Disney Plus Adds Warnings About Negative Stereotypes in Old Films

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Siamese cats in “The Aristocats” (above) and “Lady and the Tramp” (below) have been criticized for reinforcing Asian stereotypes.

Disney Plus has announced that it is issuing a warning when showing certain films that contain “outdated cultural depictions” on the channel.

The warning is similar to one that Warner Bros Entertainment has attached to some of its “Looney Tunes” cartoons from past decades, saying that they are “products of their time” and “may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society.”

The Disney warning applies to such classics as “The Jungle Book,” “Lady and the Tramp” and “Dumbo.”

“This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures,” the warning reads. “These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.

“Disney is committed to creating stories with inspirational and aspirational themes that reflect the rich diversity of the human experience around the globe.”

The warning is part of Disney’s “Stories Matter” initiative (www.disney.com/StoriesMatter), which is meant to improve how the company’s stories represent people and communities.

One of the films singled out is “Lady and the Tramp” (1955), whose depiction of two sinister, buck-toothed Siamese cats, Si and Am (both voiced by Peggy Lee), has been criticized for reinforcing Asian stereotypes. Their musical number, “The Siamese Cat Song,” known for the refrain “We are Siamese if you please,” was omitted from the 2019 live-action remake.

There is also a scene at a dog pound where heavily accented dogs portray the stereotypes of the countries their breeds are from, such as Pedro the Mexican Chihuahua and Boris the Russian Borzoi.

Other problematic films include:

“The Aristocats” (1970). In the musical number “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat,” “the [Siamese] cat is depicted as a racist caricature of East Asian peoples with exaggerated stereotypical traits such as slanted eyes and buck teeth. He sings in poorly accented English voiced by a white actor and plays the piano with chopsticks. This portrayal reinforces the ‘perpetual foreigner’ stereotype, while the film also features lyrics that mock the Chinese language and culture such as ‘Shanghai, Hong Kong, Egg Foo Young. Fortune cookie always wrong.’”

“Dumbo” (1941). “The crows and musical number pay homage to racist minstrel shows, where white performers with blackened faces and tattered clothing imitated and ridiculed enslaved Africans on Southern plantations. The leader of the group in ‘Dumbo’ is Jim Crow, which shares the name of laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States. In ‘The Song of the Roustabouts,’ faceless Black workers toil away to offensive lyrics like ‘When we get our pay, we throw our money all away.’”

“The Jungle Book” (1968). The character of King Louie, an ape with poor linguistic skills, sings in a Dixieland jazz style and is shown as lazy. The character has been criticized for being a racist caricature of African Americans.

“Peter Pan” (1953). “The film portrays Native people in a stereotypical manner that reflects neither the diversity of Native peoples nor their authentic cultural traditions. It shows them speaking in an unintelligible language and repeatedly refers to them as ‘redskins,’ an offensive term. Peter and the Lost Boys engage in dancing, wearing headdresses and other exaggerated tropes, a form of mockery and appropriation of Native peoples’ culture and imagery.”

“Swiss Family Robinson” (1960). “The pirates who antagonize the Robinson family are portrayed as a stereotypical foreign menace. Many appear in ‘yellow face’ or ‘brown face’ and are costumed in an exaggerated and inaccurate manner with top knot hairstyles, queues, robes and overdone facial make-up and jewelry, reinforcing their barbarism and ‘otherness.’ They speak in an indecipherable language, presenting a singular and racist representation of Asian and Middle Eastern peoples.”

Disney’s live-action/animated musical “Song of the South” (1946), condemned by the NAACP for its “dangerously glorified picture of slavery,” is not carried on Disney Plus and has never been released on video or DVD in the U.S.

Stereotypes abound in cartoons featuring popular characters. Wartime animation portraying the Japanese as subhuman includes “Tokio Jokio” (1943) with Bugs Bunny, “You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap” (1942) with Popeye, and “Japoteurs” (1942) with Superman. Live-action films in this category include “The Yoke’s on Me” (1944), in which the Three Stooges are threatened by Japanese Americans who have escaped from an internment camp.

The depiction of Japanese as buffoons with thick glasses and buck teeth continued for decades. Examples include Mickey Rooney’s performance as Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961) and the recurring character of Joe Jitsu in the “Dick Tracy” cartoons, also from the early 1960s.

In such instances there has been some debate over whether an advisory is sufficient, as opposed to banning the content outright, while others have argued that there should be no censorship.

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