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Disney faces new charges of racial stereotyping


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Just came across this story, which deals specifically with an animated movie Disney will release in December - but also touches on the many examples of stereotyping it has been accused of, going back to 1941's Dumbo.

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/31/fashion/31disney.html

 

May 31, 2009

*Her Prince Has Come. Critics, Too.*

By BROOKS BARNES

 

LOS ANGELES

 

?THE Princess and the Frog? does not open nationwide until December, but the buzz is already breathless: For the first time in Walt Disney animation history, the fairest of them all is black.

 

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Princess Tiana, a hand-drawn throwback to classic Disney characters like Cinderella and Snow White, has a dazzling green gown, a classy upsweep hairdo and a diamond tiara. Like her predecessors, she is a strong-willed songbird (courtesy of the Tony-winning actress Anika Noni Rose) who finds her muscle-bound boyfriend against all odds.

 

?Finally, here is something that all little girls, especially young black girls, can embrace,? Cori Murray, an entertainment director at Essence magazine, recently told CNN.

 

To the dismay of Disney executives ? along with the African-American bloggers and others who side with the company ? the film is also attracting chatter of an uglier nature. Is ?The Princess and the Frog,? set in New Orleans in the 1920s, about to vaporize stereotypes or promote them?

 

The film, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, two of the men behind ?The Little Mermaid,? unfolds against a raucous backdrop of voodoo and jazz. Tiana, a waitress and budding chef who dreams of owning a restaurant, is persuaded to kiss a frog who is really a prince.

 

The spell backfires and ? poof! ? she is also an amphibian. Accompanied by a Cajun firefly and a folksy alligator, the couple search for a cure.

 

After viewing some photographs of merchandise tied to the movie, which is still unfinished, Black Voices, a Web site on AOL dedicated to African-American culture, faulted the prince?s relatively light skin color. Prince Naveen hails from the fictional land of Maldonia and is voiced by a Brazilian actor; Disney says that he is not white.

 

?Disney obviously doesn?t think a black man is worthy of the title of prince,? Angela Bronner Helm wrote March 19 on the site. ?His hair and features are decidedly non-black. This has left many in the community shaking their head in befuddlement and even rage.?

 

Others see insensitivity in the locale.

 

?Disney should be ashamed,? William Blackburn, a former columnist at The Charlotte Observer, told London?s Daily Telegraph. ?This princess story is set in New Orleans, the setting of one of the most devastating tragedies to beset a black community.?

 

ALSO under scrutiny is Ray the firefly, performed by Jim Cummings (the voice of Winnie the Pooh and Yosemite Sam). Some people think Ray sounds too much like the stereotype of an uneducated Southerner in an early trailer.

 

Of course, armchair critics have also been complaining about the princess. Disney originally called her Maddy (short for Madeleine). Too much like Mammy and thus racist. A rumor surfaced on the Internet that an early script called for her to be a chambermaid to a white woman, a historically correct profession. Too much like slavery.

 

And wait: We finally get a black princess and she spends the majority of her time on screen as a frog?

 

?Because of Disney?s history of stereotyping,? said Michael D. Baran, a cognitive psychologist and anthropologist who teaches at Harvard and specializes in how children learn about race, ?people are really excited to see how Disney will handle her language, her culture, her physical attributes.?

 

Mr. Baran is reserving judgment and encourages others to do the same. But he added that the issue warrants scrutiny because of Disney?s outsize impact on children.

 

?People think that kids don?t catch subtle messages about race and gender in movies, but it?s quite the opposite,? he said.

 

Donna Farmer, a Los Angeles Web designer who is African-American and has two children, applauded Disney?s efforts to add diversity.

 

?I don?t know how important having a black princess is to little girls ? my daughter loves Ariel and I see nothing wrong with that ? but I think it?s important to moms,? she said.

 

?Who knows if Disney will get it right,? she added. ?They haven?t always in the past, but the idea that Disney is not bending over backward to be sensitive is laughable. It wants to sell a whole lot of Tiana dolls and some Tiana paper plates and make people line up to see Tiana at Disney World.?

