BURBANK — For years, imagineers at Walt Disney Studios have been trying to make amends for the racially insensitive content from its earlier works, sanitizing an unsavoury history that viewers by and large disregard but occasionally steeps Disney in hot water.
As part of its Stories Matter diversity campaign, streaming service Disney+ recently removed several titles from children’s profiles due to racially offensive stereotypes. Viewers under the age of seven will now be restricted from viewing Aristocats, Dumbo, Peter Pan, and Swiss Family Robinson.
“Rather than removing this content, we see an opportunity to spark conversation and open dialogue on history that affects us all,” stated Disney, one of the largest media companies in the world, valued at about US$130 billion according to Business Insider.
“We also want to acknowledge that some communities have been erased or forgotten altogether, and we’re committed to giving voice to their stories as well.”
According to UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report 2020, the minority share of the US population grows at about half a percent annually, with BIPOC constituting 40% of the country in 2018, and even more in 2019. But this population diversity is not reflected in the film industry.
“People of colour remained underrepresented on every industry employment front in 2019,” the report stated, with 3 out of 10 lead actors, 1.5 out of 10 directors, and 1.4 film writers being BIPOC.
Readers should note that Walt Disney Studios is credited in the acknowledgements for providing financial support to the study in 2019 and the first half of 2020.
The four restricted titles all belong to the Golden, Silver, or Bronze Ages of the Disney canon, and all films are well over 50 years old. To help make these historic films more compatible with the sensibilities of modern viewers, Disney+ enlisted third-party organizations and community advocates for its advisory council.
“They are supporting our efforts to increase our cultural competency by providing ongoing guidance and thought leadership on critical issues and shifting perceptions,” Disney+ said about groups like the AAFA and Define American.
Aristocats (1970), the newest of the roster, contained a cat portrayed as a “racist caricature of East Asian peoples with exaggerated stereotypical traits such as slanted eyes and buck teeth,” according to Disney+.
PHOTO Courtesy of Resonate
The company said that the character reinforces the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype as the cat sings with a mock Chinese accent — voiced by a white actor — while playing a piano with chopsticks. The cat, Shun Gon, is succeeded by a pair of racially insensitive Siamese felines in the Lady and the Tramp (1955), a film also prefaced with a content warning.
The oldest movie of the cohort, Dumbo (1941), featured a musical number with crows paying homage to racist minstrel shows. The film also had a character named “Jim Crow,” the namesake of the laws that enforced racial segregation in a codified system of racial apartheid in the southern US.
As The Ithacan noted, the film’s “Song of the Roustabouts” portrays Black labourers as “irresponsible” and likens them to animals, with dehumanizing lyrics like “Grab that rope, you hairy ape!”
Another offending title is Peter Pan (1953), which appropriates and ridicules Indigenous culture, regalia, and language, and even contains a racist slur. Similarly, Swiss Family Robinson (1960) has actors in stereotypical Asian and Middle Eastern attire and in “yellow face” and “brown face.”
“As we embrace each other’s stories, we embrace possibility. And that’s why we’re committed to doing the best we can to represent communities authentically,” the multi-billion media powerhouse stated.
In October 2020, Disney+ had issued a content warning before the aforementioned titles were played on the streaming site, informing young audiences about racially insensitive depictions in the ensuing film.
“This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures,” the disclaimer read. “These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now.”
However, how sincere and effective is the Stories Matter campaign? Is it another performative PR stunt? Or does it bring a material change within its corporate pecking order?
Many of the older animated films containing misleading, careless portrayals of race and cultures have been rebooted as live-action films, perhaps deliberately, Avery Alexander argued in The Ithacan.
“The decision to convert these particular films to live-action feels like an attempt to undo some of the company’s racist history,” Alexander wrote, “especially when you take into account how vastly different some of the live-action movies are to their animated counterparts.”
Disney’s film catalogue aside, the corporation has made significant strides with its on-screen representation in recent years, especially with notable titles such as Raya and the Last Dragon (2021), Aladdin (2019), Black Panther (2018), and Moana (2016) — although some come with their own baggage.
