by Sarah Bunin Benor
Dear Disney executives,
My daughters and I enjoy watching Disney’s animated movies, old and new. Because I am a professor of language and race, we usually follow each film with a discussion of the insensitive representations: Often various evil and comedic characters speak regional, race-based, or foreign dialects, while the protagonists speak general American English. But when I took my kids to see Coco, our conversation was different. We praised the respectful portrayal of Spanish-influenced English in this fanciful illumination of Mexican traditions.
Pixar’s Coco – Golden Globe winner and now Oscar nominee – demonstrates that Disney is on a positive path. And it offers the perfect opportunity to acknowledge your company’s racially insensitive portrayals over the past 85 years and pledge to avoid them in the future.
Yes, your company has been inculcating children and adults with harmful ideas about language for 85 years. You can see details in a scholarly book and informative video. I included a question on the final exam in my undergraduate class, “Language, Race, and Identity in the United States,” asking students to explain the problem and suggest solutions (see the best student responses here).
It started with the Big Bad Wolf in The Three Little Pigs (1933), who at one point dressed as a Jewish peddler with a large nose, sidelocks, black hat, and Yiddish accent (changed after complaints). Then there were the black crows in Dumbo (1941), who spoke African American English (one was named Jim Crow – really). Peter Pan (1953) portrayed Native Americans (“Injuns” and “the red man”) using broken English and nonsense words like “hana mana ganda.” The Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp (1955) had slanted eyes and “Asian” accents.
America came a long way in the 1960s and 1970s, and so did Disney. By the 1990s, overt racism was minimized (well, except in Aladdin), but insensitive, uneven linguistic portrayals persisted. Because The Lion King (1994) takes place in Africa, and some characters have Swahili names, we might expect all characters to have Swahili accents. In fact, only one character does – the wise baboon, Rafiki. Simba, his parents, and Nala speak general American English, the evil Scar sounds British, the shadowy hyenas speak African American and Latino English, and the comedic Timon and Pumbaa have New York accents.
What’s wrong with representing Latino English, an Asian accent, or some nonsense words in animated films? Nothing, if they’re used evenly and respectfully, as in Coco. The problem is when the heroes of the film use general American English and the bad guys and funny guys speak differently. That perpetuates what scholars call “standard language ideology,” the idea that native-born, upper-middle-class Americans speak correctly and everyone who speaks differently is deficient. For generations, your films have contributed to a sense of superiority among privileged, white, American-born kids and an inferiority complex among people of color and immigrants. This can have material consequences, such as discrimination in employment and housing based on accent.
Many have called on Disney to cast actors from the ethnic groups portrayed, and these calls have been effective. This is important, but it is not enough. Many of the actors in the Lion King were African American, but the writers and directors distributed their accents unevenly.
I am not calling for the elimination of regional, immigrant, and race-based varieties of English in Disney films. In fact, that’s one feature that makes Coco so great. The main characters all use Spanish-influenced English in authentic, non-comedic ways. Like previous films, Coco taps into Americans' knowledge of ethnic language use – in this case Chicano English – to represent a cultural group outside of the United States (Mexicans, who in reality would speak Spanish, not Spanish-influenced English). But Coco does not limit this marked language to sidekicks, villains, or fanciful characters like alley cats, crabs, and dragons. Viewers will be more likely to come away from Coco with increased respect for Chicano English and new knowledge of some Spanish words, rather than a reminder of the subordinated status of certain communities.
In 1981, a former head of Disney wrote, “We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective.” I know your company has evolved since then. Now is the time to issue an acknowledgement of past wrongs and a pledge to avoid them in the future. As we can see from the positive reception of Coco, audiences in the US and around the world are hungry for respectful representations. Many would welcome such a statement.
Once you make this pledge, other entertainment companies might follow. Based on the slew of new films, children may absorb more positive images of ethnic diversity, and marginalized language varieties may lose some of their stigma. When these changes are made, I will happily come up with a new question for my final exam.
Sarah Bunin Benor is a Professor at Hebrew Union College and the University of Southern California. Her publications include Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism and We the Resilient: Wisdom for America from Women Born Before Suffrage.
To Whom It May Concern,
Disney was my childhood.
I remember watching The Aristocats on a portable DVD player in the backseat of a car. I remember listening to the “Bippity, boppity, boo” of Cinderella on the VHS while playing with my dolls. I remember trying to decide which princess I should be for Halloween: Snow White or Belle?
The first book I read on my own was about Mickey Mouse.
