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Don’t Give Disney a Pat on the Back for Doing the Bare Minimum

Last week, Disney+ removed the films Peter Pan, Swiss Family Robinson, Aristocats and Dumbo from their children’s profiles, only making them available to patrons 7 years and up, with a disclaimer appearing before the film starts. Racist depictions of Black, Indigenous and Asian persons is what prompted the action- the disclaimer reading:

“This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.

Disney is committed to creating stories with inspirational and aspirational themes that reflect the rich diversity of the human experience around the globe.”

While the warning is somewhat of a step in the right direction, removing the films from their repertoire -in any capacity- takes accountability off of Disney for the mistakes they’ve made. Though the advisory in itself claims that they want to learn from the harm they’ve caused and incite meaningful conversations about inclusion- it seems as though any forward-moving action they take fails to do so.

Image of Aristocats character Shun Gon
“Aristocats” character Shun Gon

What I would have loved to see instead is a more direct acknowledgement of the negative impacts their racist contributions have made to the media landscape as a whole, thus exposing multiple generations to their Othering misrepresentations and mockery of other cultures. Ideally, Disney would use their influence and resources towards a proactive countermeasure. “Stories Matter” is an initiative similar to what I’m describing: the effort acknowledges, and seeks to reconcile the negative racial depictions Disney has perpetuated over the course of their cinematic history. Where it falls short is that the standalone webpage doesn’t garner too much attention towards itself, going unnoticed by those who might benefit the most from its production. Additionally, it seems to narrowly avoid actual accountability, instead masking its ugly past behind inclusive and optimistic hopes for the future.

Supposing Disney produced, for kids’ and adult profiles alike, watchable visual media that not only directly addressed the instances in question that got these feature films banned from their site, but encouraged conversations between parent and child as to how these depictions are wrong, and how adopting them into one’s worldview can negatively affect those around you. A short miniseries, for example, would be able to engage children in a way a written warning never could. Moreover, it would provide parents with a resource or jumping-off point to facilitate discussions about race for which they may feel ill-equipped to conduct on their own. It would also be an honest effort by Disney to make the same investment in reconciling the harm they created, as they did to bring these depictions to fruition in the first place. A feel-good webpage hidden among the vastness of the internet will not even scratch the surface in undoing the damage that has been done, and neither will erasing the content from their vault.

“Peter Pan” characters Tiger Lily and “The Indian Chief”
“Peter Pan” characters Tiger Lily and “The Indian Chief”

Disney has cleverly managed to dance around the misdeeds of their past by scraping by with an insincere action that does very little to incite any long-lasting positive changes. I feel that the course of action they’ve chosen doesn’t instigate any real consequences for the company, as I personally doubt that removing this particular group of films for those under 7 impacts their bottom line at all. What they have managed to do is stir up just enough controversy to ruffle the feathers of those who get suddenly sentimental about tampering with Disney “Classics”, no doubt chalking this conservative kerfuffle up to proactive change. In reality, the gesture feels performative and empty.

Sheltering young minds from what harmful biases society has to offer can only protect them so much- but what that fails to do is provide an opportunity to teach compassion, empathy and antiracism when faced with these antagonizing bits of misinformation in the real world- from the media and otherwise. With the large impact and influence Disney has on this exact demographic, it would have been an inspiring change of pace to witness an encouraging step towards healing the rifts of the past that they, themselves created.

Originally published on March 21, 2021.


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