For our IB HL English Language and Literature class, we have been studying language through social relations, power, and the history and evolution of it. The topic that particularly piqued my interest was language and power. In this topic, we observed how certain words have a negative/positive connotation and how people use words and/or phrases to their advantage to relate to a certain group or demographic. I have chosen to use this topic in relation to the power of stereotypes and racism portrayed in Disney movies. This written task relates to the racism and stereotypes in Disney Movies and the impact they have on children. The movies that I analyzed were Dumbo, Brer Rabbit, and The Lion King. Through the portrayal of storytelling and opinions, I am able to emphasize how strong and powerful these stereotypes are on an individual, especially African Americans. To allow for a fully-developed analysis of this topic, I chose to do an op-ed piece in The LA Times about the personal experience I have had with learning about the racist portrayals in Disney and how it can be reflected on African Americans. In conclusion, throughout this unit, I have learned that the way stereotypes are portrayed can be potentially harmful to minority groups such as African Americans.
Disney is a brand that we associate with pureness and happily ever afters. However, even with all that Disney magic, there’s a hidden darkness that’s lingering behind it all.
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I grew up watching Disney films with my friends and family. From the iconic Lion King to one of my favorites, Tangled, they’re a staple in many people’s lives. However, while re-watching certain Disney movies, I have noticed the number of stereotypes of African Americans, racism, and usage of African American Vernacular English, or AAVE, that are present in these movies. Disney makes content that people of all ages can watch, and they have a responsibility to not portray certain groups as lower than human or in negative light.
To start, I decided to use one of the oldest Disney films, Dumbo. Dumbo was made in the 1940s and it is about a circus elephant who is born with huge ears, causing him to have the ability to let him fly. Dumbo is bullied by many people around such as his own mother and the other peers around him. Due to Dumbo’s large ears, Dumbo causes many accidents that hurts the surrounding animals near him. In particular, there are these crows in this movie that play the stereotypes that are present in this movie. For example, the crows speak in AAVE and say phrases such as “Brotha”, “I seen that all too” and “You ain’t up in no tree.” These are examples of slang, omission of auxiliary, and double negative.
To add onto the usage of AAVE, the crow that uses it the most is the leader of the flock. The main leader is named Jim, which is representative of the Jim Crow laws, which were laws that were in place to enforce racial segregation. Also, the main leader is voiced by a white person. This ties in with the character of Jim Crow, who was a white person that used black face and mocked black people for the fun of it. While these implications may not be picked up by children right away, the fact that it was in the movie is wrong. Children are watching these movies and when they see that AAVE is used for teasing, they’re more likely to associate it with idea that AAVE is used only for mocking, and not as an actual branch of the English language. Disney should not have made it where it seemed as if they were targeting African Americans and mock the language that they have made for themselves.
Another old movie that uses AAVE is Brer Rabbit. Brer Rabbit is a trickster who is witty and uses his smarts to his advantage. In the movie, the rabbit is trying to trick this bear. The bear uses AAVE and says phrases such as “Here he come” and “It ain’t goin’ fool nobody”. These are examples of omission of 3rd person singular and double negative. In the movie, the usage of AAVE is used by the bear, and the bear is portrayed as dumb in the movie. Due to this, this may lead children to make the connection that people who use AAVE are dumb and slow. To add on to it, the bear was a brown bear. Not only did Disney portray the usage of AAVE is by dumb people, but is insinuating that people of brown skin, aka African Americans, are the only ones that use it. This leads to the possibility that children will see Africans Americans as dumb and use a language that is lower than standard English. This makes it seem as if AAVE is invalid and should only be used by people with lower levels of knowledge. This ruins the way children and society as a whole view African Americans, even though they don’t deserve to be viewed as something as mean and untrue as dumb.
Now moving onto a favorite of many, The Lion King. If you somehow live under a rock and don’t know what The Lion King is, it is about this lion named Simba, the new heir to the animals in the Pride Lands. Although the usage of stereotypes is a little less noticeable, it is still there. There is not outright usage of AAVE, but the lead hyena is voiced by Whoopi Goldberg, an African American woman. The hyenas all have a thuggish, African American accent when they talk in the movie. This may give children the impression that only the henchmen or helpers of the villain are the ones that have an African American accent. This leads to children building up stereotypes in their head so when they hear an African American person talk, they might associate it with evil and villainous activities. This furthers the stereotypes that African Americans are evil, thugs, and people who take advantage of others.
Disney has come a long way from their movies such as Dumbo and Brer Rabbit. However, there are movies like The Lion King and The Princess and The Frog that still have negative or stereotypical portrayals of African Americans. We are still fighting against racism and stereotypes and companies such as Disney should not participate in these harmful behaviors.