The conundrum of Walt Disney's racism, sexism, and other-isms is enduring fodder for speculation, argument, and of course, "outrage". Here, in compact form, ready for renewed analysis, is a catalog of the Disney company's cinematic "sins", from Mickey to Moana.
Disney itself feeds the frenzy by its permanent embargo of Song of the South, the film that many fans—even those who haven't seen it—regard as irredeemably racist.
But what about Peter Pan? Aladdin? Mulan? The Jungle Book? Even Lady and the Tramp and The Aristocats? Do all these films truly contain threads of racism and misogyny, or have they been unfairly deconstructed by modern critics?
Film critic Josh Spiegel takes a close look at Disney's classic films and finds that it wasn't just Walt who didn't get woke.
Chapter 1: Song of the South; Peter Pan
Chapter 2: The Jungle Book; Saludos Amigos; The Three Caballeros
Chapter 3: Pocahontas; The Princess and the Frog
Chapter 4: Aladdin; Mulan
Given the incendiary nature of much of the content in this book, I feel obliged to state specifically that the views expressed herein are not those of Theme Park Press, the publisher, or the editor.
It is always our intent to release books by authors we agree with, as well as those we disagree with, in order to perpetuate the public discussion of Disney films and Disney culture.
There may be no single individual who better exemplifies 20th-century America than Walt Disney. Few men were as capable in living up to the ideals the country holds so dear, with his combination of entrepreneurial ingenuity and adventurous spirit. Born at the cusp of the new century, Walt Disney’s ascent, starting as a paperboy in the poverty-stricken Midwest before becoming a self-made artist and pioneering creative figure, is the stuff of myth; even the indisputable facts of his life have the sheen of a fanciful Horatio Alger parable. Disney’s life is the quintessential rags-to-riches story, a tale of a hometown boy making good on a global level. As much as anyone else in the medium, Disney is one of cinema’s most impactful figures, one of the earliest adopters and avatars of television as well as the driving force behind the wholly American concept of the theme park. Walt Disney looms large over America’s current self-image and the way the country is perceived worldwide.
But if Walt Disney is a personification of America at a certain period of its history, or a glorified example of the country’s indefatigable patriotism, he’s an equal reflection of its grim underbelly. The easy presumption among those who find Disney and his ideals distasteful is that he was a sexist—a meme-ready rejection letter the animation department sent to a woman in 1938 detailed the prevailing wisdom of why women couldn’t possibly be animators, let alone creative thinkers. Then there are the charges that Disney was a rabid anti-Semite, evidenced in the otherwise iconic Three Little Pigs short with its painful Jewish caricature when the Big Bad Wolf dresses up as a peddler, as well as Disney’s choice to invite Leni Riefenstahl to tour his studio mere weeks after Kristallnacht happened in Germany and Austria in late 1938. (More substantial evidence comes in the form of how he treated some of the Jewish employees who went on strike against his studio in 1941, such as strike leader Art Babbitt, who eventually brought a case against Disney to the Supreme Court.) And then there is the indefensible statement that Disney was virulently anti-Communist; it might be nice to wish that this is untrue, but his involvement in the conservative group Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals suggests otherwise. His stance now is decried, though in the 1940s, standing against the Red Scare wasn’t garnering him much negative publicity.
Most of all, Walt Disney, people who have a negative reaction to his iconography will say, was racist. The proof to bolster this claim is plentiful, and it’s been compounded over time as the company that the man left behind when he died in 1966 has often ignored or tried to delete many of the offensive choices either he or his animators made in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. (Whether these choices are politically correct or not, they encourage the assumption that the Disney studio of old was so bad that there’s no other option but to remove any offending material.) There is the black nymphette in the “Pastoral Symphony” sequence of Fantasia; as early as 1969, this servile character was removed from the film to avoid controversy. There is Cliff Edwards’ performance in Dumbo as a black crow, one who’s straight out of Amos ‘n’ Andy; though he’s technically unnamed in the dialogue, the character is either called Dandy Crow or Jim Crow, depending on the archival source. (The details within the Walt Disney Archive suggest the former.) There are the Native American characters in Peter Pan, from the demure and silent Tiger Lily to her chieftain father, such a painful caricature that he says “How” while raising his arm in welcome. And there is the granddaddy of them all, Song of the South, which has to be the worst possible example of possible racism toward blacks, considering how carefully the Walt Disney Company has attempted to erase the film from existence.
