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Pet Sins April 2001

Non-European societies in U.S. Animation

Whenever Disney animation depicts a materially wealthy non-European civilization, at least one of two noticeable qualities is present in the depiction:

  1. Social repression in the form of harsh punishment or dangerous bigotry

    Disney's latest release The Emperor's New Groove features the spoilt, tyrannical Meso-American emperor Kuzco, who orders an old man thrown out the window for bumping into him, and plans to forcibly evict peasants so he can build his summer palace.

    Jasmine from Aladdin In Disney's Aladdin, the princess Jasmine, disguised as a commoner, takes an apple in the marketplace without paying. The vendor instantly seizes her and raises his sword to cut off her hand. A ridiculous image of an Islamic country. It is no wonder the Arab American community protested Disney's Aladdin.

    The supposedly feminist Mulan traffics heavily in stereotypes of sexist Chinese society. When Mulan runs off to join the army, her parents lament, "If they find out she is a woman, she would be killed." Later, when General Li Shang discovers Mulan is a woman, he raises his sword to kill her. This idea of a Chinese obligation to slay female recruits turns out to be inaccurate. Chinese women soldiers and military commanders existed even before the time of Mulan.

    On the other hand, the Disney movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame pictures a repressive France where evil white ruler Frollo executes cruel punishments and plans brutal repressions. But this is just one movie out of dozens of other Disney animated movies set in Europe. On the contrary, 3 out of Disney's 5 animated films about non-European countries (the five being Pocahontas, The Emperor's New Groove, Aladdin, Mulan, The Jungle Book) paint a picture of an oppressive non-European culture.

  2. Slavish, obsequious side characters whose existence hint at a social system of bondage and tyranny

    In Aladdin, when the protagonist, disguised as Prince Ali, rides into town with an impressive entourage of gifts and servants, the score strikes up with the song Prince Ali:

    ...prepare to gawk and grovel and stare at Prince Ali!h
    ...He's got slaves, he's got servants and flunkies
    (Proud to work for him)
    They bow to his whim, love serving him
    They're just lousy with loyalty to Prince Ali!

    The use of words like grovel, slaves, flunkies and its attendant language portray the Middle Eastern (I use this term regrettably because most people understand it, and because it is quite a mouthful to say North African/West Asian) people in a servile, undignified light.

  3. Disney's latest release The Emperor's New Groove also portrays a Meso-American civilization as fabulously wealthy, but excessive in its exactions of servitude. In one scene, the baby emperor Kuzco breaks his doll by accident and starts crying. Instantly, ten or so arms extend to him in all directions offering him ten or so new dolls. A long song and dance number is dedicated to showing the palace staff pampering the adult Kuzco in all kinds of ways and culminates in hand-feeding the emperor.

    All this is supposed to be funny. White people work hard at making fun of social inequality in non-white societies perhaps to ignore the social inequality in their own societies.

2001