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Article
Journal of Social Work
0(0) 117
Cultural representations ! The Author(s) 2015
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DOI: 10.1177/1468017315583173

Implications for jsw.sagepub.com

social work education


Katherine van Wormer
University of Northern Iowa, USA

Cindy Juby
University of Northern Iowa, USA

Abstract
 Summary: This article investigates images of race, sex, ethnicity, and consumerism in
contemporary Walt Disney productions. The purpose is to discuss the reinforcement of
critical thinking skills in social work students through mutual examination of multicul-
tural images presented in Disney movies. The films selected for close critical examin-
ation The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Princess and the Frog are those with multicultural
themes and characters. In recognition of the fact that the one who controls the arts
controls the message, this article is informed by bell hooks methods of critique of
racialized and sexualized representations in childrens film.
 Findings: The hidden messages in the popular Disney films should not be overlooked.
The methods of critique applied to these earlier films also have resonance for the newer
films, such as Frozen.
 Applications: The case is made in this article that social work educators can enhance
the critical thinking of students concerning culturally offensive, stereotypical images
conveyed in the media.

Keywords
Social work, critical thinking, cultural competency, culturally sensitive, culture,
indigenous

Corresponding author:
Katherine van Wormer, University of Northern Iowa, 247 Sabin Hall, Cedar Falls, IA 50614, USA.
Email: Katherine.VanWormer@uni.edu

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The inspiration for this article was a slide show presentation at the 2008 Council on
Social Work (CSWE) conference in Philadelphia. In the presentation, slides from
Disney lms served to promote awareness of overt and latent messages (microag-
gressions) contained in some of the most popular of the lms from the Disney
studio. Drawing insights from critical race theory, Cindy Snyder and Janice
Chadha (2008) revealed how the social work classroom can be employed to raise
consciousness and facilitate dialogue about stereotypical concepts about diverse
racial and sexual groups conveyed in various childrens animations. A number of
us women in the audience who had grown up watching Disney lms and playing
with the stued animals, princess dolls, and coloring books and then enjoying the
classics and recent movies with our children were astonished by the unmistakably
racist, ethnocentric, and sexist content in so many of the characterizations as
revealed in the clips presented. As a follow-up to this eye-opening experience
at the CSWE conference, we wish to delve further into an examination of the
messages that are being conveyed in these most popular of childrens lms.
Because the Disney movies are such cultural icons in the western world, and
worldwide, they are ripe for cultural critique. Asking critical questions alerts us to
portrayals relevant to race and sex role behavior. Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty,
like any other Hollywood lm, may be examined in terms of the messages they send
to little girls and little boys, and we can consider the ways that parents can defuse
the impact of any stereotypical messages. And given the ubiquity of Disney culture
in the industrialized and industrializing world, and its inuence on family life
through its many products, it is important to question the values that Disney
teaches and hold it accountable for the ways it attempts to shape childrens
identities.
This article is written in the belief that becoming conscious of the way ethno-
centric and sexualized or romanticized images presented in the media can be
extended to culturally critical evaluations of all comparable productions. The con-
cern of this article is that childrens movies contain both multicultural and gender
role content that have the potential to inuence their perceptions of minority
groups. Our major concern is that such messages may have more to do with
the promotion of consumerism, loyalty to use of a brand-name product, and the
acceptance of stereotypical images in the interests of global capitalism than with
the generation of any salutary educational values.
For this article, three contemporary movies from the Disney collection
were selected for close examination. These movies include: The Lion King (Walt
Disney Pictures, 1994), Pocahontas (Walt Disney Pictures, 1995), and The Princess
and the Frog (Walt Disney Pictures, 2009). Mulan (Walt Disney Pictures, 1998) and
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Mans Chest (Walt Disney Pictures, 2006) are also
briey considered for their multicultural representations. The criteria we have used
for the selection of Disney lms to critique are: the lms current popularity, rep-
resentation of gender roles, and the containing of multicultural content. We wanted
to show lm clips in class and therefore chose movies that contained scenes that
would make the point within several minutes or even less; for example, Cinderellas

