Linguistics and its relation to popular Westernized media has been closely related since the inception of pop culture. The topic of language has not been in question per say, but the issue of dialect and how it is incorporated to supplement stock characters in children’s movies and shows, has caught the attention of many. How and why do multi-billion industries resort to overly cheesy, and sometimes cringe-worthy, stereotypes? At a very young age, many children are exposed to movies, whether at the theater or on videos at home. One major producer of children’s movies is the Disney corporation.
These animated films are often perceived as innocent and wholesome. Given the influence the Disney ideology has on children, it is imperative for parents, teachers and other adults to understand how such films attract the attention and shape the values of the children who view and buy them. One of the earliest examples of this kind of stereotype is in Fantasia (1940). In one of the scenes of Fantasia, the Sunflower Centaur scene to be exact, there are numerous of African centaurs hoof-polishing handmaidens for prettier, Aryan centaurs.
It was insulting enough for Disney to include the smiling servant stereotype to begin with, but, to make matters worse, they started categorically denying Sunflower’s existence with the Fantasia re-release in 1960. How does that possibly make things better? It’s as if Disney was saying that in their perfect world of Fantasia, African’s aren’t slaves, they don’t even exist! Another perfect early example of stereotypes in Disney movies is the classic Dumbo (1941), which has been noted for its near blatant portrayal of African-American stereotypes.
In the children’s movie, the protagonist Dumbo is taunted because of his large ears, and his friend Timothy, in an attempt to cheer him up, subsequently gets him drunk. After a night of drunken hallucinations Timothy and Dumbo wake up in a try alongside a group of black crows. These crows speak in a typical African-American jive slang, and swear that Dumbo flew into the tree with his ears. The crows claim, with their jive accents, that Dumbo can not refute their proclamation because they are experts on everything “fly”. Moreover, the lead crow is ironically named Jim Crow.
Not only is this a clearly inappropriate movie for children, it is offensive and uses African American slang to degrade blacks, and portray them as thin, frail, and uneducated. Not too long after, the film The Jungle Book was released on Disney as well. One would think that after the first couple of times Disney got the whole stereotype thing wrong they would clean up their act. Anyway, The Jungle Book is noted for having the apes in the movie speak with African American accents. The most racially prominent event during this movie is when King Louie, an orangutan, bursts into a song which has lyrics that have underlying racial meaning.
The ape sings about how he wishes he could be human; now this may not seem to distasteful but when supplemented with a typical jive-accent, it is construed negatively. This movie was released during a time when African Americans are racially degraded with slurs that relate to them as apes due to their facial structure and color. The film further reinforces that slur by planting it into children’s innocent minds. There have been many instances of racism identified in Disney movies including Oliver and Company, with a Chihuahua named Alonzo that is portrayed as a Latino troublemaker. At one point in the film, he talks about stealing cars.
This negative stereotype is what children may remember when they hear someone speak with a similar accent. Lady and the Tramp features the Siamese cats that negatively portray Asians. They clearly have stereotypical Asian features such as slanted eyes, buckteeth and very heavy accents and are depicted as sinister, cunning and manipulative. Some of the more current releases with racial stereotyping include Aladdin, the Lion King, Tarzan, and Pocahontas. The Aladdin character in that movie portrays “bad” Arabs with thick foreign accents while Anglicized Jasmine and Aladdin speak in standard Americanized English.
Aladdin looks and sounds like a fresh-faced American boy. One of the evil characters, Jafar, looks very Arabic. Some of the lyrics in the movie convey racist overtones: “I come from a land…where they cut off your ears if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home”. In The Lion King, the hyenas clearly speak in a kind of street, inner city African American dialect. They are considered the bad guys. Tarzan, which was released in 1999, is set in Africa but does not feature any black people. It is difficult to identify animated Disney movies with positive black role models.
It is evident that the Disney movies mentioned portray certain races and cultures in a negative manner. Children who view these movies without an informed adult explaining these inaccuracies may form negative biases and prejudices. In order to teach young children to resist these biases and to value differences, it is important for parents and teachers to present children with positive images. Unfortunately, this is our Western culture and this is what we have to deal with. Western culture is intertwined with stereotypical slang, but Western society has proven itself to be progressive, so the cause for a less insulting media is inevitable.