Disney's self-proclaimed squeaky clean reputation is not completely without blemish. Throughout its history, the studio has come under fire numerous times for its misrepresentation - and lack of inclusion - of people of color. Racial bias within the Disney brand reaches back to the company's beginnings in the 1920s and '30s. Notably, Disney's The Princess and the Frog, released in 2009, introduced the first Black princess to Disney's lineup, and while many praised Disney for this step towards inclusivity, others contested that one film could not atone for decades of racial and cultural insensitivity.
Since the release of The Princess and the Frog - and especially since the studio's earliest offerings - Disney has substantially improved its inclusion and representation of non-white groups; however, many believe this representation could still be increased. Since Disney's acquisitions of blockbuster properties such as Marvel and Star Wars, characters of color have appeared more consistently - 2018's Black Panther became the highest-grossing solo superhero movie of all time, and the third Star Wars trilogy features a much more diverse cast than its 1970s progenitor. Despite this diversity increase, many claim the Disney brand can always expand and improve its representation.
In order to truly understand the Disney studio's growth, we must reexamine their past offerings. Some of these films are widely regarded as insensitive and have been for some time, while others still largely bask in a rosy, nostalgic glow.
Although 1955's Lady and the Tramp focuses almost entirely on animals, Disney still came under fire for its racially insensitive characters. The Siamese cats of the film mimic the "Siamese twins" stereotype - a trope likely originating from the Bunker brothers, a pair of conjoined twins who lived in the 19th century and who rose to prominence when they became "freak show" attractions.
The film's one-dimensional, villainous depiction of the cats - combined with their song that confirms their Siamese background and makes use of insensitve accents - results in a less-than-favorable spot on Disney's record.
Based on the collection of short stories by Rudyard Kipling, Disney's 1967 film, The Jungle Book, tells the story of an orphaned child who is raised by animals in an Indian jungle. One particular scene has become infamous for its tenuous racial subtext.
King Louis - a singing, dancing ape - implores Mowgli, a human boy, to teach him the secrets of fire. Although Louis sings a catchy tune, many take issue with the fact that he is clearly coded to be a Black man. While this connection is troubling enough, the actor who provided Louis's voice was white.
Aladdin's portrayal of Arabs as barbaric savages outraged Arab Americans when the film was released in 1992. The lyrics of the film's opening song, "Arabian Nights," originally read, "Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face / It's barbaric, but hey, it's home." They were altered when the film was released on home video the following year.
Current versions read, "Where it's flat and immense, and the heat is intense / It's barbaric but hey, it's home"