Examining Disney Through a Critical Lens: 10 Stories with Troubling Racial Subtext

By Krystal Brown

This article takes a closer look at various classic Disney films, highlighting instances of racial insensitivity and stereotypes that have sparked concerns among today’s viewers.

1. “Song of the South” (1946)

Image Credit: Shutterstock.

Many of Disney’s most classic films don’t sit well with modern audiences. While there are many problems with some of their classics, perhaps the biggest example of racial insensitivity is with their lesser-known 1946 film “Song of the South”. The issue with this film isn’t subtle at all. It shows a picturesque and romanticized portrayal of plantation life. The black characters appear happily subservient to the white protagonists. The harmful stereotypes are very clear and it makes no reference to the abhorrence or difficulties of slavery. The “happy servant” trope is one that was sadly common during this time.

2. “Peter Pan” (1953)

Image Credit: Shutterstock.

There are plenty of problems with some of the Disney classics too. Here the issue is the portrayal of the Native Americans. Again, Disney falls into stereotypical topes, which thankfully we see much less of in the modern day. The particular issue in this film was the exaggerated accents and rituals that were far from a true representation of Native American life. These outdated and broad stereotypes only served to further perpetuate harmful stereotypes rather than offering a respectful representation.

3. “Aladdin” (1992)

Image Credit: Shutterstock.

There is no doubt that Aladdin is a great movie, especially to those in the Western world who don’t have intimate knowledge of Arab culture. To Westerners, it seems like a wonderful blend of vibrant storytelling and some very catchy tunes! However, with a little research, we start to see a lot of issues. Agrabah itself is a messy mix of stereotypes. It’s as though Disney cherry-picked parts of Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures and blended them into one fictional city. The result was that instead of celebrating one culture, we get a watered-down mix of various cultures without a genuine understanding of them.

4. “The Lion King” (1994)

Image Credit: Shutterstock.

Here we have another epic film that has received a lot of criticism. While there was quite a lot of diversity in the cast, many feel as though the portrayal of the hyenas is an issue.
These dark-skinned unintelligent characters with their foreign and urban accents have common and tiresome racial undertones.

5. “Pocahontas” (1995)

Image Credit: Shutterstock

There are so many things wrong with “Pocahontas”. One of the biggest is in the story itself. Pocahontas was real, as was John Smith. However, his story of love was his own fantasy that many incorrectly believed to be fact. Pocahontas’ life was complex and full of nuance. The film reduces this down to the basic “noble savage” stereotype. It paints the colonists in too kind a light and oversimplifies the conflict they had with the natives. Her real-life marriage to John Rolfe, if made well, could be an incredible film, but that is far from the movie we got in 1995.

6. “Dumbo” (1941)

Image Credit: Shutterstock

The racial stereotyping in “Dumbo” is bad enough but we also have one of the characters called “Jim Crow”. This is a name closely associated with segregation laws and the painful history of oppression. To use this as a character name for a crow in the film was obviously meant as a joke, but an incredibly unfunny and racist one. What makes it worse is that the character of “Jim Crow” with his accent was played by a white man. Thankfully the character’s name was later changed to “Dandy Crow”. The problems don’t stop there either. In the “Song of the Roustabouts” the faceless black workers are depicted as boisterous and subservient. At over 80 years old, it’s a film that has aged terribly.

7. “The Aristocats” (1970)

Image Credit: Shutterstock

The issues in “The Aristocats” are obvious when we look at the Siamese cats. These characters have slanted eyes, buck teeth, and a mocking accent. These are harmful stereotypes that Asians have had to deal with for a very long time. The playing of the piano with chopsticks is another offensive moment that leaves a sour taste when watching this movie in the modern day.

8. “The Little Mermaid” (1989)

Image Credit: dima_sidelnikov via DepositPhotos.com

We admit, if we were listing crimes against Disney then this would be low on the list. Nevertheless, many have found the voice of Sebastian an issue. While it’s a great character, the speech patterns can be seen as mocking a Caribbean accent. While the character was played by a black man in the form of Samuel E. Wright, he was an American with an American accent. This happened again in the 2023 remake.

9. “Mulan” (1998)

Image Credit: Krakenimages.com via DepositPhotos.com

Mulan is an empowering story of a woman rising over prejudice and stereotypes to save her country. However, as with Aladdin, it offers a poor representation of cultures and attempts to blend them together into something new. In Mulan, it was specifically the portrayal of the Huns, which had many inaccuracies.

10. “The Jungle Book” (1967)

Image Credit: Slphotography via DepositPhotos.com

“I Wanna Be Like You” is one of the most famous Disney songs of all time. It’s sung in the film by King Louie who is shown to be a jazz-singing, be-bopping ape. Many see this as an offensive caricature that utilizes racist stereotypes of African Americans. Ironically, Disney was hoping to cast Louie Armstrong in the role but feared the controversy of casting a black person as an ape. Instead, the role went to Louis Prima, who was a white American of Italian descent.