'Peter Pan,' 'Lady and the Tramp,' and 12 More Kids' Classics Marred by Racism

I suppose the author can find some movies and novels somewhere which are 100% politically correct and don’t reflect at any point negatively about some ethnic group, gender, occupation, religion, age, culture, etc–but some of us would find such works quite boring.

Peter Pan was written in what, 1904? Of course it’s going to be bigoted and full of -isms by our 2014 standards.

And in another 110 years, people will be alarmed at how Harry Potter depicted owls, or how we laughed at the stereotyped antics of Rosie, the Jetson’s robot maid. Or possibly they wil be laughing at how we were going overboard to blame older works for not lining up with early 21st-century standards while not noticing our own blindspots.

Classics can transcend the times they were written in, but they will always show the signs of their creator’s prejudices.

And Pirates ! Everyone’s got it in for Pirates !

None of this is a significant problem for adults who read/watch/listen to these. But if you are going to show it to children who don’t have the skills or experience to understand the context, then you may very well want to address the problem head on.

I won’t argue that a work written in the past has to fit in with modern standards. But I would strongly dispute the idea that some bigotry is a necessary ingredient to make a work entertaining.

Peter Pan is a great work despite its racism not because of it.

I dispute the claim that Peter Pan depicts Native Americans. The Indians in Peter Pan, like the pirates (and fairies), are native to no real, geographical area on earth. Rather, they are native to the kind of fantastictal adventure stories that English children used to grow up reading.

One of the most uncomfortable moments in my career thus far has been teaching/singing ‘Ugh-A-Wug’ to a cast.


It goes beyond a stereotype to full-on, unabashed insulting.

Yes, you can always find “something” about the past to point at and say “look at how backwards they were,” but there was definitely a period in the first half or so of the 20th century where we really held up other cultures/races as objects of ridicule and derision in the public eye (while the American white male became the most powerful man in the world).

It’s easy to say “Oh, racism is no big deal, it’s old, etc.” until you are the little Asian child watching it and you see those damn cats in Lady and the Tramp. “We are Siamese, if you please.” They were jerks, and most Asiatic characters were kind of depicted as jerks. I can’t even imagine being a black child and watching all of these movies and shows that depict black people as such.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t show these movies…but they do require a touch of sensitivity. Plus, there is so much new stuff, that if I had kids, I might not bother pulling out Peter Pan or Lady and the Tramp. Modern Disney has much better characters and stronger female characters - hell I’d show a child of mine Mulan before I ever showed her Sleeping Beauty. Just because I enjoyed those movies as a child doesn’t mean I should keep passing them on.

Thudlow Boink . . . I think that’s a valid point. But, I also would find it hard to say with a straight face to someone who identified as Native American and was offended, “no, you’re wrong, see, it’s not about you . . . it’s about like, a fantasy version based on you. It makes all the difference!”

My guess is also that the ‘fantastical adventure stories’ of English children of the time are chock full of horrible depictions of all sorts of people, as in the British age of Empire the English were busy taking advantage of all sorts of native peoples all over the world, and justifying it by calling them savages (note, I’m not excusing Americans and other colonial powers from doing the same). It doesn’t mean we throw all those books away, but we also don’t have to make excuses for them.

So if he had included a tribe of Ongo-Bongo jungle headhunters with stereotyped “African savage” features and behaviors (I’m thinking of that one WB cartoon here), there’d be no racist overtones?

I think the crux of this is works for adults/works for children. Adult readers understand, or need to understand the context of the author and the time the work is written or (IMVHO) not read it themselves - there is no basis for censorship or banning.

But books and other works written for children and presented as children’s films and plays… I think there is a time when old racism and other negative cultural baggage needs to be considered. If it can’t be removed or changed, the work is no longer appropriate for children’s entertainment, no matter how “beloved” or “traditional” it might have been up til then.

Last night’s Peter Pan has no Native American characters in it. The tribe was described as “Islanders.” Problem solved.

But kids aren’t stupid. They can also see works with less stereotyped portrays.

