As kids, Disney movies filled up our movie shelves and were the feature presentations of our family movie nights. But as we watch these movies now, being the older and wiser adults we are, we come to question how anyone could allow such copious amounts of racial discrimination to infest the minds of young people.
Whether we admit it or not, Disney movies have negatively skewed our view of people of various ethnic backgrounds. One movie example that contains a negative portrayal of an ethnic group is the Lady and the Tramp. In the movie, there are two Siamese cats that are depicted as sly, troublemaking and conniving as they mosey around the house singing a song entitled, “We Are Siamese If You Please”. This portrayal does not serve the people of Asian descent any justice.
The story takes place during a time when America was experiencing an increasing flux of Chinese immigrants, which instilled many fears due to the competition that natives had for work against Chinese laborers. One line of the song sings, “Now we’re looking over our new domicile/If we like we stay for maybe quite a while”, which refers to Chinese immigrants planning to stay in the United States for work. With the understanding of who these Siamese cats represent and how they are represented, we can presume that Disney intended the message to be that Americans should not trust Asian immigrants.
The release of this movie was in 1955, thirteen years after the passing of the Executive Order 9066 and two years after the Korean War. The Executive Order 9066 was passed after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in order to force people of Japanese descent into internment camps due to fear of Japanese spies scheming to commit more acts of violence against America. The Korean War also resulted in apprehension toward Koreans due to the American values against communism and the fact that North Korea possessed nuclear weapons. Although these events only involved the Japanese and Koreans, they lead to much distrust and suspicion of Asian immigrants present in the United States in general. This clearly shows that the portrayal of the Siamese cats was based on the negative opinions people had of Asian immigrants due to these historical events.
It is disheartening that such messages are incorporated into children’s movies. In this day and age, the United States is becoming increasingly diverse due to immigration and other factors. Therefore, the role of these movies should no longer play such a prominent role in the lives of children because they perpetuate racial stereotypes against the immigrant groups that are represented in our nation.
This same debate has been ongoing in the ballet world for a really long time as well. The racial stereotypes seen in ballet divertismets like that of The Nutcracker, La Bayadere, Petrushka, or Swan Lake are even more obvious and more insulting than those of Disney movies. It used to be really popular in the late Romantic period to slip a half hour of random “ethnic” dancing in the middle of a full-length ballet. I guess people were intrigued by the exotic costumes and movement even if it wasn’t necessarily accurate. A “divertismant” would usually consist of a bunch of short variations done by groups of dancers which would each represent (or misrepresent) different countries. For example, there’s the “Chinese” dance in The Nutcracker where the women dance with their index fingers pointed straight up in the air, there is the “Moorish” dance in Petrushka where the man has his skin painted black, and there are the temple dancers in la Bayadere which come out in belly shirts and big pants to do sexy “Indian” dancing in pink gobo lighting. The debate here (and also with the Disney movies) is wether to keep the “exotic” representation in these works of art that have been appreciated for generations and have come to represent Western culture, or to get rid of, say, the entire second act of The Nutcracker, or every other scene of Aladdin, in the name of political correctness. This is an interesting predicament! http://www.dancemagazine.com/issues/July-2010/Exotic-or-Offensive
I like the fact that you brought up this topic because it is something that I began to notice in my teen years while watching children’s movies and cartoons with my younger sister. As a kid, I never noticed the racism in these shows. If you start to analyze Disney films we viewed as kids, the racism is evident. Let’s start with a classic: Peter Pan. When we were younger, we were probably just amazed by the idea of Neverland and the fairies and all of the mermaids etc. But, if we see the film now that we are older, we notice the stereotypes and racism depicted in the scenes with the Native Americans. In the film, when Native Americans speak they do not say full sentences and they are shown to be “dumb” and do not act like the “pale man.” In Dumbo, that sweet movie about a baby elephant, there is also racism. Dumbo comes across black crows that act in stereotypical “black ways.” One of the crows’ names is even Jim Crow! It’s incredible how Disney has subtly, or maybe not as subtly, added all of these racist elements into their films. To some audiences it may seem as funny or simply “cute” but in reality, it is the beginning of inserting ideas into children’s heads about certain groups, even if it us unconscious.
