Disney+, a new streaming platform with 10 million subscribers, includes a disclaimer with some of its listings of movies and TV shows:
“This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions.”
The disclaimer appears with such classics as “Peter Pan” (1953) and “The Jungle Book” (1967), but advocacy groups point out that other films, such as “Aladdin” (1992) and “Pocahontas” (1995), which have been criticized for their depictions of Arabs and Native Americans, respectively, have no such warning.
Native Americans have also taken issue with the live-action movie “The Lone Ranger” (2013), in which Johnny Depp played Tonto.
Guy Aoki, founding president of MANAA (Media Action Network for Asian Americans), shared the following critique of Disney’s racial depictions:
In the past, for DVD/blu-ray releases, Disney had excised many racially insensitive segments from some of their past productions. Now, the full versions are back on Disney+, which led to the company adding the disclaimer, “This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions.”
Many activists have pointed out that while some films did receive the disclaimers, others known to have been controversial at the time, like “Aladdin,” did not.
In 1992, TV/radio personality Casey Kasem and Don Bustany (then-president of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and co-creator of “American Top 40 with Casey Kasem”) talked with Disney about their concerns about the way the Middle East was portrayed. They also asked for some lines of the opening song to be changed and got one line changed.
They’re both gone now, and I’m sure they would’ve been upset that Disney didn’t feel a disclaimer was warranted.
But because many of Disney’s animated movies are aimed at children, would they even understand such a disclaimer? Wouldn’t it fall to their parents to have to explain what’s “outdated” and possibly harmful to them? Most adults wouldn’t even understand what the issue might be with each movie anyway, because it’s so vague.
I think “The Sound of Music” is one of the best movies ever made. If it had one of Disney’s vague disclaimers, I’d want to know what was wrong with it. Because I wouldn’t want to be insensitive by laughing at or supporting dialogue or portrayals that were, in hindsight, ignorant.
In the movie’s description, Disney could explain what the problems were, maybe even isolate the offending parts separately so viewers can watch them ahead of time, be educated about what’s wrong, then be able to enjoy the full movie. Otherwise, the entire film is tainted by this generic brush of insensitivity or ignorance.
Disney might even invite media advocates to do a commentary track or interview explaining what’s problematic with some of these productions, like Paramount did when they issued the Centennial Collection of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Several MANAA board members — Jeff Mio, Phil Lee, myself — and East West Players’ Marilyn Tokuda were not only able to speak to Mickey Rooney’s offensive yellowface performance of Mr. Yunioshi, but to explain the history of Asian/Asian American depictions and the lack of positive roles for our actors.
It was a great way of educating the public about what’s otherwise long been accepted as a “classic,” and therefore, positive, movie.
Of course, in the case of films like “Song of the South,” Disney decided it wasn’t salvageable and that it wasn’t worth making it available for viewing at all.
One past project that didn’t receive a disclaimer is the “Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers” cartoon series. In the first 1989 episode of the series, titled ”To the Rescue,” the title characters come across an old cat wearing a coolie hat and long white beard, a Siamese cat guard, then two female Siamese female cats who talk in unison and own a laundromat and underground gambling den. All speak with pseudo-Chinese accents. There’s also the super-powered Juice Lee, described by the twins as “#1 Siamese fighting fish.”
It starts at the 6:58 mark and at least one of the characters remain until the conclusion 16 minutes later.
1970’s “Aristocats” animated movie included a scene with Shun Gon, a Chinese-looking cat with slanted, squinty eyes and buck teeth who played piano with chopsticks and spoke with an accent.
In “Lady and the Tramp” (1955), there’s a two-and-a-half-minute scene with Siamese cats who look very creepy and predatory with tails that look like serpents. Their entrance is marked by a gong and “Oriental music” (that remains for almost the entire scene) and the twins move and sing in almost digital-sounding unison “We Are Siamese If You Please” (co-written and sung by Peggy Lee), which I’ve often heard Asian kids were taunted with.
In “Commando Duck,” a 1944 animated short where Donald Duck parachutes into Japanese territory, the enemy is shown with Coke-bottle glasses and buck teeth (3:40 to 3:50 mark) who bow incessantly to each other (2:03-2:37; in the end, this is sped up).