I am neither the first nor last kid to have this experience. My generation and future generations have and will have childhoods shaped by Disney. To us growing up, it is a magical place of dreams, imagination, and creativity. Unfortunately, as I have become an adult, I realize that Disney is all of those things, but it is also a company. A company that is fueled by money and power like every company in our capitalistic society. A company that is not self-aware enough to understand the impact it has on children.
The critical age for language acquisition is between the age of five and puberty. Rosina Lippi-Green states: “The important thing to note here is that children see patterns in the data the world presents on a day-to-day basis, and those patterns are put to use. That is, children are not passive vessels who sit in front of the television and let stories float by them. What they take in is processed and added to a store of data on how things – and people – are categorized.” She means that whatever Disney puts on the screen can affect how children interpret the world around them, and most of the time Disney promotes standard language ideology and reinforces racial stereotypes.
For example, in The Lion King, the main character is Simba. In a movie about Africa, he is voiced by an Anglo person. His father Mufasa is voiced by James Earl Jones, an African American, but he uses no marked features of AAVE. His voice is deep and booming but lacks the phonology, morphosyntax, and prosody of a Black person. However, Whoopi Goldberg lends her voice to Shenzi, the leader of the evil hyena pack. Shenzi speaks using AAVE. Such as the scene where the hyenas discuss lions, she says “If it weren’t for those lions, we’d be runnin’ the joint.” She deviates from Standard English by dropping the –ng from running. Cheech Marin is Banzai’s voice actor, the other hyena who speaks. Banzai exhibits some features of Latino-accented English, and “[throws] in Spanish at one point (que pasa) to make sure there is no mistake about his ethnicity.” This dichotomy between the good and the bad set forth by The Lion King tells children how good people speak versus how bad people speak. The lions use Standard English and are majestic, brave, and the heroes. Meanwhile, the hyenas speak in nonstandard English. They are conniving, mean, and heartless creatures who are hell bent on destroying the good guys. Children, who don’t know any better, then form prejudices against people who speak that way in real life. Maybe a white child hears a black child laugh and equates that to a hyena. Maybe a white child hears a black child talk and is programmed to think that they’re bad. It doesn’t matter. What matters is by displaying certain types of English as good or bad, Disney perpetuates standard language ideology and subconsciously informs children on what they should think is good or bad.
In addition, another harmful film is Aladdin. The movie is set in an Arabic kingdom, but the titular character and his princess both speak in Standard English. Once again, in a film that is set in a country other than America, the main characters, like in The Lion King, both speak free of accents. And yet, the villains in the film (besides Jafar) are portrayed as speaking in Arabic-accented English. There is a scene in the beginning where Jasmine goes out to explore the market but is accused of stealing by a merchant. He threatens to cut off her hand in heavily accented English while she apologizes in Standard English. Also, Aladdin is chased by a group of people for stealing a loaf of bread. They too speak in heavily accented English. Once again, a dichotomy is created. The good guys like Aladdin, Jasmine, and Genie speak Standard English while the bad ones have accents. Furthermore, the first song in the movie has the lyrics: “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face/It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” After complaints from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Disney changed the “cut off your ear” segment but kept “it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” This idea of barbarism is supplemented by the merchant who wishes to cut off Jasmine’s hand, and the group who wants to kill Aladdin for stealing the loaf of bread. Children watch this film and are informed on the “right way” to talk and the “wrong way” to talk. If you talk with an Arabic accent, that is barbaric, and the hero must civilize you. Like with The Lion King, children will apply this to real life situations because it is all they have to inform them. They develop prejudices against certain people who do not abide by the standard way of speaking before understanding what prejudice even is.
Rusty Barrett notes in “Be Yourself Somewhere Else: What’s Wrong with Keeping Undervalued English out of the Classroom?” that standard language ideology “generally treats undervalued varieties as ‘wrong’ on one hand or ‘inappropriate.’” This treatment can lead children to feeling as if they are wrong when using undervalued English even “when their answer is actually correct.” Disney, besides teaching harmful stereotypes to white children, makes those who use undervalued forms of English feel as if they are incorrect for speaking that way. Who is Disney to tell children what the correct form of English is? In order to better the company, you must first recognize that English is a language with many variations that are all correct in their own way. Whether recognition involves bringing on a consultant or a linguist to a film, so be it. In the linguistically informed approach to teaching, Barrett explains that “teachers often assume children are making reading errors” when they are actually “[reading] according to the rules of their native dialect.” Disney, in a way, is a school. It teaches children how society operates through magical metaphors and fantastical situations. If it were linguistically informed, it could tell children that the way certain people speak is not wrong, it is just their native dialect.