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van Wormer and Juby 3

stepsisters struggling to get their big feet into the dainty glass slipper. Although
some of the movie selections such as The Lion King and Pocahontas that were
chosen for close examination are over 20 years old, we nd that our students,
having seen these lms in their childhoods, can relate to them better than the
less well known, modern productions. The Lion King, it should be mentioned, is
enjoying a well-publicized revival as a musical on Broadway and release on DVDs,
while Pocahontas is a part of the boom in the sales of Disney princess dolls.
Orenstein (2012) refers to this massive consumer spending as princess mania;
the sales of consumer products associated with Disney classics have exceeded
$4 billion worldwide. This includes dolls, doll furniture, school supplies, cosmetics,
and so on; in fact over 25,000 accessories related to these lms, the majority of
which are connected to Cinderella.
The method of investigation that we have chosen begins with an understanding
of media in which the viewer as social scientist is an active participant rather
than through an examination of inert data ripe for content or thematic analysis.
Our focus draws in part on the teachings of Lindsay Prior (2008), who describes
basic methods of researching documents for cultural content, including the analysis
of the spoken words, accents, and visual images. Through such critical analysis we
have sought, as Prior advises, to discern how culture is represented and structured
in selected Disney lms. We have also taken into consideration how political
processes impinge on the presentation of the material. Consistent with Priors
(2008) method of analyzing documentation, we examine these movies through
narrowing the focus to address key questions: What are the gender roles portrayed
in terms of masculinity and femininity? How do the speech patterns, accents, and
skin tones, serve to create an impression related to race and ethnicity? Is there a
relationship between moral attributes of a character and linguistic style in other
words, do the good guys speak one way and the bad guys another? What is the
overt message and what is the covert message in the story line? What are the
potential risks to children who grow up exposed to stereotypical characterizations
of minority groups as presented in popular lm? These questions we used not only
in our investigation, but they were also designed to be used later in our classrooms
to generate insights concerning the Disney lm clips.
In our selection of representative slides and lm clips of sequences involving
characters of various ethnicities, we sought dialogue and songs that conveyed both
positive and negative images of the characters that played key roles in the lms.
(Many of the lm clips are readily available on the Internet.) Our method of
drawing on relevant audio-visual material for critical analysis is consistent with
research ndings on teaching eectiveness from the educational literature.
In his review of 17 journal articles on the use of lm in the university classroom
setting, Renzi (2011) found unanimous support for incorporating lm into the
classroom for heuristic purposes to inculcate critical thinking skills. Renzi devised
an experimental situation himself using narrative lms in one class to elicit critical
analysis of the material and only reading material in the other class. Through
reinforcing the students media literacy in the experimental group, he found the

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critical skills generalized to the analysis of written material throughout the remain-
der of the course. Their performance was consistently better than that of the con-
trol group.
For our theoretical framework, we looked to the writings of bell hooks. Her
stature as a culturally-sensitive lm critic is widely recognized. In such works as
Black Looks (1992), Outlaw Culture (1994), and Reel to Real (1996b), hooks exam-
ines multicultural and gendered content in some of her favorite and least favorite
movies from the viewpoint of an African American woman. She utilizes a social
justice and anti-oppressive lens for her observations.

The contribution of film critic bell hooks


By examining the way African Americans and especially African American or
biracial women are portrayed in the predominantly white-controlled media, bell
hooks has brought critical consciousness into the limelight. Race and racism are at
the center of the theory, but these constructs are also viewed at their intersection
with other forms of oppression such as class and gender discrimination.
In her video, Cultural Criticism and Transformation, hooks (1996a) explains why
we should study popular culture. The purpose of such study, she suggests, is to help
us resist oensive representations not be free of them, but to be critically vigilant
regarding them. Because popular culture has great power in our everyday lives, she
further suggests that the process of critiquing popular culture is the site of peda-
gogy and learning. It can also be a way of strengthening social workers sense of
agency. Through such a critical reading of cultural artifacts, an unagging aware-
ness of how media representations insinuate their cultural messages into childrens
lives can be achieved.
Movies are not real. Giving audiences what is real is precisely what the movies
do not do, as hooks (1996b, p. 1) correctly observes. In her critical essays on the
cinema, bell hooks (1992, 1994, 1996a, 1996b) views creative works for popular
consumption from an anti-oppressive perspective. Writing from the perspective of
an African American feminist, hooks investigations of the story line and images in
lm help us to rethink themes of the movies that we have previously enjoyed
without questioning, and thereby to view them through new eyes. In her analysis
of the acclaimed and shocking adult lm The Crying Game, for example, hooks
notes not only the plot that is developed but what is missing in the plot. In the
interracial, love relationship that is at the center of this British lm, the emphasis is
solely on white male identity. Viewing the movie as a whole, hooks (1994) con-
cludes that the movie oers a romanticized image of the white colonizer moving
into the black territory and occupying it (p. 59). We may not always agree with her
conclusions, but such cultural criticism raises questions that we should consider as
consumers and enables us to see each lm that is relevant to this analysis in a new
and more culturally-sensitive and gender-sensitive way.
In her analysis of Hollywood movies in general, hooks notes the sexualization of
black women and the caretaking roles they typically play in relations with white