That’s great and dandy…again, unless you are the small Native American child watching or reading it! Of course you will apply it to yourself. It’s not that easy for a child to understand, “That’s not really you, it’s some fictional race somewhere”.

Is this really true?—I ask completely non-rhetorically. Is the depiction of the “Indians” in Peter Pan the kind of thing that a modern-day Navajo or Cherokee or Lakota child would be inclined think was supposed to apply to them and their “race”? (I almost said “culture,” but if we’re talking about racism, race specifically has to be involved somehow.)

I can’t speak for Native Americans…but I can tell you poor representations of E. Indian people always affected me personally as a child.

When you are a minority child in this culture, you are constantly bombarded with depictions of white people. This isn’t really a complaint, just an observation: every major actor or actress, all of the characters in cartoons, etc., are meant to be white. Do you think Aladdin looks Arabic? Or hell, Jasmine? No, they have white features.

When you see someone who looks kind of like you, close enough, you look at them and whether you like it or not, this is how kids see that their culture is perceived.

I think you misinterpret Barrie’s interest in depicting (fantasy) Indians in his play, or their significance to Englishmen. Indians symbolized a kind of freedom Europeans had never imagined; Prior to encountering them circa 1600, the greatest freedom any European could imagine was to choose which of two tyrants to obey unreservedly. Then they met the Indians of Virginia and Massachusetts, some of whom lived utterly outside any kind of social structure and could leave and rejoin at will. It expanded white people’s concept of what “freedom” could mean, and not in a way Englishmen felt particularly superior to. Dismissing these depictions of Indians as “racist” kind of misses the point.Englishmen regarded them as semi-mythical.

Again, this is something you can understand as an adult. Not something that is clear as a child.

To put yourself into the shoes of another: and for a minority child, to understand the English point of view is putting yourself into the shoes of another, takes maturity, distance, and introspection. None of which children have in great quantity.

I can look at A Passage to India dispassionately now and see what it means. I still don’t like it and probably never will. But it’s something that took me a lot of time to understand. And it is hard, no matter what, to read the views of the English ladies vis-a-vis Indian men. Yes, it is meant to be showcasing and bringing into stark light the arrogance and the wrongness of the impression of Indians. It doesn’t change the fact that that’s how they felt.

It reminds me of when I played Jade Empire. One of the scenes is when this obnoxious Englishman shows up in ancient China, and struts around, and acts extremely stereotypical of the time: white man’s burden and all. People found it extremely funny. Me and my (Chinese descent) SO cringed. It’s far too close to the truth of how people felt - and how some still feel.

At least at the moment, William Blake seems to still be going pretty strong.

The list is missing King Louie the orangutan from Jungle Book (and probably other characters if I watched Jungle Book again). I find that one a lot more offensive than a lot of examples in the article.

In particular, while I get that Speedy Gonzalez is a collection of stereotypes, he’s a good guy, and the one we identify with in cartoons. He dresses in ridiculous clothing and so forth, but he’s fast, funny, and as the article notes, popular in Latin America. I compare him to Apu in the Simpsons, who also fulfills a lot of stereotypes but is a likable character and not just a one-note ‘laugh at the Indian guy’ joke.

Song of the South is, of course, insensitive through and through, but the interesting thing to me is that Uncle Remus is the only likable live action character in the movie. I actively disliked everyone else with a speaking part.

I honestly never connected the Siamese cats from Lady and the Tramp with Asian stereotypes until this article, but as evidenced in this thread, it’s real. Learned something today.

Offensive how? King Louie wasn’t black, you know. He was voiced by (and named after) jazz singer-songwriter-trumpeter Louie Prima, who was an Italian-American from New Orleans.

King Louie sang just the way Louie Prima did in real life: hammily, with a lot of swagger and schmaltz. On stage, Prima always acted like he was the coolest, swingingest cat around, and so did King Louie.

Most of the animals in Disney’s ***The Jungle Book ***were voiced by white, British actors (George Sanders as Shere Khan the tiger, Sebastian Cabot as Bagheera the Panther, et al). Where’s the racism?