Racism and Gender Issues in Disney pictures

Lotte Huiberts, Vince Huisman, Eduards Trascenko, Paul Evers

Influencing of children. Racist and gender-specific elements that are embedded are regarded as normal. How did these elements change over time? This will be conducted through a case study of Disney’s the Jungle Book (1967) and its remake of (2016).

Gender issues and racist content have always been a problem in the motion picture industry. Their influence on individuals and society is bigger than we could imagine. Who does not remember their childhood without thinking about the films and tv-series they saw. These family films are filled with all sorts of elements that shape our understanding of the world and often contain some sort of ideal image or lesson that is taught (Dines 2003).

Problems arise when the ‘wrong lesson’ is taught, what is good, what is evil and what is the film trying to teach? These elements are very specific to a certain place and time in the world. In 2018 however, both the content and the reflected society have changed, even within our lifetime. This leads to the question what is the ‘wrong lesson’? The trouble is, that unlike the society and political environment of a specific time period, movies are timeless and can be watched regardless of time and place. Therefore, they can bring up painful portrayals or have a negative connotation towards certain people. These portrayals can be influenced through casting and stereotyping (Wiersma 2000).

Disney has been a company that has produced family films for nearly a century and has been a leading influencer in the western world (Wiersma 2000). However, the backgrounds of their ‘family films’ have been questionable. For instance, Walt Disney himself was an alleged sympathiser with the Nazi Party and a anti-Semitic (Beitler 2017). Parallels can be drawn between storylines and writers’ attitudes which end up in the final product. Their portrayals have since been scrutinized and questioned (Beitler 2017).

Cartoons and children’s movies have the ability to influence children and youth alike by means of subliminal, latent, implied and other messaging techniques. They can impose certain visions of the world such as racial stereotypes, gender roles, beauty, good and bad, and what constitutes femininity or masculinity. Hence, the goal is to recognize these techniques, be aware of them and prevent children into falling into the trap of manipulation and imposition of certain worldviews. Our research is focused on highlighting what was, and still is, subconsciously showed to us and why there is a need to change it. From our case study of The Jungle Book (1967 & 2016) and Beauty and the Beast (1995 & 2017) we can draw a positive conclusion as there are improvements in how people (and their stereotypes) are portrayed and casted. However, awareness still needs to be raised about putting movies in the time-frame they were made and the dominant political views at that time.

If we look at the time-period in which The Jungle Book was released, we have to keep in mind the sentiment in the western world and the personal background of Kipling. In 1967, the United States was seeing a staunch amount of race riots when the Civil Rights movement was making headlines throughout the world. These riots came known, collectively, as the Long, Hot summer of 1967 (Gonsalves, 2018). During this time, it was common for non-western cultures to be depicted by western man. Kipling is no exception. As a British man born in India, the Jungle Book gives us an in-depth look into the depiction of the Orient in the western world. In the cold war period, first-world knowledge was seen as superior. Disney already made a lot of movies which showed non-western cultures in a derogatory way (Cash, 2013).

In the 1960’s and early 1970’s the baby boomer generation started to adopt a counter-culture that rallied against the dominant conservative political approach during that period. The focus on women’s right, sexual orientation and the use of recreational drugs molded into an anti-authoritarian political movement. It would not take long before this counter-culture, sometimes described as the hippie movement, would focus on discrimination and race relations. It was during this time that the well-known, established movie producers in Hollywood were predominantly conservative in thought. African Americans and blacks in general were still pictured in a harmful way and this new political movement sought to change that (Silos, 2003).

Some things were however different than during the 1920’s and 1930’s when Birth of a Nation had come out. Instead of demonizing and mocking African Americans, white movie producers tried to produce a decent movie in which African Americans were shown as realistically as they could imagine. The emphasis here is on ‘as they could imagine’. White producers would show their audiences what it meant to be black. White producers would show different types of African-American culture and they would analyze it and produce an opinion on it for their audiences to see. The problem with this is that we do not see an African-american movie, but we see a movie about African-americans based on the views of white movie producers. It is only in the last few years that this dominant approach to film has been broken and other perspectives have come to light (NPR 2015).

Since the 2000’s, there has been a significant change in diversity in cinema. Especially the ‘white male’ in a leading role has become less obvious in 2018. The rise of the internet and social media are a possible explanation for this change. Interconnectedness and openness have revealed some enormous rifts in both earnings and leading roles. Women tend to earn less than men and protagonists have mostly been men (Lang 2015). This has led to a shift in public opinion and eventually forced movie producers to make significant changes. These effects are clearly reflected industry-wide, ranging from more diverse children’s shows to more culturally diverse blockbusters. Changes have included increased importance for women and a more culturally diverse cast in film. Therefore, topics like racism, discrimination and underrepresentation are more prominent in film than ever before. Also, social media has more deep effects on the industry. The #MeToo movement can be seen as one of the recent shockwaves. Sexual harassment cases and public apologies by actors and directors alike have rendered the industry susceptible to scrutiny and forces it to adapt more vigorously and instant than in the century before.

It is no secret that popular culture has a tremendous influence on how we think about certain subjects. This influence is especially strong on young children whose minds are more malleable than adults. In order to change the perception and attitudes towards the (under)representation of different ethnic groups within popular film, it is clear that a radical approach is needed. The remaking of popular Disney movies like the Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast serve not only as a modern approach to old movies, but also as a correction on old biases and prejudices that prevailed in the earlier version of that particular movie. The cultural differences between the two different versions of both movies, strengthen our belief that the movie industry is undergoing significant changes when it comes to representation, discrimination and sexism.


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