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van Wormer and Juby 5

men. Employing the concept of motivated representation, hooks explains how


media images can serve a deliberate purpose in maintaining the dominance of our
existing societal gender, race, and class hierarchies. The motivation for movie pro-
duction, for example, may be to incite patriotism, ethnic pride, and/or the assimi-
lation of minority groups into mainstream culture. The most common motivation
to hooks (1994) is to reproduce whatever images dominate within the whole white
supremacist capitalist patriarchy (p. 5), to which lms in the global market
must appeal.
Like hooks, our concern is with representations of race, ethnicity, and gender in
movies with multicultural content. And although hooks has not applied her cultur-
ally critical eye to the Disney movies as far as we could determine, we can draw on
her methodology for anti-oppressive lm analysis and consider the same questions
she would ask. Among the questions that we can lter out from her writings are
these: What is the overt narrative of the story and what is the real narrative? Are the
messages embedded in the work really promoting a narrative that challenges the
conventional structures of domination? How are gender roles conveyed in the lm,
especially regarding women of color? Are these portrayals sexualized and/or racia-
lized? If indigenous peoples are represented, are their cultural traits accurately con-
veyed or is cultural exploitation and appropriation involved?
From an international perspective, social workers should be cognizant of media
portrayals of people from across the globe and the stereotyping of various national
groups. This can be considered a form of cultural competence, more important
than merely learning about the cultural norms and values of various national and
minority groups. Instead of such an acquisition of information approach to pre-
paring students and social workers for practice with clients from diverse back-
grounds, Dominelli (2002) advocates an approach that focuses on power
relations at the personal, institutional, and cultural levels. An excellent place to
start building such a sense of cultural consciousness would be through a critical
examination of cultural representations including ethnic stereotyping in the
corporate media. Some knowledge of the strategies used in global marketing of
western products is an important form of consciousness-raising as well.
Until we are all able, declares hooks (1994), to accept the interlocking, inter-
dependent nature of systems of domination and recognize specic ways each
system is maintained, we will continue to act in ways that undermine our individual
quest for freedom and the collective liberation struggle (p. 244). Cultural criticism,
as hooks further suggests, if it starts from a mind-set and a progressive politics that
is fundamentally anti-colonialist, can be an agent for change, a starting point for a
cultural revolution (1994, p. 6).

Politics, consumerism, and the Disney corporation


In our review of the literature on multiculturalism in contemporary Disney lms,
we discovered a growing literature that has been referred to as Disney studies
(Jackson & West, 2010). We found that, with one exception, the Disney

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6 Journal of Social Work 0(0)

scholars are all highly critical and even cynical about the images conveyed images
of Italians, Asians, Africans, American Indians, women, and so forth.
Multiculturalism and the Mouse: Race and Sex in Disney Entertainment by Brode
(2005) was the exception in its praise of the Disney industry for the multicultural-
ism contained in the lms.
In contrast, the other critics bring our attention to what they see in Disney
entertainment as: latent racism (Spector, 1998); prejudice against Arabs
(Schmidt, 2006); sexism (Chyng Feng & Scharrer, 2004; Orenstein, 2012); anti-
Arab portrayals (Schmidt, 2006); and capitalist exploitation (Giroux & Pollock,
2010; Goodstein, 1998; Jackson & West, 2010; Spector, 1998). The worldwide
inuence of the Disney company is widely recognized in the literature. The purpose
of the Disney lms is not only to provide entertainment but also education for
children; Disney therefore holds an enormous stake in the cultural capital of the
nation our children (Giroux, 1999; Giroux & Pollock, 2010). It is widely accepted
that Walt Disney (19011966), the founder, became a successful animator due to
his talent, great imagination, work ethic, and cunningness (Zipes, 1995). His ani-
mations were not designed to prompt children to read the original story in its
classical format, but rather to become consumers of the Disney rendition that
would help them recreate the pleasure the lm had inspired. This merchandising
plan was extremely successful as children were much more avid consumers of
Disney books and digital products than the original stories. And because anima-
tion uniquely can cross borders and cultures, the Disney enterprise grew into a vast
empire of theme parks, movies, and merchandise (Jackson & West, 2010).
Through the use of camouaged and highly seductive marketing methods
devised by child psychologists, children are delivered to the market with the full
support of their parents (Giroux & Pollock, 2010). For older kids, video game
products are being devised, according to Giroux and Pollock, that construct
entire cultural experiences based around iconic, often delightful Disney characters.
In its promotion of family consumerism and the relentless marketing of its com-
panys products, Disney is selling the illusion of stability in a rapidly changing
world. Some of this is done through the Disney amusement parks, now constructed
in France, Hong Kong, and Japan and in the planning stage in Shanghai, China.
The Disney corporation has set up language schools all over China; the schools
use a curriculum featuring Mickey Mouse, the Little Mermaid, and other Disney
characters (Garrahan & Saperstein, 2010). According to one of the company rep-
resentatives, a side benet is broader exposure to the Chinese people of this rich
storytelling heritage. The schools, as Garrahan and Saperstein suggest, also enable
Disney to forge a bond with a new generation of consumers by making them aware
of the characters and stories. From bell hooks perspective, such child-focused
consumerism is objectionable, rst, to the extent that it is built on exploiting so
much of the worlds resources, and second, because consumers acquire possessions
as a replacement for what is missing in their lives.
Disneys rst full length feature animations, beginning with Snow White in 1937,
were based upon European fairytales that he Americanized; they reected

