Movies are one of the most common types of entertainment because they feature pictures that represent individual stories. Most people consider them as works of fiction on a conscious level; however, what most people do not know is that movies do affect how they perceive to some extent (Baecker, 568). As a result, stereotypical cartoon films like Dumbo and The Jungle Book, which depict the black race as inferior both physically and psychologically, may have strengthened cultural prejudices that persisted during the colonial period.
Animation films should not feature racist content owing to the young audience they cater to; Walt Disney should have therefore shown consideration by producing content that does not propagate racial bias.
History of Racism in American Media
Walt Disney Studios is a company that was formed in post-colonial America where, slavery had been abolished and the nation was in the process of healing. The American society was deeply divided along racial lines which had been occasioned by the brutality on African Americans during the slavery period. Even though slavery had ended, African Americans felt disenfranchised from mainstream American society because the biases adopted during the colonial period persisted.
Instead of condemning racial attitudes and promoting an inclusive society, mass media continued the projection of the African American society as un-American and as still being intellectually and physically inferior. These portrayals polarized the already divided the nation in two, with each race pointing an accusing figure at the other. The media can in part be blamed for the legacy of racism in America which is presently one of the leading causes of disunity. Film studios that produced films that had racist content can be blamed for the racial bias currently being experienced in America since they helped shape the mindsets of people. It has been proven that films can influence the perceptions that people develop and how they relate to their environment. A study conducted by Dr. Michelle Pautz at the University of Dayton showed that after watching a movie, the participants adopted ideas and beliefs that were similar to those advanced in the movie.
Therefore, part of the reason that the legacy of racism still exists is that film companies like Walt Disney produced films that propagated the racial bias that had been advanced in the colonial era. During the post-slavery era many white Americans did not know how to react to the new freedom bestowed upon the African American community in America. Film companies could therefore have played an integral role in promoting unity and diversity by debunking the racial sentiments of the colonial era such as African Americans being physically and intellectually inferior. Instead, companies like Walt Disney reinforced inferiority of non-white races through their animation films which were being watched by young and impressionable children. These children eventually grew up with wrong perceptions on race which they ultimately passed on to other generations effectively cementing the way races interacted with each other in America.
Walt Disney Studios.
The studio is famous for iconic cartoons and animated films such as Mickey Mouse and the jungle book, however, the company has a history of propagating racial bias in their earliest and most iconic films. Walt Disney is the man credited with founding Walt Disney Studios together with Roy who happened to be his brother in 1923. The company has been in existence for approximately seven decades in which they have produced many successful films earning it a reputation as one of the best film companies in the world. The successful animations and television shows produced have enabled the company to venture into multiple markets across the globe where its films are showcased to millions of people. The company is also famous for its theme parks which showcase various iconic Disney characters such as Mickey and Minnie mouse and hosts approximately 44,000 visitors each day.
Through various animation films such as Cinderella and Snow White, the film studio comes across as a pioneering company that is focused on breaking negative barriers that hold back individuals in the society. However, most of the iconic films such as Dumbo which propelled the company into the limelight and helped build the company into the success that it is today, feature a lot of racist sentiments.
It can be argued that the early films by the company are a product of their time, however, even then racism was considered a vice and thus the company used racial undertones in its films. The use of racial humor and prejudices was destructive to the formation of good racial relationships because the main audience of the films were young and impressionable minds. Films cited as being racist include: Fantasia, Dumbo, The Jungle Book, The Little Mermaid, Mickey Mouse, Cannibal Capers and Song of the South all which showed no consideration for their portrayal of African Americans (Lehman, 27).
In Trader Mickey, Disney portrays Africans as being unintelligent and having savage tendencies such as cannibalism, which was a reflection of the attitudes that initially led to the enslavement of the black race. In cannibal cappers, Africans are portrayed as dim-witted and savage, the film is filled with images that invoked memories of the slavery era such as the characters eating watermelons. These illustrations further alienated the African American community which was recovering from the abuse suffered in the colonial period; it also reinforced racist ideas in young white children who would have ended the legacy of white superiority.
In Fantasia, Sunflower, a dark-skinned Centaur is depicted as being a creature of lower rank and worth than the Centaurs that had fair skin to whom she acts like a servant (Breaux, 410). Another example of how Walt Disney propagated racist sentiments and in effect strengthened them was in The Song of the South. In the movie, two black actors are portrayed as being happy to serve as slaves for a white family which can be interpreted as an advocacy for slavery. The portrayal was wrong since the slave trade had claimed many lives and had lowered the dignity of black Americans thus such an illustration would only serve to demean them further. There was uproar after the release of the film which saw the movie getting banned from being sold in America, but the damage had already been done.
Racial tensions at the time of the mentioned movie releases were high following the abolition of slavery with black Americans seeking to regain their human dignity. Therefore, such racist movies only served to worsen the situation. While the white majority might find them entertaining, the black community saw them as racial insults The intentions of Disney may not be entirely understood however, these films were demeaning and could have shaped the post-slavery attitudes of racism. The movies showed the public that it was alright to treat the black Americans as inferior beings though in a subtler manner than previously done.
Effects of Racist Movies
Presently racism persists with flare-ups between black and white communities being a common occurrence, this has even extended to the National Football league where some players like Colin Kaepernick choose to kneel during the national anthem in protest. This goes to show that America is yet to achieve a harmonious coexistence between citizens of different races. The reason racism has persisted can be attributed to the negative bias propagated by the media after slavery was abolished. Discrimination increased during the era of television which as has been proven, holds significant sway in shaping people`s attitudes about a particular topic. Movie studios such as Walt Disney would have been instrumental in reducing racism by promoting ethical values such as equality, love and forgiveness. The studio should have sought to showcase the positive aspects of each race and present them as sharing equal human dignity. Black Americans should have been given equally important roles in films as their white counterparts which would have increased their self-worth and attracted respect and love from the whites. If black characters had been portrayed in a positive light, the races could have warmed up to the idea of peaceful coexistence and not one of suspicion and hate. For example, in Walt Disney`s film Dumbo, the black voices are portrayed by crows whose natural color is black (Lehman, 56). The movie further invokes the past by naming the leader of the crows Jim Crow, which is similar to the Jim Crow laws that imposed segregation. Such films brought back the memories of slavery a past that many black Americans would rather forget since it was a period in which they lacked human dignity. The racism portrayed in Walt Disney films in a sense showed that it was alright to have racist attitudes which divided the audience into two camps. On one side the whites may have taken the films as just entertainment at the expense of what they may have deemed to be a lesser race. The black community, on the other hand, would have viewed films like “The Song of the South” as an attack on their freedom and human dignity bringing about suspicion and hatred for white people.
The role of such a toxic media environment in exacerbating racial contempt in the United States should not be ignored owing to the power the media wields over people’s perceptions. It can be said that it is the continued portrayal of the black race as being inferior especially in television, that ensured racist attitudes remained in America (Fiske, Susan, Daniel, & Gardner, 210). The black community felt increasingly isolated from American life and culture since studios like Walt Disney continued to excel despite their racist films. Presently, Walt Disney is one of the largest and most recognizable film companies in the world with a market capitalization of about 178 billion dollars. Most of the recognition that the company enjoys today was built on racist films such as Dumbo and The Jungle Book, produced at a time when Americans were shunning racist attitudes. Disney studios can be seen as shaping some of the racist attitudes and beliefs responsible for the interracial conflict in America. Still, the company enjoys unwavering support in mainstream America which ignores the role Disney played in exacerbating racial discrimination.
Though it can be argued that racial sensitivity was not as commonplace then as it is now, however, this cannot excuse the fact that they consciously chose to use harmful themes to promote films (Bandura, Albert, & Jennings, 65). Disney could have produced films that supported unity and equality instead of capitalizing on the racist sentiments at the time to make money at the expense of unity and justice for all Americans.
Just as Dr. Pautz found out in her study, movies can have a direct effect on the perceptions that people develop especially young people. The use of racist content in animated films whose main audience are kids could have contributed greatly to the present racial dilemma in America (Zillmann, 128). A white child would grow up knowing that he or she is of a superior race and could discriminate against those that belonged to other races. A black child would grow up feeling inferior thus becoming resentful of other races and his or her American identify.
Movies are one of the most influential forms of art which can be attributed to their ability to stimulate multiple senses in the audience. It is this stimulation that is responsible for the forming of new and long-lasting perceptions, especially in young minds. Studio companies such as Walt Disney are responsible for the effect their content has on viewers such as formation of racist attitudes that were expressed in their films. The film company should therefore, strive to create positive content geared towards reducing social problems like racism and preventing them from being passed on to future generations of the society.
