Racialized Representations in Disney’s Animated Films

Curator's Note

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.

Works Cited

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...

Gillota, D. (2013). Ethnic humor in multiethnic America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

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.


Rebecca (if I may), I'm very glad to have read your analysis. It's not easy to pack such a comprehensive critique into such a small space! I would be interested in your thoughts on how Gillota's work on essentialism might figure into discussion of socioeconomic (class) stereotypes in anthropomorphized animals in animation. In my current book project, I am working with a concept I call "stereotype inertia," in which the challenge of characterization--that is, differentiating among cartoon characters who look very similar (like the seven dwarves)--has often been met with a deployment of unexamined sterotypes related to invisible differences of class, region, and ability in addition to more visible ones of gender and race. I am using this idea to think about how developments in animation technology with potential to transform representation seem infrequently to lead to substantive change. The example that comes to mind from the films I wrote about in my post (the various Dalmatians movies) is the use of varying working-class accents, nicknames, hobbies, and such to characterize only certain puppies from one litter. I would also add that the existence of such essentialism in the earlier films eventually provides a groundwork for the studio to perform an updating of values, but in a decidedly ironic tone: in 102 Dalmatians, the smartest character is the small, spotless, nonconformist female puppy Oddball. If you're interested, perhaps we should consider proposing a theme week?--Carolyn

Thank you for your comment, I have never thought about those characters in that way. I have never thought to examine the use of varying working-class accents, nicknames, hobbies, in characterizations - which is such an interesting and unique take! I think proposing this as a theme is an excellent idea, and I would be happy to participate. 

Your analysis is intriguing, and it reminds me of an article I wrote on the erasure of race discourse in the movie "The Princess and the Frog." The film touches on the issues of class as a way to excuse racist behavior. In the film, systemic racism does not exist in Disney’s meta-universe. In the scene where Tiana is scoffed at by the bankers at the party, the comments made by the two men are ambiguously dismissive - they might or might not have been about race. Disney eschewed the topic of race, deliberately cryptic on why she was denied the loan. The bankers could easily be talking about her economic background, as they reason that her offer was denied on a building because she was outbid. Because of how vague the implication appears to be, the argument can still be made that the bankers demoralize Tiana for being poor, not for being black. The ambiguity allows Disney to gingerly balance on the fine line of progressive ideologies but still refuses to establish a hard argument against racism.

Implementing your analysis, I find that Tiana's animation as a frog is arguably another example of an anthropomorphized amphibian in animation that relies heavily on her working-class accent and race. I would be really interested to hear your take on this and I am looking forward to your current book project!

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