Debates about racism in animated features and cartoons have been drifting around on the internet for years now. If you were to Google ‘Racism in Animation, you would be confronted by articles with alarmist titles such as ’13 Shocking Times Disney Animated Movies Portrayed Racial Stereotypes’ and ‘Repressed Brits, evil Mexicans, Arab villains: why are Hollywood’s animated movies full of racist stereotypes’. The internet is full of people falling over themselves to condemn animation as a racist genre, but is this fair? We take a look at where these claims come from and investigate how widespread racism in animation really is.
Let’s start at the beginning. During the so-called Golden Age of animation from 1930 to 1950, all of the major studios were producing cartoons that included content we would now consider shockingly racist. This racism most often took the form of prejudiced stereotypes, such as in these examples from Looney Tunes. These cartoons also often included ‘blackface’ gags that are deemed hugely inappropriate in the 21st century.
Many of Disney’s early films are also peppered with racist content. Consider, for instance, Sunflower the Centaur from Fantasia (1940), a small black centaur girl, who was in appearance a racial caricature, and served a thin, beautiful white girl. What kind of racial stereotypes did she perpetuate? Or, do you remember the crows from Dumbo who spoke in a thick southern black accent and reinforced pretty much every racial stereotype in existence?
The defence often given for these cartoons and films is that they were a product of their times. Indeed, this cannot be denied. The period of 1930-1950 was a time of heightened immigration to the US and the racist content of these cartoons reflects contemporary anxieties regarding ‘the other’. Although this does not excuse the racist content of these cartoons, it does at least explain it.
From 1960 many of these cartoons were banned and others were ‘cleaned up’ to make them appropriate for universal viewing. At this point, the animation industry appeared to be making a conscious effort to be less racist.
However, unfortunately this didn’t really happen. Aladdin (1992) had to be censored after the film originally opened with a character describing his Arabian home as a place where ‘they cut off your ear/ If they don’t like your face’. Not quite the blackface gags beloved of 1940s Disney, but still a pretty alarming racial stereotype. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination committee objected to the line and eventually it was changed in home-video and CD versions to ‘where it’s flat and immense/ And the heat is intense’. This kind of stereotyping is also present in other late 20th Century Disney films such as The Little Mermaid (1990), in which we see a Jamaican stereotype in Sebastian the crab.
While these stereotypes cannot be regarded as a product of their time of production, they can be seen partially as a consequence of the animation medium. Animation relies upon stereotypes as a shorthand from which to create humour. As Charles De Costa notes in his essay on the topic, ‘caricaturing, which is the bedrock of cartooning, does not automatically sanction ridicule’. However, unfortunately in both of the cases cited above, the use of racial stereotype does appear to sanction ridicule.
Stereotype isn’t the only form of racism present in animation; a lack of representations of diversity also plagues the animated feature industry.
It took until 2012 for Disney to make a film about an African-American princess, Princess Tiana of The Princess and The Frog. Significantly, Disney originally wanted her to be called Maddy, and be a poor chambermaid living among the wealthy in the New Orleans French Quarter. It was only after the NAACP lobbied Disney and presented them with a petition with over 3000 signatures that they changed her storyline. Not such a great step forwards for diversity as it initially seemed. Also, Frozen, often praised for its revolutionary inclusion of two central female characters, fails to represent any kind of ethnic diversity. As Robin Harrison, of the Hollywood Branch of the NAACP observes, ‘what has now become the most successful animated feature of all time, Frozen, is probably the least diverse’.
So all in all, a pretty terrible record for Disney. But are things looking better elsewhere?
Unfortunately the answer is no, not really. Take a look at Blue Sky Studios’ Rio 2, for instance, in which ‘singing, dancing, comic-relief sidekicks are primarily voiced by African-American actors’ whilst the main characters are voiced by white actors, as Steve Rose observes. Rose also examines Illumination’s Despicable Me 2, and determines that ‘if someone was to take a bunch of hackneyed tropes about Hispanic people and animate them, this is what you’d get.’
The problem with the prevalence of racist stereotypes and a lack of representative diversity, as Rose notes, is that ‘[I]t goes without saying that racism is learned, and how diversity is portrayed on screen is a big part of that learning process’. By extension, depicting racist stereotypes and a lack of diversity in animation is harmful, particularly to children. Although this problem is undeniably widespread in the animation industry and has been since the medium’s inception, it is one that affects the whole of Hollywood. Just this year the #OscarsSoWhite backlash erupted over the lack of diversity in Hollywood.
So yes, racism is undeniably present in animated features but not any more so than in other types of film. Admittedly, the medium’s inherent reliance on stereotype does mean that racist stereotypes are to a certain extent more prevalent in animated features than live-action. However, today’s stereotypes are irrefutably significantly more subtle than those present in the animations of the early 20th century. Hopefully this means that things are slowly but surely improving and racism in the animation industry will soon be a thing of the past.