One of the best films Disney has produced is Lilo and Stitch because of its excellent representation of accented Hawaiian English. In the movie, that form of English is presented as normal. Disney needs to replicate this in its future films in order to prevent the perpetuation of standard language ideology. If it does, a generation of children could be saved from harmful stereotypes.
A Concerned Student
To Whom It May Concern,
Disney produces a number of family friendly films and distributes these films across the world. They target young children as the audience of these films, and for the most part, Disney successfully produces films to inspire and lift up these children. However, the majority of these films benefit most young white American children who speak “standard” English. Even films that contain people of color only positively portray and avoid stereotyping those characters if they speak “standard” English, and often portray villains as speaking “non-standard” English. These worrisome trends present particularly heavily in films such as Mulan and The Lion King. Fortunately, however, there are a number of ways to avoid falling into this standard language ideology.
To clarify, standard language ideology socially constructs a false hierarchy of language, often valuing varieties of English spoken by the dominant sector of society, in the US typically wealthy white people, more so than language spoken by individuals with lower socio-economic status. (English With an Accent, 67) This ideology presents in every aspect of our life, from workplace conversations to social interactions. It reinforces societal stereotypes and serves to keep dominant groups in power. By reinforcing this ideology, people and companies such as Disney constantly and unconsciously participate in socio-economic oppression.
Within the film Mulan, unfortunately, standard language ideology presents heavily. Although the animated film takes place in China, Mulan speaks flawless, “standard” English. (Mulan) Although this may seem normal as it is an American film, it only seems “normal” because of deeply ingrained standard language ideology. This choice to have Mulan speak “standard” English proves more problematic because not all characters in the film do so. Mushu, Mulan’s spirit ancestor dragon friend, speaks non-standard English. He in particular draws heavily from the African American Vernacular English (AAVE) Linguistic Repertoire, and also serves as the film’s comic relief. (Mulan) This choice to have the only comical character use elements of the AAVE Linguistic Repertoire reinforces a standard language ideology in that AAVE is viewed as lesser, reducing a language repertoire with a complex grammatical structure to a joke.
This reinforcement of standard language ideology could have easily been avoided. Mushu need not speak AAVE, as he is a dragon and can speak any way the writers choose. Additionally, even if he does draw from elements of AAVE, he does not have to be the story’s main comic relief. Alternatively, if more other characters speak “non-standard” English, then characters who also do stand out less. Mulan could speak “accented” English, and her parents as well as other characters could as well. All of these changes could help the movie avoid the pitfalls of standard language ideology.
Mulan is not the only Disney film which relies on the problematic notion of Standard Language Ideology to code characters in certain ways. These themes also present in The Lion King. Again, the main characters, Simba as well as Mufasa, speak “standard” English. By contrast, Scar, who is Mufasa’s brother and by all accounts has no reason to speak differently than him, speaks with a British accent. (The Lion King) The movie relies on this accent to portray Scar as evil. Although this accent portrayal does not use a “non-standard” American accent, it still uses standard language ideology to demonize any way of speaking that differs from “standard” American English. This reinforces the idea that “standard” American English is superior to other English varietals. These themes also play out with other characters in the film. Timon, one of the primary comical relief characters, uses features from the AAVE linguistic repertoire, including copula deletion and the th/d merger. This again plays into standard language ideology for the same reasons Mushu does, making features of AAVE into a joke rather than the legitimate language varietal that it is. As such, Disney could correct both of these issues by including “non-standard” English varieties for purposes other than jokes and to portray an evil character. The more characters speak “non-standard” English, the more heavily rejected standard language ideology will be.
Overall, the removal of standard language ideology from Disney films is vitally important, especially as Disney films target young children who form lifelong ideas. By including standard language ideology, Disney reinforces racism and classism subconsciously in the minds of young children. By including non-standard varieties of English while avoiding the racist stereotypes associated with the groups that use those varieties, Disney could promote equality and reject racist ideology, while creating inclusive, diverse, and entertaining content. I hope to see some of these changes in future Disney films.
Dear Mr. Iger,
What was once considered to be harmless entertainment by the majority of America is now being rightfully exposed as culturally insensitive. Many of Disney’s old cartoons for children (and even, startlingly, some more recent ones) make jabs at a multitude of races and ethnicities. Perhaps Disney did not intend for its films to perpetuate raciolinguistic stereotypes and standard language ideologies; for the time period in which many of the movies were created, many of these practices were not condemned as being controversial, and people were not overly concerned with being politically correct. I also understand that cartoons are, by nature, exaggerations of reality. However, it is important to recognize the significance of these movies in a modern context and understand the subliminal messaging they contain. People should be aware of the sometimes derogatory depictions of non-whites in these movies before they expose their children to them.
