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Racial Stereotypes in Disney Films

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Published: Fri, 15 Dec 2017

Henry Giroux, in his essay Animating Youth: The Disnification Of Children’s Culture, refers to Disney films as one of the primary institutions constructing childhood culture in the United States. But by the nineties, even the urban Indian child had access to the aura of innocence and wholesome adventure that Disney animated features supposedly exhibited. Fairytale adaptations such as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs(1937), became immensely popular and as the 22 Billion Dollar Disney enterprise furthered it’s ventures, Disney films became synonymous with well loved Children’s movies, both abroad and at home.

The objective of Disney films was to transport it’s viewers to a magical realm of enchantment and endless possibility. Disney offered a supposed alternate paradigm in which there was the promise of a “Happily Ever After”. It aimed at appealing to audiences young and old and hoped to find a universal market.

Walt Disney once stated that “Of all of our inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language.” And although it did reach audiences far and wide, for a young Indian girl watching The 1937 Disney adaptation of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, it gave her very little to identify with or relate to.

Snow White, the first on-screen Disney Princess was rendered “With lips as red as rubies” and “skin as fair as snow”. Blatantly epitomising Western ideas of femininity and beauty, films like Snow White alienated the Non-western viewer. It was a fantasy that was centred on fixed archetypes of beauty and desirability which catered to the white, western population and had no room for anybody else.

Eventually, the industry was criticised for its focus on a singular ethos and racial presentation.

Thus, the last decade of the 20th century saw Walt Disney Pictures release films that were now aimed at broadening its cultural spectrum.

Alladin, debuted as Disney’s first attempt to explore a different cultural terrain. Released in 1992, it was later followed by other culture specific films like Mulan and Pocahontas which opened in cinemas in 1998 and 1995 respectively.

Although this new brand of films hoped to establish a sense of cultural inclusivity by venturing beyond the Western World, what became clearly evident in the process, was a heavy dependence on

Despite an apparent interest in spreading the knowledge of distant cultures, these films drew excessively on racial stereotypes and produced a largely distorted idea of the cultures they depicted.

Elena Di Giovanni, in her essay “Disney Films: Reflections of the Other and the Self”, notes that Disney’s selection of certain cultures which it chose to portray, was not a choice that was arbitrary and unplanned.

According to Di Giovanni, the reasons for selecting these cultures can be ascribed to precise cultural and ideological strategies. The cultures depicted in these films are either conventionally considered to be somehow “inferior” if juxtaposed with modern Western Civilisations and to the “narrating” American culture in particular, as suggested by the Saudi Arabian-born scholar Ziauddin Sardar. Otherwise,they refer to prior stages of social and cultural development in comparison to the contemporary American standards.

These films rely almost exclusively on conventional cultural metonymies to build the representations of “the Other”.

In historical terms, the tradition of representing otherness through a filtered

Gaze finds its roots in Western colonialism. With consolidated efforts made by the

colonizers to impose their own cultural, linguistic parameters on the subjugated

populations of the so-called East, moulding the image of the Other according to their

own needs was a means to reinforce their own identity and supremacy. The

dissemination of biased representations of non-Western cultures flourished even

beyond the decades of colonial expansion, manifesting itself in various different forms, ranging from pop culture to international relations.

One of the first scholars to give a sharp account of these biased cultural encounters was Edward Said in Orientalisrn(1978). Even though primarily concerned with tracing the history of the Orientalist attitude by the West in literature, Said does not fail to consider the importance of new technologies and the media in the proliferation of this unjust tradition: “One aspect of the electronic, post-modern world is that there has been a reinforcement of the stereotypes by which the Orient is viewed. Television, films, and all the media’s resources have forced information into more and more standardized moulds”.

More recently, Ziauddin Sardar has echoed similar ideas in his 1999 publication of Orientalism, a book he writes, as assort of tribute to Said’s work, therefore titling it the same. The main interest of Sardar’s book, whose approach is even harsher than Said’s, lies in his detailed reflections upon the new, modern ways by which the Orientalist attitude manifests itself and is still spreading nowadays. By way of introduction to his work, Sardar declares that even though the project of Orientalism has way passed its “sell by date”, it is colonizing new territories, “such new territories “being related to the new geographies which are shaped – and controlled – by contemporary means of mass cornmunication like the cinema.” A whole chapter of Sardar’s work is devoted to Orientalism in films, where the author sets out to explore the treatment and manipulation of other cultures within the discourse of cinema, across different genres, including cartoons, and where he makes ample reference to the American hegemonic control of the cinematic medium. Sardar states that otherness

is generally treated as “a pattern book from which strands can be taken” to draw

up cultural representations which serve the purpose of entertaining audiences

while reinforcing, by contrast, the superiority of the narrating culture. Thus, the

” the commodification of culture” takes place whereby visual and verbal elements belonging to a distant world are taken and made suitable for smooth reception within more powerful socio-cultural settings.

