When Disney+ launched in 2019, some of its classic kids’ movies came with a softball warning that read: “This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions.” That language was not only inadequate in how it categorised racist stereotypes in many of Disney’s older movies, it was also somewhat buried in the movie’s description or in a separate “details” tab. But now, Disney is making these warnings both more detailed and more prominent, enabling parents to use them as an opportunity to talk to young kids about racism and problematic storytelling.
The warning that appears before several classic Disney movies — including Dumbo, Peter Pan, The Jungle Book, Swiss Family Robinson, and The Aristocats — is now prominently displayed before the movie begins and cannot be fast-forwarded through. It reads:
This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.
Disney is committed to creating stories with inspirational and aspirational themes that reflect the rich diversity of the human experience around the globe.
To learn more about how stories have impacted society, please visit www.disney.com/StoriesMatter.
If you then visit Disney’s “Stories Matter” site, you can find more detailed information about what is particularly problematic within some of the movies. Disney says the content warnings have been created with the help of a third-party advisory committee. For example, here’s a more detailed explanation about the harmful content in Dumbo, which was released in 1941:
The crows and musical number pay homage to racist minstrel shows, where white performers with blackened faces and tattered clothing imitated and ridiculed enslaved Africans on Southern plantations. The leader of the group in Dumbo is Jim Crow, which shares the name of laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States. In “The Song of the Roustabouts,” faceless Black workers toil away to offensive lyrics like “When we get our pay, we throw our money all away.”
Similarly, here is the warning about Peter Pan:
The film portrays Native people in a stereotypical manner that reflects neither the diversity of Native peoples nor their authentic cultural traditions. It shows them speaking in an unintelligible language and repeatedly refers to them as “redskins,” an offensive term. Peter and the Lost Boys engage in dancing, wearing headdresses and other exaggerated tropes, a form of mockery and appropriation of Native peoples’ culture and imagery.
Disney has taken a stance that parents can and should take with their own kids, as well — we can’t learn from the mistakes of the past if we don’t acknowledge them. We could avoid these films altogether, but using them as a springboard to talk about racism with our kids, to help them identify it when they see it, and to set an example about acknowledging and learning from past mistakes so we can do better in the future.
The conversation we have with our kids about race and racism isn’t a one-time talk; big topics like these should be ongoing, with parents looking for opportunities to build upon them. And introducing these movies to our kids for the first time certainly qualifies as an opportunity.
Oh, and don’t feel like you have to wait for Disney to issue a warning before you discuss sexist themes or other problematic plot lines or character development within some of its other older — but really not that old — movies. Those conversations can also start now.
This story originally ran in 2019 and was updated on Oct. 26, 2020 to reflect current information.