The is to make a great motion picture. But

First Black Princess is a Frog


Moving into the 21st
Century, it could be said that Disney has shown moderate progress dealing with
racial discrimination in depicting heroes and heroines as multi-cultural. In 2009,
Disney created its first black princess in the 49th Disney animated
film, The Princess and the Frog (2009). John Lasseter, Chief Creative
Officer at Pixar and Walt Disney, in advance of the film’s release, stated:

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“Our first goal is to
make a great motion picture. But we have also worked very closely with a lot of
leaders in the African-American community, all across the nation, to make sure
we’re doing something African-American families will be proud of.”

(Badger, 2016) 


However, it could
be seen as problematic that the first black princess spends most of her time on
screen as a green skinned frog. Journalist Teresa Wiltz questions, “is Disney
hedging its bets, afraid of letting too much blackness play front and centre on
the big screen.” (Wiltz, 2009)
On the other hand, Disney has depicted the black princess, ‘Tiana’, to be smart
and bold, not intending to demean blacks in any obvious way. Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly argues that Disney “inserts no
overt lesson in the history of civil rights into this faithful reimagining of
the classic Disney formula: Dreams are fulfilled, wrongs are righted, love
prevails, and music unites.” (Schwarzbaum, 2009) Others argue, that the problem does not lie
with Tiana, but with ‘Prince Charming’, “Though America has a
real-life black man in the highest office of the land with a black wife, Disney
obviously doesn’t think a black man is worth the title of prince.” (Schwarzbaum, 2009)


It is also significant to mention that the film was
set in New Orleans in the 1920s, however there are few situations that would
not of been allowed at the time of racially segregated America. William Blackburn, a
former columnist stated, “This princess story is set in New Orleans, the
setting of one of the most devastating tragedies to beset a black community.”(Blackburn, 2008) New
Orleans is situated in South America, at this time, in 1920s, New Orleans was
at the heart of the Jim Crow segregation laws. ‘Tiana’ works in a restaurant that
sits both blacks and whites which would not have been possible at this time,
rather, there would have been ‘whites only’ restaurants. However it can be
argued that Tiana and her mother sit at the back of the bus with other black
characters, while the whites sit at the front (See Fig 5) Disney here could have made a
remarkable asset to teach young viewers about American history, however their attempt to make
these references have been covered and whitewashed as much as possible.



Can’t Call a Bunny Cute”


As we move further
into the 21st Century, the 2016 feature length film, Zootopia, is fearless in its approach
to teaching children about racial issues. The film segregates different animals
on their real physical abilities and tries to personify them, which in that,
could be seen as a racist reference. Yet, it becomes acceptable because of the
way Disney tackles this. A short synopsis of the film is crucial at this point;
‘Judy’, a small rabbit has a dream to be a police officer and move to the big
city of ‘Zootopia’ however because of her size and the fact that she is just a
rabbit, her family want her to stay at home and take over the family business
of carrot farmers. Disney here successfully paints a picture of real life
racial and gender related issues. A particular line in the film demonstrates a
teaching of a tiger police officer, ‘Clawhauser’, calling Judy,
‘cute’, it continues;


Clawhauser: Oh my goodness, they really did hire a bunny! I gotta
tell you, you are even cuter than I thought you’d be!

Judy: You probably didn’t know but a bunny can call other
bunny cute but when other animals do it it’s a little…

Clawhauser: gasps I am so sorry!
(IMDb, 2016).


In this script, the
film addresses prominent contemporary issues of discrimination. “In this way, the
movie progresses from a common refrain children may have heard before about not
judging a book by its cover and reminds adults of more tangible, memorable
nuggets of truth.” (Glatter,
2017) Because the social acceptance of stereotypes has changed
over time, the prejudice that goes with it has also changed. It is notable at
this point that Disney’s has attempted to teach young viewers about the
segregations that is still poignant in a social society, taking a different
spin on the matter. Disney here is revolutionary in its teaching.


