Surely we can't be the only ones with that sneaking suspicion that Walt and co weren't particularly ahead of the curve at fairly portraying a rainbow spectrum of characters. The Princess and the Frog may have been Disney's first attempt at using a Black American character as a lead (seriously, how did lions get to rock that first?) but a few decades ago wouldn't have made it past the cutting room floor. Here's a look at some of our favourite racially offensive toons from Disney studios.
Let's start our foray into cultural insensitivity with Mickey Mouse's banana boy from West Africa. He appears in Mickey Mouse and the Boy Thursday, a Disney book published in 1948. Here's the premise: a mysterious cart of bananas arrives at his house and hello, out pops a "queer little fellow" sent by his (predictably?) semi-literate African American brother, Friday.
Thursday wreaks so much barbaric havoc in Mickey's life that he decides to sell him ("a real wild man!") to the circus for free. Ah, of course: that cornerstone of childhood happiness also dabbles in a little human trafficking. Ya know, when someone's pigeon English just gets too hard to understand.
Over in the motion picture world, Disney continued with their apparently well-intended depictions of non-white ethnic groups. Siamese cats blazed the trail for East Asian racial stereotypes, since there's nothing quite like a touch of anthropomorphism to strengthen typecasting. The creepy cats in the Lady & the Tramp allude ever so subtly to 'oriental' percussion and the broken Engrish all Asians supposedly use to express themselves. It comes in handy when they run their launderette cartels and feign constant confusion, like the Siamise Twin Gang from Chip'n'Dale's Rescue Ranger series. Since, well, that's not stereotypical at all.
Leaving no stone unturned, Disney also subliminally belittled Native Americans. Granted, Pocahantas' incredible hair and diving abilities did make some amends, but couldn't really rectify the disconcerting composition that is "What Made The Red Man Red" from Peter Pan. Just in case you'd also wondered why Native Americans are a deep Crayola red, it's down to a kiss. 'Legend has it' one guy got snogged, blushed red, then everyone else followed suit. It's only logical that the template for all skin tones is white, right? Right?
Sunflower at work, in the original Fantasia
Now onto the film versions that turned out to be so offensive you can't even buy them any more. First in line trots a largely unknown character from the most unorthodox Disney film ever made. Sunflower the donkey-legged centaur shows that apparently black characters in Fantasia just needed to be around to clean stuff up. Edited out of all versions of "The Pastoral Symphony" since 1969, she was the sort of maid for all the other hot centaur girls, doing their nails and brushing their tails in their 'yeah, we're going out!' prep. The fact that Disney chose to delete her later kinda hints at the fact that she's not the best idea they'd ever had.
Similarly, creatives at Disney also edited the lyrics to Aladdin's opening song, "Arabian Nights". The original version alluded to 'barbaric' Arab legal practices: you know, "where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face". Since 1994 the film's theme now replaces that line with something about the intense heat and immense flat landscape - it still holds onto the line about barbarism, which I think is rather bold. The questionable nature of Aladdin's ethnicity also raises a few flags on racial stereotyping. In typical Disney form, he speaks in an American accent (he's a hero, after all) but also has a skin tone several shades lighter than his thickly-accented and purposefully 'ethnic' (read unattractive) rival, Jafar.
An honourable mention goes out to the random Siamese cat in The Aristocats, who plays piano with chopsticks to a distinctly 'eastern' melody for no apparent reason. Now that takes skill.
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