Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Disney Essay

This is an essay I wrote several years ago, and felt it would fit in well on my site. Though some of my views have changed considerably since then, I feel this is still an important topic, and much of it still holds true. This is essentially about how Disney portrays both women and minorities in a negative light in their films. I'm focusing on animated films because these are blatantly targeted at children. Also, bare in mind that this essay was written before their merger with Pixar, which I have nothing but good things to say about. Finally, after this investigation, I discuss how they are able to get away with this and still manage to keep a family oriented image through their business practices.

Section I: Women

First, and most obvious is their portrayal of women. I have not seen a single Disney movie where the heroine was not a complete sexual object. Looking at modern movies, Jasmine, Ariel from the Little Mermaid, Belle, even Pocahontas; and old movies, Snow White, Cinderella, and others. All of them feature extreme hourglass figures with large breasts and tiny waists. Even the animals are portrayed as sex objects, with their long eyelashes, and flirtatious ways (see Bambi, Fantasia, and Lion King).

But what role do women full fill in Disney Movies? Um....completely helpless, and using sex to get whatever they want. The Little Mermaid, she shows a little defiance by disobeying her father. This is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately that goes to pot when she gives up her voice to grow legs to meet the prince. This leaves her with only one tool, her body. How about Jasmine? In one of the closing scenes she starts to seduce Jaffar to distract him. The only way for a woman to get something done is by using sexual appeal.

How about the helplessness? In Disney movies the women can only get so much done before they have to be rescued by their men. In Tarzan, Jane, a fairly strong women, always needed Tarzan to come to her aid. Or how about the Little Mermaid? In the end the prince had to come to Ariel's aid to fight the witch. This even extends into inanimate objects. In Beauty and the Beast, one of the villagers is tearing apart the duster, and the candle holder has to come to her aid, and sweeps her off her feet. Even Mulan, possibly the strongest female character ever in a Disney film, after almost single handedly winning a war, was expected to go home, and resume housewife duties. "She comes home with a sword, why couldn't she come home with a husband?" This is an example of pseudo-feminism.

Pseudo-feminism is typified in Beauty and the Beast. Belle, described as a strong independent woman (simply because she is shown reading a book), gets imprisoned by the Beast. He is horribly abusive, yet she always comes back to him. Later in the movie, in song she says how she can't believe she didn't see his sensitive side before. Maybe that was because he was beating her, and trying to kill her father. Is this giving the message to young girls that it is their responsibility to write of abusive men as having a temper? Is it their job to stand by them, and try to change them? You may not think so, but many little girls do feel that way. "If I were Belle, I would keep being sweet to him, and hope that he changes." That doesn't seem like a good way to nurture an independent woman.

How about the women who are portrayed as evil. Cruella Deville. the Octopus Witch, The witch in Snow White. The fact that I can only think of a few shows that there probably are not many. These evil women usually have power and this is not too often bestowed upon the female gender in animated movies. What is common among all these ladies? They are all not only un-attractive, but downright repulsive. Are girls supposed to associate attractiveness with virtue, and ugliness with sin? Whether they are supposed to or not, they are.
These movies are playing off what they know, and these are traditional stereotypes. They take those stereotypes, package them, and sell them back to children. We have the ability to look at this, and see that it's not how the world is, or should be, but unfortunately little children do not have that ability. They can't dissect the literacy behind the image. They simply see something that is immitatible, and right there in front of them. They see an image, and think it's how the world should be.

Section II: Minorities

Now that we have seen how Disney movies portray women, how do they portray "the other"- minorities. Most people in power in the entertainment industry are white, upper class, educated men. Many came from prominent backgrounds, and did not actually have much contact with different ethnicity. Therefor, they have to write based off of what they know, stereotypes, and this simply passes those beliefs onto impressionable children.

