Friday, 24 April 2015

Parody Week 2: A Faceless Author

FRIDAY, APRIL 24, 2015

Was Walt Disney a Bigot?

I am a big fan of Disney, and so one of the things I like best about "A Faceless Author" is that the writer, Priya Sridhar, has quite a few analyses of Disney movies, or other child-friendly animation studios like Pixar and Dreamworks. It's these informed blog posts that first brought me to the site, analyzing family movies for their intellectual content is fascinating. But, as a diehard fan, I feel that Ms Sridhar is a little too nice to Disney. for the sake of this post, I wanted to hit one of the biggest, most controversial aspects about Disney, something I don't think she would . . .

I want to know if Walter Disney, co-founder of The Walt Disney Company, was a sexist, a racist and/or anti-Semitic?
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There is a leading theory that some people joke about, that Walt Disney had a problem with Jews, Family Guy has made that joke a few times and there are some conspiracy theories and urban legends that say he was a Nazi and that his last words were “Damn Jew”. As for sexism, there are some that believe Disney was a misogynist and that he had a problem with non-Caucasians. Recently, I saw a tabloid article of some celebrities saying that he was also racist and sexist, and one of Walt Disney's family members responded, to agree with her that, yes, her grandfather was sexist; in fact, that's what inspired me to write this in the first place.
So many people believe it's true, so what truth is there to these claims?


Let's start with the anti-Semitism, because that's the claim that has the least evidence, so we can cover it quickly. There’s only one animation which is said to be slightly anti-Semitic, and that’s the Silly Symphony short The Three Little Pigs where, in its original, uncensored 1933 rendition, there is a scene wherein the Big Bad Wolf dresses like a Jewish peddler caricature and speaks in a Yiddish accent.
Also, Walt Disney himself was a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. The MPA was a known, officially anti-Communist organization, with severe anti-Semitic members and policies. And, most damning of all, when David Swift, a Jewish employee of Disney told Walt that he was leaving to work for Columbia Pictures, Disney is said to have feigned a Yiddish accent and said: "Okay, Davy boy, off you go to work for those Jews. It's where you belong, with those Jews."

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So, surely this proves it, he was anti-Semitic . . . right? Well, no. As for The Three Little Pigs animation, I think that the scene is a symptom of cultural insensitivity, and not an example of hateful Disney animators trying to make fun of Jewish people, after all, it’s such a short scene, and I always thought it was a joke about the wolf being harmless, since Orthodox Jewish people don’t eat bacon.
As for the MPA, Disney distanced himself from the MPA in later life, and even though the Alliance had anti-Semitic members, that does not prove that Disney himself was anti-Semitic. As for the faked accent with a co-worker, it sounds to me like it was meant in good fun. Considering that David Swift, after working for Columbia Pictures, returned to work for Disney again, it sounds to me like this was nothing more than a friendly jibe between co-workers. In fact, Swift said that he owed everything to Walt, and when he left for a second time, this time, Walt said to him: “There is still a candle burning in the window if you ever want to come back.
If you still think that Walt Disney was a Nazi, then you should know, Disney made several Disney propaganda films against Nazism and to promote the American Military during World War II, such as Der Fuehrer's Face & Education for Death: The Making of a Nazi.


So, what of racism? Well, this one is the most interesting one. In the background, there are firsthand accounts of Disney using terms like "nigger" and "pickaninny" amongst co-workers. But, beyond that, Disney’s racism is claimed, not because of hidden documents or words said behind closed doors. Rather, the evidence here is as obvious as the nose on your face - there are Disney cartoons and films that are racist.
Mickey Mouse himself wore blackface in the cartoon short Mickey’s Mellerdrammer; The Song of the South depicted a black slave that was happy to be enthralled; the Crows in Dumbo act slack and dumb and speak in a drawl said to parody African-American & the infamous Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarfs was an all-black parody of Snow White with “darky” caricature style and, like "Mellerdrammer" a title that parodied a supposed “Black accent”.

