How Star Wars Is Helping Liberal Disney Escape A Bigoted Past
A long time ago in a galaxy far far away… a cartoon mouse spawned an entertainment empire that took over the world by exciting and thrilling white boys with dreams of being rich heroes while tantalizing white girls with dreams of being beautiful and thin and saved by said handsome heroic rich white men. So it’s ironic that today, 88 years after Steamboat Willie whistled his way into America’s pale hearts, that Disney, a company with a history firmly grounded in racism, sexism and general bigotry, blasts forward with a ragtag group of ethnics and a chick standing atop the newest chapter of the most valuable film franchise in the world. Enter “Rogue One.” Can this hot new liberal Disney make up for a long history drawn from David Duke’s deepest cornpone dreams of sexuo-racial purity?
The Racism in the Disney Classics Vault
Dumbo – A Lesson in Racism
A few years ago my son was born and a dormant childhood love of Disney came roaring back. I wanted to rewatch all the classics with my boy, teach him lessons about righteousness and nobility that I’d learned from some of the first hero’s journeys I can remember. So there we were watching “Dumbo” when the time came to set up for the circus. And a door on a back cargo car slid opened. Out poured a gang of faceless black men tasked with setting up the tents, helped out by their “equals,” the elephants.
Everybody else in this damn movie gets faces, the lighter-skinned people riding animals in a parade, the animals even, everybody but the poor black workers who sing a song that goes:
We work all day, we work all night
We never learned to read or write
We’re happy-hearted roustabouts
When other folks have gone to bed
We slave until we’re almost dead
We’re happy-hearted roustabouts
We don’t know when we get our pay
And when we do, we throw our pay away
Yeah. And then of course there are the black crows, leader of course named Jim, with their rousing ragtime wordplay “I be done seen ’bout ev-er-y-thin’ when I see an elephant fly.” I could point out similar issues in other Disney classics (e.g. when the apes in “The Jungle Book” do a great little scat-blues song when they try to trick the human boy to join them) but we’ll move on to theme two:
“Peter Pan” — A Lesson In Bad Sterotypes All Around
Ahh, this one really hurt. “Peter Pan” was my favorite as a kid. The boy who never has to grow up, can fly, can fight pirates, go on adventures; hell, the closest I could get to moving to Neverland was moving to a mountain town where it’s considered respectacble to play in the woods far into old age.
So as I watched the story of the boy who never grows up with my son, I was quick to tell him “that’s not how things are.” There’s that cringe-worthy encounter with the Indians, with their big noses and stilted language “How … you bring heap good news …” and songs like “What made the red man red” and “Why does the Injun say ‘How’ ” and such great dialogue as “Squaw get’um firewood.”
Which leads to the sexism: There’s the first time Peter meets Wendy, when she sews his shadow back on as he says “Get on with it girl.” Then says she’ll be their mother, the greatest thing a woman can aspire to, of course. Then the constant jealousy, first from Tinkerbell, then from the mermaids while Peter, the cock of the walk, just stands by appreciating all the ladies fighting over him, only intervening at the last minute when Wendy may very well be drowned. In fact, sexism has a huge place in Disney history.
And the Classic Disney Princess — A Lesson in Sexism (and even racism)
Ahh snow white. A girl whose purity is epitomized by the whiteness of her skin. Yes, this is based on a story published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812 so most of the conventions come from centuries-old gender roles of jealous old women and girls who are only good for keeping house and looking hot (and apparently very much not good at common sense things like “don’t buy apples from that crazy woman who looks like a witch”). But Disney chose this as its first fairy tale and so began a pattern of telling stories about young women whose greatest accomplishments are cleaning, bearing punishment and embracing naive kindness. That’s the old paradigm of Disney princess, women who are gullible and innocent and need a man to save them. “Sleeping Beauty,” (stupid princess with nature friends put to sleep by jealous witch on a loom, saved by prince) and “Cinderella” (princess acts as maid to woman who acts cruel out of jealousy and concern for her two daughters who are fat and stupid and ugly, saved by preternatural relationship with animals, magic and the love of the prince) round out Snow White’s iconic helpless threesome.
Even in modern-era Disney, Jasmine dresses more like a courtesan than a Muslim princess, the Little Mermaid throws her whole life away (including that awesome clam-bra ripped out of an animator’s perverted dreams) for a dude she’s never met and whether we’re talking 40s or oughts, the standard Disney princess’s waist is thinner than my thigh (even in the live-action “Cinderella” starring Rose and Daisy from “Downton Abbey” and Rob Stark from “Game of Thrones” and Cate Blanchett).
