Nobody can deny that Disney is a defining feature of childhood. With production spanning over nine decades, Disney films are numerous, diverse and heartwarming. Not only are they entertaining, but they also contain many important moral messages for children to pick up and bring with them into their adult lives.
Unfortunately, many Disney films have not aged well. Some of their older films have been criticised for their politically incorrect or dated messages; it’s clear that the context of the social, political and cultural ideas prevalent at the time these films were produced hugely influenced the themes. However, many of their more recent productions have also come under fire. Gender issues and the portrayal of women in Disney films have been discussed for many years, but these issues have increased rather than decreased in recent years, showing that Disney is doing little to combat many decades of stereotyping.
Controversy in Disney is particularly interesting because it reflects the historical progression of society – what would have been acceptable 60 years ago now makes viewers roll their eyes or squirm in their seats. More importantly, however, it raises concerns for children and what effect these outdated messages could have on them. Because Disney is aimed at children, it’s essential that some of the more damaging messages are identified and addressed. Take a look at our list of the 10 Biggest Disney Controversies, ranked here by popularity of the films from less to more popular, for an overview of the most shocking Disney moments. Did you pick up on any of them before?
10. Dumbo – The Crows
In this beloved Disney classic, Dumbo meets a group of crows. They are portrayed as poor, useless beings who speak in jive and chain-smoke cigars. All of these crows but one are voiced by African-American actors. Disturbingly, the leader of the crows is named Jim, voiced by a white actor. Jim Crow is the boss of the other crows who are completely submissive to him… it doesn’t take long to put two and two together here and come up with an unfortunately racist slur. Probably not the best decision, Disney.
9. Alice In Wonderland – Drug Related Imagery
Alice and Wonderland, while a well-regarded children’s movie, is teeming with references to drug use. The most obvious is of course the caterpillar, who is constantly chugging on a Hookah pipe. Various other elements of the film correspond to drug use – Alice is seen eating mushrooms, shrinking from big to small (corresponding to the highs and lows of drug use) and the Mad Hatter’s behaviour mimics the frantic nature of someone under the influence of drugs. The story was written when opium smoking was very common- so the entire film is pretty trippy but it has been said the film has the potential to give children mixed messages about drug use.
8. Peter Pan – The Native Americans
The portrayal of the Native Americans in Peter Pan is undeniably offensive. Take a look at the song ‘What Makes The Red Man Red?’ from the film- awash with offensive and stereotypical imagery. The Native Americans are portrayed as wild compared to their white friends, and are shown running around teepees with feathers in their hair, clapping their hands over their mouths… Politically incorrect doesn’t even cover it.
7. Lady and The Tramp – The Siamese Cats
The Siamese cats from Lady and The Tramp have been named as some of the most racist Disney characters, said to embody negative Asian stereotypes. With heavily slanted eyes, thick accents and tanned skin, they are shown in a negative light; as manipulative, greedy and careless. Within minutes of their arrival to Lady’s house, they start destroying it. This film was released in 1955, just a decade after America’s battle with the Japanese during World War II. Because of it’s blatant imagery, a manifestation of ill feeling towards the Japanese is a likely reading of these particular characters.
6. The Jungle Book – The Apes
The apes in The Jungle Book once again seem to be an insidious slight on African-Americans. King Louie is obsessed with the idea of being accepted into a more civilised culture, stating that he wants to “be just like the other men, I’m tired of monkeying around.” In comparison to Mowgli and the other animals in the jungle, who are well spoken and in some cases have posh British accents, the apes jabber and scat. Released in 1967, soon after the Jim Crow laws had been abolished, the apes have been said to have provided a harsh, racist metaphor for how African-Americans had just begun to overcome the segregation that had been forced upon them.
5. The Little Mermaid – Phallic Symbols
The Little Mermaid hasn’t escaped controversy either- after its release on VHS, Disney were inundated with complaints from parents due to what many believed to be a blatant drawing of a penis at the centre of the golden castle. The artist claimed that the rude image was an accident due to time constraints. Above is an image of the original VHS cover, and whether you believe it was intentional or not, the resemblance is pretty striking! Disney received so many complaints that the next release of the film had an updated, phallus-free cover.
4. Pocahontas – Racial Stereotypes and Authenticity Issues
Released in 1995, it was unfortunate that this Disney film offers such a dated portrayal of Native Americans. The Native Americans are so wild in this film that they are shown to be at one with nature, speaking to the trees and the animals. Although the images are not as strong as they were in Peter Pan, the film has been said to portray Native Americans in a colonial light. This film has also been criticised as it completely changes the story of the real Pocahontas, on which it was supposedly based.
3. Aladdin – Racial Stereotypes
Aladdin has had its fair share of problems. Firstly, there was the opening scene which had to be removed by Disney upon re-release after protests by Arab groups. Secondly, Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, although they are ethnic leads, have noticeably light skin along with distinguishable western facial features, contrasting heavily with other characters in the film – the villains of the tale have much more pronounced ethnic features. The stereotypes in this film are so numerous there are too many to mention, but the overall message it gives to children about Arabian culture is almost inexcusable for a film released in 1992. The New York Times expressed these concerns soon after the film’s release.
2. Tangled – Feminist Criticisms
Tangled, one of Disney’s more recent releases, found itself at the heart of feminist debate upon release. The fact that Disney changed the film’s title to Tangled from its original title Rapunzel to make the film more gender-neutral was the original point of contention. Although it was said that Disney had clearly tried to make a less stereotypical, more feminist and independent Disney princess, many feminist blogs argued the point that Tangled is a predominantly male orientated film, with dangerous female stereotypes including a jealous mother obsessed with staying young and beautiful, and an unfeasibly skinny, young blonde girl.
1. The Disney Princesses- An Ongoing Unfair Portrayal of Women
The portrayal of the Disney princesses as a whole is quite a questionable one, and has been a point of contentious for generations. Most of the Disney princesses, with a few weak exceptions, seem obsessed with and defined by their love interests and other men in their lives. The factor that attracts the lead male to the princess is always the woman’s appearance. Critics say the Disney princesses as a whole do not give a positive message to young girls – take Ariel from The Little Mermaid, for example. She changes her appearance (by asking for legs) and leaves her family and home under the sea to live on land with Eric. Corresponding images of submissiveness appear throughout the Disney princess films. Furthermore, the body image question is one that irks many critics – every princess is, in true Hollywood style, impossibly Barbie-doll thin. It’s argued that Disney is conservative, that little has changed in over 90 years since Disney was founded: And are these really the images we want young girls to model their behaviours on?