What Disney won’t show: a short summary of my MA-thesis focusing on racism in "Song of the South" (1946) and "The Princess and the Frog" (2009)
By Birgit Gauer
When the streaming service Disney+ began in late 2019 it was announced that the many films contained in its ‘vault’ would now be readily available. However, many newspapers and blogs quickly thematised the film that Disney will keep locked away: its controversial title Song of the South (1946). Why is this film so controversial? Which elements causing its controversy might actually be still part of current productions? In short: what will Disney not show and why? My MA-thesis, "Racial Stereotypes in Disney Films from Song of the South (1946) to The Princess and the Frog (2009)" (supervised by Dr. Gurke and Dr. Uebel), set out to find answers to these questions.
The Walt Disney Company is a dominant player in the media and entertainment business, reaching a lot of people around the world, especially young children. Disney’s depiction of the past is highly problematic as it might affect audiences’ perception of American history. On these grounds, the significance of Disney should not be underestimated.
As a result, my thesis brings together the fields of educational science and cultural studies and explores the question of how children's and youth films by Disney can have a lasting impact on the world view of young people. The main focus of this research lies on racist stereotyping and Disney’s problematic representation of history.
Thus, I examined the representation of racial stereotypes of African Americans in the Disney franchise. To be able to illustrate the representation of African Americans in Disney films over the last few decades, the two films Song of the South (1946) and The Princess and the Frog (2009) have been chosen for this analysis as they are the first two ones featuring an African American protagonist. I based my analysis on five categories – namely Historical Context, Portrayal of Protagonist, Stereotypes, Whiteness vs. Blackness and Reception – which were constructed on the basis of Korte’s film analysis. The aim of these categories was to enable a comparison of the two films so that the development of Disney’s representation of blackness, racial stereotypes and history becomes clear.
For the main part, I first focused on the time of the release of Song of the South, 1946, discussing how violent racism, originating from the days of slavery, continued to be topical and how this reality diverges sharply from the historical depiction in Disney's Song of the South. When the premiere of the film took place in Atlanta, the Jim Crow laws were still prevailing and as a consequence Atlanta was still a segregated city. The Ku Klux Klan made life for African Americans very hard by terrorising them through rape crimes, whipping, lynching and murdering. Many times, the white police would not prevent such horrible actions. Instead of portraying reality in those days, Song of the South depicts black and white women and men living together peacefully in racial harmony. But in this racial harmony African Americans and white citizens do not coexist on equal terms. Instead, whites are portrayed as superior whereas blacks are presented as the submissive, inferior servants who are happy about their situation as they are always overtly smiling and beaming with joy. This portrayal of African Americans being in a subordinate position to whites is stressed several times during the film as a hierarchy is constructed by placing the characters of different skin colours on different level of heights with whites at the top when they are presented together. As if these depictions of African Americans were not already degrading enough, Disney uses stereotypes such as the mammy and Uncle Tom stereotype, that were already outdated in 1946, to present the African American characters.
Seeing that historical inaccuracies and counterfactual representations are prevalent in this seemingly innocuous children's and youth film, I claim that they can engage in ideological historiography and stereotyping.
The following chapter features an intermediate chapter which summarises various films and representations of racist stereotypes in the Disney franchise between 1946 and 2009 in which Disney tried and tested patterns to covertly refer to foreign appearance by using animalistic depictions. For example, in The Jungle Book the monkeys are stereotyped caricatures of African Americans. They are not only featured with prominent lips, but they also dance around to jazz music and speak in jive slang which is a form of slang associated with black jazz musicians. The monkey king also performs a precarious song as he sings that he wants to be human and enter white society.
In close readings I then situate the film The Princess and the Frog (2009) historically and emphasise its similarly counterfactual-nostalgic representation of the Jazz Age. Here, I noticed that while many details of the 1920s have been depicted accurately, these do not transpire to the political climate or social reality of that age and use similar patterns and strategies of deferral as perceived in Song of the South and other previous films mentioned in the intermediate chapter.
Now, when older films such as The Jungle Book are shown, the company raises awareness of its own stereotypical presentations by using a disclaimer, showing that Disney addresses these issues. However, this is just a short notice at the beginning of a film. Therefore, it is of great interest to see whether Disney will present different ethnicities realistically in their future titles.
Greenberg, Bradley S., and Dana E. Mastro. “Children, Race, Ethnicity, and Media.” The Handbook of Children, Media, and Development, edited by Sandra L. Calvert and Barbara J. Wilson, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp. 74–97. Handbooks in Communication and Media.
Korte, Helmut. Einführung in die systematische Filmanalyse: Ein Arbeitsbuch; mit Beispielanalysen … Zu Zabriskie Point (Antonioni 1969), Misery (Reiner 1990), Schindlers Liste (Spielberg 1993), Romeo Und Julia (Luhrmann 1996) 4.th ed. Schmidt, 2010. ESV Basics.