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van Wormer and Juby 7

mainstream values such as the Protestant work ethic, as well as Disneys personal
prejudices. He often slid indirect social slurs as well as racial and ethnic slights into
scenes that were so fast-paced the audience had little time to notice them (Artz,
2004). Although more sophisticated in its characterizations, the newer Disney ani-
mations continue to play a substantial role in rearming, even constructing, an
uneven social hierarchy that privileges the status quo and subjugates marginal
populations (Gutierrez, 2000, p. 10). Following hooks urging that we be critically
vigilant about the world around us, we examine the cultural content of The Lion
King, Pocahontas, and The Princess and the Frog to determine the potential impact
they may have on the socialization of children and on the promotion of cultural
values. Before we present our analysis of these lms, in order to show the perva-
siveness of prejudicial representations in Disney movies, we briey summarize what
the critics have said from an ethnographic perspective about two lms Mulan
(Walt Disney Pictures, 1998) and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Mans Chest
(Walt Disney Pictures, 2006).
Mulan, for example, is widely criticized for its elevation of individualism (Dong,
2006), racist and cultural slurs against Chinese culture, and its negative impact on
children through encouraging such racial stereotyping (Artz, 2004). A lm clip that
helps raise the consciousness of viewers is a playing of a song with the words, Men
want girls. . . with good breeding and a tiny waist. Even more strident is the
stereotypical characterization depicted in the violent movie Pirates of the
Caribbean: Dead Mans Chest. Portraying the Caribbean island Carib Indians as
cannibals has led to global outrage by indigenous groups (see BBC, 2005). The
Caribbean Amerindian Centrelink (CAC) (2006) called for a boycott of Disney for
its portrayal of the Caribs as savages in this lm.
For each of the three lms selected, we ask the rst four basic questions derived
from the critical analysis suggested by hooks as listed previously for critical ana-
lysis. We have omitted the fth question concerning indigenous populations for
two of the movies as such populations are not central to the story line. We do
consider that question, however, in our discussion of Pocahontas.

Case example 1: The Lion King


What is the overt narrative of the story and what is the real narrative? Briey the story
line of The Lion King is this: the lm begins with a depiction of animals of divergent
species traveling vast distances across Africa to pay homage to the newborn Simba,
their future ruler. Simba, a lion cub is held up to the light of the sun by his father,
Mufusa (voice provided by James Earl Jones), in a patriarchal ceremony. Mufasas
brother, Scar, who is madly jealous upon the birth of Simba who will now be king
instead of him, plots to destroy him in one way or another. Eventually, the evil Scar
(voice provided by Jeremy Irons) murders Simbas father, Mufasa, and takes over
the kingdom. Scar convinces Simba that he is responsible for his fathers death
and urges him to run far away from the Pride Lands and never return.
Back home, the land goes to seed with the help of some wild hyenas. The wise