I was interested in the role that early films played in reducing or exacerbating racial ideologies in early post-colonial America and how this may have contributed to the current tensions being experienced in America. I chose this topic owing to the current polarization of the American society along racial lines and therefore I sought to find out the contribution of early animation films to the current dilemma. Children are impressionable and racial undertones in films could significantly influence the attitudes they develop later on in life.
I initially began researching the topic thinking that the only problem with early films of successful companies like Walt Disney would mainly be exclusion. However, as I delved deeper into the matter I found out that popular and iconic films from venerable studios like Walt Disney Studios directly promoted racial bias and could have promoted the racism being experienced presently.
Breaux, Richard M. “After 75 years of magic: Disney answers its critics, rewrites African American history, and cashes in on its racist past.” Journal of African American Studies 14.4 (2010): Pp 398-416.
This book delves into the past of Disney studios in regards to the history of the company including racial stereotypes and exclusion in its films. In the book the authors explore how Disney Studios capitalized on the success of their racist films and how the company built on that to become a leader in the industry. The author, Richard Breaux is an established author and lecturer at the University of Wisconsin Lacrosse with a focus in African American studies. While the publisher, The Journal of African American Studies is a respected professional journal with a history of publishing verifiable information. The author provides an exciting exposition of facts such as a newspaper headline in Princess and the Frog which indicated the win of Woodrow Wilson who was a strong proponent of segregation laws (Breaux, 405). Facts and opinions raised in the book support my observation that Disney studios did indeed propagate racial stereotypes in their films. Breaux also shares similar views with Lehman regarding African American stereotypes present in Disney animated films.
Archer, Leonard C. “Black Images in the American Theatre: NAACP Protest Campaigns–Stage, Screen, Radio & Television.” (1973). Pp 120-185.
The book explores the efforts of African American actors who embarked on a campaign to meant to reverse stereotypical portrayals of the black community`s role in American life. In the book is an explanation of the racist depictions of black Americans in cinema and the how a dedicated group went about in reversing this. The author is one of the first black pioneers in the playwriting fields and would go on to publish numerous literary works. The book was initially published by Published by Brooklyn, N.Y.: Pageant-Poseidon which by then was an established publisher of books. The book interested me since it offered first-hand insight into the racism experienced in the media industry through the eyes of a man living at the time. The author provides evidence that proves that indeed racist African American portrayals in the media were commonplace in the early days. The issues raised by Archer are similar to the concerns raised by Breaux on how racism was freely exhibited during the old days of American cinema.
Lehman, Christopher P. The colored cartoon: Black representation in American animated short films, 1907-1954. Univ of Massachusetts Press, 2009. Pp 23-77.
The book is a revealing study of how racial humor formed the central theme of cartoons made in America and how they served as a stepping pad for the film animation industry with the emergence of giants like Disney studios. Illustrations provided in the book show how film companies exacerbated racial tensions in the past and could thus be responsible for the continuation of racism in America. The information in the book is credible since the author is an established writer who has authored other books and is an associate professor. The University of Massachusetts Press is a recognized publisher of academic work that is known for quality publications. The book provided evidence on the racist nature of early animation films such as those produced by Walt Disney which was useful in advancing the factual argument in the essay. The argument advanced by Lehman connected with those of Breaux and Archer and contributed to forming a coherent argument in the article.
Peterson, Ruth C., and Louis Leon Thurstone. “Motion pictures and the social attitudes of children.” (1933). Pp 35-47.
The book investigates the effects of motion in the formation of social attitudes in young people through an analysis of results of a series of tests that were conducted on high school students. In the experiments, it was proven that the student`s opinions were influenced by the films they were exposed to, which showed how important movies in the formation of attitudes in young people. The authors` are not only certified professionals in the field of psychology but are also pioneers in their right. The book was published originally by Beaufort Books which at the time of publication of the book was well established and had a history of excellent publications. The book offered the evidence that showed how susceptible juvenile minds are to film influences and therefore it was useful in the development of both a causal and factual argument. The book connects with John Guida`s article that seeks to show the effects that watching films can have on people`s perceptions.
Fearing, Franklin. “Influence of the Movies on Attitudes and Behavior.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 254.1 (1947): Pp70-79.
