Explained: How Disney represents other cultures

New Disney film "Encanto" tells the story of an Indigenous Zenu family. Is this another case of cultural appropriation?

Published : Dec 10, 2021 17:37 IST

'Encanto' is already in theaters and hits Disney+ on December 24.

'Encanto' is already in theaters and hits Disney+ on December 24.

The new Disney animation "Encanto" offers a magical adventure of an extended Indigenous family. The Madrigals live in an enchanted city in the mountains of Colombia. With the exception of one child, every family member has a unique magical power. For this movie, the filmmakers worked together with representatives of the Indigenous Zenu population — but things used to be quite different. In the past, Disney has often been accused of cultural appropriation and serving racist narratives.

The 'Dumbo' case

A group of crows sit on a branch, and one of them is smoking a cigar. They laugh, dance and sing while making fun of Dumbo, the little elephant with big ears, who sadly sits there listening. The lead singer is called Jim Crow, a reference to the infamous Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States, as well as the name of a theater character who dressed in tattered clothes and applied blackface make-up for entertainment — a racist depiction of African-American slaves.

Disney has since added a content advisory notice for racism at the beginning of the film from 1941, which was also criticized for its "Song of the Roustabouts" scene, in which faceless Black workers set up a big top while singing, "We work all day, we work all night / We never learned to read or write … We slave until we're almost dead / We're happy-hearted roustabouts" — a cynical portrayal of Black people in the United States and a trivialization of the history of slavery.

'Wrong then and wrong now'

But "Dumbo" is not the only Disney film with questionable scenes. In "Peter Pan" (1953), for example, the native peoples of America speak an incomprehensible language and are repeatedly referred to as "red skins." Disney has since added content advisory notices to several of its classics, including "Dumbo," "Peter Pan" and "The Aristocats." It reads: "This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now." The disclaimer adds that the company acknowledges the harmful impact of such depictions and wants to learn from them, aiming to "spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together."

But is a notice at the beginning of a film enough? No, says filmmaker Keala Kelly, who lives in Hawaii and is Kanaka Maoli, which is the traditional name for Native Hawaiians. "With those warning signs Disney gives itself a free pass to refresh and maintain the racist depictions from their past," she says. "They won't willingly give up their cash cows like 'Peter Pan,' because it isn't just the movie that brings the billions in profit. It's the merchandise and the perpetual remakes of these films," Kelly tells DW . She deplores the fact that the people whose culture is appropriated by Disney cannot defend themselves because they "are typically the most marginalized people in the world, the most colonized."

Cultural appropriation for profit

Several examples of cultural appropriation — the inappropriate adoption of elements of a given culture or identity by members of another culture or identity — can be found in Disney films, incorporating and altering elements of another culture for entertainment purposes. For instance, "Pocahontas" (1995) is based on an actual historical figure of a Native American woman, portrayed in the film as a scantily-clad Disney Princess who falls in love with John Smith, an English adventurer and colonialist. More recent movies have also been criticized. Among them is "Moana" (2016), which tells the story of an island people in the Pacific. One of the points of criticism is that Disney merged the culture of several Pacific peoples into one.

"They try to erase our cultural realities in order to commodify us," says Keala Kelly. "When Disney comes to Colombia ('Encanto') or Scandinavia ('Frozen') or Hawaii and the Pacific ('Moana,' 'Lilo and Stitch') and decontextualises and dismantles the local Indigenous cultures, they are cherry-picking," she adds. "They come, do the autopsy and pull out the organ they need, transplant it to their Frankenstein version of us and then feed it to the audience with these cute little child characters. That's the process, it's an industrialized erasure of Indigenous and marginalized peoples and cultures."

In her view, "cultural appropriation is the opposite of cultural appreciation." She explains that to entertain audiences, Disney prefers to create a fantasy version of those cultures rather than the reality: "And that is especially true about Americans, particularly when it comes to Hawaii. Because true regard for us and our culture would mean dealing with the fact that we did not and do not want to be American. We don't want the military here destroying our land and water."

As one of many Native activists, filmmakers and scholars who have spoken out against what Disney, Hollywood and corporate media are doing, Kelly is aware that she might "not find commercial success as a filmmaker. But I can't stand by and say nothing about these industrialized narratives that rape my culture to death the way America is raping the Hawaiian Nation to death."

Disney has even taken legal action to protect its profit on the very culture it has depicted. Following the release of the "Lion King" in 1994, the company registered "Hakuna matata" — Swahili for "no worries," popularized through a song in the film — as a brand. The company was granted a trademark protecting the phrase from being used on clothing and footwear in 2003. Prior to the 2019 remake of the film, activists launched a petition to have Disney drop the trademark, accusing the company of exploiting a foreign culture.

New collaborations in storytelling

Disney is increasingly recognizing its flaws and now seems to have understood its responsibility in the representation of other cultures. The company's platform "Stories Matter" discusses various mistakes of the past, all while promoting its vision for future films. The production company is also working in cooperation with members of the cultures represented in their latest films.

For example, for "Frozen II," representatives of the Sami population obtained a contract from Disney to protect the ownership of their culture, and they worked with the filmmakers to ensure the respectful portrayal of the Indigenous people. The makers of "Encanto" also worked closely with Zenu artists and craftsmen to create an authentic representation of the pre-Colombian culture.

"My participation in the Disney movie 'Encanto' was providing information about the work that is done with the cane fiber, the history of the vueltiao hat in our Zenu community, and accessories made from cana flecha [a local palm fiber]. Years of work have given us recognition as master craftspeople representing the culture of the vueltiao hat," says local craftsman Reinel Mendoza.

But for filmmaker Keala Kelly, such collaborations are not enough. The whole story of these peoples is not being told. "In Colombia so many Indigenous people are murdered because they are standing up for their rights. Do you think this is going to be seen in 'Encanto' as they depict spiritual and cultural pieces of their Indigeneity? "We call what Disney and Hollywood does whitewashing," the activist adds. "Everything is changed and rearranged so they can tell the fairytale. That's the American narrative of Indigenous peoples. Falsified, watered down, guilt-free cultural entertainment."

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