So after decades of cultural stereotypes and offensive movies, Disney has decided their much anticipated streaming service will make said films available for today’s generation. But to avoid any assumption of insensitivity, the powers that be decided to add a disclaimer at the beginning of the films stating that they “may contain outdated cultural depictions.”
“May” contain? They don’t know? How hard is it to decide if something’s socially and culturally offensive?
Well, when you’re talking about beloved classics such as Dumbo or The Lion King, it might be harder than you think. Dumbo’s critics love to bring up the presence of the crows who are a mishmash of black stereotypes. The Lion King’s nay-sayers like to highlight the hyenas who are an embodiment of unwelcome minorities. And The Jungle Book’s monkeys represent foolish and criminal black people.
Yes, stereotypes were definitely used. After all, these were movies in which animals were given human characteristics. So they used generalizations of different social and racial groups. It’s wrong today, but was acceptable back then.
Then again, even today some groups still seem to be an acceptable target for stereotypes. The effeminate homosexual shows up in TV and movies. Native Americans appear as standardized quiet, overly serious personalities that intimidate others – if they show up at all. Comedian Hasan Minhaj has won awards for poking fun as his own Muslim Indian stereotypes.
Will these be acceptable in ten years? After all, norms change.
I fell in love with Dumbo’s story of being different from everyone else. The crows were simply a comedic break. But my childish eyes never saw them as black men, just as The Jungle Book’s monkeys were just monkeys. And those Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp were never stand-ins for Asian culture.
Making connections between movie characters and real world social injustices requires a level of mental function and psycho-social awareness that is beyond most children’s abilities. It’s the adults that feel the need to point them out, explain them and then complain that it’s wrong.
Consequently, many are saying that instead of slapping a warning on the screen, Disney should remove these “outdated cultural depictions” from the classics altogether. If they can bring James Dean back from the dead to star in a movie in 2020, it’s certainly an option.
But what do we learn if we ignore the errors of the past? Understanding that culture and mindset helps us learn to be better today. Otherwise, why bother to remember the Holocaust or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Maya Angelou wrote: Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.
In other words, don't focus on trying to change history. Just acknowledge your mistakes and try to do better. I think the past should be left as is – the past – to be experienced with the nostalgia of youth in the context of a more aware and developed mind that can separate the good parts from the bad.
So we don’t have to edit the classics. We can create our own new ones. Future generations will likely be offended by them anyway.