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shaman baboon, Raki, convinces Simba that his fathers spirit lives on in him and
that he must accept his responsibility. The lm ends with a duel and Simba reclaim-
ing the territory and restoring the kingdom to its former glory.
The real narrative of the story is good overcoming evil, and the journey of a
youth to adulthood. The latent or underlying narrative is that men are the desig-
nated rulers of a kingdom, that societys elites are the rightful rulers, and that these
elites are strong as well as good.
Are the messages embedded in the work really promoting a narrative that chal-
lenges the conventional structures of domination? Two major aspects of this lm
stand out and lend themselves to critical reection. The rst is the depiction of
the kingdom as an organized and tightly stratied social order. The Disney studio,
as Artz (2004) informs us, is relying in this lm on the viewers fondness for royalty
and noble beasts to the extent that the animals even worship their predators rather
than rebel or escape from them. In this way, the ideology of a social hierarchy is
seen as a natural life pattern.
A second level of domination concerns social class. The classism in The Lion
King is overlooked by the critics we consulted; yet it cannot be overemphasized. In
contradiction to the theme song which proclaims an egalitarian cultural circle of
life, race and class, for the most part, are fused. The patriarch Mufasa rules at the
top of the class hierarchy as king, and at the bottom layer of the hierarchy, one
hears voices that are reminiscent of the American ghetto.
How are sex roles conveyed in the lm, especially regarding women of color? Are
these portrayals sexualized and/or racialized? In fact, there are no strong female
roles that are represented in this lm, which is decidedly concerned with fathers and
sons. A further point of consideration is the fact that Scar, who rules the underclass
world, embodies evil, and is given stereotypical gay character trait. In this context,
as Bensho and Grin (2004) and Snyder and Chadha (2008) indicate, in the mind
of the viewer, evil is associated with homosexuality.
Next, we consider the question Are these portrayals sexualized and/or racialized?
Our attention here is drawn to the fact that, while this is the rst Disney animation
to be set in Africa, the cultural traits that are portrayed have no bearing on the
reality of life in sub-Sahara Africa. Our attention was drawn to the music, for
example, which did not have the sound of authenticity. Further research revealed
that the musical scores were composed by white musicians who were hired to give
the music an African avor (Bensho & Grin, 2004).
Race is clearly represented in the portion of the lm that takes place in the
region that lies outside of light that Mufasa rules and into the area of darkness.
Simba is warned against visiting this area but tricked by his uncle into doing so.
This is the land, a desolate dark area, where the scavenger hyenas live. The scene
did not require close attention to bring to our minds the sounds and images of the
American inner city. In fact, we are not alone in this reection. Critic Gooding-
Williams (1995) notes that this dark space can be taken as an allegory of the
decaying inner city populated by the U.S. underclass. The fact that the voices of
the hyenas are provided by actors with urban African American and Latino accents

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van Wormer and Juby 9

completes the picture. It is true that at the ruling class level, the voice of Mufasa,
the king, is provided by the African American actor, James Earl Jones, but Jones
speaks in a cultivated but phony British accent (Snyder & Chadha, 2008). White
privilege is evidenced in this lm not only through the power structure but also in
the lack of complex depictions of persons of color as well as African culture
(Cappiccie, Chadha, Lin, & Snyder, 2012; Giroux, 1999).
Although Raki (voiced by the African American actor Robert Guillaume) is
deeply respected as a mystical spiritual leader in Mufasas kingdom, he acts foolish
and at times half crazed stereotypes that have been used historically in the popu-
lar culture to demean African Americans. Moreover, his main role in the lm is to
help preserve and restore the lions hegemony or the circle of life.
Our concern is that negative feelings may be elicited in marginalized children as
they view this lm. One response might be the sad realization that the rest of society
does not want these people gay people and inner city persons of color that the
powers that be will want to contain them for their own protection. The message to
such children might even be, according to Gooding-Williams (1995), not to ques-
tion authority and to accept the social order of society. In short, the ideology
behind The Lion King thus becomes to Gutierrez (2000) more an eort to control
diversity rather than to promote it.
In response to the lack of authenticity multicultural groups receive when they
are depicted in the media, it has been suggested that one way parents and educators
can expose children to a more realistic view of African culture is to use The Lion
King as a stepping stone whereby they are introduced to genuine African stories
such as the epic tale of Sundiata, Lion King of Mali; the Disney animation is
adapted from this story (Artz, 2004). However, given the reinforcement of negative
stereotypes as conveyed in the lm, it might be best for parents to strike this one o
the list for family viewing.

Case example 2: Pocahontas


In Black Looks bell hooks (1992) denounces white liberals appropriation of a
racial or ethnic Other that revels in the oneness of a primitive people with
nature. This is only the rst step, as she fears, toward a process that is the com-
moditization of the primitive by consumer culture. Consider this critique as we
examine an extremely distorted portrayal of the life of the Indian princess,
Pocahontas. The romanticized gure of Pocahontas is a well-known image to chil-
dren today. They see this image in dolls, coloring books, and story books where the
child Pocahontas is paired romantically with her much older lover.
What is the overt narrative of the story and what is the real narrative? As the
Disney corporation prepared to release their animated version of Pocahontas in
1995, Disney publicists contended that in every aspect of the storytelling, the
lmmakers tried to treat Pocahontas with the respect she deserved and present a
balanced and informed view of the Native American culture (Pocahontas press kit,
1995, p. 34). Given its publicized intentions, consideration needs to be given as to

