Disney has done the right thing on its past offences

Donald Clarke: Move to attach warnings to films on Disney+ is honest and responsible

A scene from Disney’s notorious Song of the South

A scene from Disney’s notorious Song of the South

 

“Oh, what have we done now?” the people at Walt Disney almost certainly aren’t saying. Having completed their takeover of the whole bloody world, the company isn’t much concerned by endless digs from dead-tree media. On the off-chance that they do care, allow me to set minds at rest. We are here to confirm that Walt Disney has just done entirely the right thing. 

It was recently announced that the Disney+ service will append warnings to classic films that may now seem offensive. “This programme is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions,” the message reads. The relevant movies will be presented as originally released. This is all good. You may now stop reading.

Still here? If you want further reassurance that the company has done the right thing be aware that chuckleheads on Fox News have got themselves in a tizzy about it. Laura Ingraham, who is someone or other, careered into high-pitched fury after being told that Dumbo would carry the warning. “What? . . . About the elephants?” she gabbled. “I bet literally no one noticed any of this, but people are now going to be looking and saying, ‘Ooh what does that armadillo look like?’” 

Calm down, snowflake. While maintaining his own ironic smirk, Raymond Arroyo talked Laura through the issues. Ingraham is incorrect when she argues that nobody has previously had a problem with Dumbo. As long ago as 1968, in his book The Disney Version, Richard Schickel pointed out that the crows in the film – the ones that sing When I See an Elephant Fly – were presented as stereotypes of black Americans. Others have disagreed. But the controversy was bubbling long before correctness got political. 

Eye-watering offences

The message will also appear before such films as Lady and the Tramp, Peter Pan and The Swiss Family Robinson. Some of the offences are vague. Some now cause the eyes to water. The Asian stereotypes in the We Are Siamese number from Lady and the Tramp are particularly striking. Depicted with prominent front teeth and a slinky, shadowy manner, the two cats sneer at Lady in the manner of contemporaneous racial caricatures such as Fu Manchu. We don’t do that anymore.

The degree of contextualisation required here is, perhaps, beyond the capabilities of a subscription service

It would be wrong to hide away such films from Disney’s first golden age. It would be dishonest to chop out the potentially offensive sections. The company’s decision seems a responsible way to proceed. Parents, thus reminded, have the opportunity to discuss the questions raised by such unfortunate depictions while enjoying some of the last century’s great popular entertainment. Nothing gets censored. Nobody pretends there isn’t a problem. Do you know who agrees with me? Raymond Arroyo of Fox News. That’s who. “They’re leaving them as cultural touchstones,” he replied without fully erasing the smirk. “Explain to kids why this is out of favour or why we don’t talk that way anymore or this is disrespectful to a certain race or a group of people – they can do that.” Look, it’s not wrong just because someone says it on Fox News.

Racial politics

Walt Disney has, however, decided to leave one potentially offensive artefact in the cellar. As Karina Longworth explains in the latest series of her essential podcast You Must Remember This, objections have been directed at the racial politics of Song of the South since its premiere in 1946. That didn’t halt successful rereleases of it in 1973, 1980 and 1986. The BBC screened Song of the South as recently as 2006. Yet the film will not appear on Disney’s new channel.

The corporation would argue that, whereas Dumbo and Lady and the Tramp contain potentially offensive interludes, racist attitudes form the narrative spine of Song of the South. To shift our metaphors from anatomy to confectionary, prejudice runs through it like the writing in a stick of Confederate rock. Based on the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris, the picture stars James Baskett as a former slave who, though happy to remain on the plantation, appears disturbingly nostalgic about the days before abolition. The live-action sequences abound in such queasiness and there is little relief in the animation. The notorious “tar baby” sequence features a depiction of negritude straight out of the KKK bedtime-story anthology.

The degree of contextualisation required here is, perhaps, beyond the capabilities of a subscription service. There is, nonetheless, an uncomfortable absence where Song of the South should be. Disney+ acts, among other things, as a comprehensive compendium of the company’s family features. The omission is unavoidable. The omission still lets them off the hook. 

Still, Disney have, in large part, got this right. Heed this, Gaels. Yes, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, the notoriously icky Oirish fantasy from 1959, does carry the warning about “outdated cultural depictions”. We offer them the very top of the morning (whatever the hell that means). 

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