Still, it was the mouse house’s live-action films that first presented some positive role models (magical Mary Poppins; clever Hailey Mills from “The Parent Trap”). But most of the Disney Classics, and by extension the company itself, was built on the back of racism and sexism. Possibly some of that had to do with Walt himself, who many have claimed was an anti-semite and raging misogynist (though the anti-semitism is still up for debate). And Disney was all about upholding the prejudiced “morality” of the time, painting in the lines, play it conservative, so much so that the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes crew first started gaining ground as the radical animation house.
Regardless, at some point Disney’s stodgy dedication to white male apotheosis started to change for real, probably a bit by plan and as bit by luck (some brilliant writers and directors had radical ideas not presented as such, snuck by the squares at the top, even to the point of Depp’s Captain Jack originally causing concern from brass when they saw dailies and thought he looked a bit too homo-absurdist). Maybe it wasn’t fully embracing this image of a liberal Disney but it was making small steps forward. And now that change is turning the atavistic lily-white-family-values-fueled Disney into a vanguard for diversity worthy of right-wing protest.
The Rogue Filmmakers
The first steps were almost subtle. “Mulan” starred a strong girl who poses as a man and fights gender roles. “The Princess and the Frog” was the first major cartoon film with a black female princess heroine. And in “Frozen,” the shining knight thing is turned on its head when the man you think will save the day doesn’t but instead it’s sisterly that conjures the heroine’s salvation. There’s “Brave.” Hell, even the Disney TV show “Sophia the First” has a princess who usually fixes all the problems her hapless king father and prince brother can’t handle (with cameos from the Disney princesses teaching her about how to be strong and independent) and Doc McStuffins is about a black girl who becomes a doctor to her stuffed animals. Most recently “Moana,” centered on a dark-skinned Hawaiian girl who has no love interest and who’s surrounded by a cast of mostly non-white voice actors, has just killed it at the box office. And that doesn’t even factor in ABC, home to genre-shifting comedy “Modern Family,” aka the TV show that taught mom and pop in Iowa that gay people aren’t scary, and ESPN and all sorts of properties grounded in diversity of vision and voice.
All of these are great. But when Disney really started making up for a golden history lined with jigabooisms and “know your place” plot points was when it assumed the reins of the omnipresent Star Wars franchise. Because with their first go-round with the Force, Disney didn’t make a movie where race and gender are dictated by the premise or utilized as a gimmick to appear more enlightened, the 800-Carrier-jobs-of-diversity attention grab. Nope, they went to a galaxy far far away and tapped two people to save the universe who just happened to be a black man and a woman. And now, with the upcoming release of “Rogue One,” we’re going to see how a strong woman surrounded by an band of tinted-melanin and non-round-eyed heroes can set up the greatest conquest of good over evil since the Book of Revelations.
The black stormtrooper
When the first trailer for “The Force Awakens” popped onto YouTube in 2014, there were two angles the online commenters took: “I can’t wait to see this” and “Stormtroopers aren’t black.”
The second comment was in relation to John Boyega’s casting as a stormtrooper who rips his helmet off in the desert (and while some have argued the anger was due to a nerdy accounting of all stormtroopers being clones of Jango Fett, that lacks the true nerd pedigree that would have then seen the fact that stormtroopers in “A New Hope” and beyond don’t have Fett’s trademark accent and due to rapid growth, the original clone army soldiers likely would have started deteriorating rapidly too, making it necessary to recruit non-clones to replace them) to show the world, “Oh my god, it’s a black main character in Star Wars!” (Lando notwithstanding)(correction, I read the screed of one racist who said that it would make sense that the highly-expendable foot soldiers were black, especially after it was revealed that Finn used to work in sanitation before becoming a stormtrooper).
Add in the fact that his great force-empowered, science-minded counterpart is a woman and you had racist-sexists all over the world crying foul. “Make Star Wars White Again” indeed. The fact that the film is infinitely better than the misguided cartoon insults-to-the-canon Lucasfilm prequels (with their heavy usage of Asian, Jewish and Caribbean racism) quickly silenced all but the most fervent haters (even if they had to shrink John Boyega on the Chinese promo poster because, well, there’s rumored to be a bit of disdain for people with darker skin in the People’s Republic). And with a record-setting $260M worldwide opening and overall box office haul close to a billion, liberal Disney has learned that diversity works.
Now they’re doubling down with “Rogue One.” This is a big gamble — other than the mostly-forgotten 1984 made-for-TV “Ewoks” film (and the geek legend “A Very Wookie Christmas” that introduced Boba Fett), there have been no films that aren’t a direct part of the Skywalker fall and redemption story. Given the slate of other spinoffs being planned (from Han Solo’s young life that already promises Khaleesi as a young Han love interest to calls for a middle-aged Obi-Wan meditation) and the possible goldmine of Star Wars material that could put that legendary Pixar brainwashing session to shame, this film may be one of the most important entertainment properties for Disney to nail. So what do they do? Young female badass (Felicity Jones) is the driving force behind a theft of government military secrets. She’s surrounded by a ragtag rebel force (more Fidel and Che’s Guerillas than American militia) made up of a Mexican (Diego Luna), a couple asians (Wen Jiang, Donnie Yen) and a black (Forest Whittaker). The white men? They’re the villains, a bunch of short-haired, straight, suit-wearing cleancut technocrats with a disdain for anybody who steps out of line.