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how well Disney succeeded in its mission. Disney sought to immerse its lm crew in
Pocahontass Algonquin culture by conducting extensive historical research about
the period during which she lived. Unlike the case of Mulan, Pocahontas was a real
woman rather than a legend, so the discrepancy between fact and ction is easier
for researchers to authenticate.
The setting for this motion picture is Jamestown, Virginia, which is inhabited by a
local tribe of Powhatan Indians. The basic story line of the lm is as follows: the
young Indian Pocahontas meets the English captain John Smith, and the two fall in
love. She visits her Grandmother Willow, a counseling tree spirit, because she is
uncertain about the path her life should take, and Grandmother Willow urges
Pocahontas to listen to her heart. When one of the English settlers, intent on nding
gold in the New World, kills the Indian brave Kocoum, the Indians think Smith is
responsible, so he is condemned to death. In begging her father, Chief Powhatan, to
spare Smiths life, Pocahontas helps establish peace between the Jamestown settlers
and her tribe. Smith, however, is severely wounded by an enraged Englishman and
decides to return to England. Pocahontas and he bid farewell to each other.
We can detect the underlying message of the narrative in the discrepancy
between the true history of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith and this ctiona-
lized account. Whereas historical records recount that Pocahontas was approxi-
mately 1012 years old when she met John Smith, who was in his late 20 s (Golden,
2006), Disney depicts an older, voluptuous Pocahontas. This depiction presumably
is so their romance can be developed. In Disneys animation, Pocahontas dees her
fathers orders and sneaks away to meet Smith. In so doing, Pocahontas (like
Mulan) embraces a Western perspective on individual destiny intuiting her true
path lies somewhere just beyond the river bend. Researchers on the history would
also discover the discrepancy between truth and reality in the conclusion of the lm
in which peace is established between the races, and the Englishmen, including
John Smith, abandon Jamestown as they sail back to England. In reality, the
English would remain permanently in the New World, and it was around
Jamestown that the rst colony was established (Golden, 2006). Pocahontas
would later marry John Rolfe and travel back to Europe to be put on display.
Her position as the daughter of a powerful tribal chief subjected her to political
exploitation by the English within the context of their colonizing eorts.
Sadly, Pocahontas died there of pneumonia within a short time.
Are the messages embedded in the work really promoting a narrative that chal-
lenges the conventional structures of domination? The conventional structures of
domination are clearly evident in this lm. We see this in the age dierence between
the young Pocahontas and the older John Smith as well as in the relationship
between the Indians and the seemingly much more sophisticated settlers. In some
of the scenes, however, where Pocahontas informs her lover of her peoples cultural
values, for example, their sense of oneness with nature, the structure, at least of
male domination, would seem to be reversed.
How are sex roles conveyed in the lm, especially regarding women of color? Are
these portrayals sexualized and/or racialized? In our background research on the

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van Wormer and Juby 11

making of this lm, we learned from Edgerton and Jackson (1996) that the gure of
Pocahontas was derived from sketches of several women. Studio animators started
with Native American faces but eventually gravitated to the more familiar look of
an Anglicized and statuesque model. Aidman and Reese (1996) noted that the
nalized image of Pocahontas, in her height and the length of her arms and legs,
large breasts and tiny waist, actually bore a striking resemblance to a Barbie doll.
In viewing this popular and entertaining movie, our attention was drawn to
Pocahontass dress and the way her hair is displayed. Her over-the-shoulder cos-
tume reveals much bare skin. The sexualization of her gure is further achieved in
the way the short dress is fashioned with a slit. This costume is hardly consistent
with 16th century Algonquian attire (Strong, 1996). In reality, Native American
women of the period wore long dresses with removable sleeves (Golden, 2006).
Pocahontass hair is frequently shown blowing in the wind, an image that brings to
mind the Eurocentric stereotype of the Indian as earth goddess or noble savage
(Pewewardy, 199697). This brings us to a consideration of the fth of bell hooks
questions for organizing our critical discussion.
If indigenous peoples are represented, are their cultural traits accurately conveyed
or is cultural exploitation and appropriation involved? In the soundtrack Colors of
the Wind, which won an Academy Award for best musical score, Pocahontas
refers to herself twice as a savage. Although the use of the term savage is not
necessarily negative and is probably used in the sense of noble savage, the fact
that it is actually used throughout the lm to refer to Native Americans is consist-
ent with the distortion of historical and cultural facts that pervade the lm.
Given even a minimal awareness of early American history and of the cruel
treatment of Indian tribes, such as the Algonquian, the modern viewer cannot
help but be struck by the misrepresentation of the colonization of the native
people. Instead of revealing the ethnocentric values that would have been held
by the occupying settlers, the lm is built on themes of romanticism and universal
love. The evil that is associated with the white man comes across as a relic of
British civilization, as something that is foreign in character. One individual with a
strong British accent personies the evil of colonization, while the hero,
John Smith, curiously already speaks in a contemporary American accent.
How was it that the producers of the lm got the story so wrong, that they
distorted it to such an extent? Roy Disney, the nephew of Walt, explained that the
Disney producers chose to provide this version of history because they wanted to
tell a story about unity among people, because this is applicable to a lot of places in
the world today (Pocahontas press kit, 1995). The focus thus was on mutual inter-
racial and cross-cultural acceptance, however much this focus distorted the histor-
ical truth concerning the plunder and exploitation of the Indians.
This ctitious depiction of history lends itself to an exploration of the ways in
which such myths and legends play a role in the publics construction of reality. We
can also consider the impact of such depictions in U.S. popular culture on the
marginalized populations involved. Sometimes members of the indigenous popu-
lations vehemently protest such harmful characterizations. This is what happened

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with regard to the Pirates of the Caribbean as we mentioned earlier in this article.
A more promising development is found in the next of our Disney selections.