The most prominent minority in the United States (though it is now being rivaled) are African Americans. If we were to base their entire population off of Disney movies, what conclusion would we reach? I believe we would see them all as happy-go-lucky, jive talking, slurred speeched, animals who want to be white. In Dumbo the crows were obviously supposed to represent African Americans, in a not so subtle reference to Jim Crow. They were dressed like paupers, and had the most exaggeratedly slurred speech. The other animal most frequently associated with African Americans are monkeys. Look at the Jungle Book. There is a whole society of apes talking jive, listening to funk music, and wanting to be men. Interestingly the only "men" shown in that movie are whites who are conquering the jungle. I suppose this pales in comparison to the modern day Tarzan. How did they handle black people in Africa?- they completely left them out. There is not a single person of color in the movie. Instead there are many many apes. What kind of message does this give to a black child living in Africa- nothing short of white supremecy.

In the Lion King, the bad guys, the Hyenas, were all played by black actors, and they all project the urban ghetto image. In fact, one child was quoted as saying "Look, mom Hyenas," when he heard black children on the playground. This is proof that some children as a result will associate blacks with evil.

Mexicans are another prominent minority. They are portrayed in movies simply as one animal- the Chihuahua. Is that as creative as these writers could get? Just look at Lady and the Tramp, or Oliver and Company. The Chihuahua is a sex crazed miscreant. He's the one who tries to get in trouble, and when abused by the attractive dog, only gets hotter for her. Though I know few Mexicans, none of them fit this description, yet Disney movies would have youth thinking that it is an accurate representation of the entire population.

One minority seldom portrayed is Oriental. For many years the only representation that could come to mind would be the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp. They were sneaky, cruel, and manipulative. Seeing as I might soon be having a Japanese roommate, I certainly hope this isn't accurate (and I am not terribly worried). Recently, however, an interesting study in the theory came out. Mulan presented a drastically different view. It showed a strong resilient woman. Unfortunately, she was rebelling against things in Chinese society that did not actually exist. The scenes where she was being evaluated by the matchmaker and being criticised for being "Too skinny, not able to bare good sons," just did not happen in that culture. Apparently the only way for the writers to create a strong woman was to make something up for her to rebel against.

Yet another minority inaccurately represented in Disney movies are Arabs. An entire case study could be done on Aladdin alone. From the controversial lyrics in the original opening song, to the portrayal of the market vendors. Lyricist Howard Ashman originally wrote "Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face." This was later changed to "Where it's flat and immense, and the heat is intense," to avoid offending Arabs. They kept the line that followed, however, "it's barbaric, but hey, it's home." Apparently it was still considered politically correct to call the area barbaric. The vendors in the market were either portrayed as cruel, or sneaky. The narrator at the beginning kept trying to sell the viewer worthless goods. Later on, when Jasmine takes an apple from a cart to give to a hungry child, the vendor threatens to cut off her hand. In reality, the Muslim faith orders its followers to feed those who are less fortunate as much as possible. Only in Saudi Arabia, after 3 trials, and 3 convictions, is the hand removed. Disney would have you believe that it was standard practice among all regions for someone to chop the hand off a thief on the spot.

Finally, one minority that is often mis-portrayed over and over again are Native Americans. Way back in the animated version of Peter Pan, Indians were shown to dance with flailing arms, sit cross-legged without cracking a smile, and chant continuously. This is what defines an Indian in cartoons. They seldom speak, and simply grunt. The animated movie, Pocahontas made a lazy attempt at an accurate representation of Native Americans. Not only was it completely inaccurate, it was also demeaning. Pocahontas did not have a relationship with John Smith, she was little girl. Later on in life she married a man by the name of John Rolff. The movie depicts the confrontation between the Indians and the settlers as ending peacefully, instead of the slaughter of Native Americans it really was. With this movie, Disney is trying to re-write history into a more clean, friendly version. Unfortunately children are taking this as fact. One girl was quoted as saying "I liked Pocahontas, because it's a true story." Another one said, "...it really happened." Has there ever before been a company that has been able to re-write history, and succeed?

Section III: Business Practices

In this section I will discuss Disney's business practices. In the previous parts of the essay, I talked about how Disney misrepresents minorities, and how the movies give poor and inappropriate messages to young girls. How then, in light of these obvious representations, does Disney manage to keep its wholesome image? Disney polices its image more than any other company. Their incredibly aggressive legal department allows nobody to use their logos, names, trademarks, or anything else affiliated with Disney. An absurd example was when someone writing a book about Disney wanted to use a picture he took at Disney World. The picture was simply a piece of sky above the park, there was nothing to do with Disney even in the picture, and the company claimed that it infringed on copyrights. Nearly every book ever written about the company references required changes to prevent lawsuits from the company. This intense grip that Disney holds over their image prevents nearly all bad publicity from tarnishing their image.

