A social worker’s perspective of Disney characters

by Anti-Racist Parent Columnist Jae Ran Kim, originally published at Harlow’s Monkey

When my daughter was five, one of her favorite movies was Disney’s version of “Annie.” She would kneel on the kitchen floor, dishtowel in hand, and sing, “It’s a hard knock life!” as she swiped the linoleum. Once “Annie” arrived in our house, our bedtime ritual of singing “Your are my sunshine” turned into mournful renditions of “Maybe.” Ouch. There is nothing like it. An orphaned child grown up, singing nightly to her child,

maybe now it’s time,
and maybe when I wake
they’ll be there calling me “Baby”
– maybe.

But what would she know about orphans who end up being adopted by the richest man in America? It’s only a movie. Though Disney has long promoted its wholesome, family values in its movies – or have they?

Many of my daughter’s favorite movies featured orphaned “child” characters – such as Littlefoot from the “Land Before Time” movie series, whose mother dies and he has to learn to depend on help from his “different” dinosaur friends to find his way to his grandparents. The movie is all about diversity (each dinosaur species is a different “race”) and overcoming adversity. For those who write children’s stories, what could be a bigger challenge and fear than the loss of one’s parents (hiccup: Harry Potter, orphaned. Hiccup: Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events children, orphaned. Hiccup: The Secret Garden/The Little Princess, orphans)?

Just for fun, I thought I would apply a social worker’s perspective to the wholesome characters in popular Disney movies. Though not meant to be a rail against Disney per se; the Disney power of influence continues to affect millions of children around the world, and I thought it would be cheeky to take a closer look. How many of these beloved characters live in a married, two-parent (hetero) household?

• Aladdin (Aladdin) – orphaned and homeless; petty crimes for food and shelter
• Annie (Annie) – orphan adopted by rich single dad
• Ariel (The Little Mermaid) – dead mother, rebellious teen who runs away to be with a man
• Aristocats – Marie, Berlioz and Toulouse – three kittens raised by a single mother
• Bambi (Bambi) – raised by single mother who is murdered, has never met his absent father
• Belle (Beauty and the Beast) – dead mother, raised by single father
• Cinderella (Cinderella) – dead mother, raised by abusive Stepmother and neglectful, absent father
• Dumbo (Dumbo)– raised by a stigmatized, depressed single mother
• Elliot (Pete’s Dragon) – orphaned, runaway from abusive foster parents, adopted by single mother
• Hercules (Hurcules) – son of gods transracially adopted by humans
• Lilo (Lilo and Stitch)– orphaned, raised by older sister
• Mowgli (The Jungle Book)– orphaned, raised by 2-male heads of household (bear and panther)
• Mulan (Mulan) – cross-dressing teen girl with intact, multi-generational family unit
• Nemo (Finding Nemo) – dead mother, raised by single overprotective father
• Oliver (Oliver & Company) – orphaned kitten transracially adopted by rich girl
• Peter Pan (Peter Pan) – orphaned, troublemaker and gang leader of Lost Boys
• Penny (The Rescuers) – orphaned girl kidnapped from orphanage
• Pinocchio (Pinocchio) – wooden toy adopted by aged creator Gepetto
• Pochahontas (Pocahontas) – dead mother, raised by single father
• Quasimoto (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) – physically disabled male adopted by evil church minister Frollo
• Simba (The Lion King) – father murdered by uncle, raised by 2-male heads of household (meerkat and warthog)
• Sleeping Beauty (Sleeping Beauty) – parents transferred custody to 3 fairies
• Snow White (Snow White & the 7 dwarves) – dead mother, raised by abusive Stepmother and neglectful father
• Tarzan (Tarzan)– orphaned, transracially adopted by gorilla family

Jae Ran Kim, MSW is a social worker, teacher and writer. She was born in Taegu, South Korea and was adopted to Minnesota in 1971. She has written numerous articles and essays and is most recently published in the anthology “Outsiders Within: Writings on Transracial Adoption” from South End Press. Jae Ran’s blog, Harlow’s Monkey, is at http://harlowmonkey.typepad.com/

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