To claim that Disney has a history of racism is fairly easy. For a perfect example, look no further than the very real character named Jim Crow.
That being said, most people would agree that Disney cleaned up its act later on. After all, characters like Jim Crow were created in the fifties before the Civil Rights movement. In fact, Disney went out of their way to make sure that every continent got a movie that took place there, Africa included. Sadly, The Lion King, the movie meant to show they were not racist towards Africans, is one of the worst offenders when it comes to racism.
For starters, lets actually look at the fact that Disney did indeed make a movie meant to represent cultures from every continent. There are clearly copious amounts of Disney movies that take place in Europe, from Snow White to Cinderella. For China, there’s Mulan. For Greece, Hercules. For India, there’s The Jungle Book. For America, we got the movie Pocahontas. Finally, when it came time for Africa to get a movie, The Lion King was created. What immediately stands out is that for every other culture and continent, the movie was about humans. However, Disney thought it made the most sense to represent Africa using only animals. At best, Disney thought that Africans weren’t advanced enough to have colonized their whole continent, and at worst Disney equates people of African descent with animals. Either way it doesn’t look good.
Moving forward, the plot of the movie itself is inherently racist. To begin, I ask you to remember the voices of the characters, specifically where they sound like they’re from. Mufasa and Simba? Well they sound American. Zazoo and Scar clearly sound British. In fact almost every character sounds American or British, with a notable exception; the hyenas. The hyenas were the villainous henchmen of the movies, and Disney made sure we knew they were evil by making them all sound ethnically Hispanic or like they were from the ghetto. Disney equated evil with non-white. And sure, Scar was evil and sounded British, but that just meant he got to be in charge of all the lesser, ethnic villains. In fact, the movie goes out of the way to show that British scar is intelligent and cunning while the ethnic hyenas are savage and stupid and even march like Nazis when they sing.
Speaking of villains, Scar is actually fairly heroic in his actions, and yet Disney expects us to consider his actions evil. Everyone who has seen the movie remembers the speech about the Circle of Life; essentially everyone has a right to live, because while the top of food chain eats those lower down, they eventually die and become the grass that the bottom of the chain eats, and so on. However, the hyenas have very clearly been excluded. They were forced by Mufasa to live in a dark elephant graveyard, and nobody under his rule is allowed to ever go there. When Scar convinces the hyenas to join him, he does it not by offering them wealth or power, but simply by offering them food so that they don’t starve to death. Scar’s “evil” plan is to overthrow a leader who has forced an entire people group to be sent to a dark graveyard to die because they are considered inherently evil, and yet Scar is the one who gets compared to Hitler in the movie. The fact that integrating the hyenas caused widespread famine doesn’t make Scar evil, it just means Disney wants its audience to see integration as a terrible, horrible thing.
To say that Disney has left behind racism would be an incorrect statement. Rather, it has simply repackaged it into a more subtle, insidious form. Everyone knows that the depiction of Native Americans in Peter Pan is offensive.
However, not everyone can see that making villains sound foreign or replacing humans with animals promotes racism. It in fact feels natural to go along with the story being presented, to see the heroes as purely good and the villains as purely evil. I hope that this blog, if anything, will encourage you to look past the story presented, lest you find yourself agreeing that, say, a giant wall needs to be built to keep out people who sound different.