 

Few people outside the company have seen footage of the movie. Among them are consultants like Oprah Winfrey, whom Disney asked for input on the racial aspects of the film and was cast as Tiana?s mother. (Movie theater owners and members of the N.A.A.C.P. have also been shown scenes, and the reactions, according to a Disney spokeswoman, were ?extremely positive.?)

 

Rather, fueling the debate are photos of related merchandise taken from a toy industry event, a one-minute teaser trailer and Disney?s enormous cultural impact.

 

The company wants to vanquish once and for all the whispers of racism that linger from stumbles in the past. Yes, ?Dumbo? traded in black stereotypes in 1941 with its band of uneducated, pimp-hat-wearing crows. All the animals in ?The Jungle Book? from 1967 speak in proper British accents except for the jive-talking monkeys who desperately want to become ?real people.?

 

More recently, ?Aladdin? ran into trouble in 1993. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee labeled certain song lyrics defamatory (?Where they cut off your ear/If they don?t like your face/It?s barbaric, but, hey, it?s home?).

 

The company responds that criticism of such well-worn examples ? particularly of films from the ?60s and earlier ? applies a 21st-century morality to movies made in sharply different times. The United States barely had a Civil Rights Act in 1967, much less a black president.

 

Disney executives think people should stop jumping to conclusions about ?The Princess and the Frog.?

 

A producer of the film, Peter Del Vecho, said: ?We feel a great responsibility to get this right. Every artistic decision is being carefully thought out.?

 

Ms. Rose, familiar to movie audiences for her role in ?Dreamgirls,? has also defended Disney.

 

?There is no reason to get up in arms,? she told reporters at a recent Los Angeles Urban League dinner. ?If there was something that I thought was disrespectful to me or to my heritage, I would certainly not be a part of it.?

 

Ms. Winfrey declined to comment. A spokesman for the N.A.A.C.P. said the organization had no immediate comment.

 

Disney often gets criticized no matter how carefully it strives to put together its television shows, theme-park attractions and movies. For years, Disney has been lambasted by some parents for not having a black princess. Now, some of those same voices are taking aim at the company without seeing the finished product. (Officially, the princesses are Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel of ?The Little Mermaid,? Belle of ?Beauty and the Beast? and Jasmine of ?Aladdin? ? all white except for Jasmine, who is Arabian. The leads from ?Mulan? and ?Pocahontas? are sometimes sold with the Princess merchandising line.)

 

Mr. Del Vecho said the idea for a black princess came about organically. The producers wanted to create a fairy tale set in the United States and centered on New Orleans, with its colorful past and deep musical history.

 

?As we spent time in New Orleans, we realized how truly it is a melting pot, which is how the idea of strongly multicultural characters came about,? Mr. Del Vecho said.

 

He described Tiana as ?a resourceful and talented person? and the rare fairy tale heroine ?who is not saved by a prince.? Once the decision was made to make the lead black, he added, ?We wanted her to bear the traits of African-American women and be truly beautiful.?

 

Getting ?The Princess and the Frog? right is of enormous importance to Disney. The company needs hits, as evidenced by a recently announced 97 percent drop in quarterly profit. The Disney Princess merchandising line is a $4 billion annual business and the company has plans for Tiana to be everywhere. Get ready for Tiana dresses, elaborate dolls and Halloween costumes.

 

The movie also marks a return by Disney to traditional hand-drawn animation. A failure could be the final nail in the coffin of an art form pioneered by Walt Disney himself.

 

In the last 20 years, Disney has made huge strides in depicting race. In 1997, the company?s television division presented a live-action version of ?Cinderella? with a black actress, the singer Brandy, playing the lead. In 1998, ?Mulan? was celebrated as a rare animated feature that depicted Chinese characters with realistic-looking slanted eyes; most animated films (even those from Japan) had Westernized versions of Asian people until that time.

