Started back in 1926 by the infamous Walt Disney, the Disney Company has been bringing many of us entertaining animations and stories for longer than we can remember. Being such a huge household name, it can be interesting and even shocking to learn of the history of the Disney franchise.
The brand has been tweaked and worked over the past 90 years as you would expect, molded to the norms of society over time, but for the wholesome family image that they project into our living rooms, there exists an unexpected back-story. Of course, they would probably prefer some of this information to remain dead and buried for the sake of brand image, but it is worth learning about in order to understand where such a successful company arose from, and of course for your own personal entertainment as well. Hopefully this list doesn’t put you off their films; the company has certainly turned itself around since it’s early days.
13) Racism No Longer Features In Their Films
While mainly present in only the older Disney films, the use of racial stereotypes in their movies has earned Disney a bad rep from critics on numerous occasions, with two of the more notable movies being Commando Duck (1944) and Fantasia (1940).
Admittedly, Commando Duck was made in the World War 2 era as a mockery of enemy Japanese forces, however it still contains some heavily stereotypical features. All of the Japanese people are seen squinting through glasses, constantly bowing to each other in an idiotic, over embellished fashion and having a serious overbite along with huge, ugly teeth.
Another racial theme can be found in a scene from Fantasia, in which a young black centaur-girl named Sunflower, shown with exaggeratedly big lips and a rather boyish frame, had the role of servant to a thinner, more beautiful, white centaur. This scene has since been edited out of more recent versions.
12) The Portrayal Of Leading Women
The first princess that Disney starred was in their 1937 film Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs and for all of us who have seen it (along with Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty And The Beast (1991)), we know that while the princesses were main characters, they behaved very passively. They were always portrayed as needing the help of others to achieve their goals. The common theme was that of a helpless, dependent damsel in distress who needed a man to solve her problems, unable to do so herself.
Reflective of the cultural influences of the films, this particular portrayal of women halted with the release of Pocahontas in 1995 followed by Mulan in 1998, where idea of the strong, empowered warrior princess then kicked in.
11) Sexism In The Work Place
It was common practice back in the day for Disney to only offer certain work to males, refusing to even consider hiring a woman for many of their creative positions, instead opting to employ women for roles such as tracing and coloring in animations as well as other jobs where they would have been supervised by a man.
In 1939, a woman by the name of Frances Brewer received a letter after applying for one of these creative positions, wherein it was stated that ““women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that work is performed entirely by young men. For this reason girls are not considered for the training school.”
This changed in 1941, in part due to the war where women were considered necessary for maintaining the business until the men returned.
10) Severely Undervaluing Animators
Up until the early ’40s, animators working for Disney were actually not looked after that well. In 1941, Walt was greeted at the gate of his studio by some 300 protesters who turned out to be his own cartoonists and employees. The protests lasted for 9 weeks.
Employees at the time worked 6 days a week on low wages, were not often offered bonuses or raises and if so it was very irregularly, and lastly they weren’t given any screen credit for their work like we see today at the end of films in the credits (hence the name). In fact, the only name in the credits was Walt’s. Walt fought the worker’s unions, and after a number of firings and resignations of staff, he gave in under advice from government mediators, his financiers and his brother, complying with the protester’s demands.
9) Strange Sexual Content
Now these aren’t exactly things that occurred regularly in Disney films and were more likely made by some cheeky animators having a joke, but there are at least two films in which sexual content appeared (if only for a minuscule moment).
Firstly, in the 1977 film titled The Rescuers, there is a scene when the main characters are flying through New York, and in the background, visible for only a fraction of a second is a topless woman in a window. Upon discovery, Disney had to recall 3.4 million copies of the movie.
The second item can be found in the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where animators decided to not give Jessica Rabbit any underwear as she is flung from a car, resulting in a fleeting sight of her crotch. Again, this is only there for a split second, but since then Disney has corrected it. With the level of detail they put into movies now, there is no way they could miss something like that again.
8) The Tradition Of Motherless Heroines
Did you ever notice how a number of the leading characters tend to lack mothers in many Disney films? Just look at Bambi and how the poor deer’s mother is killed, Jasmine in Aladdin, Belle from Beauty And The Beast, and Aerial from The Little Mermaid, just to name a few.