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That’s an awful lot of data against Walt . . . but, does that mean he’s a racist? Well, in order to understand my answer, you need to understand attitudes at the time. Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in March, 1963 . . . three days before Walt Disney died.

Walt Disney’s lifetime was in the middle between black slavery and black equality. The slow march towards equality was beginning, the engines were turning, but the train hadn’t left the station yet. So, in regards to using words like “nigger”? Or minstrel shows? Or black stereotypes drawn on characters?
No, that actually wasn’t racist. It’s hard to consider, but it was only in the 1960s that the word became taboo. Consider this - within my lifetime, just 15 years ago, there was nothing wrong with calling homosexuals “queer”, but now it’s frowned upon in certain contexts. It’s only after the oppression was over that we bothered to tackle such pithy matters as “language”.
So, this is just a case of something appearing Harsher in Hindsight. In fact, I think it’s an important lesson to keep in mind. Yes, progress will be made in instances of inequality and oppression. However, it’s a slow process as people learn and those unwilling to learn die out.
I’m not saying it’s alright because everyone was doing it, I’m saying it’s alright because the intention behind these words was not to “other” or insult African-Americans. In fact, according to Floyd Norman, the first African-American animator to work at a Disney Animation Studio: "Over the years a number of people have asked me that same question about Walt being anti-Semitic or anti-Black. I would respectfully have to disagree, that was not the man I knew."


Finally, the claims of sexism? Well, besides the claims of a Disney family member, there is some real, tangible evidence of sexism on the part of Disney. There exists a letter sent in response to a young woman called Mary V. Ford who was applying for a job at Disney Animation Studios. In the letter, it states that they will not hire her as an artist as “that work is performed entirely by young men”, and the only work for women was in the Inking and Painting department. Also, there’s the fact that so many Disney movies depict the Disney princesses as waifs that surrender themselves for a male character to save.

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For starters, Abigail Disney, the grand-niece of Walt Disney, was born in 1960, and Walt died in 1966, so not only would she have been too young to remember most of any time spent with Walt, but despite her relationship to him, none of her evidence is firsthand.
Also, in regard to the letter, It can't be denied that this is a case of inequality, and paints a dark picture, but this is not the full picture. This letter wasn't written by Walt Disney, it was written by Mary Cleare of Disney’s Personnel Department, a woman in an administrative role. And since I know that they hired singers and voice actresses for even their earliest movies, I decided to investigate further, and sure enough there is evidence of women working as writers, inkers, costume designers & painters during the time this letter was written.
See, it turns out that it’s not hiring women that was an issue, but rather training them. Women were discriminated against because Walt believed that most applicants, by the time they were trained, would be married and so stop working to have children. This is pretty damning, except for the fact that this policy was not kept for long. the training facilities at Disney Studios were only developed after 1934, yet the first female animator on a Disney animated feature was Retta Scott, hired in 1938, who was an animator on Fantasia, released in 1940. So, yes, for four years, Disney discriminated against women . . . then he didn’t. And if you really believe that Disney’s representations of women are sexist, then rather than explain myself, I’d like to refer you to this post written in 2009 by Ms Sridhar - the Faceless Author, herself - explain how how wrong you are.

So, in conclusion:
Was Walt Disney Anti-Semitic? No. He was a little insensitive, but he didn’t dislike Jews.
Was Walt Disney Racist? No. He even hired black animators, he was quite progressive.
Was Walt Disney Sexist? Not really. Perhaps he was at one point, but evidently he got over it.

So, the jury’s in: No, Walt Disney was not a bigot. Now, I'm not here to tell you that Walt Disney was a perfect man. In fact, in all this research, it sounds like he was an average man of his time, with the same general attitudes and sensibilities of that time. He was a staunch capitalist, and judging by the time he was probably homophobic and the reason he died was because he was a chain smoker all his life, causing lung cancer. He wasn't some future-seer of sensibilities and he wasn't perfect. But he wasn't a Nazi, chauvinist or bigot either, he was just an ordinary man . . . that had a dream of bringing a little magic into people's lives, in the form of fantasy and animation.

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