Disinfecting Disney? Tackling the history of representation

The Disney Corporation is putting advisory messages about racial stereotyping on some of its historical films and TV shows. How should we deal with problematic representations from the past?

This week, the Disney Corporation announced that it would be adding content warnings to re-runs of The Muppet Show screened on its subscription channel Disney+. A total of 18 episodes from the 1970s and 1980s (now owned by Disney) are to be prefaced with a twelve-second advisory messages that reads:

This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together. Disney is committed to creating stories with inspirational and aspirational themes that reflect the rich diversity of the human experience around the globe. To learn more about how stories have impacted society visit: http://www.Disney.com/StoriesMatter.

Press reports have speculated about the particular episodes in question, but in fact this isn’t a completely new development on Disney’s part. As of the middle of last year, it has been including similar warnings at the start of some of its classic movies from earlier decades, including Lady and the Tramp, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Dumbo, Peter Pan and Swiss Family Robinson.

Disney’s Stories Matter site contains brief explanations of the reasons for some of these messages. Viewers are warned, for example, that Peter Pan (1953) refers to Native Americans as ‘redskins’ and that dancing scenes entail ‘mockery and appropriation of Native peoples’ culture and imagery’. Lady and the Tramp (1955) and The Aristocats (1970) contain negative stereotypes of Asians and other ethnic groups; while in on-screen advisories, the ape character King Louie in The Jungle Book (1967) is described as ‘perpetuating a stereotype of African-Americans’.

Disney’s actions are undoubtedly a (belated) response to the Black Lives Matter movement; and they have inevitably fed into contemporary ‘culture wars’. Reading the (unmoderated) comments on the Mail Online report, for example, one can easily see how the complaints against what is described as ‘censorship’ and ‘woke nonsense’ shade into overt racism. The company’s actions are, some suggest, a destructive attack on ‘free speech’ and yet another instance of ‘cancel culture’ – despite the fact that they are merely brief advisory messages which do not intrude on the content at all.

Nevertheless, these reports raise several issues that are worthy of more serious debate by media educators and their students. The key concept of representation is still sometimes understood in rather simplistic, binary terms, as a matter of ‘positive images’ versus negative ones, ‘accurate’ representations versus stereotypes, or ‘progressive’ representations versus ‘regressive’ ones. Such arguments also frequently invoke assumptions about effects – as though ‘positive’ representations will automatically have positive effects on audiences.

I’ve discussed these issues in many other blogs and essays on this site, in relation to texts as diverse as Rihanna’s music videos, Enid Blyton’s children’s stories, and educational programmes like Sesame Street, as well as social media. However, Disney has always served as an easy target for media critics, in ways that often beg some more complex questions.

One of the most obvious difficulties here is to do with reading or interpretation. Who decides whether a particular representation is (for example) racist or sexist, or positive or negative? What are the criteria for making these kinds of judgments, and do they vary depending upon the context? Just because one person or one group of people finds something offensive in this way, does that necessarily mean that it is? Whose views count in this debate, and how do we deal with conflicting interpretations?

In some respects, this is much more straightforward when dealing with historical material. It’s easier to identify and to deal with crude stereotypes or misrepresentations of the kind that Disney seems to be (finally) identifying in its older productions. Yet more contemporary material often poses more complex challenges.

For example, one might well argue that Disney’s more recent output is equally – albeit more subtly – problematic in similar respects. The blockbuster animated movies of the 1990s, for example – Mulan, Pocahontas, Aladdin, The Lion King – present images of ‘other’ cultures that are arguably just as patronising and demeaning, albeit in a much more subtle, liberal manner. One could certainly read Disney’s more recent ‘princess’ movies – right through to Anna and Else in Frozen – as reductive and sexist, despite their superficial gloss of aspirational ‘girl power’. Do such arguments only apply to historical material? Where do we draw the line here? Or do we need such advisories on everything we watch?

Finally, why is it that such concerns apply particularly to material aimed at young children? It seems to be assumed that children are much more vulnerable than adults to such ideologically harmful material. Yet what is the basis of such concerns, and how far are they justified by the evidence? How far are our adult interpretations of such material actually shared, or even noticed, by children themselves?

Of course, I’m not suggesting that there is no cause for concern here, nor indeed that such representations have no effects on audiences. However, the issues are complex, and that makes them difficult to deal with.

