Do Disney Movies Promote anti-Semitism and Racism?

One Israeli educator says Disney films feature problematic depictions of the 'other' - including Arabs.

Dana Shweffi
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Dana Shweffi

Heroines who pride themselves on Barbie-like figures and big eyes with long eyelashes, who await the arrival of their prince; Arabs that feature anti-Semitic noses; hints about the connection between authority and sex - these are just some of the undercurrents in Disney movies, many of which are childhood staples for children in the Western world.

But what are the repercussions of seeing such images and ideas? This is just one of the questions that Rachel Shalita of the Education Department at Hamidrasha art academy will address in a lecture at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque's Animation, Comics and Caricature Festival this week.

"I am trying to read these films differently and show the messages hidden within them," said Shalita. "These are messages that are not necessarily manipulative, but they reflect an extremely conservative worldview in terms of religion, anti-feminism and are problematic with regard to representations of the 'other.'"

An extreme example of the rejection of the "other," according to Shalita, can be seen in the film Aladdin. Despite featuring a cast comprising entirely Arab characters, she says, the film is actually insulting to them.

Shalita claims Aladdin depicts Arabs in a way that is reminiscent of old anti-Semitic cartoons and caricatures. "The movie opens with and Arab character that looks like a caricature of a Jew with a long nose and all of the Arab characters speak English with an Arabic accent except for Aladdin and Princess Jasmine who speak with an English accent.

"An American child cannot identify with an Arab character," Shalita continues. "When they show a market where the signs are meant to be in Arabic but are written in a form of gibberish, it implies there really isn't a culture in existence that uses that language."

Shalita noted that when Aladdin opened in theaters, there were many protests by Arab communities at universities and elsewhere in the United States.

The "other" that is not accepted in the world of Disney includes women as well, according to Shalita. In Beauty and the Beast, for example, Belle is first seen as an independent, educated woman. As the movie, progresses, however, she becomes just another woman whose goal in life is to find a good husband.

The prime example of this, said Shalita, is in Mulan, which tells of a Chinese girl who disguises herself as a man to serve in the army instead of her father. "She accomplishes all the missions and even gets recognition and a medal, but her realy victory is that in the end she marries a general," said Shalita.

In general, Shalita said, behind each movie or children's program is the question of how childhood is portrayed. "Is a child good in his essence and does he require protection from evil and scary things? Or is he bad in his essence and susceptible to bad influences in what he sees? Or does he need to be stimulated and have things revealed to him like a blank page?

"I am interested in what values are truly transferred to a child, and not just those on the surface," Shalita said.