with you—they don’t love Babar; they didn’t grow up with The Jungle Book,” King says. But when the more recent creations enter the picture—the films and stories that college-age students are emotionally attached to—resistance sets in, she says.

Fast forward to 1994’s The Lion King, and the presentation of the evil hyenas, voiced by Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin, who speak in a black English vernacular. “This is what they know; this is what they love; this is what they grew up with,” King says. But critique the film, and “now the students say, ‘you’re being PC.’ ”

And that, King says, also leads to a conversation she tries to have with the students early in the semester: what does “politically correct” mean? “Is it fascist thought-control, or is it something conservatives use against anyone who objects to the status quo?” she asks.

In general, King says, students are more open to recognizing issues of gender stereotyping and sexism than racism. “By the time they take this class, they have some notion about the way fairy tales are socializing young women, and to be on the lookout for that,” she says. “It’s clear to most of the female students that they are not going to be princesses, and that it’s a metaphor for something else.”

For instance, the students are quick to acknowledge the pattern of the “eternal rescuee”—in every Disney film, the main female character needs to be rescued in some fashion. Even the so-called “strong” female characters are disappointing, King says. Take Belle, the “beauty” of Beauty and the Beast. She falls in love with a male who has been holding her hostage and mistreating her, leading some commentators to diagnose Belle with “Stockholm syndrome.”

Then there’s Ariel, in The Little Mermaid: she’s the first Disney female to sing about “bright young women.” Yet she spends the movie in a revealing seashell bra—“that scene with the Little Mermaid in silhouette looks like a Playboy logo on a set of truck flaps,” King says.

Not-So-Subtle Reminders

Over the years, Disney has changed or withdrawn a handful of song lyrics or images in reaction to changing attitudes. Most notably, it has not released the 1946 Song of the South on home video or DVD, although King’s class does watch clips from the movie when they discuss racism.

Easily the most controversial of Disney films, even dating back to its theatrical release, Song of the South is organized around the “Uncle Remus” stories of the late 19th-century southern writer Joel Chandler Harris. Critics have labeled its depiction of African Americans on a Reconstruction-era plantation anywhere from stereotyped to outright racist.

In the 1960s, the studio revised the original Fantasia (1940) to eliminate a pickaninny-style centaur. More recently, the lyrics to the opening song of Aladdin (1992) were changed after complaints from Arab Americans. As King points out, though, there was only one specific line that was altered in a film that presents a generally unsavory portrait of Arab characters. (The villainous Jafar looks identifiably Semitic; the hero Aladdin, on the other hand, looks and sounds “all-American.”)

And it’s seldom that you’ll come across this Disney novelty: an image of Donald Duck wearing a swastika. The occasion was a U.S. World War II propaganda film, Der Fuehrer’s Face. “Nazi Donald” was a character in a dream used to ridicule the enemy. In the end, the “real” Donald wakes up draped in red, white and blue and grateful to be safe at home in America. “At that time, there was a different sense of the Disney brand,” King says.

Despite her critiques of the childhood canon, King’s aim isn’t to paint a one-dimensional picture. “What I want students to come away with from the course is an ability to look at and analyze these childhood classics—both the written texts and films—regardless of whether we love them, hate them or something in between,” she says. “It can be fun, fascinating and yes, even eye-opening, without being an act of sacrilege against childhood.”

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.

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