Sunday, November 14, 2010

Disney's Animal Pedagogy

In class last week, we discussed Disney narratives complicity in heteropatriarchy and white racism. No surprise, other students were extremely resistant to recognizing any problems with Disney. Disney has done such an incredible job at hoodwinking the public of its innocence through its strict censoring and infiltration into the American family ethos, that it has become almost invulnerable to criticism, especially any criticism along the already taboo lines of thought on gender and race.

I was shocked that Abigail, normally a relatively progressive student in the class reacted with such vehement disgust that people would dare challenge Disney's mulitnational corporate media empire. All those gasps she made during the documentary I thought were disgust at having once been naive to the racism in the film, but no, it was because people attack the inventors of her childhood. Childhood. It's the closest to home, it is the home we discover ourselves thrown in; it's language (what Heidegger calls the "house of Being") the house of our narrative identities, the fertile soil of the roots of our subjectivities. To threaten and shame such "comfort food" (perhaps as much so as critiquing "meat") is to threaten identity, to throw one into self-criticism, to dare one with an opportunity to change, to open an abyss of possibility and an abject perspective to reassess one's child world. It is to choose bad faith, to choose cowardice over responsibility to at least critically reflect.

White Male Privilege of Naivete
Fortunately, this wasn't the first time I had been exposed to these criticisms of Disney. I had been reading Sociological Images for a couple years and connected to some other sources. For instance, Nostalgia Chick's take on Disney Princesses (Pocahantas, Mulan, Beauty and the Beast, and Hercules.):

One thing people have trouble wrapping their heads around is that racism need not be intentional and that context matters. Gwen at Sociological Images had this to say about the Princess and the Frog:
Depicting Cinderella as a maid doesn’t play into pre-existing stereotypes of White women; it’s just an individual portrayal. A Black character cast as a maid, to many people, reproduces an image of Black women that goes beyond the individual–whether the creators intend to or not, such images bring with them associations to the Mammy character and real oppression of African American women in a culture that saw them primarily as servants for more privileged groups.
In other words, depicting a white woman and a black woman as a servant will resonate with two very different historical and cultural contexts through which we make sens of the narrative, and that certain representations may be chosen simply because of implicit biases and correlations within world of narrative in which we live. White middle-class ablebodied heterosexual males, and the like, have certain privileges in which they take for granted their own race, gender, class, sexual orientation, etc, something not afforded to the vast majority of the world. To become reactionary verses well-reasoned to such criticism is exposing a serious level of naivete.

While some have argued with films like Mulan and The Princess and the Frog, Disney has finally become more race conscious and more empowering to women, there are still issues. As Lisa from Sociological Images notes
But, to be fair, these princesses aren’t radical. They aren’t pushing the envelope of femininity. They are only reflecting the fact that ideal femininity in the West has changed such that the perfect woman now incorporates some masculine character traits. “Some” is the operative word here. Today’s ideal woman is still feminine, but she works, wears pants, and plays sports. She may even be a sports fan and drink beer. But she also preserves her femininity, especially those aspects of femininity that mark her as “for” a (just barely and totally benevolently of course) dominant male. She still doesn’t disagree too vigorously or laugh too loud. She marries a man who is slightly older, more educated, larger, taller, and makes a bit more money at his job that is just slightly higher prestige. And, no matter what, she looks, dresses, and moves in pretty, feminine ways.
Put another way, Disney's representation of princesses is lagging behind cultural attitudes about women rather than simply being ahead or even with the times. And this isn't saying much either, given that, in my opinion, our culture has become hypersexualizing of both men and women (and not in the liberatory sense, but the commodification sense) in addition to giving preferential treatment to the hyperfeminine and male archetypes).

Responses to my Classmates
I prodded Teresa to speak and at last she did. I gave her a round of applause as did some other students, but regrettably the other three graduate students, two of which who are in Women and Gender Studies did not contribute. According to them, they were too infuriated to say much, too hopeless to expect the class to understand the theory.

I was glad I could finally cut in my critique at the end of the ignorance that saturated the petrified sponges that were some people's brains. I made several points: 1) NON-INNOCENT: Disney is a multinaitonal corporation that seeks above all else profit, not art. 2) POWERFUL: Disney is a dominant figure in American media, and its work has international influence. 3) DOMINANT DISCOURSE: Disney plays into fabricated narratives that are neither traditional nor progressive, but simply racist (stereotypes, symbolic annihilation, orientalist, villainous accents) and sexist (no mothers, sexualized, victims, white middle/upper-class and conventionally beautiful). 4) SUBJECTIVITY: Children who watch these seek models for social behavior, which is bad enough, but some children have no one to identify with in the film or have more racial identification with stereotypes and animal others (i.e. how do Amerindian children feel when they see the Indians in Peter Pan or the Africans feel when they identify with gorillas?). Finally, 5) RECOGNITION: People are not just creating a hissy-fit for entertainment; at the very least, the dominant demographic should be willing to take into consideration, to hear out, marginalized groups who feel they are being caricatured.