Case example 3: The Princess and the Frog


What is the overt narrative of the story and what is the real narrative? Keep in mind
as we critique this lm from a multicultural perspective that very careful attention
was paid to the avoiding of stereotypes and platitudes in the writing of the script
that accompanied this Disney lm. Aware of the barrage of criticism of the Disney
lms, the studio set out to do damage control and produce a lm starring Disneys
rst black princess, a lm created for the Obama era. According to a New York
Times review (Barnes, 2009), the attempt was to vanquish once and for all the
charges of racism that linger from the past. In order to avoid stereotyping and
to be politically correct, the heroines name was changed from Maddie, which too
closely resembled Mammy, to Tiana, and her career from maid to waitress.
The original story line that developed is so full of slippery characterizations,
switched identities, and intrigues that it is hard to summarize in a few words. The
gist of the story of this beautifully animated musical is this: the setting is 1920s New
Orleans, and the story is a twist on the fairy tale of the princess who kisses a frog.
Basically, the prince who is poor must marry a princess to obtain sucient wealth
for his lifestyle. The lovely black Tiana becomes a waitress to earn money to
achieve her dream of remodeling an old mill and turning it into a restaurant.
Her best friend is a rich white girl whose father wishes to marry her to a prince.
Technically, she counts as a princess during Mardi Gras season as her family
counts as royalty related to the carnival balls for which the city is famous.
Familiar with the fairy tale where a frog turns into a prince when kissed by a
beautiful woman, Tiana kisses a frog. Indeed the frog is in fact a prince but because
a voodoo curse has been put upon him, Tiana turns into a frog as well. Much of the
lm is concerned with the frogs struggle to get released from the spell cast by a
voodoo magician. To make a long story short, Tiana and the prince fall in love and
are turned into humans in the end.
The Princess and the Frog deserves credit for the creation of the black and
beautiful Tiana, a strong-willed and talented heroine who is resourceful enough
to participate in her own rescue. Anecdotal comments from parents and grandpar-
ents of little black and white girls provided to the authors by friends and family
members conrmed that both adults and children alike enjoyed the movie. These
respondents generally felt that it was about time there was a black princess and a
strong female character for girls to emulate. In our viewing of the lm, we nd that
the overt and covert narratives are fairly consistent and that the intent to reverse
the usual stereotypical love story is achieved fairly successfully.
Are the messages embedded in the work really promoting a narrative that chal-
lenges the conventional structures of domination? Are these portrayals sexualized
and/or racialized? Actually, the messages conveyed in this lm defy the conven-
tional norms of society, in that the poor but well-spoken and beautiful black

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woman ultimately captures the love of the prince. The heroine of this modern fairy
tale, Tiana, comes from a poor but hard-working and close-knit family. (Oprah
Winfrey provides the voice of the loving mother.) Tianas image is not overly
sexualized, and this young woman is shown to be resourceful and highly independ-
ent. Students in our Iowa human behavior class generally responded favorably to
Disneys attempt to avoid racial stereotyping in this lm and to the appealing
qualities of the rst black princess. What many of them did nd objectionable,
however, was the fact that Tiana appears as a frog for a large part of the lm, or
even that she had to be turned into a frog at all.
As far as racism is concerned, the vilication of evil in the African tradition
of voodooism does not adequately represent this tradition and promotes a negative
image of African culture. Additionally, the movie includes a trio of toothless
hillbillies (Foundas, 2009, n.p.) who are a source of ridicule and as Foundas
(2009) points out, the lightning bug with the exaggerated Cajun accent is oen-
sive to the Louisiana Cajun community. Some of the music can be considered
oensive as well, for example, the song sung by the evil voodoo master of
magic, Dr. Facilier, and the Cajun Love Song crooned in an exaggerated southern
accent.
Returning to the portrayal of race in The Princess and the Frog, we need to
examine the choice of an apparently Hispanic male in the role of the prince. It is
hard to know what the signicance was of the absence of a black male to play this
role. We can perhaps nd a meaning from bell hooks who, in her critical analysis of
the lm industry, examined interracial love relationships. What she concluded was
that black womanhood is often subtly devalued, in that the black female presence is
rendered meaningful only to the extent that she serves another, generally white
male. However, we suggest another possibility for the choice of a Hispanic male as
prince. Initially, a young white woman tells her father of her excitement in getting
to meet this prince in hopes that he might be her prince charming. The producers of
the lm probably thought this sentiment might be farfetched for a white woman to
say in the time and place in which the movie takes place (the Jim Crow South). So a
light brown-skinned prince more easily tted the bill of who could be a possible
love match for both the rich white girl and the poor black girl. An alternative
explanation is that this represents a belated recognition of Latinos who today
are the largest minority presence in the United States and who have in the past
been relatively ignored in childrens lms.

