Teaching Disney, Part Two: Race and Ethnicity, and Economics

PALS Note: This post is Part Two of guest poster’s coverage of teaching Disney in the Children’s Literature classroom. (Find Part One here.) In this section, Philip Smith discusses addressing race and economics when teaching Disney. These ideas help us think about teaching Disney in all of its complexity and getting students to critique texts which may be near and dear to their heart. 

In my first post, I established the context of teaching Disney in my Children’s Literature course and explained three of the five main elements we focus on in the class: hypertextuality, the formula, and gender. Here, I continue with the last two: race and ethnicity, and economics. As with the previous elements, students are able to identify some examples and, again, desire to defend others.

Race and Ethnicity


I invite students to list Disney characters whose accent, mannerisms, or appearance suggests that he or she is a member of a specific ethnic or cultural group. Students will often recognize that Sebastian the crab in The Little Mermaid is coded as Jamaican. He speaks with a Jamaican accent and sings calypso-style songs; he also, problematically, spends most of the film trying to please a large white man. Students may also identify the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp (1955) as having been drawn from racist cartoons of Chinese emigrants the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and the “Indians” in Peter Pan (1953) as embodying similarly racist stereotypes.

Some students will typically suggest Aladdin is coded as Middle-Eastern. I will point out that Aladdin’s accent and mannerisms are American. Only his clothing suggests otherwise. Other characters in Aladdin (1992) (the guards, for example, or the merchant at the start of the film) have far more explicit, and highly stereotyped, markers of otherness. I will point out that we are quick to recognize Sebastian’s Jamaican accent, but not Ariel’s American accent, white skin, and blue eyes. In Disney, as in much of popular culture, white American is the default from which other characters deviate. Indeed, just as Disney teaches us that to be beautiful is to be a hero, it also teaches us, broadly, that heroism is largely the domain of white people.

I then provide a visual tour of the use of racist caricature in Disney, starting with the satyrs in Fantasia (1940), by way of the crows in Dumbo (1941), the musicians in The Little Mermaid, and the hyenas in The Lion King (1994). One particular example I dwell upon is King Louie in The Jungle Book (1967), whose speech and music are coded as African American, and who sings a song about how much he wants to be, but is not, human.

King Louis.png

The ensuing discussion is often lively. Students often have conflicted feelings about these characters. In the majority, they will agree that Disney has been complicit in perpetuating racist stereotypes, but, at the same time, they often have fond memories of these films. I tend to find that my role is best served by managing the discussion and ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to speak.

Sometimes students will offer counter-examples. Lilo in Lilo and Stich (2002), for example, or the titular character in Moana (2016) one might argue, are coded in a manner which is more sensitive to issues around representation than earlier Disney films. Indeed, Disney did consult with the Oceanic Story Trust when working on Moana. Others may respond that the image presented of Hawaiian and Polynesian cultures in these films are not necessarily negative, but are idealized and unrepresentative, reducing the cultures in question to somewhat cartoonish (perhaps touristy) images of themselves, arresting the culture in question in a pre-modern moment.

I will ask the group if (arguably) more positive representations of race and culture excuse or negate other, more harmful, representations of particular ethnic groups in previous Disney films. I also ask who should be the one to decide whether a given representation is appropriate? Surely, I propose, it should be Hawaiians, for example, who decide if Lilo and Stich is an accurate and sensitive portrayal of their culture. This is particularly important given that one finds so few Pacific Islander actors in mainstream films. Lilo and Stich and Moana carry a heavy burden.

The takeaways from this part of the class is that Disney’s animal metaphors draw heavily upon, and therefore perpetuate, racist stereotypes. Students should recognize that these negative racial signifiers are attached to characters who are either comic or villainous. The more a character resembles a white American, the more likely he or she is to be a film’s protagonist.


I ask students if they own any Disney merchandise or, if not, when they last purchased a Disney-branded product. Often, depending on the size and age of the class, we can find among us an object which bears an image of a Disney character, typically a keychain, t-shirt, or pencil case. We discuss where and when we acquired such items. Inevitably, the subject of the Disney Store and/or Disney theme parks arises. Students will share stories of visits to such places.

