Explained: How Disney Represents Other Cultures

The new Disney animation “Encanto” features a magical adventure of an extended Native family. The Madrigals live in an enchanted city in the Colombian mountains. With the exception of one child, each member of the family has a unique magical power. For this film, the filmmakers worked with representatives of the indigenous Zenu population, but things were very different before. In the past, Disney has often been accused of cultural appropriation and serving racist narratives.

The “Dumbo” case

A group of crows are sitting on a branch and one of them is smoking a cigar. They laugh, dance and sing while making fun of Dumbo, the little elephant with the big ears, who sadly sits there listening. The lead singer is called Jim Crow, a reference to the infamous Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the American South, as well as the name of a stage character who wore tattered clothes and applied makeup black-faced for entertainment – a racist depiction of enslaved African-Americans.

Disney has since added a content notice for racism at the start of the 1941 film, which was also criticized for its “Song of the Roustabouts” scene, in which faceless black workers set up a marquee while singing “We work all day, we work all night / We never learned to read or write… We serve until we’re nearly dead / We’re happy-hearted roustabouts” – a cynical portrayal of black people in the United States and a trivialization of the history of slavery.

‘Bad then and bad now’

But “Dumbo” isn’t the only Disney movie with questionable scenes. In “Peter Pan” (1953), for example, the native peoples of America speak an incomprehensible language and are repeatedly referred to as “redskins”. Disney has since added content advisory notices to several of its classics, including “Dumbo,” “Peter Pan” and “The Aristocats.” It reads: “This program includes negative portrayals and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and still are today.” The disclaimer adds that the company recognizes the harmful impact of these portrayals and wants to learn from them, with the aim of “igniting a conversation to create a more inclusive future together”.

But is a notice at the beginning of a film enough? No, says filmmaker Keala Kelly, who lives in Hawaii and is Kanaka Maoli, which is the traditional name for Native Hawaiians. “With these warning signs, Disney is giving themselves a free pass to refresh and maintain racist portrayals of their past,” she says. “They won’t voluntarily give up their cash cows like ‘Peter Pan,’ because it’s not just the movie that makes billions of dollars. It’s the merchandise and the perpetual remakes of those movies,” Kelly said. . DW. She laments the fact that people whose culture is appropriated by Disney cannot defend themselves because they “are typically the most marginalized people in the world, the most colonized.”

Cultural appropriation for profit

Several examples of cultural appropriation – the inappropriate adoption of elements of a given culture or identity by members of another culture or identity – can be found in Disney films, incorporating and altering elements of another culture for entertainment purposes. For example, “Pocahontas” (1995) is based on an actual historical figure of a Native American woman, portrayed in the film as a scantily clad Disney princess who falls in love with John Smith, an English adventurer and colonialist. More recent films have also been criticized. Among them, “Moana” (2016), which tells the story of a Pacific island people. One of the critical points is that Disney has merged the cultures of several Pacific peoples into one.

“They try to erase our cultural realities in order to commodify us,” says Keala Kelly. “When Disney comes to Colombia (“Encanto”) or Scandinavia (“Frozen”) or Hawaii and the Pacific (“Moana”, “Lilo and Stitch”) and decontextualizes and dismantles local indigenous cultures, they select cherries “, She adds. “They come in, do the autopsy and take out the organ they need, transplant it into their Frankenstein version of us, and then give it to the public with these cute little kid characters. That’s the process, that’s an industrialized erasure of indigenous and marginalized peoples and cultures.”

According to her, “cultural appropriation is the opposite of cultural appreciation”. She explains that to entertain the public, Disney prefers to create an imaginary version of these cultures rather than the reality: “And that is especially true for Americans, especially when it comes to Hawaii. Because real respect for us and our culture would mean dealing with the fact that we didn’t and don’t want to be Americans. We don’t want the military here destroying our land and water.

As one of many Indigenous activists, filmmakers and scholars who have spoken out against what Disney, Hollywood and the corporate media are doing, Kelly is aware that she may “not find commercial success as a filmmaker. But I can’t stay silent about these industrialized narratives that rape my culture to death like America rapes the Hawaiian nation to death.”

Disney even took legal action to protect its profits on the very culture it represented. After the release of “The Lion King” in 1994, the company registered “Hakuna matata” – Swahili for “no worries”, popularized by a song in the film – as a trademark. The company obtained a trademark protecting the phrase from its use on clothing and footwear in 2003. Ahead of the film’s remake in 2019, activists started a petition for Disney to drop the trademark, accusing the company of exploiting a culture foreign.

New collaborations in storytelling

Disney increasingly recognizes its flaws and now seems to have understood its responsibility in representing other cultures. The company’s “Stories Matter” platform discusses various mistakes of the past, while promoting its vision for future films. The production company also works in cooperation with members of the cultures represented in its latest films.

For example, for “Frozen II”, representatives of the Sami people secured a contract from Disney to protect ownership of their culture, and they worked with the filmmakers to ensure respectful portrayal of indigenous peoples. The creators of “Encanto” also worked closely with Zenu artists and artisans to create an authentic representation of pre-Columbian culture.

“My participation in the Disney film ‘Encanto’ provided information on the work done with cane fiber, the history of the vueltiao hat in our Zenu community and the accessories made from cana flecha [a local palm fiber]. Years of work have allowed us to be recognized as master craftsmen representing the culture of the vueltiao hat,” explains local artisan Reinel Mendoza.

But for filmmaker Keala Kelly, such collaborations are not enough. The entire history of these peoples is not told. “In Colombia, so many Indigenous people are murdered for standing up for their rights. Do you think that will show in ‘Encanto’ as they portray spiritual and cultural elements of their Indigeneity? “We call what Disney and Hollywood are whitewashing,” adds the activist. “Everything is changed and rearranged so they can tell the fairy tale. This is the American story of the native peoples. Falsified, watered-down, guilt-free cultural entertainment.”