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'Peter Pan' and 13 more kids' classics marred by racism

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Charlie And The Chocolate Factory
1964 Knopf

In all its incarnations—J.M. Barrie’s play and novel, various film adaptations and novel reimaginings, even the “Peter Pan’s Flight” ride at Disney World—Peter Pan is an undisputed classic. It’s also incredibly problematic in its depiction of Native Americans, an issue that dates back to Barrie’s original text.

Here, for example, is how the author describes Neverland’s Indians the first time they appear in the story: “They carry tomahawks and knives, and their naked bodies gleam with paint and oil. Strung around them are scalps, of boys as well as of pirates, for these are the Piccaninny tribe, and not to be confused with the softer-hearted Delawares or the Hurons.”

Yikes. Naturally, this poses a conundrum for anyone hoping to adapt Pan for modern audiences. For its upcoming production of Peter Pan Live!, NBC decided to address the issue by hiring a Native American consultant and writing new lyrics for “Ugg-a-Wugg,” widely considered to be the stage musical’s most insensitive number. This seems like a positive step; the original song indicates that Native American languages are made up of nonsense words and features the line “brave noble redskin”:

Pan, of course, is far from the only midcentury (or late-20th-century, for that matter) entertainment to feature harmful racial caricatures and stereotypes; there’s a humiliatingly long tradition of that in Western film, and television, and theater. But those bigoted depictions of non-white characters and cultures always seem more insidious when plopped into stuff that’s aimed at kids. The whole thing brings to mind another number from another musical: “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

Beyond the stage Pan, here’s a list of pop culture’s worst offenders:

Sunflower, Fantasia (1940)

Sunflower is a black centaur—half human, half donkey—who spends her time on screen playing servant to the bigger, pale centaurs—half human, half horse. The fact that the cartoon resembles demeaning pickaninny caricatures is bad enough, but that her sole purpose is to dote on white centaurs makes it even worse—and is offensive enough that Sunflower no longer appears in remastered versions of the Disney film. —Ariana Bacle

The crows, Dumbo (1941)

“When I See an Elephant Fly” may come off as a fun musical number at first—but the harder you look, the more it plays out like a minstrel show. The black crows speak and sing in stereotypical Southern-black vernacular (“I’d be done see’n about everything / when I see an elephant fly!”) and—proof for the naysayers that this is undoubtedly racist—their leader is named Jim. Jim. Crow. —Emily Blake

Mammy Two Shoes, Tom and Jerry (1940-1952)

There have always been humans in MGM’s cartoons about this perpetually warring cat-and-mouse pair—but before Tom’s owner was depicted as a fat white dude named Clobber or a thin, white teenage girl, she was this cringe-worthy character, a corpulent, poorly spoken (it’s always “I is,” never “I am”) maid who may as well have been called Aunt Jemima. Does it make things better or worse to know that later cartoons replaced Mammy with a succession of white people? —Hillary Busis

“All This and Rabbit Stew” (1941)

World War II-era Looney Tunes were… not great when it came to racial sensitivity. One of the worst offenders? This Tex Avery-directed short, featuring a black Elmer Fudd stand-in called—gulp—”Tex’s Coon.” He’s a model of minstrelry, from his grotesquely distended mouth to his ludicrous voice to his dim-witted demeanor. Sure, Fudd also isn’t depicted as the sharpest knife in the drawer—but coupled with this hunter’s appearance and dialect, that personality can only be considered a racial stereotype. —HB

“The Ducktators” (1942)

African-Americans weren’t the only targets of this era’s Looney Tunes: See also this propaganda cartoon, featuring a Hitler duck, a Mussolini goose, and a bucktoothed bird representing the Empire of Japan—one who speaks in pidgin English, mixing up his “r”s and “l”s. At one point, he actually exclaims “Ohh, so solly!” Yeesh. —HB

The natives, Tintin in the Congo (1946)