Of course, there are always criticisms in regards to this. Some will argue that 1) we teach the same American narratives in school (so two wrongs make a right), 2) corporations are businesses and aren't responsible for content (so we shouldn't hold businesses accountable for racism and sexism), 3) that its damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't (so you are critiqued both when the majority of your films are entirely absent of diversity and when you include racial stereotypes in your movie--as if there weren't an alternative), 4) kids either aren't effected or walk away from it later when they know its false (so then there is no reason people would be so invested in defending Disney), and 5) kids shouldn't know the truth and stereotypes make it easier to think (WTF????).

The Human Race of a Different Species
Disney has had a long history of racist iconography: Fantasia's (1940) pikaninny slave, Dumbo's (1941) sambo crows, Peter Pan's (1953) rendition of "Indians," Lady and the Tramp's (1953) Siamese cats, The Jungle Book's (1967) orangutan singing "I want to be like you," Aladdin's (1992) demonization and orientalization of Arabs, The Lion King's (1994) hyenas, Pocahantas' (1995) (mis)telling of the truth of American colonialism. and Tarzan's (1999) absence of Africans admits the African rainforest. Although I'm no 21st century American historian, it seems that some of these racial depictions were made at corresponding times of racial tension in American history. For instance, the Siamese cats were in theaters during the Korean War, the Jungle Book was made amidst the civil rights movement just prior to the assassination of MLK Jr., and Aladdin was released shortly after the Gulf War. Coincidences? I don't know.

What I'm particularly interested in is how "animals" function in cartoon fables to displace the realness and ugliness of real moral problems and crimes onto uncanny others, thereby making the adult and horror appropriate for child fantasy. As Harrit Ritvo (1987) discusses in her seminal book, Animal Estate,
As material animals were at complete at the complete disposal of human beings, so rhetorical animals offered unusual opportunities for manipulation; their position in the physical world and the universe of discourse was mutually reinforcing... both discussed and exemplified a central theme of domination and exploitation. Animals were uniquely suitable for rhetoric that both celebrated human power and extended its sway, especially because [the English] concealed this theme at the same time they could express it…. Talking about [animals] offered people who would have been reluctant or unable to avow a project of domination directly a way to enact it obliquely (5-6)
Through animal representations, largely made possible through the disappearance of an unmediated encounter, projected meanings took on a new "reality" in which, through animal tales, one could likewise make representations of others seem "natural." So the power relations in a particular society become inscribed on animal representations and get read back through a circular logic that has forgotten the lies.

It is difficult not reading the song "I wan'na be like You," written by two white men and sung by Lois Armstrong in Disney's The Jungle Book, a colonialist narrative itself, as anything but racist,especially since it went into production shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Now I'm the king of the swingers
Oh, the jungle VIP
I've reached the top and had to stop
And that's what botherin' me
I wanna be a man, mancub
And stroll right into town
And be just like the other men
I'm tired of monkeyin' around!

Oh, oobee doo
I wanna be like you
I wanna walk like you
Talk like you, too
You'll see it's true
An ape like me
Can learn to be human too
Perhaps few animated animal features appropriate and colonize the bodies human-animals as much as those about insects. Bees and ants are fertile sources to impose cultural representations on (human) nature, by building gender and class relations off of misrepresented social structures. One need only look at Bee Movie. Gwen writes:
how animals are anthropomorphized tells us a lot about our social assumptions and what we’re comfortable with. There’s no reason the worker bees’ sex has to be changed, except that it makes more “sense” to us that the hard-working providers would be male. The choices to make the males the center of the story, to make them bigger than the females, and to portray female bees as fawning groupies desperate for male attention tells us an awful lot about the gender stories we tell ourselves about humans, and that they’re important enough to us that even children’s movies have to recreate those stories, no matter how much fiddling with reality it takes.
Previously, I've looked into similar anthropomorphisms related to and the film Barnyard, which features a steer with utters. It's all bull (pun intended).

No comments:

Post a Comment