Happily Ever After in Sight: Disney Adds 'Racism Warnings' to Animated Movies

Disney has recently added a new advisory message on several classic animated films, warning content containing racist stereotypes and harmful depictions of certain cultures

The Walt Disney Company, more commonly referred to as Disney, has recently added a new advisory message on several classic animated films. The message contains the 12-second unskippable title cards, warning that the movies contain racial stereotypes that “were wrong then and are wrong now” and that the content perpetuates “negative depictions” of certain people and cultures. 

Disney’s advisory council is comprised of leading social justice organizations such as The African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE), IllumiNative, and National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP), advocating for the communities they represent and driving narrative change in media and entertainment.

Each advisory on the Disney+ streaming service reads: 

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.

To read more about how stories have impacted society, please visit

www.disney.com/StoriesMatter.

While the film contents remain unaltered, the viewers are directed to Disney’s ‘Stories Matter’ webpage, where specific problematic scenes are discussed in detail to illuminate how they are disrespectful to people from around the world. 

Shorter warnings were previously added on problematic content when the Disney+ service initially launched in 2019 as a brief text overlay.

A few examples of classic movies receiving advisories due to the negative depictions are as follows: 

  1. The Aristocats (1970)
Courtesy of Animation Source

The Siamese Cat, Shun Gon, (voiced by white actor Paul Witchell affecting an accent) is depicted as a crass and racist caricature, mocking the sentiments of Asian people and culture. Portrayed with stereotypical traits such as slanted eyes and buck teeth, he is seen playing the piano with chopsticks and singing in poorly accented English. This portrayal also reinforces the stereotype of ‘perpetual foreigner’.  Besides this, the film features lyrics such as “Shanghai, Hong Kong, Egg Foo Young/ Fortune cookie always wrong”, which mock Chinese language and culture.

2. The Lady and the Tramp (1955)

Courtesy of Bounding Into Comics

The movie tells the story of a female American Cocker Spaniel dog named Lady and her adventures with a male stray mutt called the Tramp. They live with a refined, upper-middle-class family. A baby arrives in the family when the family invites an Aunt to take care of the baby. The Aunt brings her two Siamese cats, Si and Am, who cause a lot of trouble for Lady. These Siamese cats are depicted with slanted eyes and buck teeth, and speak in high, irritating voices with overly exaggerated “Asian” accents and poor grammar- racist depictions of Asian stereotypes. Besides these characteristics, the cats are shown as very deceitful and evil, blaming Lady for their own mischief and howling with pain when Aunt returns. Asian characters were often depicted as evil or deceitful in cartoons earlier too, and representing Siamese cats in this way reinforces the stereotype that people who look like that are not to be trusted.

3. Dumbo (1941)

Courtesy of Life Hacker

In Dumbo, the most famously decried scene is the one in which Dumbo meets a group of crows. The black birds are depicted using African American stereotypes of that time, with jive-like speech patterns and jazzy-gospel songs sung in harmony. The Stories Matter website breaks down the negative representation- “The crowds and musical number pay homage to racist minstrel shows, where white performers with blackened faces and tattered clothing imitated and ridiculed enslaved Africans on Southern plantations”. The leader of the group in Dumbo is Jim Crow, which shares the name of laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States. In ‘The Song of the Roustabouts’, faceless Black workers toil away to offensive lyrics like “When we get our pay, we throw our money all away.” Jim Crow was voiced by white actor Cliff Edwards, who sadly engaged in the vocal equivalent of blackface.


4. The Jungle Book (1967) 

Courtesy of Jungle Book Wiki

The first depiction of race appears with the entrance of the monkeys, swinging through the Indian forest in search of Mowgli, the human boy. These monkeys are shown as Black characters in a harmful way. One such instance is the bear, Baloo, shouting at them, “Why you flat-nosed, little-eyes, flaky creeps!” and pointing out physical attributes to shame them. The voices of the monkeys are forced into a gravelly, exaggerated register by white actors and strike the same tone as the minstrel show actors performing in blackface for white audiences in the ‘Jim Crow’ era. The animalistic portrayal of Black people continues in the film with the song “I want to be like you” by King Louie (played by white singer Louis Prima) of the apes. The jazz-singing ape character is considered an offensive caricature based on racist stereotypes of Black people.

