Disney's wrestling with its racist history on Disney Plus

The company's history is in the spotlight again, thanks to a successful petition to rebrand Disneyland's Splash Mountain, a ride based on a racially problematic movie.

Jennifer Bisset Former Senior Editor / Culture
Jennifer Bisset was a senior editor for CNET. She covered film and TV news and reviews. The movie that inspired her to want a career in film is Lost in Translation. She won Best New Journalist in 2019 at the Australian IT Journalism Awards.
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Jennifer Bisset
6 min read

Disneyland's classic ride Splash Mountain.


Disneyland's Splash Mountain, a water-based log ride through scenes of cute rabbits, bears and foxes, is going to be rethemed, thanks to several petitions on Change.org. Activists lobbied for Disney to make over the attraction first launched in California in 1989, because its music, characters and location are all drawn from Disney's racially problematic movie, 1946's Song of the South.

The combined live-action and animated musical, set on a southern plantation after the end of the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery, has been criticized for glorifying plantation slavery and promoting Black stereotypes.

While former Disney CEO Bob Iger said in March that Song of the South is "not appropriate in today's world" and would never be on Disney Plus, the film's famous song Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah remains a feature of Splash Mountain.

"Some of the songs and the characters are still very much part of the Disney legacy, so it's a very strange situation," says Jessica Balanzategui, a lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology, who specializes in childhood, history and national identity in global film and TV.


1946's Song of the South with Br'er Rabbit and Uncle Remus.


"A lot of us would be familiar with some of those characters and some of the popular songs without ever having seen the original film," Balanzategui said.

In the current moment, where the fight for racial justice and the dismantlement of systemic racism has reverberated through the media, some companies have taken steps toward change, including alerting audiences to prejudiced or racist material in their back catalogue.

On Sunday, UK pay TV broadcaster Sky added a disclaimer to the original 1941 Dumbo, the original 1967 The Jungle Book, the original 1992 Aladdin and around a dozen more films.

When you search for one of these movies on Sky Cinema, a subscription service that houses Sky's on demand movies, the description of the movie reads, "This film has outdated attitudes, language and cultural depictions which may cause offence today."

HBO Max recently pulled 1939's Gone with the Wind, a monument of American film history, criticized for featuring Black stereotypes and romanticizing the South during the era of segregation.

Gone with the Wind returned to HBO Max on Wednesday, with a four-and-a-half minute video introduction by Black scholar Jaqueline Stewart to provide more context and help educate about racism.

"We failed to put the disclaimer in there, which basically sets up the issues that this movie really brings up," WarnerMedia chairman Bob Greenblatt said. "We took it off and we're going to bring it back with the proper context. It's what we should have done. I don't regret taking it down for a second. I only wish we had put it up in the first place with the disclaimer. And, you know, we just didn't do that."

The remnants of Disney's murky history have long been the subject of debate. In the inception of Splash Mountain, Disney altered a "Tar-Baby" scene from the movie for the ride, given its racist associations. The movie's African American character Uncle Remus who tells tales about the animal characters also doesn't appear, except for his thoughts and sayings on signs throughout the queue.

Still, Disney has been criticized for being too lighthanded with addressing problematic representations in its movies from the '30s, '40s, '50s and even up to the '90s, ramping up at the end of last year around Disney Plus' launch.

The streaming platform arrived with disclaimers bookending the descriptions of some of its old cartoons, saying, "This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions."


The disclaimer on the synopsis of the original Dumbo cartoon.

Disney Plus

Examples include 1955's Lady and the Tramp, whose Siamese cat characters have been criticized for channeling Asian stereotypes; 1941's Dumbo, featuring a crow character called Jim Crow and others who speak using jive-like speech patterns; and 1994's The Lion King, whose hyenas have been interpreted as symbolizing racial minorities.

While HBO Max and Sky aren't targeted at children, Disney Plus is designed to be a family-friendly hub. Some argue that when Disney Plus launched in November, the company could have done more to address the context of its older films for the children watching them.

"It is tricky," Balanzategui says, when it comes to the Disney Plus disclaimers. "Disney could have used stronger language, which would more proactively invite a conversation around the context of these caricatures."

Disney didn't respond to a request for comment.


Children parked in front of a TV.

Photo Illustration by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

'Children are like sponges'

Disney Plus' subscription numbers snowballed during the coronavirus lockdown, with parents not only having Marvel, Pixar and live-action remakes to keep their children entertained, but older Disney cartoons many parents grew up with.

Some worry this is problematic for children who are dropped in front of cartoons with "outdated depictions," because they could imbibe certain prejudices.

"These shouldn't be watched by children by themselves," says Daryl Sparkes, senior lecturer of media studies and production at the University of Southern Queensland, "because children are like little sponges and they soak up attitudes and feelings and opinions."

A possible scenario when children watch older cartoons on Disney Plus is they don't notice the disclaimer at all. These messages appear only in the movie's description, not as a separate tag inside the movie window. It could just as easily go unnoticed by parents as well.

Since children aren't yet able to spot questionable cultural stereotypes, they shouldn't watch the Disney cartoons alone, Sparkes says. Parents should pull up a pillow and watch alongside them, explaining how once upon a time that was how people used to think.

"That becomes a real educational value for the kids themselves, because they're able to go, 'OK, this is what happened back then, but we're not like that anymore and these are the reasons why.'"

The Disney legacy

Warner Brothers has censored many of its racially offensive cartoons from as far back as the '30s and, in 2014, added a content warning to the beginning of old Looney Tunes cartoons like Tom and Jerry on streaming platforms, using far stronger language than Disney, admitting they "may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today."

Early reports suggested Disney Plus would exclude problematic scenes of movies like the original Dumbo, but Balanzategui says Disney made the right choice by keeping the movies intact. "Editing out these problematic depictions isn't the right way to go."

Editing the material would be the equivalent of erasure of Disney and North America's troubling histories, Balanzategui says. These movies are artifacts of a shared animation and cultural history. "We don't want to just edit out the confronting parts and pretend they never existed."

In an extreme case like Song of the South, including it on Disney Plus would have demanded careful conversations around it, Balanzategui says. It would be used more as an education tool than what we think of as entertainment.


Dumbo and the group of crows.


But for movies like Lady and the Tramp, Dumbo or The Lion King, which do feature on Disney Plus with disclaimers, the biggest worry for parents is children consciously or unconsciously acquiring cultural language they're not yet able to contextualize.

That's where conversations about problematic stereotypes can help children establish context around troubling representations, Balanzategui says. Parents may even be able to spark curiosity in their children about the historical context of the media they're watching. Children could learn to see entertainment as part of a wider network of cultural and historical influences.

Some kids, however, are simply too young to have these conversations. "This is when parents should be really careful about the kind of content that their children are watching," Balanzategui says.

While Disney buried much of the controversy around Song of the South from modern audiences, it has responded to calls to revisit attractions at Disneyland before. Disney removed a scene from the immensely popular Pirates of the Carribean ride that showed brides up for auction and renamed a ride called the Indian War Canoes and a hotel called Disney's Dixie Landings Resort.

While the successful petitions -- one of which has over 20,000 signatures -- around Splash Mountain spurred change, the many parents stuck at home due to the coronavirus pandemic might want to keep an even closer eye on what their kids are watching. Disney Plus' disclaimers are easy to miss and in a moment where many are doing their homework on the past and the injustices and inequalities of the present, it's a good time to notice them.

First published June 18.

Updates, June 21: Adds Sky description; June 25: Adds news of the petitions' success.

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