Disney’s quest to readapt their classic animated films into live-action remakes sought to implement a representational shift that would mimic the desires of their modern audience for more diverse and stimulating characters. These films have, in turn, quickly become contested sites of cultural discussion, with movie-goers demanding inclusivity and diversity in their casting practices. From the origins of media and film, people of color continue to face challenges as they struggle to depict their own perspectives, beliefs, culture, and identities. Specifically, the past few Disney remakes (Dumbo, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and The Lion King, and The Jungle Book to name a few) have stumbled in their endeavors to communicate more progressive ideologies about race. Disney films and the information presented in these forms of media impact our beliefs and behaviors as it relates to racial differences, stereotypes, microaggressions, and perceptions of women and people of color. In consideration of how race is presented in the media historically, Disney’s attempts at revising its past leads to the erasure of important issues that, in turn, likely still reinforce stereotypes through media for capitalistic gain.
The Lion King (2019) allows us to better evaluate these stereotypical representations of ethnicity in animation. Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo and Mary K. Bloodsworth-Lugo (2009) provide the useful term, “racialized anthropomorphism," and claim that "though animals (and other non-human characters) are anthropomorphized in children’s animated films, these films also, unfailingly, racialize nonhuman characters in the process. That is to say; these characters are not simply transformed into some generic “human” (for there are no generic humans); rather, they are inscribed, for example, as White “humans,” Black “humans,” Asian “humans” or Latino “humans.” Thus, we maintain that animal and other nonhuman characters undergo a kind of racialized anthropomorphism within animated films" (p. 168).
It is vital that we look at how racialized portrayals of animated characters have permeated standard industry practice and how it has attempted to subvert overt racist modes of the past, while still managing to illustrate certain racial undercurrents. “On a more profound level, these films serve as tools that help to teach children to maintain the racial (and racist) ideologies that maintain the status quo” (Lugo-Lugo & Bloodsworth-Lugo, 2009, p.175).
Films like The Lion King transplant ethnic stereotypes into imaginary settings and thus strip them of any relevant historical or social context. This makes it difficult for their viewers, especially children, to view a stereotype as a cultural construction or as a result of historical circumstances. The result, then, is simply to reinforce the stereotype as an essentialist trait (Gillota, 2013, p.109). In addition, marketing a film with a diverse cast, but not having any people of color on screen takes away from the representation of the film, but the casting is still a step in the right direction. Disney is taking the next logical step in the production of more ethically representational films with its live-action remake of Mulan, set to be premiered in 2020, with the cast being made up Chinese actors, in stark contrast to the 1998 animated feature that employed Donny Osmond to be the singing role of a primary Chinese figure.
For a conglomerate like Disney, they have yet to unlock the fine balance of race representation that they can make marketable and saleable. Instead of addressing the mistakes of their past, they overcorrect the female characters in newer live-action remakes, seeking to make these stories more marketable, such as turning Nala and Shenzi into ‘girl bosses.’ When racism is acknowledged, it is never systematic, but the fault of a few bad apples. Although they pay lip service to progressive and liberal ideals, they ultimately conclude that nothing of the status quo needs to be challenged, which is convenient as Disney continues to own more and more of the media that we consume.
There is no way to make Disney’s contentious relationship with racist stereotypes and ideology a meta-contextual profitable trope, so it will stay locked away where Song of the South (1946), a live-action/animated film, lives. Critics have described the film's portrayal of African Americans as racist and offensive, maintaining that the black vernacular and other qualities are stereotypes. In addition, the plantation setting is sometimes criticized as idyllic and glorified.
As Disney positions itself to become the biggest media monopolistic conglomerate in history, the trend is less about meta-commentary, but more so in priming viewers to be loyal to the company. Gains are made, but they are minute compared to the volume of content Disney puts out, especially in the live-action department that is presently doing well both commercially and critically.
President of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production, Sean Bailey, sheds light on this live-action phenomenon explaining that, “we can re-approach these stories with the very best talent and the very best technology available, and we can try to make them reflect the world around us a little more” (Coggan, 2017). It would seem that addressing any of these societal problems in the text of their films would mean that Disney would have to formally face and acknowledge its own past. These live-action films do not have meta-commentary for the sake of being forward-thinking or to make the world a better place; they are ‘woke’ in order to attract audiences to pay to see their movies and to consume as much product as possible.
Coggan, D. (2017, March 24). Beauty and the beast and the future of Disney's live-action remakes. Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved from http://ew.com/movies/2017/03/24/beauty-and-the-beast-and-the-future-of-d...
Lugo-Lugo, C. R., & Bloodsworth-Lugo, M. K. (2009). “Look out new world, here we come”? Race, racialization, and sexuality in four children’s animated films by Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks. Critical Studies/Critical Methodologies, 9(2), 166-178.