5. Peter Pan (1953)

Courtesy of The New York Times

According to the explanation on Disney’s Stories Matter website, “The film portrays Native people in a stereotypical manner that reflects neither diversity of Native people nor their authentic cultural traditions. It shows them speaking in an unintelligible language and repeatedly refers to them as ‘redskins’, an offensive term’. Peter and the Lost Boys engage in dancing, wearing headdresses, and other exaggerated tropes, a form of mockery and appropriation of Native peoples’ culture and imagery.” Like the Westerns of the time, Peter Pan features the use of several Native American caricatures – “savages”- who speak in monosyllables but oddly respect the white man-child, calling him “great white father”.

6. The Swiss Family Robinson (1960)

(Photo/Pinterest) 

The family adventure includes the crew of stereotypical Asian pirates appearing in “yellow” or “brown” faces, speaking gibberish and antagonizing the Robinson family. Ill-defined, evil ethnic enemies is a disturbing image that consists even today, but seeing it in what is supposed to be a fun-family adventure, with no shade other than white among the heroes, is upsetting in a way that several modern films have ignored. The pirates are also costumed in an exaggerated and inaccurate manner with top knot hairstyles, queues, robes and overdone facial make-up and jewelry, reinforcing their barbarism and ‘otherness’.

The advisory also plays before the film “Aladdin” (1992), which featured thick Arabic accents from the vizier Jafar, but clear American tones from Aladdin and Princess Jasmine.

This is not the first time Disney Animation has had to address vintage content that “became” too offensive for audiences. The original version of Fantasia’s “Pastoral Symphony” (1943) segment featured scenes with a young Black centaur character who served the others, had a donkey’s body instead of a horse’s, and resembled racist caricatures of the time. The character, dubbed “Sunflower,” was abruptly cut out for the 1969 re-release.

Disney is not the first studio to add an advisory on old titles that feature racist attitudes or other troubling content. For example, Warner Bros. used this advisory on an old "Tom and Jerry" release: "The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. 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.”

Disney’s new advisory warning follows the actions of many other companies and streaming sites, acknowledging the racist and discriminatory portrayals of people of color in movies, brands, and products in the wake of 2020’s Black Lives Matter resurgence. HBO Max removed “Gone with the Wind” from the streaming service in June but later restored the film with a notice saying that the film ‘denies the horrors of slavery’. The Quaker Oats brand said in June that it would change the name and packaging of its Aunt Jemima brand, which is based on racist imagery. In September, the company producing the Cream of Wheat brand of hot cereal said that it would discontinue the use of a Black chef in its marketing as it “inadvertently contributed to systemic racism”. Recent shows like “30 Rock” and “Community” had certain episodes removed from streaming sites due to the use of blackface. 

Hemant Shah, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying portrayals of race and ethnicity in film and media, said that if white children watched content with unchecked racist portrayals, it could “normalize the stereotype” for them and make it “normal for them not to call out stereotypes or racist behaviors when they see them in their lives”. He also added how it could lead to self-esteem issues for children of color - “They may have a sense of ‘That’s how I am?’” 

Though he was doubtful that the disclaimer would have a large impact on children, Dr. Shah said that racist scenes offered learning opportunities when children watched them with their parents at home or in the classroom as part of media literacy education. Disney “ought to also have some sort of education program” about stereotypes in conjunction with the disclaimer, he recommended.

According to Disney, this is seen as an opportunity to spark conversation and open dialogue on history that affects us all instead of just censoring the content. The motive is to also acknowledge and raise the voices of communities that have been forgotten or been erased altogether in mainstream media. 

The Disney website adds, “As storytellers, we have the power and responsibility to not only uplift and inspire, but also, consciously, purposefully and relentlessly champion the spectrum of voices and perspectives in our world. Because happily ever after doesn’t just happen. It takes effort. Effort we are making.”

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