Disney's Portrayal Of Culture And Race In Film

    The Disney vision of fairy-tale love stories, benevolent nature, and classic American virtues such as hard work have remained unchanged since Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse.  In Disney films stock characters and predictable plots have led to criticism that Disney films contain racist elements.  Disney faces a dilemma, the company must maintain traditional American values while realizing the changing times of today's society.  Three movies will be examined in Disney's portrayal of culture and race.  The movie Aladdin shows negative stereotypical imagery and lyrics in the movie.  In the movie The Lion King, jive talking hyenas were characters that lived in a jungle equivalent of an inner-city ghetto.  Finally, the film Pocahontas is Disney’s answer to the previous criticisms on racial/cultural biases.

In the movie Aladdin, lyrics in the opening song “Arabian Nights” contained offensive speech.  The lyrics were:

1.“Oh, I come from a land
2.From a faraway place
3.Where the caravan camels roam.
4.Where they cut off your ear
5.If they don’t like your face
6.It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”

    The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee protested and after six months, Disney altered lines four and five to: 4.“Where it’s flat and immense
5.And the heat is intense”

    However the sixth line remained as “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”  Other stereotypical portrayals of Arabs in the film include Aladdin riding on a magic carpet also the narrator of the story was dipicted as a unsightly, filthy Arab.

    Hyenas are savage animals of the African savannah.  In The Lion King, the hyenas in the movie contained African-American and Hispanic characterizations.  Using the voices of Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin, these animals resided in a inner city ghetto equivalent of the jungle.  Their behavior and environment reinforced stereotypes of these two races.

    With racial/cultural criticism in Disney's movies of Aladdin, and The Lion King, the corporation set the goal of producing a movie that would be accepted by all cultures.  The selected story line was Pocahontas, a love story between an English captain and a young Native American woman.  For this film Disney underwent sensitivity training for three years since production of the movie began.  To assure an unbiased fair cultural portrayal of Native Americans, Disney sought consel from actual decedents of Powhatan indians as well as incorporating resources from academics, historians, and the leaders of American Indian organizations.  To recreate the atmosphere behind the Pocahontas story writers, directors, animators, and composers made multiple visits to Jamestown, Virginia, the site of the original Jamestown colony.  Director Eric Goldberg, who co-directed the movie said this about the difficulty in creating a culturally sensitive film, "When you bring visual details to a film, you're also bringing a sense of the culture, you can't disengage the two. . .  Hopefully, as we continue to use ethnic casts and get advisers in the process, Disney will become more successful at it" (quoted by Sharkley, 1995).  Despite these efforts, there have been continuing criticisms regarding the actual extent to which Disney consulted the Powhatans (for example, by representatives of the Powhatan Nation) as well criticisms regarding the historical distortions contained in the film (see Ward, 2002).  

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This tutorial was produced for Psy 324, Advanced Social Psychology, Spring 1999 at Miami University.  All graphics are from the public domain, used with permission or under fair use guidelines, or were created by the authors.  Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA).  Last revised: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at 22:58:20. This document has been accessed 1 times since 1 May 1999. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman