Examining the latent sexism and racism behind Disney’s Greatest Masterpieces
For generations, Walt Disney has been idolized and considered a national hero. After all, he founded the company that owns all the classic stories and iconic characters we know and love today. However, looking at Disney’s history, there are more than a few concerning facts about both the company and the man himself that do not quite fit in with the concept of “Disney magic.”
Looking at the company from a contemporary standpoint, the question that often arises is who doesn’t like Disney? Being a phenomenon that’s so intertwined in our culture, it is difficult to find an individual that hasn’t come into contact with Disney as a child, whether through movies, television shows, theme parks or a number of their other products.
Many people have praised the current Disney company for its recent strides towards diversity and inclusivity, but does this entirely erase the company’s troublesome history? This praise is not undeserved, given the racially diverse and strong female leads in films such as Mulan (1998), The Princess and the Frog (2009), Brave (2012), Frozen (2013), and Moana (2016). Additionally, newer Disney television shows have also been noted to include feminist and inclusive main characters. Despite potential disagreements people have had with the Disney company in the past, the general consensus now seems to be that the company is at the very least trying and that more diversity is to be expected in the future.
It is not wrong to enjoy products of the Disney company, or to praise the company for its recent strides. However, it is important not to gloss over the past just because we like what Disney has become. Viewing the company from a modern perspective, it seems like they’re doing everything right, but a deeper examination of the company’s innerworkings and products reveals a less happy tale. From racial insensitivity to the treatment of workers, the early Disney company fails on multiple fronts.
Perhaps the most infamous example of Disney’s racially insensitive content is the 1946 film Song of the South. The errors initially start with the fact that the film is based on Uncle Remus’ stories —famous African American folktales — which are then adapted by Joel Chandler Harris, a white male. Whitewashing stories from another culture is inherently an issue. The film then goes on to employ stereotypes of African American slaves, such as offensive dialects and incorrect traditional folk songs, to the point which it was heavily criticized by organizations such as the NAACP, along with even government officials such as Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
Ultimately, the story was denounced for the dismissal of the authentic slave narrative. The film did little to address the actual difficulties and hardships African Americans experienced in the American South, both prior to abolition and during the antebellum period. This was likely because the director would have no personal experience with the issues that marginalized communities faced. Although the film theoretically took place after the abolition of slavery, this was unclear to many audiences, since the time period was never precisely stated in the film.
According to Christine “Chrissy” Guest, a professor of Media Arts and Sciences and Studies at Ithaca College, the film projects the message that if slaves would just act happy, their hardships would disappear.
“I think … in not respecting the viewpoint of slaves [African Americans], the true suffering that was happening at that time … the film was an affront to American minorities, it dismissed the true story of slavery,” she said.
Another Disney byproduct that can be considered racially insensitive is the 1943 film Der Fuehrer’s Face, an anti-Nazi propaganda short film that Disney was commissioned to create by the U.S. government, already a clear conflict of interest. While at face value, the film seems to be a basic propaganda piece in which the character Donald Duck finds himself in a nightmare working with the Nazi party, closer analysis indicates a much more offensive premise.
Despite the film’s slandering of nearly all Nazi and fascist ideals, one that the piece does not touch upon is anti-Semitism. Throughout the film, there is no indication of the Nazi party’s most sinister actions, that being the genocide they committed against the Jews. If not an act of discrimination, at the very least, this appears ignorant on the company’s behalf.
Another issue epidemically shown in Disney’s early media products, although one that has been addressed multiple times in the past, is the blatant sexism displayed through the “Disney princess” franchise. Three films that specifically come to mind were those created during Walt Disney’s reign over the company—those being Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959).
These films, despite them having female leads, all have plots which rely heavily on the men in the story. In each film, the princess is victimized in some way, requiring them to wait for a prince to come and rescue them. Additionally, each film heavily perpetuates the concept of elitism and monarchy. Once a protagonist is able to move up in society through marriage and wealth that all of their problems are solved and they are considered “saved.”
