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We don't usually think about the presence of ideas of race and racial supremacy even in apparently progressive animated movies. Whenever I bring Walt Disney's cartoons into my film classes at the University of Florida, for example, there are invariably protests against any such critique of these movies. One of my students, in fact, said, "I feel safer taking my child to a Disney movie than taking him to Sunday school."
Nevertheless, seemingly innocent cartoons can produce fundamental and lasting notions about social life. The lessons about social differences have always been there in cartoons, often disguised in the shape of talking animals: think of the dialect of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox in Song of the South or the chorus of crows in Dumbo.
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You can also justify all sorts of social arrangements by referring to the animal realm. For example, The Lion King suggests that everyone is innately part of a hierarchy: lions are born to rule and hyenas are born to follow. In Pocahontas, the audience is asked to believe that exploitation and racism don't reside in the social system of empire but solely in the hearts of one or two bad apples. Historically, of course, the genocide of Native Americans does not support this Hollywood vision. And then there's Shrek: as Kermit tells us, it's not easy being green, but the green ogres who star in Shrek are voiced by white actors, while Eddie Murphy plays the comic sidekick, Donkey.
If we want to live in a truly democratic society, parents and teachers need to educate themselves about these submerged messages, even in -- perhaps especially in! -- animated films, precisely so that we can encourage children to think beyond these stereotypes. When we do, in films like Finding Nemo, we can make some real progress. There are no racial or social hierarchies under the sea: fish of all kinds and colors, from clownfish to octopi, cooperate and help each other. In Finding Nemo, it's the people who are far scarier than the sharks!
Copyright 2004 © Andrew Gordon
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Friday, 01-Oct-2004 11:20:32 EDT