 

THE debate surrounding ?The Princess and the Frog? illustrates how difficult it is to deal with race in animation, experts say. Cartoons by their nature trade in caricatures.

 

Mainstream producers have largely avoided characters of color for fear of offending minority groups, although black producers have been creating cartoons featuring stereotyped characters since the days of ?Fat Albert.?

 

Disney can take some comfort in a backlash to the backlash.

 

?This is one of those situations where I am ashamed of the black community,? Levi Roberts said in a YouTube video. ?Are we being racist ourselves by saying this movie shouldn?t have a white prince??

 

Perhaps the final word ? for now ? should come from somebody who is African-American and a former Disney animator.

 

?Overly sensitive people see racial or ethnic slights in every image,? wrote Floyd Norman, whose credits span from ?Sleeping Beauty? to ?Mulan,? in a 2007 essay on the Web site Jim Hill Media. ?And in their zeal to sanitize and pasteurize everything, they?ve taken all the fun out of cartoon making.?

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After viewing some photographs of merchandise tied to the movie, which is still unfinished, Black Voices, a Web site on AOL dedicated to African-American culture, faulted the prince?s relatively light skin color. Prince Naveen hails from the fictional land of Maldonia and is voiced by a Brazilian actor; Disney says that he is not white.

 

All I can say to this and all the complaining before the film has been seen is..."Oh, give me a break! Or, rather, give Disney a break!"

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> {quote:title=filmlover wrote:}{quote}

> All I can say to this and all the complaining before the film has been seen is..."Oh, give me a break! Or, rather, give Disney a break!"

 

Nothing would make me happier than to see Disney exceed expectations here, and creating a new standard for racial sensitivity while remaining entertaining as always.

 

Having said that, I thought the article gave some good examples of _past_ insensitivity, which most of us as kids may not have picked up when we first watched those movies (and the article didn't even have to mention Song of the South, usually one of the most cited examples).

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> ALSO under scrutiny is Ray the firefly, performed by Jim Cummings (the voice of Winnie the Pooh and Yosemite Sam). Some people think Ray sounds too much like the stereotype of an uneducated Southerner in an early trailer.

 

Hahahaha, this made me laugh! Ray the firefly!

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Oh no! Fireflies everywhere will be typecast!

 

I agree. There's no pleasing some people. The princess is black, okay? Give us a break! And the black princess will be a princess on the merchandise, not a frog, so be happy! Alas.

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OK, this may get me in trouble, but how come no one complains when cartoons lampoon white people? Lots of cartoons poke fun (subtly and not-so-subtly) at middle America, which, for the present, is predominantly white. The movie Over the Hedge, for example, under the messages of friendship and trust, is a total send-up of the whole middle American way of life. The cookie cutter houses, the rabid homeowner's association president, the rampant consumerism, etc. (This is not to say that said way of life doesn't deserve to be made fun of, but still. I'm just sayin')

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> {quote:title=traceyk wrote:}{quote}

> OK, this may get me in trouble, but how come no one complains when cartoons lampoon white people?

 

Hi, traceyk, and welcome to the boards.

 

There are many ways to answer such a question, but none I'm afraid that wouldn't take this thread in an overtly political direction, which is not the spirit in which it was intended.

 

Let's just say that people may have justifiable concerns, I guess, due to Disney's past record in this matter.

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*Let's just say that people may have justifiable concerns, I guess, due to Disney's past record in this matter.*

 

Considering the amount of racial stereotyping that occurred in American films from the teens to through the 1960s, it is amazing to me that people put all the burden on Disney when, in fact, each studio- regardless of size-contributed mightily to the problem.

 

Couple that with the fact *we as a nation* participated for far too long in racial stereotyping during that same time frame, it seems a bit ludicrous at this late date to blame it all on the movies in my opinion.

