10 Disney Classics That Have Been Called Out for Racism
From Dumbo to Pocahontas, these Disney films have racist imagery and themes.
The Black Lives Matter protests that have arisen since the murder of George Floyd have already inspired massive change. But in addition to policing reforms and the removal of Confederate statues, the movement has also forced many of us to take a hard look at the ways we have condoned or at least ignored racism throughout our lives. Brands like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben's are reckoning with their historically racist names and mascots, but the problem hardly ends there. Take the many Disney movies we know and love that have also been called out for racist depictions and themes, for example. While this is nothing new, it's past time to look more seriously at the uncomfortable racism in some of these family classics. And for more things to reexamine, check out these 7 Common Phrases That You Didn't Know Have Racist Origins.
Disney isn't denying the racism in Peter Pan. In fact, when Disney+ launched, Peter Pan was one of a handful of films that included a sensitivity warning: "This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions." The offensive portrayal of a Native American tribe is not unique to the Disney film either—it comes from the original play and novel by J.M. Barrie. But as Smithsonian Magazine notes, "The 1953 Disney movie doubled-down on racial stereotypes; one of the film's songs is 'What Made the Red Man Red.'" And if you want to support films by Black filmmakers, These Classic Movies by Black Filmmakers Are Free to Stream Right Now.
Like Peter Pan, Dumbo is one of the classic Disney films to get a content warning on Disney+. The movie's most controversial moment arrives when the titular elephant meets a group of crows. "The black birds are depicted using African American stereotypes of the time, with jive-like speech patterns and jazzy-gospely songs sung in harmony," as the Washington Post notes. "The main bird, named Jim Crow, was voiced by white actor Cliff Edwards, who engages in the vocal equivalent of blackface."
There's no sensitivity warning attached to Aladdin on Disney+, but that doesn't mean the film hasn't been criticized for racism in the past. Shortly after its release in 1992, Aladdin was called out for negative and damaging depictions of Arab culture. Disney actually changed two lines in the film for its home video release following pressure from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
Song of the South
One film you won't find on Disney's streaming service—or anywhere else, for that matter—is Song of the South, easily the most notorious movie the studio ever made. The film's racism has been well documented, which is why Disney mostly tries to pretend the movie doesn't exist, aside from the enduring popularity of its most famous song, "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah."
In light of the recent Black Lives Matter protests and the ensuing cultural reckoning over racism, however, some Disney fans have suggested a complete revamp of the ride Splash Mountain, which features characters from Song of the South. And for more ways racism in Hollywood is being pointed out, check out 6 Celebrities Who Were Fired After Being Accused of Racism.
The Jungle Book
Another film with a content warning on Disney+ is The Jungle Book, a movie whose racist history dates back to the novel on which it's based by Rudyard Kipling. The main problem here is the racially coded portrayal of King Louie, which is markedly different from that of any of the other anthropomorphic animals on display. As The Atlantic notes, "The Walt Disney studio of the mid-1960s seemed to have been oblivious to the idea that anyone would take offense at the character of King Louie, a jive-talking orangutan who sang to Mowgli about 'want[ing] to be like you.'"
The Aristocats earns a sensitivity warning from Disney+ for its inclusion of a Siamese cat that speaks in an offensive stereotypical East Asian accent. The cat, who is drawn as a racist caricature, sings about Chinese food.
Lady and the Tramp
Much like The Aristocats, Lady and the Tramp features Siamese cats with similarly racist imagery and stereotypical accents. But in this case, the cats get an entire song: "The Siamese Cat Song." While the number is included in the film as it appears on Disney+, along with the sensitivity warning, the streaming platform's live-action adaptation of Lady and the Tramp cut the racist song entirely.
Not everyone believes Pocahontas is racist, and the depiction of Native American culture is certainly more respectful than anything in Peter Pan. But the film sanitizes and romanticizes the far more complicated real-life story of Pocahontas and John Smith. And while the song "Savages" is clearly designed to subvert negative stereotypes of Native Americans, it is filled with violent and offensive language and imagery that undermine its progressive intentions.
At one point, Fantasia offered one of the most clear-cut and regrettable instances of racist imagery in a Disney film: Sunflower, a dark-skinned centaurette who takes care of the other light-skinned centaurs. However, despite a content warning on Disney+, the character in question (along with other similarly racist images) was edited out of Fantasia decades ago. And for more up-to-date information, sign up for our daily newsletter.
The Little Mermaid
You won't find a warning attached to The Little Mermaid on Disney+, but the film has courted controversy in the past. While some have taken offense to Sebastian's stereotypical Jamaican accent, a bigger point of contention is a shot of the Duke of Soul, a blackfish who is depicted in a way that resembles historical racist imagery, in "Under the Sea."