Aladdin, which was based on the Arab folktale of Aladdin and the magic lamp from One Thousand and One Nights, became the most successful film of 1992, grossing over $502 million worldwide. However, almost instantly, it was met with criticism from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. The movie quite literally translated into an Orientalist fantasy. With glaringly derogatory depictions of Arab culture, and a few pointedly offensive remarks, the movie has gone down in history as one of the most controversial films.

The film portrays all Arab men as street thugs, pickpockets, emasculated palace guards, beggars, sultans, or sorcerers. A male character early in the film even declares to his master upon stealing a jewel,

“I had to slit a few throats, but I got it.”

The men are short and stocky with thick lips, missing teeth, heavy, menacing brows, and hooked noses, while the hero Aladdin and heroine Jasmine look like suburban, white, U.S. teenagers. Jasmine, though sporting dark flowing hair and with darker skin than her counterpart princesses in earlier films, still retains blue eyes. Though Jasmine must represent the Arabian heritage, the film’s producers seem to find it necessary to leave at least a vestige of tangibility that Western audiences can relate to. In the same vein, the character of Alladin, seems to disinherit his Arabian roots, as he’s cleverly christened ‘Al’, and exhibits distinctly American mannerisms throughout the film.

What one is left to ponder is whether these characters would have appealed to western audiences, had they not been endowed with these traits? And if so, why?

Arabs are shown as gratuitously cruel, with characters making several references to beheading. One Arab merchant even tries to cut off Jasmine’s hand when she doesn’t have money to pay for an apple she gave to a hungry boy. 

Most noteworthy, however is the opening sequence of the film, which was later revised due to harsh criticism and protests.

Aladdin opens with the expository song “Arabian Nights” which includes the lyrics

PEDDLER: Oh I come from a land

From a faraway place

Where the caravan camels roam

Where they cut off your ear

If they don’t like your face

It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home

The blatantly offensive final line had to be eliminated from the home video version of the film as a consequence of the numerous protests the Disney Company received after international release. However, all the other subtle and indirect hints at the American culture’s position of supremacy over the narrated Other, which is deliberately kept ambiguous and undefined in historical-geographical terms, remain untouched, and continue to carefully shape the viewer’s perception.

One of these subtle instances in the movie can be seen in the same opening sequence. The first words which are uttered by the peddler contain an unmistakable, conventional reference to the culture portrayed: “PEDDLER: Ah, Salaam and good evening to you worthy friends”.

The worldwide-known Arabic greeting is, however, immediately followed by

“good evening”, as if to compensate even for the faintest sense of estrangement

the viewer might feel upon hearing “salaam”.

Orientalist preconceptions find their way into the Disney adaptation of the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan. Walt Disney Pictures released Mulan in June, 1998 and it was the thirty sixth animated feature in the Walt Disney Animated Classics.

Mulan, which was once again infused with orientalist imagining of culture, uses a host of long-established, worldwide-known stereotypes – on the visual as well as

verbal levels. As Elina Di Giovanni points out, “cultural metonymies are very often related to specific domains such as food, which provides universally identifiable socio-cultural references and ensures easy, if strongly stereotyped identification of different nations and peoples.” In the case of verbal stereotypes, references to other cultures’ clichéd words and expressions tend to draw from common categories such as greetings, exclamations and titles. Greetings and exclamations, though not necessarily connected to the stereotyping of cultures, can nonetheless be frequently used to support cultural representations as they ensure simple and immediate identification.

In the opening sequence of Mulan, the 1998 film which portrays the Chinese culture at the time of the invasions by the Huns, the visual and verbal cultural stereotypes employed do not contain any derogatory reference, but they are equally highly conventional. An instance of this can be seen in the portrayal and dialogue of the emperor of China – who, incidentally, is always shown with the image of a golden dragon at his back – to address his army generals in a situation of emergency. He is shown to exhibit a typical trait which is often

associated with the Chinese culture, using words of wisdom to describe the fate

of his country: “EMPEROR: single grain of rice can tip the scale” Moreover,

one can note that the reference to the most popular element of the Chinese

culinary tradition does not appear by coincidence in the emperor’s line. The shot

which immediately follows features a large bowl of rice in the foreground with a

pair of chopsticks lazily picking at the rice. This image is used in the film to

introduce the protagonist herself, who will be very slowly revealed to the audience

starting from her hand holding the chopsticks.