One such depiction can be found in the crow characters in the cartoon Dumbo. The lead crow not only speaks with elements of African American Vernacular English and is named Jim Crow (after the controversial Jim Crow laws of the time period that enforced segregation), but also is voiced by a white man. This is basically an animated version of blackface. To make matters worse, the song the crows sing “When I See an Elephant Fly” is not an accurate representation of AAVE. To be fair, the recurring line beginning with “I seen” is a correct usage of auxiliary deletion, a feature of AAVE. However, the recurring line “But I be done seen ‘bout ev’rything” is an incorrect usage of habitual be. In its current state, the line implies that Jim Crow has seen everything on a regular occasion, which does not make sense.
Perhaps even more troubling in Dumbo is “Song of the Roustabouts,” which is sung by black workers setting up a circus tent. With lyrics such as “We work all day, we work at night/We never learned to read or write” and “We slave until we’re almost dead/We’re happy-hearted roustabouts,” it is not a stretch to say that Disney is sugarcoating slavery. While some choose to interpret this song as the cheerful anthem of hard-working men, the fact that Disney chose to make all the workers black and put overt references to slavery in the lyrics suggests this song is less innocent than some might perceive it to be.
In a similar manner, Lady and the Tramp mocks Asian culture through the twin Siamese cats Si and Am. The cats are animated with stereotypical Asian features, such as buck teeth and slanted eyes. They also speak and sing with accented English, but they are voiced by Peggy Lee, a white woman. Essentially, this is yellowface. All this combined with the cats’ shifty, conniving characters only reinforces Disney’s message to children that people viewed as racial “others” who do not speak standard English are not to be trusted.
In Mulan, though several of the voice actors were of Asian descent, none of the major characters possess a Chinese American accent. They all speak Standard English with American accents. A notable exception appears with the character Chi-Fu. A meddlesome and misogynistic advisor to the Emperor, Chi-Fu possesses an Asian accent. This is yet another example of how Disney prescribes accents to unlikeable characters, thereby associating accented English with people who are morally corrupt and “bad.”
Disney also uses English proficiency as a tool to make racial minorities appear inferior. This is seen in the song “What Makes the Red Man Red?” in Peter Pan. Disney blatantly labels Native Americans as the racial “other” by drawing attention to their skin color. For the most part, the Indians speak only broken and grammatically incorrect English, making them appear less civilized and intelligent than the white, standard English-speaking Darling children. They are not even given the dignity of speaking a real Native American language, instead speaking nonsense phrases such as “hana mana ganda.” To make matters worse, none of the voice actors were Native American.
As a generalization, Disney does not have a great track record when it comes to including non-standard English and non-American accents in their films. Most “hero” characters speak standard English with an American accent, even when that does not match their ethnicity. Mulan, Pocahontas, and Jasmine, for example, would not speak English natively if they were real people; however, they speak Standard American English in their respective movies. It is only characters who are categorized as villainous or uneducated who speak in accented or non-standard English and use elements from their native ethnolinguistic repertoire. Essentially, Disney is sending the message that Western or Anglicized speech is synonymous with goodness and purity, while accented English is associated with depravity, evil, and unintelligence. Standard language ideology is encouraged and put on a pedestal; non-standard English is reserved for the criminals, villains, and lowlifes who plague society.
This is a subtle form of language subordination as described by Rosina Lippi-Green in her book English with an Accent. By presenting non-standard English as the speech of “bad” characters, Disney subtly reinforces the social order that Standard English is superior to non-standard varieties. It is not a stretch to say that, by extension, Disney is encouraging the homogenization of language.
While the mistakes of the past are irreversible, Disney can take certain measures to build a more equal and inclusive future. A more diverse staff could be organized to create the movies, as having people of various backgrounds and experiences would add more dimension to a film. When a film focuses on a specific racial or ethnic group, members of that group should be leading the creative process of the film. They have a valid perspective to contribute, and they can give real life experiences to make the movie more authentic. For voice acting roles for characters of a certain race or ethnicity, actors of that same race or ethnicity should be hired. Finally, when making a movie that includes non-white characters, the creators should be sure not to racialize those characters. It is important to include a diversity of characters on screen as normal, everyday people, not just as romanticized, exaggerated typifications of their culture. This way, children are exposed to other cultures as more than just an archetype.
Student, University of Southern California