The multi-billion media powerhouse has still gone under scrutiny for its lack of diversity behind the camera. The newly released Raya and the Last Dragon features a roster of WOC voice actors, but it is directed by four men directors, with only one of them being a POC. Another recent Disney+ sensation, WandaVision (2021), has a relatively diverse cast — BIPOC characters are secondary, tertiary characters at best — but its directing and writing credits are overwhelmingly white.
While Disney itself is not alone in its lack of diversity, as one of the “Big Six” motion picture conglomerates, Walt Disney Studios is undoubtedly one of the biggest drivers of Hollywood’s diversity problem.
According to UCLA, while women and BIPOC have enjoyed more on-screen opportunities, there remains a gender and racial disparity in writing and executive roles.
“When it comes to writing and directing, minorities and women have gained a little ground on their white and male counterparts in recent years, but still have a long way to go.”
Writing, directing, and acting credits are the lifeblood of any woman or POC because such credits are the principal metric of success in the film industry.
Within more diverse casting is the sinister malaise of tokenism, that is, the “the fleeting promotion of a few marginalized voices, at the same time that deep structural problems persist and in many cases, are glossed over,” according to the Advocate.
Tokenism is performative activism in the truest sense of the term in that it benefits the studio’s image while also distracting from its lacklustre efforts in improving its corporate hierarchy.
“Tokenism disguises a disconcerting truth: despite the limited inclusion of a few people, the same kind of leaders control the reins of power.”
From a business standpoint, a lack of diversity injures the studio as well, since films with diverse casts resonate more with increasingly diverse audiences, the report said.
UCLA found that in 2018, films with casts made up of 21% to 30% of BIPOC actors had the highest median global ticket receipts, and in 2019, films with a 41% to 50% of BIPOC actors performed best at the box office.
“Despite that buying power, the analysis suggests, fundamental structural change in Hollywood is not yet evident,” according to UCLA.
Executive decision-making is another major hindrance to more Hollywood diversity. UCLA found that the C-suite is still quite homogenous: 91% of positions are held by white people, and 82% of the positions are held by men. Likewise, 93% percent of executive positions are held by white people and 80% by men.
This undiversified group of executives decides what projects are green-lit, in other words, certain stories from left untold. It also dictates who is appointed to important roles, on- and off-screen.
“Although the industry is changing in front of the camera, white men are still doing the overwhelming majority of the green-lighting and making the major decisions behind the scenes at the studios,” said co-author Ana-Christina Ramon.
As if affirming the report’s findings, Disney had appointed two white men — Bob Chapek and Bob Iger — to chair its dual diversity council in March, CBR reported.
According to its 2020 Corporate Social Responsibility Report, 46% of all Disney employees in the US are from minority backgrounds while only 27.8% of management roles are occupied by minorities. That said, however, these figures have increased incrementally throughout the years.
The company’s hypocrisy manifested not just in terms of gender and racial representation on film and behind the scenes, but also in its disregard for whom it chooses to collaborate with.
The live-action remake of Mulan (2020), for instance, became a subject of controversy when Disney publicly thanked several Xinjiang government entities in the end credits.
Viewers were quick to condemn Disney for working with authorities that had allegedly committed genocide against the Uyghur population. The US government estimated that about two million Uyghurs and Muslim minorities have been detained in reeducation camps in Xinjiang, CNN reported.
While it is unclear how much of Mulan — also lambasted for having a white director and almost all-white production crew — was filmed in Xinjiang. Crew members have confirmed that they scouted and filmed in the region.
“[It’s] deeply disturbing that Disney thought it was okay to partner with, and also thank, government departments, specifically propaganda departments, and a public security bureau from a region in China that is complicit with genocide,” Isaac Stone Fish of the Asia Society told CNN.
Disney is undoubtedly making progress in its efforts for diversity and inclusion; however, the demographic figures at the executive level betray the under-representation of women and BIPOC at the helm of the company.
Industry reform is not impossible. UCLA recommended five strategies for Hollywood executives to modernize worldviews with the contemporary audience: committing to a diversity mission; expanding hiring searches; implementing a robust strategy to amplify women’s voices and leadership opportunities; increasing compensation packages for recruits from underprivileged backgrounds; and finally, incentivizing diversity and inclusion at all level.
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