In the past, Disney itself has tried to cover up such difficulties. One particularly interesting case here is its film Song of the South, a big-budget mix of animation and live action produced in 1946. The film is based on a set of nineteenth century African-American folktales featuring the character of Uncle Remus, re-created by the white American author Andrew Chandler Harris. African-American writers and critics have expressed some divergent views about the original material, although there was controversy among Disney’s team of writers about how it was treated in the film. The responses of black critics were scathing: screenings were picketed by the NAACP, and the film was described as a glorified picture of slavery, and even as propaganda for white supremacy.

Ultimately, however, it’s impossible to make a judgement about this, because the film has been withdrawn from distribution (despite having been re-released, in the manner of other Disney movies, on a regular basis right through to the 1980s). Trailers and extracts can be found online, but Disney has worked hard to erase the film from history. (The full story of the film’s career has recently been the subject of a sequence of episodes on Karina Longworth’s excellent film history podcast, You Must Remember This.) So it would seem that in certain instances, the company has seen fit to censor its own productions – although it’s interesting to speculate about why the ‘advisory’ approach hasn’t been seen as adequate in this case.

Similar questions surround The Jungle Book, a 1967 animation remade as live action in 2016. The two films currently have the dubious distinction of being ‘set texts’ for one of the UK’s A-level examinations (for upper secondary school students). Yet the original version has frequently been condemned as racist for its ‘sub-human’ and ‘derogatory’ representations of African-Americans, and similar concerns have been expressed about the stage musical and the recent remake. The advisory message that now prefaces screenings of the film on the Disney+ channel clearly acknowledges the sensitivities at stake, although I very much doubt if the film will go the same way as Song of the South.

The obvious contemporary analogy would be with current debates about the removal of statues (for example, of slave owners) and of monuments and museum exhibits that are seen to glorify empire. Once again, there are some who see this as an instance of ‘cancel culture’; and there are those in government who are now seeking to prevent it. They argue that removing statues is a way of ‘rewriting history’ – conveniently ignoring the fact that (as historians would acknowledge) history is always being rewritten, rather than simply told or narrated. In fact in most cases, such statues and exhibits are being replaced by displays that provide much more contextual information about the events in question – an approach that might do much more to help visitors understand and come to terms with the nation’s imperial past.

There are some significant differences between films and statues (or indeed museum exhibits) in this respect, so the analogy will only take us so far. Yet the question that surely arises is: what does anybody do about this? If we acknowledge that some material from the past is problematic (and it may not be easy to agree on that), does that necessarily mean that we should remove or erase it? If we decide instead to provide advisory messages or warnings, who is to do this, and how should it be done? And can we assume that such messages – or other contextual information – will necessarily overcome or neutralise the damaging effects of such material (again, assuming that we can agree what they are)?

This is, I would argue, an educational question – and not only a question but also an opportunity. In the context of a classroom, one could use a film like The Jungle Book or even Song of the South as the basis for a debate about these very issues. One would need to provide some historical context (for example, setting The Jungle Book in the context of the civil rights movement), and look at the marketing and the critical response; and one would need to pay close analytical attention to what is going on in the dialogue and the narrative, and so on. Looking at historical instances of representation (in areas such as gender and ethnicity) makes it easier to take a more distanced stance, which can then carry across to more contemporary representations. This is all pretty much stock-in-trade for media educators.

At the same time, we need to be somewhat wary of assuming that rational, critical analysis is necessarily going to displace or overcome the power of the material itself. For me, this was one of the lessons of the first-ever piece of research I undertook, back in the early 1980s, exploring students’ responses to an educational TV series called Viewpoint 2. In the episode that covered representations of ‘race’, I found that students tended to ignore the calm, rational (and somewhat sarcastic) commentary provided by Stuart Hall, in favour of the fairly inflammatory material (much of it from TV comedies) that it was seeking to challenge and undermine. The approach was counter-productive, and it made things quite hard to manage in the classroom.

All of this is even more difficult outside a formal educational setting. Most children settling down to watch The Muppet Show or a Disney classic are likely to ignore a twelve second on-screen warning in quite small type. Parents, if they are watching, might be encouraged to discuss such issues with their kids; but in most cases I doubt whether this is very likely to happen.

There is a serious educational challenge here, and it might seem churlish to end on a sceptical note. Disney’s advisories are probably better than nothing, and the advisers and educational organisations they have partnered with on this initiative are almost certainly well-intentioned – although the actual content on their glossy ‘Stories Matter’ website is pretty minimal thus far. It remains to be seen whether Disney is doing much more here than simply laundering its public image, or making token gestures. If it is genuinely interested in ‘sparking conversation’, as its advisory messages suggest, it will need to go quite a lot further.