Influence on Popular Culture


The hegemonic hold
over popular culture that Disney possesses is extremely powerful, through
merchandising, theme parks, television, children’s publications etc. One of the
main reasons this is happening is namely due to general westernisation.
Westernisation can be described as, “a country, place, or person is the process of them adopting ideas and behaviour that are typical of Europe and North America, rather than preserving the ideas and behaviour traditional in their culture.”( .n.d) It could be said that Disney forces a westernised culture
in their films, especially in their choice of actors and accents as previously
mentioned. It could be said that, “The United States dominates the current global
traffic in information and ideas. For instance, American music, American
movies, American software, American technologies are ubiquitous nowadays.” (communicationtechnology101,
2016) Westernisation can also be seen in the spread of Hard Rock Cafes
in many cities around the world, for instance. The fact Disney theme parks have
been built in numerous countries including Japan and China is proof of Disney’s
hegemony. It is noteworthy to mention that In
Disney park’s characters have to point with their full hand or their two fingers;
this is because some cultures find pointing disrespectful. It is prominent here
that Disney does not want to offend other cultural groups. This in itself is
particularly significant, that present day Disney does not want to offend
cultures, not only through its animations, but also in every other medium.


The media shapes
today’s society and Disney’s animations allow children to escape from the real
world and be immersed in these fantasies. The Disney Corporation invented the
term ‘edutainment’ in 1948, describing ‘education’ and ‘entertainment’. This
could be seen as problematic in early Disney animations, especially around that
time where racial stereotypes were portrayed. However, as segregation is
depleting, Disney touches on how we should not discriminate, this is seen as a
healthy education.







Walt Disney, in a
1935 studio memo to Donald Graham, stated, “I definitely think that we cannot
do the fantastic things based on the real, unless we know the real,” (Hooks, 2017)
a significant quotation, which may have many
underlining meanings. Although, when applied to racial segregation it becomes
ambiguous, and rather ironic that 10 years after this statement he produces a
film portraying African American slaves as happy-to-serve (Song of the South 1946). Evidently, this statement cannot be in
reference to ‘knowing real’ races and ethnicities.


All in all, indeed
it is not inconspicuous that Walt Disney attributed racist undertones. However,
Disney lived from 1901-1966, at a time when it was largely accepted than a black
man must give up his seat for a white man on a bus. “Although one would call
the attitude Disney has sexist and racist today, it was the norm at the time
before WWII to employ these practices, and many American companies at the time,
before WWII, had similar attitudes.” (Animation World
Network, 2002) A very important point to be made here is that Disney
may get too much controversy on the way they depicted black characters, as,  “Overly sensitive people see racial or ethnic slights
in every image,” (Barnes,
2009) this statement could be seen as biased written by Floyd Norman, a
Disney Animator. Though, there is truth in what is stated here, according to Brooke
Barnes, New York Times Journalist, “Mainstream producers have largely avoided characters
of color for fear of offending minority groups.” (Barnes, 2009) The term minority
here, is a key reminder of Disney’s intended Westernised audience and arguably
Disney did not aim to please the world, he chose to entertain primarily
American viewers. It is also clear that the Disney corporations also agreed
with this view until the 1990s, when Aladdin
was created.


Moving into the
future, The Disney Corporation must continue to be systematic in the way that
they portray other races and ethnicities, as slavery and racism are still
sensitive topics. Despite the fact they may not be tolerated in modern society,
both are still prevalent across the globe. Although, there is no doubt that
Disney’s character impersonations have improved from Song of the South (1946) to The Princess
and the Frog (2009). It can be argued that Disney disguised racism in
hidden areas of his works, whether it is through colours, accents or lyrics. The
Disney productions here are challenged with the statement, it was more
problematic that Disney disguised stereotypes rather than laying them out on
paper. Furthermore, Disney’s attempt to depict other races ‘realistically’ had
many Eurocentric renderings. Here, it should be necessary for Disney to create
an animation that will illustrate exactly the sort of racism that was prevalent
in 20th Century America as an educational asset; after all, Disney
did create the term ‘edutainment’. However, Disney must be careful in this
case, questions may arise such as; is a teaching necessary at such a young age?
As children may pick up a prejudice and racial segregation may become a bigger problem


In conclusion, to
answer the key research question which has guided this dissertation, ‘does the
depiction of race and ethnicity improve over time in Disney’s animations in
response to societal changes? Yes, to an extent. Over the last century, as
early animators died, including Disney himself, so did their stereotypical
views. As The Disney Corporation becomes more diverse, to this date racial
stereotypes are minimal in their animations, as the corporation attempt to
tackle the task of realistically interpreting race and ethnicity correctly.