Limitations of the study


Because there is a ne line between cultural generalizing appreciation of ethnic
dierences based on culture uniquenesses and stereotyping of ethnic dierences,
we have had to rely on our gut-level responses to the lm presentations and those
of our selected audience. We did not have members of the groups represented in the
audience, for example, Africans or Chinese people. Our conclusions, therefore, are
subject to criticism along these lines. We believe that further research utilizing large

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audiences of people in the categories represented would help build on the insights
oered here and carry a higher level of empirical validity.

Conclusion and implications for social work education


Students of social work, like others in parts of the world where Disney themes are
ubiquitously represented, are likely to feel considerable aection for Disney images,
associated as they are with childhood pleasures, in some cases, with visits to Disney
World and Disneyland. The racial innuendos and insults typically are beyond the
level of conscious awareness. At Western Kentucky University, social work edu-
cators Cappiccie et al. (2012) use a consciousness-raising method to expose stu-
dents to the microaggressions that are depicted in Disney animations. This is done
in the classroom as a safe space so students analyze segments of Disney lms which
contain covert stereotypical content and process the experience. Teaching at the
University of Northern Iowa, we applied a similar strategy in our presentation of
lm clips from fairly recent Walt Disney lms. The methodology that we used
combined the means of documentation of the dialogue and visual images as articu-
lated by Lindsay Prior with the insights of bell hooks concerning the hidden
ideological and racist messages that are pervasive in popular culture. Our hope
was that as students practiced asking questions about the gender and cultural
representations of the Disney characters, they would generalize this awareness to
other media content to which they would later be exposed.
Television and lm studios continually make and remake our picture of reality
by controlling the images we receive (Littleeld, 2008). University students can be
helped to ponder the susceptibility to children of such manipulations: to small
children, cinematic events and screen images can leave an indelible impression
because they not only retain information but absorb it like a sponge (Buijzen &
Valkenburg, 2005). Moreover, to children, the boundaries between reality and
fantasy life are often unclear.
Disney lms oer a great resource for social work education because they are
familiar, entertaining, and replete with hidden messages about class, race, gender,
Third World countries, and capitalism. They also oer excellent resources for
classroom experiences of critical thinking to analyze overt and covert messages
in the media. We have found in our classrooms such analysis of mass media pro-
ductions elicits dynamic and thoughtful discussion, often accompanied by aha
revelations. Because the messages in Disney movies are suciently subtle, the mes-
sages that were entirely overlooked on previous occasions including childhood can
now, as students return to them, be viewed with a critical eye. Students attention
additionally can be drawn to the consumerism side of the Disney industry, to learn
about the economic power wielded by giant corporations and how the corporate
media shape the messages that are delivered. Such critical thinking experiences
hopefully will be generalized to the viewing of other media presentations.
And how can social workers and others who work with families help them
prevent their children from internalizing culturally biased images that are conveyed

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van Wormer and Juby 15

in the media, even in the much loved, iconic Disney lms? Buijzen and Valkenburg
(2005) recommend what they call parental mediation as an eective tool in mana-
ging undesirable inuences from popular culture. By parental mediation, these
authors are saying that since children usually view such movies in the company
of adults, the adults can help counteract the eect of undesirable images by provid-
ing comments regarding stereotyping, and they can reinforce the more positive
images. Research reported by Buijzen and Valkenburg has shown that such
family discussions that encourage a critical response to the commercial aspects
of mass communication is the most eective way to insulate children from being
taken in by them. Parents can be made aware of the exploitation of children
because of their value as consumers and their ability to inuence spending. In
their family counseling sessions, social workers can introduce the subject of com-
mercial exploitation as well as of harmful media inuences on children, most of
which is far more corrupting and far more violence-lled than the Disney
animations.
At the societal level, as advocates for social justice, social workers can expose
media messages that are ideologically oensive toward certain multicultural
groups. We and our students can learn from bell hooks what to look for in the
popular arts and the kinds of questions we need to ask in order to be critically
vigilant concerning cultural representations in contemporary lm.

Funding
This research received no specic grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial,
or not-for-prot sectors.

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