I remember watching “Lady and the Tramp” a few years ago while babysitting a few kids; I was shocked to find out how racist the siamese cats segment was. As I began to rewatch other Disney movies, I too noticed the instances of racism in the films that Manoush mentioned. It was not just Disney though. Popular media in the previous eras was just filled with negative stereotypes. DC Comics, old cartoons, and other forms of media were just filled with messages of prejudice. The expulsion of racism for the most part in the media today shows how far our society has advanced.
I wouldn’t say that this racism is necessarily subtle. Either way, it’s sort of sad that it’s been okay to expose children to films with racism in them. I love Disney movies, but discoveries like these make me question: what are these movies actually portraying? The anti-asian sentiment (and anti-immigrant for that matter) is obvious in this movie, and it goes to show you how awful Americans have treated outsiders in the past century.
OK but lets just keep one thing in mind. Kids watch the film and see cats singing and wrecking a house …nothing more.
This is a very interesting topic. I am still often times very shocked when I watch Disney movies because I notice things that I did not notice when I was younger. One example that I can think of is when I watched the little mermaid with my roommates and i was shocked at the fact that ariel’s voice was taken away and she was expected to win over the prince simply with her looks and body. What kind of message is this sending young girls! as much as I love the classic disney movies now that I am older i find myself getting a little frustrated with them
Watch Dumbo!!!! If you think Lady and the Trampy is racist, be prepared to be even more shocked. I find both it both repulsive and fascinating how media reveals societies values.
How rediculous, the Sianese cats are sneaky and malicious because that is what cats are! You could accuse disney of being animalist???!!! This precious and pathetic view of characters does nothing but attempt to make people feel bad because of films they watched as children. I have never met anyone who has become racist as a result of watching the lady and the tramp, have you?
Thank you Scott. Yours is the only rational voice in this thread. Cats are sneaky! As an avid cat lover all my life, I have observed this in all my cats, Siamese or not.
You have to remember that these movies and cartoons are products of a certain time in American history, and they reflect the cultural anxieties of the time. It’s the same reason why Rocky fights a mean, intimidating, robot-like Russian in Rocky IV, or why the WWE (then WWF) had “heels” — aka bad guys — like Iron Sheikh and Yokozuna.
This happens in every country, and it’s happened throughout human history — fear of the “other” manifesting in stories that play to the worst stereotypes. In fact, kids in some Arab countries are brought up on shows depicting Jews as blood-sucking vampires, and North Korean media depicts South Koreans and Americans as demons. And the racism in supposedly enlightened Europe is off the charts, which is why you see crowds making monkey sounds when a black futballer scores a goal.
That doesn’t mean it’s right, and frankly the old Disney movies aren’t always the classics we remember them as. It just means we have to be careful with what we let our kids watch, and keep in mind that things made 60 years ago aren’t always gonna stand the test of time when it comes to what’s acceptable or polite.
People need to get a life and quit whining!!!
What are you talking about – This is a wonderful song!!!
I’m so incredibly triggered by the racism. I’m going to my safe space now *snapping fingers because clapping is offensive to the one-handed community*
They’re cats for goodness sake! We have a Siamese cat and we love the song. Doesn’t offend us, or our cat, in the least. Grow up people.
I love your perspective and agree 100% with a lot if it. I wouldn’t go as far as to say all Disney movies from the mid to late 90′ s should be abandoned to the trash however. If we as adults, as parents who know the offensive racial stereotypes in the movies, should watch them with our children, why not have a discussion later? Perhaps explaining the offensiveness of such songs and (of course when they’re able to understand) doing damage control as we allow our kids to be exposed to such realities in the world. I would want my children to both enjoy the fun I had as a kid watching these movies, but also to know that there are things in them that are wrong, hurtful and not good. I want to protect my kids from lies and untruths of the world, but not shelter them so much that they are in a perpetual bubble daily and think everything is evil and somehow corrupt entirely.
Really? REALLY? Thxey were Siamese CATS! I have 2 Siamese CATS, born here in America, and they are the sneakiest, low down scoundrels, just like my other Siamese were. Am I a racist? Am I blaming the good people of Siam for their behavior? No. They’re cats. In particular, a breed known for their aloofness and smoothest. Americans. We over-analyze everything and look for places to build a soapbox get over yourself.