Yup, even Hergé’s beloved boy adventurer isn’t safe. Tintin’s journey to the Belgian Congo is complicated by the country’s indigenous inhabitants, lazy, uncivilized savages with faces that recall blackface caricatures. Hergé biographer Harry Thompson noted that the writer was merely reflecting the average white Belgian’s perceptions of the Congo—which doesn’t really make these images any easier to digest today. —HB

Song of the South (1946)

Disney’s 1946 animated-meets-live action feature Song of the South is perhaps the most notorious instance of racism in kids’ entertainment, thanks to its apparent nostalgia for the good old days when slavery was legal in the U.S. Its source material—Joel Chandler Harris’ “Uncle Remus” stories—takes place in a specifically post-slavery South, but the film takes place in a murky, imagined bygone age in which black people live in plantation slave quarters, work in the fields in the service of white people (maybe for money, maybe not), and… uh, sing cheery, uplifting songs about how content they are on the plantation. One jolly old African-American man known as Uncle Remus exists in the story just to cater to, care for, and entertain the young white main character, Johnny. Disney has never released Song of the South on home video. —Ashley Fetters

“What Makes the Red Man Red?” Disney’s Peter Pan (1953)

Speaking of Peter Pan: Where to begin with “What Makes the Red Man Red?” Should we start at how grotesquely the Disney animators animated the Native Americans, making their skin quite literally bright red? What about how the song implies that all Native American language is nonsensical? Or how it turns skin color into a joke about kissing a woman and then blushing? All of that? Okay. Sounds good. —Esther Zuckerman

Speedy Gonzales (1953-present)

From his comically exaggerated accent to his weirdly emphasized sexuality (“Speedy Gonzales friend of everybody’s seeeester,” another mouse jokes in one cartoon), this plucky speed demon couldn’t outrun a barrage of anti-Mexican stereotypes. (He was slightly less offensive than his cousin, Slowpoke Rodriguez, a lazy, slow-witted mouse who packs a gun.) Though the character, somewhat paradoxically, is still popular in Latin America, American Looney Tunes reruns mostly leave him on the cutting room floor. There’s even a disclaimer that plays before Speedy cartoons on the Looney Tunes DVD box set: “The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society. These depictions were false then and are still false today. While the following does not represent the WB view of society, these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as to claim these prejudices never existed.” —HB

The Siamese cats, Lady and the Tramp (1955)

Si and Am are just another pair of prickly housecats, right? Wrong. They’re arguably two of the most tone-deaf characters Disney’s ever drawn up. They’re identical to each, other down to their dramatically slanted eyes; they’re introduced by a loud gong; and, in addition to being sly and menacing, they’re clearly pillagers of Aunt Sarah’s uber-traditional American home. In other words, they’re a couple of ugly illustrations of WWII-era Asian stereotypes. —EB

The Oompa-Loompas, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)

Most people now know Oompa-Loompas as orange-skinned little people, but in Roald Dahl’s original book, they’re depicted as black-skinned pygmies from Africa—a detail Dahl altered in later revisions of the book once he realized that a white man (Willy Wonka) “employing” a group of people straight from Africa—who also resembled the pickaninny caricature—sounded an awful lot like slavery. —AB

“You Can’t Keep a Good Dog Down,” All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989)

The very first musical number in this surprisingly messed up children’s movie has, among other things, some pretty terrible racial caricatures. While most of them involve silly (and terribly acted) vocal inflections from Charlie (Burt Reynolds) and Itchy (Dom DeLuise), there’s one particularly lousy bit when Itchy suddenly gets buck teeth, wears a cymbal as a conical hat, and talks about being from Siam. It’s the sort of thing that was commonplace for a long time, but is painfully tone-deaf today. —Joshua Rivera

The Power Rangers’ color assignments, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (1993)

Power Rangers is one of the most interesting entertainment franchises of all time. On paper, it sounds patently absurd; splicing footage from Japanese tokusatsu TV shows with American after-school specials doesn’t sound like a winning formula. But it was—even though in its first incarnation, the American Teenagers With Attitude cast to play the Rangers’ civilian identities were all seemingly assigned their Ranger colors according to their race. It may be, like College Humor pointed out, that Zordon was a racist. —JM

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