But even more noteworthy, is that fact that the bowl of rice which alluded to in the beginning by the Emperor, and used in the introducing of the protagonist, Mulan is then later appropriated to serve American cultural interests by replacing the contents of the bowl(rice), with porridge and rashers of bacon and fried eggs, which make up Mulan’s breakfast. The bowl which contained rice in the opening scene has been deprived of its typical, if also highly conventional, Chinese content to be replaced by what looks more familiar to the American viewers, although totally remote from the eating habits of Chinese soldiers.

Moving from visual to verbal examples, the use of language is an obvious vehicle for further consolidating the presence of American culture. It is worth pointing

out that all the main characters in the films, although belonging to distant and

exotic worlds, speak with perfect American accents. Moreover, they are very

often characterized by the use of non-standard, colloquial or regional varieties of

American English.

This is the case of the dragon Mushu in Mulan, whose dialogue is generously punctuated with contemporary, informal American expressions. Similarly, in Aladdin, the most striking, informal and modem use of Ameriean English is to be found in the lines uttered by the genie of the lamp, appearing in different guises and often mimicking famous American personalities. His lines are filled with colloquial expressions as well as references to the contemporary American world.

Pocahontas, which opened in cinemas in the year 1995, presented a thoroughly revised picture of a historical figure, appropriated suitably to appeal to western audiences.

Modelled on the historical Native American figure ,Matoaka, who is more popularly known by the nickname Pocahontas, the film revamps and restructures the story of Pocahontas and showcases it as a tale where a culture under siege by British Colonialism, ends up being rescued by the “White Messiah”. The film clearly distorts historical facts and produces a tale that is made palatable to western audiences, with the White Settler rescuing the native tribe from a terrible fate, which, interestingly enough, would have been executed by his fellow men.

The movie Pocahontas deviates from the true historical story in many ways. The most significant deviation is Pocahontas’ age and the nature of her relationship with John Smith. In the movie, Pocahontas is portrayed as a twenty year old woman who falls in love with John Smith, and he with her. “From what we know of the historical record, she [Pocahontas] was a child when they met, probably between 12 and 14, and Smith was about 27,” states Thomasina Jordan, the head of the Virginia Council on Indians, and herself a Wampanoag Native-American.

However, it is not just her age that has been altered in the film version. Even her physical appearance is rendered far from factual. The on-screen Pocahontas is designed to be a tall, attractive figure, with dark, flowing hair and sharp features.

This depiction in the film has been clearly designed to cater to the “male fantasy” of the young, exotic woman. Moulded from the Orientalist perspective, she is seen as the enigmatic princess, who captivates the young John Smith with her “gentle spirit and exotic beauty.”

Moreover, the relationship between John Smith and Pocahontas, was that of a young girl and an older man. The relationship that the two share in the movie is entirely fictitious and completely inaccurate. Another deviation is John Smith’s attitude towards the Native Americans. In the movie, Smith defends the Native-Americans, and dons the mantle of the “White Messiah”. Abandoning his fellow men, Smith advocates the legitimate right of the natives to possess their own land. He states that the British are the “intruders” and have no authority to colonise and usurp the land of the natives. This heroism, is however absent in factual accounts of the story.

In reality, Smith believed that the English had a right to the land and he was not an advocate for the Native-Americans. Disney also distorts the facts about Governor James Ratcliffe. In the movie they portray him as a villainous character. At the end of the movie he tries to shoot Chief Powatan, but shoots John Smith instead. After he does this, his own men make him a prisoner and send him back to England. However, this is not confirmed in the historical account.

Thus, it is evident, that even through Disney’s attempt to create a more panoramic view of Society and the world, by retelling tales rooted in different socio-cultutal contexts, it is unable to rid itself of omniscient Western ideals which dictate the ways in which Non-western cultures are received. The non-western cultures can only be understood when either juxtaposed with western traditions or appropriated to appeal to a western audience.

The appeal of a non-white prince must be countered with distinctly Americanised mannerisms. Tales from the East seem only to be tangible if they propagate long standing stereotypes and reinforce Orientalist preconceptions.

While Disney paints portraits of cultural landscapes and attempts to traverse into the world of “The Other”, the question remains as to whether it is possible for the West to tell tales of a Non-White civilisation, without all the trappings of stereotypes and exoticism. Can a Media Giant like Disney truly showcase different cultures, without insinuating Western Supremacy over them all?

Can they truly ‘paint with all the colours of The Wind?”

—Zoya Parvin

Roll No. 19

III A


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