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> {quote:title=lzcutter wrote:}{quote}

> Considering the amount of racial stereotyping that occurred in American films from the teens to through the 1960s, it is amazing to me that people put all the burden on Disney when, in fact, each studio- regardless of size-contributed mightily to the problem.

 

Well, I agree with you on that, but you also have to remember that Disney is going to be perceived differently, because they used to re-release all their animated movies theatrically every 7 years or so, and now (in the age of video) they tend to do so periodically as well, in home video format, so that new generations are constantly being exposed to some of the same movies as kids in the 40s and 50s.

 

> Couple that with the fact *we as a nation* participated for far too long in racial stereotyping during that same time frame, it seems a bit ludicrous at this late date to blame it all on the movies in my opinion.

 

I don't think the article suggested we should put all the blame on the movies; nonetheless they are usually among the most widely distributed of all American mass media (on a global basis). So of course it's bound to get people talking, because it occupies such a large and prominent place in our pop culture.

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*I don't think the article suggested we should put all the blame on the movies; nonetheless they are usually among the most widely distributed of all American mass media (on a global basis). So of course it's bound to get people talking, because it occupies such a large and prominent place in our pop culture.*

 

While I agree that it should be talked about, it should be placed in its historical context. To only blame Disney or any other studio today for its practices fifty years ago or more is, to me, trying to pass the buck.

 

We, as a nation, were just as guilty as Disney and all the other studios, authors and other purveyors of what passed for popular culture back then in our racial stereotyping.

 

To single Disney (or any other studio) out for doing so allows us to pretend that we as a nation did not participate in such behavior.

 

But our history as a nation tells us that we did.

 

At some point don't we (the universal we) have to start accepting responsibility for our participation (the universal our) in racial stereotyping and stop passing the buck?

 

Holding Disney to a higher standard than we hold ourselves is not the answer.

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Well, looking over the OP again, I think that the story is mostly about what Disney is doing (or trying to do) today, and whether its _2009_ animated release will contain any racial stereotypes, or transcend such stereotypes.

 

And I don't think people try to blame Disney any more than they would try to blame other studios for the racial stereotypes or racially insensitive material in their movies; however I think Disney is in a tough situation precisely because some of its movies, like Dumbo or The Jungle Book, are still being watched by young children today. So in that sense, they're in a situation unlike, say, Warner Bros. and The Jazz Singer, because that movie is going to appeal mostly to those who are already interested in the era and understand how stereotypes of that sort were prevalent at the time.

 

I don't believe that this constitutes holding Disney to a higher standard than we hold ourselves; I think we should all hold ourselves to equally high standards; but, at the same time, Disney is in a very prominent position from which it can yield quite a bit of influence over the minds of children all over the world, so I think people are going to expect them to be responsible in the way they wield that kind of influence.

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Sorry about making my post too political. I just get frustrated when people nit-pick everything. It's a kid's movie, for heaven's sake. I'm actually glad they are featuring a black princess--they're trying, anyway. (though it may have more to do with $$ than political correctness)

 

 

 

Honestly though, I doubt most little girls will care. I've taught preschool for years and most kids probably won't notice what color Princess Tiana's prince is or even what color she is; unless they've been indoctrinated from a young age, little ones don't seem overly concerned about race. Crowns and beautiful dresses, especially if they are pink, yes--skin color, not so much.

 

 

 

Tracey

 

 

 

Oh yeah, I'm not really new-I've been on the boards for a while, intermittently. I set up an account on the new TCM world site thingie and boing! up popped this new name. Can't get the old one to work now. No idea why.

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Featuring an African-American protagonist wouldn't do much good, if she (or some of the supporting characters) were mere stereotypes.

 

Of course, I don't think anybody should pass judgment on a movie they haven't even seen.

 

However, I don't think there is any denying that the way Disney resorted to racial stereotypes _in the past_ is a legacy that it must own up to, even if it merely reflected the widespread attitudes of most Americans at the time.

