Friday, March 6, 2009

Racial Inequality on the Disney Channel

Disney has always had a turbulent relationship with the subject of racial equality. Some of their films contain truly racist material like the crow Jim of Dumbo and the ditsy black centaur servant of Fantasia, not to mention the now banned Song of the South with the kind old black slave character. In recent history, Disney has aimed to be seen as the cleanest, most wholesome provider of family entertainment that would in no way be associated with such shameful ideologies as racism. However, in their efforts to be politically correct, they have at times proved self-defeating as their attempts only emphasize racial inequality. I have noticed this occurring in two Disney Channel programs: the TV movie Alley Cats Strike and the cartoon The Proud Family.

The movie Alley Cats Strike is about a nerdy white kid named Alex who feels right at home with his misfit group of friends who love the game of bowling, but has his sense of social identity challenged when a black kid named Todd, the popular athletic school superstar, joins the school bowling team as part of a publicity thing because the two local high schools have a huge sports rivalry and bowling is the only game with which they haven’t yet competed. Although the two boys initially dislike each other, they start to get along when Alex realizes he has become popular by association and goes along with Todd’s way of doing things, which ends up hurting the feelings of his nerdy friends. After some further friction, Todd goes to Alex’s house to talk things over. During their conversation, the following bizarre exchange occurs:

Todd: “You’re not me. You’re not the same as me.”
Alex: “No.”
Todd: “You know what the big difference is?”
Alex: “Hair color?”
Todd: (chuckles) “Yeah…”

Hmm. If we’re going to make a joke about some physical comparison that’s obviously unrelated, then the skin color would be the big difference to joke about. The problem is that Disney doesn’t want to risk anyone thinking they’re racist and in doing so they deny the racial difference itself, which isn’t quite anti-racist. It could be argued that this denial of separate races is in itself racist because in pretending that racial difference doesn’t exist it disrespects the racial conflict in the real world. How are we to respect every color of human if we can’t even acknowledge the difference? Should this exchange have happened instead:

Todd: “You know what the big difference is?”
Alex: “Skin color?”
Todd: (chuckles) “Yeah…”

…then I can imagine some sensitive people getting offending and saying “Oh my God! He just said skin color is the big difference between them! Disney promotes racism! I won’t let my kids watch this!” and causing negative ratings, so I can understand their hesitation. However, should the exchange have gone this way, I believe it would have been a positive message in the promotion of racial equality. I mean, skin color varies. This is a known fact of the world anyone who’s not colorblind can tell instantly. For two kids to laugh about it simply as a physical difference entirely unrelated to discrimination issues would be a depiction devoid of racism. Obviously racism is not absent in the real world and Disney should recognize it, but that’s what movies like The Color of Friendship are for. Alley Cats Strike is not about challenging racism, and this joke is inane.

The other issue I have is with a line in an episode of The Proud Family. The Proud Family is an attempt by Disney to appeal to the black community as a marketing technique through use of various references to hip-hop music and other pop-culture. In the episode I Had a Dream, Penny Proud hits her head and, like Dorothy Gale in the Land of Oz, she winds up stuck in a 1955 version of her life, complete with all the racism of the time (and a certain lack of technological convenience). At one point while with her 1955 family, she makes a reference to them as “black”. As this name has yet to be considered politically correct, her family is quite offended and her parents tell her never to use that word.

It is, however, never stated what word she should use. I believe “negro” was appropriate at the time. If Disney is being historically accurate to the point of Penny’s parents being offended at the word “black”, it would make sense that they would instead use the term “negro” as it was used at the time, which is without the stigma the word holds today. Of course, Disney plays it safe and ignores this, leaving it completely a mystery what to call them.

Again, I can understand them not wanting to endanger their ratings. If some parent not paying attention to the plot were to hear the word thrown around, Disney could be cast as racist by well-intentioned people who won’t look at the context. The whole point of the episode is about recognizing that racism was widespread in the 50s and to honor the civil rights activists. By letting “black” be an ethnic slur as it was at the time, they help to illustrate the racist atmosphere of the era; however, they ultimately yield to modern day political correctness standards even to deny the historical context. With neither “black” nor an offered alternative to describe the Proud family’s ethnicity, one is left feeling that there is no politically correct term at all. Frankly, this seems a self-defeating tactic for Disney’s attempt at inspiring respect for all races.

Both of these incidents strike me as taking the concept of political correctness so far that it goes past the reason for which the political correctness is called in the first place, making the final product too clean to be a suitable stance against racism. I will acknowledge that as I am white myself, I am not the best person for determining the best ways for combating racism in relation to the black-white conflict. However, based on my own viewpoints, I conclude that these attempts to be politically correct wind up hurting Disney’s record of proper portrayal. I am open to criticism should flaws in my arguments be recognized, and I invite refutations.

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