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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

April 18, 2017: Animating History: Peter Pan and Racism

[On April 17th, 1937, Daffy Duck made his debut, in the Warner Brothers cartoon “Porky’s Duck Hunt.” In honor of that foul-tempered feathered friend, this week I’ll AmericanStudy five animated histories. Share your thoughts on them, on Daffy, or on animation or cartoons of any kind for a weekend post that’s sure to draw a crowd!]
On datedness, racism, and teachable moments.
In the midst of Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) can be found one of the most cringe-worthy, tone-deaf, racist sequences you’re likely to find in any mainstream Hollywood film of the post-World War II era. Centered on the song “What Makes the Red Man Red,” this sequence—which, if you haven’t seen, I can’t possibly do justice to here, so please watch the 3.5 minute clip hyperlinked there if you would and as long as you have the stomach for it—includes so many visual, linguistic, cultural, and historical stereotypes associated with Native Americans that it feels a bit like the perfect card in Racism Bingo (which would be about the worst party game ever). Given that the Native American chief’s daughter, Tiger Lily, is portrayed as a potential love interest for (and in any case loyal friend to) our hero Peter Pan, the sequence clearly wasn’t intended to be insulting to that character or her culture—but, well, the road to hell and all.
It’d be easy to excuse or at least rationalize the sequence as simply dated, a reflection of a very different era in American culture and society (which is what many of the YouTube commenters on that linked video seem to have done). But while that might be partly true, it’s just as accurate to note that there had been prominent American critiques of such stereotypes (both from within the Native American community and from reformers and allies of that broad community) for more than a century prior to the film’s release. Moreover, while the 1950s were certainly far different from the 2010s in terms of racial images and issues overall, I can’t imagine a parallel 1953 sequence featuring African American or Asian American characters being created and included in a mainstream film (“What Makes the Yellow Man Yellow?” Doubtful). It seems indisputable that the sequence exists because of another, complementary set of racist narratives—the sense that Native Americans were not a meaningful contemporary American presence, not a potential audience bloc, not a community toward whose interests and responses Disney would need to be sensitive.
So do we throw out the baby with the bathwater, dismissing the whole of this important animated film because of this one egregious and to my mind indefensible sequence? I don’t think we can or should—but neither do I think we should just minimize or ignore the sequence, or otherwise try to view the movie without it. Instead, I think it’s vital to focus overtly on how, in a movie that has nothing to do with such issues or images (that is, this isn’t Song of the South), a sequence like this could be created and included, could become part of mainstream American culture in 1953. Which is to say, while I think we tend to overuse the concept of “teachable moments” these days, I absolutely believe that if and when I show my sons Peter Pan, it would be vital to highlight and use this sequence as precisely such a moment, a reflection of some of the worst (but also most telling, now as then) of our culture’s narratives and attitudes.
Next animated history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other animation or cartoon thoughts you’d share?

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