Do Classical Films have a Place in Today’s Society?

Chelsea Hill, Queens University.

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Imagine scrolling through Disney Plus, ready to watch one of your favourite Disney classics. Maybe it’s Peter Pan, Dumbo or The Jungle Book.  At the end of the short description detailing the plot, characters, and so on, you read: “This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions.”

Does it make you stop and think? Do you even notice it’s there?

Though it was previously speculated that Disney+ would censor scenes deemed offensive from certain classic films, they chose a different route. This notification has many questioning what is the best way to deal with older movies that may contain insensitive cultural depictions. In today’s society people are a less likely to tolerate prejudicial portrayals of marginalized groups in the media. Therefore, many people are questioning whether Disney is doing enough to address representation issues.

Critics like Psyche Williams-Forson, the chairwoman of American Studies at the University of Maryland, suggest that Disney is not doing enough to make it clear that the representations that people would watch were wrong. The vague allusion to “outdated cultural depictions” fails to address the real problem: prejudice, discrimination, ignorance, and racist views. These factors lead to offensive and demeaning depictions seen in these classic movies.

Many of us likely know what Disney’s notification is referring to, but there is still a need for this to be explicitly addressed. Disney’s current solution does go far enough to spark reflection about the inaccuracy of certain cultural representations.

Negative representation can be just as bad, if not worse, than no representation at all. Whether we are talking about a movie made a hundred years ago or just last year, these depictions still have the potential to cause damage if people are not critical about what they are watching. Film and other media help us understand the world, especially through learning about communities we may not interact with on a day-to-day basis. Repeated negative representation can cause an increase in fear and anxiety towards those being portrayed, thereby increasing prejudicial attitudes. A studyon the representation of black men found that harmful effects from being negatively represented through stereotypes included lowered self-esteem, the internalization of certain stereotypes, and potentially the perpetuation of stereotypical behaviour.

It is necessary to reflect on why a large part of the population ever perceived these offensive portrayals as acceptable. These offensive stereotypes portrayed were never based in fact, but based on the ignorance of other people’s cultures and customs. Biases and xenophobia made these predominantly white communities oblivious to their wrongdoings. One example is JM Barrie’s depiction of Native Americans in Peter Pan, which plays off tropes and stereotypical depictions that lack any bearing in reality. Anne Herbert Alton suggests, “He’s [Barrie] not being consciously racist but we still can’t let him off the hook.” White privilege and the process of othering non-white cultures and values were just as harmful then even though these practices were not considered wrong by many people.

Major problems arise in not talking about the cultural biases of the past, because it is important to realise that these prejudices are not absent from our society today. While it is true that offensive representation has not aged well because people today are more conscious about how problematic it is, these representations are very much still embedded in our lives. As Gayle Wald states: “Our cultural patrimony in the end is deeply tethered to our histories of racism, our histories of colonialism and our histories of sexism.” Merely implying that offensive representations are ‘outdated’ neglects to consider the real harm that has been done and their lasting effects.

In light of this, Disney needs to change their wording, making it more clear what problems arise from certain representations of various cultures. People have suggested looking to Warner Brothers as an example of being proactive. Unlike Disney, they have made it clear that “These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today.”  Also, they state that to censor these cartoons can be likened to claiming these prejudices never existed. Disney also needs to make this notification more evident before a movie begins to get people thinking and to start conversations, allowing people to be more critical about how minorities are being represented.

While certain Disney movies are a culprit of offensive cultural depictions, the problems extend to many production companies. There is a long history of misrepresentations of marginalized peoples in film and media. It is crucial that these issues are talked about because “people of color are individuals, not types” and stories regarding them need to reflect the truth of our experiences.

Moving forward, the best thing Disney can do with its streaming platform is to allow creators from minorities to share their stories in all its truth and honesty. All communities deserve to be seen in the media to reflect the diversity of real life. Through acknowledgement and increased representation, we can begin to heal the damage that has been done.

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Sources

Anderson, Mae. “Disney+ Adds Disclaimers, Content Warnings to Movies Featuring Racist Characters and Tropes.” Time 16 November 2019.

Donaldson, Leigh. “When the media misrepresents black men, the effects are felt in the real world.” The Guardian 12 August 2015.

Moye, David. “Disney+ Adds Disclaimer To ‘Dumbo,’ ‘The Jungle Book’ For Problematic Scenes.” HuffPost 12 November 2019.

Schiappa, Edward, Peter B. Gregg and Dean E. Hewes. “The Parasocial Contact Hypothesis.” Communication Monographs (2005): 92–115.

Yuhas, Alan. “What’s up, Tiger Lily? Peter Pan and the Native American stereotype that has certainly grown old.” The Guardian 7 December 2014.