The official explanation is that Walt himself was wracked with guilt after the death of his own mother, caused by an accident in the house which he had bought her. His pent up emotions affected him so much that he refused to include mother figures in many of his films, and the theme continued to be used after his death.
7) Nazi References
As you would imagine, during World War 2 America needed its own propaganda machines in the fight against the Nazis, one of which was Disney.
In 1942, Disney made a short animation featuring Donald Duck titled Der Fuehrer’s Face, in which Donald dreams he is a Nazi and must endure hard labor and terrible food rations. The film was intended to poke fun and belittle the Nazi regime through comedy and slapstick styled humor.
Also, what you may not know is that the song titled “Be Prepared” from The Lion King (1994) sung by Scar was inspired from Nazi propaganda material from 1935.
6) Making Light Of African-American Slavery
The Song Of The South (1946) was Walt’s first live-action film of which he was very proud of and even won an Oscar for, however it made light of the forced labor that African-Americans were put through, and added to stereotypical ideas that all they loved to do was talk after white folk, go fishing and serve their masters.
Of course, the film is criticized today for this reason, however during a preview screening of the film in Atlanta, Walt Disney was forced to leave the theater as the audience reacted very unexpectedly due to the racial tensions in the society at the time. Ever since then as society moved away from the World War 2 era, Disney films have gradually lost their overt racial portrayals, in part due to the changing views of society.
5) Using Real Human Bones In Disneyland Attractions
Yes, you read that correctly. In 1967, real human bones were obtained from the UCLA Medical Center to be used as props for a Pirates Of The Caribbean ride. Designers reasoned that they wanted everything to look as life-like as possible, so why not use real human bones?
Gradually over time, the bones were replaced one by one with fake props, however there is still a myth circulating of how there is still a real human skull on display right at this moment in one of the parks. To be honest, most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between real and fake anyhow since fake props tend to be made with a lot more detail these days.
4) Using Slave Labor
It has been reported as late as 2005 that many of Disney’s toys and books have been manufactured in overseas sweatshops in countries such as China, Haiti and Bangladesh. Reports from one of the Chinese factories state that very young workers are often made to work 10-13 hours a day, 6 and sometimes 7 days a week. On average these workers earn between $0.33 to $0.41 (U.S.) an hour, just below the Chinese minimum wage.
In these environments, it is common for these underpaid employees to be cheated of their overtime pay, and it is all to frequent for people to pass out from either exhaustion or from the heat in the sweltering factories.
3) Walt’s Own Cultural Bigotry
The evidence has existed for quite a number of years, however Meryl Streep, in a presentation to the National Board Of Review in January 2014, brought up the fact that the illustrious Walt Disney held some rather serious cultural views, and was backed up later by Disney’s great niece. This explains his representation of Jewish salesmen in his earlier animation of The Three Little Pigs (1933).
In it, the big bad wolf dresses up as a Jewish salesman, sporting a dirty looking beard and a huge nose. It might be more accurate to describe Walt simply as a product of his time, as such views were not uncommon.
It was also known that Walt associated himself with the heavily anti-Semitic Motion Picture Alliance, as well as personally inviting the Nazi propagandist Leni Reifenstahl for a tour of his Hollywood studios in 1938.
2) Allowing Theme Park Staff To Go Homeless
It was common quite recently for low level employees at some Disney theme-parks to actually struggle to get by on the starting wage of $8.00/hour, with many Disney theme-park employees unable to even afford any kind of security deposit for an apartment.
This lead to many of them going homeless while working in the theme-parks, or becoming renowned for renting cheap single person motel rooms in groups, and then trying to sneak said group into the room without being caught by hotel management.
Currently, the minimum pay rate has increased by $1/hour, but if a proposed contract with the Service Trades Council goes through later this year then it will be raised to $10/hour which might be enough for those struggling for accommodation and necessities.
1) Making Employees Share Underwear
This one took me by surprise as well, however as it turns out, it’s no joke. Apparently, workers at Disney World who performed in costumes of our beloved characters such as Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy were required to wear specific undergarments produced by the theme-park, as regular underwear might bunch up and be seen through the costume.
Employees were informed that the clothing was washed thoroughly in hot water, however a number of incidences arose where employees complained of receiving stained and even smelly underwear before their shifts. There were three documented cases of workers receiving pubic lice and scabies from this, and in 2001 the company changed the workers contract provisions when a number of workers unions became involved.