Going beyond its actual media products, the Disney company’s shameful history can be tracked through its hiring processes. This is a combined result of the people the company put in charge of hiring animators and story creators, as well as Walt Disney’s own prejudices.
An example of this hails from the Mar. 19th, 1946 edition of the Freeport Journal Standard. The article’s title, “Women Can’t Become Good Cartoonists, Says Walt Disney,” speaks for itself. According to Bob Thomas, the author of the article, Disney claimed that cartooning done by women was “inevitably too fine and dainty” for his company’s standards, as well as that cartooning requires a sense of humor, which “too often a woman lacks.”
Whether it was due to the ideologies of the time or Disney’s personal concept of gender roles, “Disney employed people that were misogynists and racists, and that is very evident in the way women were treated as employees,” Guest said. “[Disney’s] story department was comprised of mainly men, for the majority of the early days. Women were not elevated beyond the ink and paint department to full animators.”
Another event which is particularly indicative of to the way the Disney company treated their employees is the Animators’ Strike that took place in the 1930s. Although the strike spanned across multiple animation companies, the reason Disney’s animators participated was because many of them were severely underpaid. Due to the economic turmoil of the time period, as well as Disney’s concentration of funding towards its parks, many animators lost their bonuses, causing their overall income to be significantly lower.
Another reason for this was because the payment system at Disney was incredibly disorganized and lopsided. While some of their most renowned animators were making as much as $300 a week, there were others making as little as $12. Additionally, company privileges that were previously open to all employees — such steam rooms, a gymnasium and a restaurant — were restricted to only those of higher rank, leaving a corporate hierarchy that included major gaps in both financial and social standing within the company.
According to Guest, Walt Disney took the strike very personally once it occurred. Essentially, she had said that Disney viewed all of his employees as family, which translated to him feeling as though he did not need to pay them adequately for their work, and that the opportunity to work with him was enough. By the end of the strike, many participators were blacklisted by Disney, ending their careers in Hollywood animation.
With this event comes the question of Walt Disney’s own character. Despite having been idolized for generations, is Disney truly deserving of his reputation? Would he have been as successful as he was during his time if he started his business today?
The way Guest put it, if Disney were to attempt to pursue an entrepreneurship today, he would be a charismatic salesman and an exceptional storyteller despite having little formal education and a naive sense of business. While he utilized creativity as a form of escapism, which was the basis of his company, he could not animate or draw well himself, which led him to find people that could to employ.
Ultimately, for myself and many other media consumers, the direct answer of Disney’s character remains muddled. However, while examining Disney’s character as a person, it is difficult to ignore its darker aspects.
Ryan Beitler is a journalist who has written multiple features on Walt Disney for Past Magazine, primarily about his anti-Semitism and other prejudices. Beitler noted that while, yes, Walt Disney did hold racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic opinions, there were none that were considered outlandish for his time. However, this is still no excuse for these opinions and does not justify his idolization in American media.
In both the interview and one of his articles, Walt the Quasi-Nazi: The Fascist History of Disney is Still Influencing American Life, however, Beitler does address a more interesting affiliation that Disney also had: his ties to fascism.
According to Art Babbitt, a renowned animator who worked for Disney for years, Walt Disney attended multiple meetings of the American Nazi party prior to World War II, which, despite Disney creating anti-Nazi propaganda later during the war, still has a significant impact on Disney’s character, as well as his company.
“He was a reflex capitalist through-and-through,” Beitler said, meaning that he would not hesitate to make American propaganda, especially for a commission.
Perhaps the most significant way Disney’s fascist tendencies show through his projects, Beitler said, were his initial plans for Epcot. Rather than the theme park we are all familiar with today, it was planned to be an actual city of the future. In Disney’s vision the city would have no landowners, thus no voting rights and all citizens would be required to work, which essentially completely followed Mussolini’s own definition of capitalism.
Once again, while the majority of the modern Disney company’s endeavors do not reflect this mindset or opinions, the history of the company, or the man, should not be ignored. Ultimately, while fans should enjoy the company.
Meredith Burke is a first year journalism major who feels guilty for thinking Gaston is hot. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.