Animated Oppression?

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Brian Johnson

Imagine these words set to music…

What can you expect from filthy little heathens? Here’s what you get when races are diverse. Their skins are hellish red; they’re only good when dead. They’re vermin, as I said, and worse, they’re savages. Barely even human…They’re not like you and me, which means they must be evil.

Beneath that milky hide there’s emptiness inside. I wonder if they even bleed. They’re savages, barely even human—killers at the core. They’re different from us, which means they can’t be trusted.

Now, imagine your child memorizing and singing them over and over and over again.

This exchange from Disney’s Pocahantas (1996) is just one of thousands of scenes in mainstream Hollywood films targeted at young children. What have your children internalized from watching these animated “family friendly” films?

“Difference” is a common theme in these types of films, and unfortunately, the overwhelming take-home message is that difference is not good—or, at least, it’s a major hurdle to overcome.

Critical engagement with diversity and multiculturalism provides an opportunity for parents, teachers and learners to challenge ethnocentric assumptions and the manners in which we have been shaped by educational institutions, religious traditions, community leaders, family systems, and yes, the mass media.

As parents, we have to take seriously the idea that popular film can be a vehicle for social commentary, analysis, and criticism. We should examine both how a film works as a cultural medium and how and why it affects the viewer the way it does. We should learn how to use popular American films to understand competing perspectives on American history, culture, and society.

Consider this scene from Happy Feet…(DVD scene 15)

It is mating season in Emperor Land and several male penguins are vying for the attention of Gloria, a young female with a beautiful singing voice. The males sing their “heart songs” and the one with the complementary song to Gloria’s will win her affection. Mumble returns with his new friends, The Amigos, and tries to dance his way into Gloria’s heart. It appears to be working and the other young penguins begin to dance with Mumble. The elder patriarchs of Emperor Land catch on and attempt to put a stop to the fracas. The leader, Noah, blames the shortage of fish on a “foreign” element (Mumble and his friends), and he calls for their expulsion—he calls them a “disorder,” and an “aberration,” referring to their dancing as a “kind of backsliding” and a “pagan display.”

It’s scary to think about what the studios are teaching our kids about how to treat others who are different. I don’t know—should we ban our kids from watching these types of “innocent” movies? What do you all think? I’ve only named two examples—I would love to read more examples from you parents.

Brian Johnson is committed to fostering intercultural learning and building communities across layers of difference. He is an ordained minister and is the founder of Manna Unlimited Motivations, a motivational education company that provides diversity education for schools and businesses.

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