The book explores the science behind the behavioral influence that films have on people, with the explanation being that they help individuals form an understanding of their world. Movies are one of the major sources of entertainment for most people owing to the stimulation that they offer. It is this stimulation according to the author that makes it possible for people to be programmed by what they see. The author is an established author who has published various scientific books such as Reflex Action which gives credence to the work done on effects of films. The book is published by The American Academy of Political and social science which is known for keeping scientific publications. The book offers scientific evidence on the effects of movies which was useful in advancing a causal argument in the essay. The source provides similar views, and they are both used to come up with a coherent explanation of the influence of movies on behavior.
Guida, John. “How Movies Can Change Our Minds.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Feb. 2015, op-talk.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/04/how-movies-can-change-our-minds/.
The article seeks to discover whether people`s perceptions can be shaped by movies through experimentation with human subjects and offering an explanation of the positive results. In the article the author explains by means of an experiment on how human minds are easily programmable whereby a good film was proven to influence the attitudes and perceptions of people. The author of the article is a respected journalist who is employed by the New York Times, giving credence to the information contained in the paper. The report was published by the New York Times which is well respected in the media industry and would therefore not propagate false information. The article provided evidence on the effects of movies and was helpful in developing both a factual and causal argument in the essay. The information provided by the material can be combined with the work of Peterson and Louis to come to come up with a coherent argument.
Zillmann, Dolf. Media, children, and the family: Social scientific, psychodynamic, and clinical perspectives. Routledge, 2013. Pp 120-134.
The author uses a holistic approach to explain the effects that the media has on children as well as the family as a unit and the remedies to the problems that can arise. Various perspectives are used to examine the effect the media has on the family and especially children and how the negative traits adopted by the children from mass media can be neutralized. This book explains the vulnerability of children to accepting or practicing ideas advanced in the media. The author is a credible source owing to his numerous publications on a similar topic regarding behavior he, therefore, has the expertise and experience to offer reliable information. The book has been published by an established publisher whose reputation cannot allow it to post a book with unverifiable information. Zillmann provides an analysis of the influence the media has on young minds which connects with Franklin`s work which offers similar information that increased confidence in both observations.
Baecker, Dirk. “The reality of motion pictures.” MLN 111.3 (1996): Pp 560-577.
The author seeks to explain the characteristics of films that make enable them to influence human behavior and thinking by explaining that films do have reality only that it has been reproduced. Films can influence people`s way of thinking because they are in a sense realistic only that the reality portrayed in the film has been created according to the thoughts and perceptions of the producers. Baecker is a renowned sociologist who has published various books in the field of sociology. The book was published by the John Hopkins University press which has a reputation to maintain and would therefore not publish unverified claims. It offers a narrative explanation of the effects of movies on human behavior which was useful in developing a causal argument in the essay. The publication is similar to the issues raised by Guida with the complementary information contained in the books being used to enhance the argument.
Bandura, Albert, & Jennings Bryant, et al. “Media effects: Advances in theory and research.” Social Cognitive Theory of Mass Communication. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (1994): Pp 61-90.
The book is a collection of comprehensive research from various scholars and therefore serving as reference volume on the effects that media has on people. An explanation is provided on the role played by the mass media in shaping societal attitudes and how people perceive things in their environment. The credibility of the information is not in doubt since the authors whose work has been included in the book are all respected scholars and professionals in each of their respective fields. Publication of the book has been done by an established company whose specialty is academic work and thus has a reputation to keep. The publication contributed evidence of the effects that media has that was used in the development of a causal argument in the essay. It offers similar explanations as Zillmann`s book with the arguments presented by both authors being compatible and served as references during the composition of the book.
Fiske, Susan T., Daniel T. Gilbert, and Gardner Lindzey, eds. Handbook of social psychology. Vol. 2. John Wiley & Sons, 2010. Pp 209-213.
The book offers valuable insight into the field of social psychology whose focus is on how people are influenced by the actions or thoughts of other people. The authors explain that whether consciously or not the attitudes and behaviors that people develop are copied from people they interact with. This book was instrumental in advancing the argument that early animation films that promote racial bias are responsible for the continuation of racism in America. provides credible information since the authors are certified scholars in the field of psychology while the book has been published by a publisher of note. The book provides evidence of how people can influence each other’s behavior and helps in developing a causal argument on how movies change people`s perceptions. The information contained in the book is similar to that advanced by Baecker and was at the heart of my discussion on the influence that films have on human perception.