This is the exact opposite of everything classic Disney stood for. The white kings have become cruel dictators; the darkies and the helpless damsels are the new princes. The world is turned upside down and that turn to the light side of the force is already promising good things. The new movie comes out in a week and every trailer up to now has been met with fervent hunger on the part of the faithful, which in the case of Star Wars numbers in the millions, hell tens of millions, all over the world.
The perfect time for liberal Disney to strike hard
Disney’s sins weren’t its own; this is not Griffiths making a cinematic epic about the heroic KKK taking on the villainous freemen despite a general societal understanding of otherwise. In many ways it was reflective of an American status quo where the undisputed American mainstream comprised white nuclear families who viewed blacks as faceless laborers and women as delicate beautiful creatures best fit for housework and marriage. Even the claims of Walt as an anti-Semite were based largely on his joining a powerful and large Hollywood consortium known for anti-Semitism (like a frat for the who’s who of then-mostly-white movers and shakers) and helping write a decency code based on mores of a time when miscegenation was still a crime. That doesn’t absolve the cartoon house’s sins; but it does fit the picture of film as a reflection of our society. The evolution of film into the challenger of the current didn’t happen until a splinter cell of women’s liberationists and civil rights protesters and free-love, jazz-obsessed intellectual hipsters grew, much like the “Rogue One” rebels, into a real power and with them grew the possibility to make money by selling them movie tickets.
The wholesome mouse house had to become liberal Disney as the youth generation became increasingly left-leaning in the face of their separate-but-equal no-nonsense wife’s place is in the kitchen parents. And the pendulum swung to the left, then pushed back hard right and for the last 10 years we’ve been riding a hearty leftward thrust. The rebels won. Or so we thought. Until we saw “The Force Awakens” (brief explanation for the non-Force-wielders, the Republic that had overthrown the empire is all but destroyed by the evil Nazi-esque dictatorship culled from the vestiges of that old dictatorship and so the republic’s resistance has to fight back, again).
Along those lines, it’s a dark time for OUR republic. The pendulum has certainly swung back and a demagogue preaching everything but outright racial purity has become the supreme leader, in the process empowering America’s most vicious bigots to embrace their prejudicial hatreds. And as if to counter claims that his agenda wasn’t racist, this rat-bastard has surrounded himself with the most powerful ethnic cleansers in the American public sphere, from Jeff Sessions to Steve Bannon, with the vicious white is right coonhound rants of Richard Spencer serving as a foul background theme song. As for women, you need look no further than the evolution-denying VP who believes women should be required to bury their aborted fetuses, though we could also look at Trump Stooge Chris Christie’s upholding of the placement of incarcerated pregnant women in solitary confinement.
America had been growing more and more separated thanks to our beloved echo chambers and cheap easy accessibility to similar crackpot voices that amplify our dichotomous hypocrisies. But this bold declaration of intent presented by a radical coup so starkly opposed to the values of equal rights embraced by the majority of Americans threatens to divide us even further. Obama sought to build a cabinet of rivals; Trump seeks to build a cabinet of chilling homogeneity. Such a threat is cause for alarm and fear and, more importantly, the ability to endure it as we muster a formidable organization to oppose it.
Disney’s tale of diverse rebellion against the milquetoast bosses of an evil government is frighteningly prescient and as such it has the power to influence hearts and minds to embrace the fact that women and nonwhites acting together in rebellion against the government may actually be upholding the noblest ideas of a great society. As such, there have already been conservative calls to boycott the movie under vague claims that the movie is anti-Trump. Which it is, of course, even if not necessarily on purpose.
If Disney can pull off such a powerful and successful battle cry, perhaps it can make up for all those bigoted images of yore that had a part in creating a generation of now-elderly hatemongers. If nothing else, the message is that Disney, and by extension people, can change. And that there is hope. Which means that liberal Disney is absolutely something to applaud.
So good on you Mickey and crew. You became a household name making movies filled with racism and misogyny because it reflected the American masses but you now see a different vision of the American masses. And in embracing the rainbow present and hopeful future over the powers of a frightened, old and evil past, Disney may very well become the leading voice of progressivism for our nation.
Perhaps there’s a little hyperbole in there. But if nothing else, the kingdom of liberal Disney is saying something loud and clear: for those of us who value inclusion and diversity, who understand that there is good and evil and can see clearly who falls on each side of that spectrum, the Force is with us.