Panel Recap: Dissecting Disney: Race, Gender, Sexuality in Children’s Films
Being a Disney fan can be tough sometimes. Despite the countless hours I’ve spent rewatching “Moana” and belting out the entire “Mulan” soundtrack, it’s impossible to ignore the many, many ways in which Disney films – as well as all the other aspects of the massive capitalistic juggernaut that is the Disney corporation – have been incredibly problematic, normalizing sexism, racism, and other forms of oppressive bigotry. For many of us, Disney is an omnipresent influence throughout our lives, representing all that is beautiful, nostalgic, and hopeful, while simultaneously perpetuating harmful messages and stereotypes.
Given this dilemma, I couldn’t wait to sit in on the Dissecting Disney: Race, Gender, Sexuality in Children’s Films panel from this past year’s Con. Led by Dr. Arielle Wetzel, a lecturer in Writing Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma, and an amazing group of her students both past and present, this in-depth, thoughtful panel addressed how we can still love Disney films while finding them problematic, analyzing films such as “Zootopia,” “Moana,” “The Lion King,” and many more through a critical, intersectional lens.
The panelists began by introducing themselves and their geeky, Disney-related interests. At UW-Tacoma, Dr. Wetzel has taught a variety of pop culture topics, including television, warrior women, Disney, and Mr. Robot. She was joined by Theo Calhoun, an Ethnic, Gender, Labor studies major who enjoys film and board games; Larissa Bokoni, a recent UW-Tacoma Communication major graduate who is also a French translator and MAC makeup artist; Kiona Jones, a graduate student in the Master of Social work program at UW-Tacoma and an intern with the Children’s Administration; Ashley Primer, a recent Art, Media, and Culture graduate from UW-Tacoma and former intern at the Destiny City Film Festival; and Joshua “Rocky” Marks, a Psychology major at UW-Tacoma who is also a semi-professional voice actor who has had a few roles in audiobooks, games, and animation.
Now, without further ado, let’s dive into the panel itself!
Divided into several sections, the panel focused on a few key areas: race, intersectionality, and sexuality.
First, the panelists explore the ways in which Disney’s anthropomorphic animal characters are racially coded, often along stereotypical lines. This history of racist representations goes back to characters such as Jim Crow in 1941’s “Dumbo,” a supposedly comical, foolish character named after the Jim Crow segregation laws of that era. Additionally, characters such as the Siamese Cats from 1955’s “Lady and the Tramp,” who sing the deeply problematic “Siamese Cat Song” and are heavily racialized and stereotyped, as well as the Hyenas from 1994’s “The Lion King,” who are coded as Black and Latinx characters and are both literally and figuratively segregated from the other, more noble, characters.
Additionally, panelists found a running theme of these “animals of color” longing to be human, and to win acceptance by assimilating into the culture of the human characters. This theme can be found in both 1964’s “The Jungle Book” as well as 2009’s “The Princess and the Frog.” In the latter film, the character Louis even sings the song “When I’m Human,” which the panelists analyzed as a representation of a hierarchical relationship in which animals – often racially coded in stereotypical ways – are seen as lesser than the “civilized” humans, even by themselves.
The panel then moved on to discuss intersectionality, specifically as depicted in 2016’s “Zootopia,” in which various elements of identity are depicted in complex and intriguing ways, notably through discussions of the privilege afforded to prey vs. predator animals, animals of different sizes, and animals of different socioeconomic statuses. The film’s main character, Judy, is marginalized because of her small size, and is barred from many cases as the first ever bunny cop. She is denied the rights and resources of her fellow police officers, and “jokes” are made about her rural background and low socioeconomic status. At the same time, however, she experiences privilege as a prey animal and commits microaggressions against Nick, a predator animal. The panelists looked to this film as a representation of the ways in which Disney can successfully portray the compound effects of multiple identities within a single individual, and in the relationships between multiple individuals, demonstrating how people can experience both privilege and oppression simultaneously depending on their various identities.
Lastly, the panel tackled sexuality and gender in 2016’s “Moana.” Beginning by comparing Moana’s role as a woman leader and central character to other characters such as Mulan, Merida from “Brave,” and Rapunzel from “Tangled,” the panelists spoke about the ways in which Moana is able to experience more familial support, less gendered pressure and criticism, and more autonomy than those characters. Moana is not expected to fulfill a compulsory gender role in the same way as these characters from the past, and her community is comfortable with her being a leader. Additionally, other characters in the film demonstrate inclusivity when discussing gender. Even the extremely macho character of Maui has a line in which he calls himself “demigod of all men, and all women, and all genders,” implicitly recognizing the fact of a multiplicity of genders outside the binary. In the film, Moana also represents a welcome change from the Disney norm in that she does not have any romantic interests, and is not expected to fall in love with a man to be a compelling a strong central character.
The panel ended with a Q&A discussion period in which panel attendees. Some of the topics discussed included how minority characters in Disney films are often coded as “acceptable” and “unacceptable” in different ways, how to synthesize multiple musical styles without being appropriative, and how to introduce kids to Disney films responsibly by helping them question what they’re seeing.
Ultimately, I left the panel feeling inspired, hopeful, and invigorated by both the potential for growth and change within Disney itself, as well as the immense importance of remaining thoughtful and critical, even – and perhaps especially – when interacting with media that we’ve grown up with our whole lives and been taught to love and accept without question.