Racial Stereotypes in Animal Imagery of Disney Films
I looked into the racial stereotypes that are portrayed through animals in media. I am concentrating on the racial stereotypes that are given to two different animal breeds in four different Disney films. The first animal I will discuss are Siamese cats in Lady & the Tramp (1955) and The AristoCats (1970). The second animal I will discuss is the Chihuahua in Oliver & Company (1988) and Beverly Hills Chihuahua (2008). There are a few questions to keep in mind when looking at the way these animated animal characters portray racial stereotypes. Are racial stereotypes being enforced, possibly promoted, in these Disney films? Do they have an impact on the viewers, specifically on the targeted audience, children? Why were animals used to portray racial stereotypes? How do these stereotypes come about? Through animal representations in media, it is evident that racial stereotypes are not only assigned to humans in society, but also to non-human animals.
The Siamese Cat
Some background on Siamese Cats: The origin of Siamese cats is not known for sure, but it is widely accepted that they originated from Thailand, which was formerly known as Siam. Legends say that these cats were owned by the Royal Family in Siam and were protectors of the temples.
It wasn’t until the early 1900s that they came to America and began to appear in cat shows. The breed’s popularity reached its peak during the 1950s and 1960s, around the time that Lady & the Tramp was made and other films featuring Siamese cats as characters.
The Siamese Cat in Lady & the Tramp
The first example to look at from the film Lady & the Tramp features two Siamese cats named Si and Am. They are portrayed as mischievous trouble-makers and are the antagonists in the film. They portray Asian Stereotypes: “with slanted eyes and buckteeth; they are dangerous and speak with poor grammar and accents.” This negatively portrays the Asian culture and the racial stereotypes are really exaggerated. When looking into the Siamese cat breed, I found that the breed is an affectionate and loving one, but many people see them as dangerous because of the reputation they are given in this film.
The Siamese Cat in The Aristocrats
The next example to look at from the film The AristoCats extremely exaggerates Asian stereotypes. In the film, the Siamese cat is named Shun Gon. Again, the Siamese cat is portrayed with slanted eyes, buckteeth, and poor grammar. He is even seen holding chopsticks in both hands while playing the piano and sings “Shanghai, Hong Kong, Egg Foo Young! Fortune cookie always wrong!”
So, why did Disney insert these racial stereotypes into these two films? Before looking into that, let’s talk about the Chihuahua.
Some background on the Chihuahua: The Chihuahua is believed to have originated in the city of Chihuahua in Mexico and first became popular in the surrounding states, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. It wasn’t until the 1960s that more people began to have Chihuahuas as pets because of the growth of cities (larger dogs not needed for physical labor, hunting, etc. for farms).
In the 1990s the “Taco Bell Chihuahua” named Gidget helped bring attention and popularity to the Chihuahua breed, as well as to the racial stereotypes often associated with the Chihuahua. However, Hispanic advocacy groups worked to get Taco Bell to stop using Gidget to advertise and it did end in 2000.
The Chihuahua in Oliver & Company
The first example from Oliver & Company features a Chihuahua named Tito. He portrays heavily exaggerated Mexican-American stereotypes. He has a very strong accent, sometimes speaks in Spanish, he chases girls, has anger issues (always up for fighting), and hotwires a car in one scene.
The racial stereotypes are very obvious and negatively portray the Mexican-American culture.
The Chihuahua in Beverly Hills Chihuahua
The second example to look at from Beverly Hills Chihuahua is definitely a more recent one. The film came out in 2008 and there were two more sequels that came out in 2011 and 2012. In the film, the main character is a Chihuahua named Papi. Similarly to the example from Oliver & Company, Papi has an accent and chases after a female Chihuahua named Chloe. He also speaks Spanish and calls Chloe “mi Corazon.” Although Beverly Hills Chihuahua does not necessarily portray a negative idea of Mexican-American culture, it does enforce stereotypes of Mexican Americans through Papi.
More Imagery of the Chihuahua
It is evident from these examples that these Disney filmmakers assigned racial stereotypes to Siamese cats and to Chihuahuas based on their origins. Racial stereotypes are not only assigned to humans in society, but also to animals. I only chose these two examples (Siamese cat and Chihuahua) to examine but I am sure there are many more examples out there. The racial stereotypes that are shown in different media forms can be one factor in the development of these racial stereotypes in society. In an article, “Children’s media use cuddly animals to reinforce ‘racist’ and ‘socially dominant norms,’ researcher says,” University of British Columbia PhD Candidate Nora Timmerman sums it up well in saying that this becomes an issue “when we don’t realize that an animal also has its own complex embedded ambiguous life and it exists outside of our own use or interpretation.” According to an article from the Anti-Defamation League website, “Talking to children about diversity: Preschool years,” children as young as two years old may begin to recognize racial differences and also “may show signs of “pre-prejudice”-they may act afraid or uncomfortable” as a result of recognizing these differences. What kind of implications can racial stereotypes in children’s films have on the children? For example, a child may associate a man’s accent with the accent that Tito from Oliver & Company and then associate this man with characteristics that Tito portrayed, many of which were negative, such as wanting to be “tough” and constantly put up a fight.
Questions still remain: Are racial stereotypes being enforced, possibly promoted, in these Disney films? Do they have an impact on the viewers, specifically on the targeted audience, children? Why were animals used to portray racial stereotypes? How do these stereotypes come about? I’m not necessarily interested in arguing that Disney filmmakers are racist; it is important to note the time that each movie was released during and the difference ideas and views that were exhibited in the past. However, it is important to think about and try to understand what these racial stereotypes do both to the human and to the non-human animal.
- Boesveld, Sarah. “Children’s Media Use Cuddly Animals to Reinforce ‘racist’ and ‘socially Dominant
- Norms,’ Researcher says.” National Post News Childrens Media Use Cuddly Animals to Reinforce Racist and Socially Dominant Norms Researchersays Comments. 6 June 2013. Web. 02 Apr. 2014.
- Stern-LaRosa, Caryl M. “Talking to Children about Diversity: Onset of Formal Education.” Talking to Children about Diversity: Onset of Formal Education. Web. 02 Apr. 2014.
- “History of Siamese Cats.” Siamese Cat Breeder. Web. 02 Apr. 2014.
- “Totally Chihuahuas – Loads of Information About Chihuahuas, Types of Chihuahuas, Chihuahua Health & More!” Totally Chihuahuas – Loads of Information About Chihuahuas, Types of Chihuahuas, Chihuahua Health & More! Web. 02 Apr. 2014.
- “TRADITIONAL SIAMESE.” History of Traditional Siamese Cat. Web. 02 Apr. 2014.