I explain to the students that Star Wars (1977) (now, but not then, a Disney property) changed the business model for major films. Where films once primarily made money through ticket sales, Star Wars introduced the idea of merchandise as a major source of revenue.

The Little Mermaid, I observe, embodies the Star Wars business model. Disney followed release of The Little Mermaid with a large, and ongoing, merchandising campaign. This strategy, I argue, makes up some of the fabric of the text; the verb which Ariel uses more than any other in the film is “want.” I invite the students to consider the song “Part of Your World”:

Look at this stuff
Isn’t it neat?
Wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete?
Wouldn’t you think I’m the girl
The girl who has everything?

Look at this trove
Treasures untold
How many wonders can one cavern hold?
Looking around here you think
Sure, she’s got everything

I’ve got gadgets and gizmos a-plenty
I’ve got whozits and whatzits galore
You want things of above?
I’ve got twenty!

But who cares?
No big deal
I want more

I connect these lyrics to an idea we encountered earlier in the course when discussing John Newberry’s interventions into children’s literature. Newberry understood that to sell a children’s product one must market to both the adult and the child—that if one can convince a child to be desirous of a product, the child will persuade the parent to buy it. This has proven to be an effective strategy for Disney—retail earned Disney as much as $1.4 billion in 2015.

Many students will find Disney’s approach to merchandise to be somewhat underhanded, but others will defend this as good business practice and argue that, of course, companies which seek to make a profit must advertise as much as possible. I will generally allow students to discuss this as they see fit and play devil’s advocate if they seem to come to a consensus too quickly.

The takeaway from this section is that Disney understands the considerable importance of “pester power” and leverages this in their films. The content of a Disney film reflects the economics of the company—merchandising is not something which happens after a film is released. Instead, Disney begins by asking how they might sell as much merchandise as possible and then makes their film accordingly.

Assignments and Follow-up

Such is the appeal of Disney, not to mention the accessibility of the texts, that I find I have to structure my assignments so that students do not write and present exclusively on Disney’s animated films. When students tell me that they plan to write on Disney, I encourage them to choose a specific film, lest their argument become too general, and to make use of the many academic works on the subject rather than the plethora of less rigorous, but certainly more widely-available available, works online.

Student work on Disney tends to either constitute a spirited defense of a particular film—arguing, for example, that Frozen disrupts the existing formula—or a detailed critique, drawing upon examples we encountered in class. In either case, I encourage my students, as always, to ground their arguments in the text and, as much as possible, to consult existing reliable secondary sources.

Further Reading

Allan, Rohin. “Walt Disney and Europe.” Visual Resources 14.3 (1999): 275-295.

Bell, Elizabeth, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells, eds. From mouse to mermaid: The politics of film, gender, and culture. Indiana University Press, 1995.

Byrne, Eleanor, and Martin McQuillan. Deconstructing Disney. Pluto, 1999.

Dorfman, Ariel, and Armand Mattelart. How to read Donald Duck: Imperialist ideology in the Disney comic. Intl General, 1991.

Eliot, Marc. Walt Disney: Hollywood’s dark prince. Harpercollins, 1994.

Finch, Christopher, and Walt Disney. The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdoms and Beyond. Abrams, 2011.

Maltin, Leonard. The Disney Films. Disney Editions, 2000.

Thomas, Bob. Walt Disney: An American Original. Disney Editions, 1994.


Phil Picture

Philip Smith obtained his Ph.D from Loughborough University. His work has been published in The American Comic Book, The Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, The International Journal of Comics Art, Studies in Comics, Extrapolation, The Journal of Popular Culture, Literature Compass, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, The Journal of European Studies, Asian Theatre Journal, Slayage, and The International Journal of Bahamian Studies. He has blogged for The Hooded Utilitarian and Comics Forum. He is co-editor of Firefly Revisited (Rowman and Littlefield) and the author of Reading Art Spiegelman (Routledge). He is currently editing two books: Gender and the Superhero Narrative, and The Novels of Elie Wiesel. He is Assistant Professor of English at The University of the Bahamas where he teaches Children’s Literature and Popular Fiction. He is an editorial board member for Literature Compass and Slayage.