As was previously mentioned, and is logically obvious, Disney targets youth in nearly all of its ventures. No other group is easier to influence. This is shown, of all places, on the school playgrounds. Children no longer play traditional games, such as hide and seek, tag, or even various sports. In the last decade, a trend started to arise of children playing the movies. Another phenomenon coinciding with this, was shown in a study of playgrounds around the world. No matter what country the study was conducted, the games were very similar. Regardless of the culture, nearly all play throughout the world was affiliated with these movies. This is a terrifying indication of how Disney has an influence over the youth of the world.

What does Disney have to gain from this global domination? Tremendous amounts of money, of course. The Disney corporation owns movie studios, distribution agencies, Television outlets, magazines, amusement parks, toy manufacturers, and stores. They produce a new movie. A Disney owned company distributes it, while Disney owned magazines give it a rave review. After a run in the theater, it is played in heavy rotation on the Disney Channel. Meanwhile massive amounts of merchandise are being made and sold at Disney owned stores, while a new ride is being built at Disney World. Even if a movie does bad in the theaters they market it heavily overseas and have a tremendous international box office return. Even after the movie does poorly, they flood the media with advertising for video releases and merchandise, so it gives the impression that it was a success. Children then want the toys. In this regard it is virtually impossible for Disney to release a movie that does not make a profit. Next time a Disney movie comes out, remember this from an inter-office memo sent out by Michael Eisner, "We are not here to educate, we are here to make money."

3 comments:

Bre'Ana said...

I'd like to start out by saying, the majority of your essay I agree with, however there are some parts, listed below, that I take offense to or think it would be better written with what I have said below in mind.

"The Little Mermaid, she shows a little defiance by disobeying her father. This is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately that goes to pot when she gives up her voice to grow legs to meet the prince. This leaves her with only one tool, her body."

Okay let me start with this commonly used and over emphasized point. Yes she did give up her voice, after much canjoing on Ursula's part. However an often over looked area is how Ariel interacts with Eric. Her attempts at seduction were completely ineffective, with the only time she was able to get close to kissing the prince, after a lengthy song by Sebation. This attempt was foiled by Ursula, who then used ariel's VOICE is enchant Prince Eric. In the end, it was Ariel's voice being returned to her, and Prince Eric's recognition that she was the women who saved HIM, that won Eric's heart. My isn't that a nice message to girls everywhere?


"Belle, described as a strong independent woman (simply because she is shown reading a book), gets imprisoned by the Beast. He is horribly abusive, yet she always comes back to him. Later in the movie, in song she says how she can't believe she didn't see his sensitive side before. Maybe that was because he was beating her, and trying to kill her father. Is this giving the message to young girls that it is their responsibility to write of abusive men as having a temper?"

First, I'd like to point out the time period where the story takes place. It is no later than the 1700's and most likely the 1500's. In that time, it was Highly unusal for a woman to be able to read at all, let alone engage in it for pleasure sake as Belle did ( I mean ordinary peasents like her.) So yes it was independent minded of her to read. It introduced her to concepts she wouldn't have otherwise thought of in her village setting. As for Belle and the Beast, is the only thing you do take things out of context? Perhaps watch this film and you will see that she refuses any contact with him when he behaves in a charteristically abusive manner. When emplored by the staff that he wasn't so bad once you get to know him, she responds, "I don't want to get to know him. I don't want anything to do with him!" That diffently sounds accepting to me... After she leaves her room in search of food, and is feed in a very musical way, she ,in an act of obvious defiance, goes into the West Wing after being specifically told not too. Yes very passive obedient here. After the Beast screams at her, verbal abuse by anyones standard, she LEAVES. Thats right just ups and leaves. It is only after he saves her life, which yes is slightly sexist ( but when can a single girl defend herself and her horse against a group of hungry wolves?), that she, in an act of compassion, takes him back to the castle to arguebly save his life as well. She could have taken him to the village instead you cry? What about him still being like 9ft and covered in hair? As for her not seeing his sensitive side, how can you see another side of someone you never spend time with?(As she refused to do in the beginning of the film.) She doesn't excuse his anger or behaviour, but pushes him to find a better person because she refuses to tolerate(spend time with) him otherwise.