This book will not automatically confirm all of these assumptions about Disney’s personal beliefs or the films in question. The way that the Walt Disney Company, for example, has treated and used Song of the South to its own end is dicey at best, and maddening at worst. But to suggest that it is Exhibit A in the case of The People vs. Walt Disney is inaccurate, even though the film is often impossible to defend outside of its many technical achievements. Walt Disney’s relationship to racial issues in America is more complicated than simply declaring that he was bigoted or harbored bigoted tendencies. Many films released by the company, before and after his death, deal with race in ways that were seen as inoffensive at the time, or deal with race in ways that were meant to atone for the sins of the earlier era. None of the films that match this description are perfect; some, by the very fact that they focus so squarely on societal commentary, are awkward at best. It’s easy to say, point-blank, that Walt Disney was a racist based on the films released by his company, even if you limit your arguments to the examples cited in the previous paragraph. But the truth is more complicated than we might like to acknowledge.
The same complexity applies to a number of films released over the past 30 years from Walt Disney Animation Studios, when it was run by more progressive thinkers (or at least white men who didn’t have the same amount of blatant ingrained sexism and racism hardwired into their working attitudes). These films can be looked at, with hindsight, as a kind of apologia to more politically correct and self-aware audiences that not only wanted surface-level diversity from new films, but an understanding of past mistakes. The 1995 film Pocahontas is the counterpoint to Peter Pan, much as the 2009 film The Princess and the Frog represents a balance against Song of the South. These films are designed to be inherently respectful and honorable to the non-white cultures they depict and valorize, sometimes more than they are designed to entertain. (Whether they’re successful at any of those goals is something to discuss in depth later in the book.)
These four films do not represent the entirety of Disney’s animated output focusing on race either directly or indirectly. During Walt Disney’s lifespan, there were also such films as the South American-themed World War II propaganda pictures The Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos; merely months after Walt died, The Jungle Book was released to mostly wide acclaim despite a potentially insidious racial undercurrent in its man-vs.-animal struggle that still gets name-checked today, even by members of Walt’s extended family. In the Disney Renaissance, there are other pictures aside from Pocahontas dealing with non-white cultures, and in vastly different ways: the raucous 1992 adventure Aladdin, which whitewashes its Middle Eastern culture and characters; and 1998’s Mulan, which is as diametrically opposed in tone toward its Asian culture. (Notably, 17 years after they directed Aladdin, John Musker and Ron Clements directed The Princess and the Frog, whose tone and treatment of non-white culture is itself vastly separate from Aladdin’s.)
It’s necessary to explore the relationship that Walt Disney’s animated films, whose influences persist long after his death, have with issues of race in American culture. The work he left behind, as well as the work done under his name in the decades since, is imperfect in many ways, but to instantly presume that, in regard to racial depiction, there is a binary right-or-wrong battle puts us on shaky ground. The Walt Disney Company is largely unwilling to confront its past mistakes and creative errors in judgment, primarily content to release films embodying these mistakes and errors without any reflection or awareness. Thus, we must not allow ourselves to be equally willing to ignore them; to do so would excuse Disney’s choice to close its metaphorical eyes to its flaws. This book will analyze the films mentioned here, specifically focusing on efforts such as Peter Pan, Pocahontas, The Princess and the Frog, and the much-maligned but now rarely seen Song of the South. The prevailing assumptions we may hold about Walt Disney, his animators, or his company may be partly or wholly true, but it’s best to look past their surface and attempt to explore the deeper truth. This book exists to do just that.
Josh Spiegel is a freelance writer and critic whose work has appeared in publications such as Slashfilm, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Verge. He also cohosts the Disney movie podcast Mousterpiece Cinema with Scott Renshaw. Josh was previously the editor-in-chief of Movie Mezzanine, as well as the chief film critic and film editor of Sound on Sight. His first book, Pixar and the Infinite Past, was also published by Theme Park Press. He lives in Arizona with his wife, son, and far too many cats.