Literature is Political: Teaching Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition, Critical Patriotism, and Media Literacy

Note: This week at PALS, we are responding to Ben Railton’s new book, History and Hope in American Literature: Models of Critical Patriotism. Between PALS’s regular contributors, we have taught nearly all of the texts addressed in Railton’s book, but we will only focus on a few in posts by PALS’s co-editors Shelli Homer (part 1) and Brianne Jaquette (part 2 and part 3) .  First up is Homer with a look at Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition.

Captain America: Truth (comicbook)

Last semester in an intermediate composition course, I had students spend the semester researching and writing about American Wars. Throughout the semester, they compared posters from WWI and WWII with pamphlets from the 1960s (Vietnam, Civil Rights, Women’s Lib), reflected on narratives created from Civil War diaries and letters, assessed trends the representation of 9/11 in print media both foreign and domestic, and finally, analyzed the representation of war in a Hollywood film of their choosing.

The first day of class, I wrote the word patriotism on the board and had students do some free writing connected to the word. Students’ thoughts went in a lot of directions, but mainly they were anxious about offending others as they struggled with a desire to be critical of it and to be “good Americans” because somehow those two things do not mesh. More importantly, they all knew someone in the military and wanted to be respectful of that as well. We followed the free writing with a short article that challenged the idea of patriotism by questioning whether it was really any different from nationalism which the scholar described as dangerous. We critiqued the article and some of the writer’s choices as we moved into a discussion of the purpose of patriotism and the many ways it could be defined. Students wanted permission to think critically about their relationship with patriotism; they wanted to be critical patriots without being labeled un-American. All of them had their own defining moments that had already fundamentally challenged their blind childhood patriotism. I went to some very difficult places with students, but everyone was respectful so we came out the other side virtually unscathed with heightened critical thinking skills for encountering manifestations of patriotism.

I open with this anecdote because a statement I have heard several times from colleagues has gone something like, “Why does everyone think we have to addressister-outsiderpolitical topics in our classes? I just enjoy the literature with my students and teach them to appreciate the formal elements, like style and form.” There was a time when my response to this was in the vein of “to each their own, I guess.” But those responses have never fully worked for me. The idea that focusing on style and form will spare us a political conversation is naïve. Choices about form are political. Choices about style are political. Choices about word use are political. Can those elements be successfully taught while avoiding any sort of political discussion in the classroom? I would like to pause and point us all to Audre Lorde’s essay “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Maybe we should just re-read all of Sister Outsider.

I completely understand the anxiety about how to manage politically charged conversations and a fear of students yelling at one another or us. While I sympathize with teaching anxieties 100%—I’m a teacher. It’s hard. I get it.—I don’t support avoiding it because it is challenging for us as well as our students. There is a lot of scholarship out there to help us figure out how to approach the literature through various cultural lenses, more and more of it involving political readings. Ben Railton’s new book, History and Hope in American Literature: Models of Critical Patriotism, provides us with ways to rethink how and why literature is especially productive for helping “audiences not only better remember and understand our histories, but also genuinely connect to and empathize with them.” His book engages with political contexts and challenges the desire to forget or ignore dark parts of American history that have not been adequately or collectively addressed. These “dark parts” make for some very tough classroom conversations, but also for some amazing learning opportunities.

One of the darkest parts of American history, both past and present is race. I have also had colleagues ask the loaded questions, “Why do I have to learn and teach about African American culture and people to teach the literature? Why can’t we just appreciate Toni Morrison’s beautiful prose?” Well, because those questions are the definition of cultural appropriation, taking a piece of the culture while disregarding the lived experience of those who created it and the cultural context from which it came. We definitely don’t need to be reinforcing cultural appropriation in our classrooms. And, again, can a real appreciation of the literature be taught while pretending it was created in a vacuum? Literature challenges the dominant historical narratives that are accepted and live in citizens’ imaginations. That challenge is, also, political. The remainder of this post is about teaching critical patriotism through narratives of historical revision and historical recovery with Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition as the example.


The Course

Teaching with attention to political elements and providing historical contexts is second nature to me. A few semesters ago, I taught a Writing about Literature course titled “African American and Caribbean Narratives of Historical Revision and Historical Recovery.” We read four pieces of literature in the course: M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008), Thylias Moss’s Slave Moth (2004), Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of Butterflies (1994)—if I were to teach this course as strictly African American or Afro-Caribbean, instead of open to Caribbean texts at large, I could replace Alvarez’s novel with Tayari Jones’s Leaving Atlanta (2002) or Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones (1998), amongst countless others, and have a similar progression to the course. All of the texts could be places in the category of historical narratives. I also structured the course to move through the texts according to the temporal setting of the narrative, not the publication date.