"Look at the Jungle Book. There is a whole society of apes talking jive, listening to funk music, and wanting to be men. Interestingly the only "men" shown in that movie are whites who are conquering the jungle."

Wow you definetly didn't watch this film. There are no whites in this film at all. It all takes place in India. The only other person seen in this film is a young lady from a local village near the jungle edge. Admittedly, she did seduce him, if you wish to look at it that way. However, Mogaley(sp?) had not only never seen another human before, but the first human he sees is a female. Sorry if I think that was a natural reaction for a hetero male, if not a little exaggerated. As for the rest of the analysis I agree with you there.

"I suppose this pales in comparison to the modern day Tarzan. How did they handle black people in Africa?- they completely left them out. There is not a single person of color in the movie. Instead there are many many apes. What kind of message does this give to a black child living in Africa- nothing short of white supremecy."

Yeah I've heard this one alot. Too much. I am a black girl(yeah best of everything right?), and at the age of 8 when I first saw this film, I DID NOT identify with the gorillas, because kids will automatically identify with an animal when there are humans present? Admittedly, there are no people of color in the film(I was used to it by then so I didn't care.). I did identify with Jane very much so as she was an intellectual girl ,like myself, and also wasn't all that athletically gifted(the silly dress from those times wasn't helping her either.) Disney rectifyied the lack of Africans in Tarzan with the animated series, which reached at least as many if not more children, by adding a native tribe whose knowlegde of the jungle exceeded even Tarzan's. Whites in the series are often portrayed after con artists( like the shop owners Pierre) ,as detrimetal to the natural order of the jungle ( see the power lines ep.), or as completely bungling( Knock out Mcgree ep.) This can be tipified as reverse racism. Yup Disney still hates blacks.

"Mulan presented a drastically different view. It showed a strong resilient woman. Unfortunately, she was rebelling against things in Chinese society that did not actually exist. The scenes where she was being evaluated by the matchmaker and being criticised for being "Too skinny, not able to bare good sons," just did not happen in that culture. Apparently the only way for the writers to create a strong woman was to make something up for her to rebel against."

A valid point to bring up. However, I think the point of the scene was to help showcase her differences between other girls more obviously. With her father praying at the beginning of the movie, it is apparent she is very unlike what is an acceptable female from the beginning of the film. This scene was likely used for comedy and for the aforemetioned reason. Other than this point, Mulan is displayed as being defient strong, in both will and body, brave, loyal, and trustworthy. She SAVES the young captain's behind after she nearly defeats the Hun army of thousands. I think I'm good here, moving on.

"The animated movie, Pocahontas made a lazy attempt at an accurate representation of Native Americans. Not only was it completely inaccurate, it was also demeaning. Pocahontas did not have a relationship with John Smith, she was little girl."

Alright You have a great point here. They could have left her 11 or 12. She still would have been a good heroine if not a better one to young girls. Just thought I'd say that. NEXT!

"The movie depicts the confrontation between the Indians and the settlers as ending peacefully, instead of the slaughter of Native Americans it really was."

Really? You said it yourself that these animated films are directed straight at young children, and you want some 5 or 6 year old seeing the senseless slaughter of thousands on the television screen? Then you would be saying it was way to violent. It can't be both ways. I'll take the peace of a fake film over violence in a childrens's animation any day. Disney doesn't teach history, it entertains. While I agree it has responsiblities when it chooses to entertain, there has to be some editing done for children's sakes. Or do you prefer the Brother's Grimm?

In closing I'd like to say that this was meant not to flame but to point out some flaws that leave your analysis lacking. If you fill in these holes you'll be left with a much stronger essay, and be able to convince someone more hardcore Disney than me.
Good luck and Happy trails,
Bre'Ana

Juliet P said...

Thoughtful article, but please don't describe Asians, Asian-Americans, Pacific-Islanders as "Orientals". Interested to see your take on the portrayal of Pacific Islanders via Lilo & Stitch.

alfa said...

nice blog