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*However, I don't think there is any denying that the way Disney resorted to racial stereotypes in the past is a legacy that it must own up to, even if it merely reflected the widespread attitudes of most Americans at the time.*

 

Just out of curiosity, what steps do you think Disney should take to "own up to" it's past?

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> {quote:title=molo14 wrote:}{quote}

> *However, I don't think there is any denying that the way Disney resorted to racial stereotypes in the past is a legacy that it must own up to, even if it merely reflected the widespread attitudes of most Americans at the time.*

>

> Just out of curiosity, what steps do you think Disney should take to "own up to" it's past?

 

I think it could be something as simple as what Warner Bros. has done with some of its "Looney Tunes" and other cartoons which feature racial stereotypes. And that is, I believe, to add a disclaimer at the start of the short, acknowledging that such stereotypes are wrong, but that they reflect the prevailing attitudes of the times.

 

Here is an example of one such disclaimer from a WHV collection:

a2rity.jpg

 

And I don't think that is something Disney has done - but they have edited stuff out of their animated movies, without saying anything about it. Or, they have withhold stuff from home video release, as in the case of Song of the South.

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I think Disney and other studios are much more politically aware now that they won't do anything that will be in poor taste. Sure, in the past, they had some not-so-pleasant caricatures, but then so did every other studio. I'm sure sure each of us has ancestors that did something that racially unpleasant in their time...but do we have to apologize for that, for something that came before we were born?

 

And, hey, in case anyone if forgetting, Disney's figurehead has always been black...Mickey Mouse.

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> {quote:title=filmlover wrote:}{quote}

> I think Disney and other studios are much more politically aware now that they won't do anything that will be in poor taste.

 

Did you watch Beverly Hills Chihuahua ? :P

 

> Sure, in the past, they had some not-so-pleasant caricatures, but then so did every other studio.

 

True, but studios like WB acknowledge it, Disney doesn't seem to.

 

> I'm sure sure each of us has ancestors that did something that racially unpleasant in their time...but do we have to apologize for that, for something that came before we were born?

 

That's going off-topic. The thread topic concerns racial stereotypes in animated shorts and features.

 

> And, hey, in case anyone if forgetting, Disney's figurehead has always been black...Mickey Mouse.

 

The concept of race and ethnicity as we know it applies to humans, not the the beautiful creatures of the animal kingdom. ;)

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Today, when you view the Looney Tunes cartoons on TV, they are edited to eliminate racial prejudices and other offensive material. I am wondering if the cartoons are also edited on their DVD releases?? I have mixed emotions about editing the cartoons. We all know the sordid history of Disney, Warner and other studios, but at the same time, eliminating scenes is altering the original as it is. But I understand not wanting to introduce new generations of children to prejudices that were always wrong. I think the warning label is a very positive step to recognize the wrongs of the past. It's such a touchy subject- I am not sure what the answer is. Clearly all studios should take responsibility for their past, but you cannot change the past (which is why editing cartoons/films bothers me). You can only focus on the future and pledge to uphold a moral standard when taking into account race, sex or ethnic background.

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And I don't think that is something Disney has done - but they have edited stuff out of their animated movies, without saying anything about it. Or, they have withhold stuff from home video release, as in the case of Song of the South

 

Have you seen any of Disney's short cartoon DVD packages? The four volumes of Donald Duck cartoons, for example, go well beyond what Warner Bros. does. Cartoons with racial stereotypes and other "questionable material" are placed in a special section of each DVD called "From the Vault." When you access it, you get a special introduction from Leonard Maltin warning that material in these cartoons might make modern viewers uncomfortable. He suggests that we try to understand these cartoons as products of their time, and that parents should talk to their children about the objectionable content of these cartoons. And then you get the cartoon, complete and unedited.

 

I would say that's closer to "owning up to it" than Warner's printed disclaimer, which is only on screen for a few seconds - barely long enough to read.

 

By the way, I couldn't believe the comment in the original article about the "pimp hat-wearing" crows in Dumbo. That has to be one of the dumbest remarks ever printed in the New York Times.

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