By the time we got to Chesnutt, we had looked at the history and geography of the middle passage with Philip’s poetry collection and read William Wells Brown’s slave narrative with Moss’s neo-slave narrative. Despite students’ skewed and incomplete education about the institution of slavery in the Americas, they were able to ground themselves in past knowledge to engage with the first two authors. The big piece of US history that semester after semester I find students have no conceptualization of is what happened between the Civil War and Civil Rights. Most white students and some students of color have never heard the term Jim Crow. Thus, students struggle to conceptualize The Marrow of Tradition as a historical novel because the events Chesnutt depicts, from minstrelsy to the coup d’etat, don’t fit in their version of America.

The 1898 burning of the African American newspaper office in Wilmington, NC.

There are so many themes connected to both race in America and the representation and treatment of race in American literature. We touched on several of those throughout the novel, based on students’ interests and confusion. Jim Crow was one of my main focuses, in addition to the culminating event of the novel: the coup d’etat that was nearly erased from US history. To help students better understand Jim Crow, I read students some of the different Jim Crow laws and used an interactive map to show students that 1) Jim Crow laws were about much more than segregation and 2) it existed throughout the US, not just in the South.

The Newspaper Assignment

Since the main focus of the course was historical gaps and misrepresentations, with this novel, as with the other texts of the course, I had students explore the history behind Chesnutt’s historical setting. As Melissa Range has previously discussed, the use of newspaper databases can be a quite fruitful approach to the teaching of literature and historical contexts, among other things. The assignment was fairly simple. A week into the novel, I asked students to choose an early newspaper database or online resource for 19th century news articles and find an article about the events depicted in The Marrow of Tradition. Students had to use terms like, race riot, and search the specific year I gave them, but they found short articles across the United States about the event. Once the students found an article they wanted to work with, they had to analyze it both visually—this takes into consideration the layout of the page, as many of them got to see their chosen article scanned in on its full newspaper page—and for the rhetoric used in recounting the events. This was a short one page write up.

Sharing and Newspapers/Media Literacy

Students brought both their one page write up and a print out of their newspaper article to class. I had them get into small group of 3 or 4 and share/compare their findings. They then reported back to the class the observations they made as a group. Some students discovered one news article had been reprinted in several newspapers. Other students were interested in the slight shifts in word choice between newspapers. One of the big observations was that most all of the newspaper articles were very short with hardly any information. Students were a bit suspicious of how vague the articles were. This lead into a discussion of the currently popular concept of media literacy. Since I gave them a very specific assignment and we were already in the reconstructing history mode, they were in a more critical mindset. They were frustrated that there wasn’t more information. They were trying to understand a historical event without a historical account. We had not yet made it to the end of the novel, so they also did not have Chesnutt’s account. They did have much of Chesnutt’s fictionalized plotting leading up to the ultimate coup d’etat and massacre of African Americans in Wilmington, NC.

After completing the novel, we returned to this assignment to compare the newspapers’ accounts with Chesnutt’s. We picked through history a bit more, keeping in mind some of the arguments put forth by the white supremacists characters in The Marrow of Tradition. A student eventually stumbled upon a revised news article that, like Chesnutt’s novel, was in opposition to those article published at the time of the event. When I initially taught this course, there were only one or two articles online that corrected the initial racist “race riot” narrative of the events of 1898 in Wilmington, NC, and those articles were all from the 2000s, over a century later. There have been a few more articles that have come out since I taught the course, but they are all roughly of the same revised account.

Showing students that it took over 100 years for the events to be acknowledged by mainstream media as a coup d’etat and massacre of African Americans, not a race riot where white Americans were the victims had the biggest impact on students the entire semester. It made them much more critical and aware of the manipulation of information. It also gave them a different appreciation of literature and one of its uses.

Note: My students and I discussed everything Railton addresses in his The Marrow of Tradition chapter in History and Hope in American Literature. If you are nervous to confront the political in your classroom, start there for some specific breakdowns of the text.