The Walt Disney Company launched its much-hyped streaming service, Disney+, this week and fans were eager to get past the first-day glitches to giddily consume the thousands of hours of viewing on offer. For fans of the legendary studio and its decades worth of historic output — as well as the many properties that they have acquired over the years — the platform is the perfect way to binge-watch their respective childhood. The launch has not been without its criticisms. On top of those loading times, many have noted how certain films and shows are not being screened in the correct aspect ratio or the episode orders are all wrong. Their original content, including The Mandalorian and the remake of Lady and the Tramp, has been received with mixed-to-positive reviews, but this is a company beyond the need to rely on critical opinion or industry approval to get fans on its side. Such is the power of the House of Mouse. However, there is one area where Disney+ has made some much-welcome changes.
Various films, series, and other such programming have been given content warnings noting ‘outdated cultural depictions’. This applies to titles like Dumbo and The Aristocats, which have some notoriously racist moments. The caption reads: ‘This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions.’
This is really interesting — Disney+ is flagging when its movies have racist depictions pic.twitter.com/8wvtB0NmHn— Jeva Lange (@Jee_vuh) November 12, 2019
I’ve already seen some grumbling from the usual suspects over how this is censorship gone mad to appease triggered liberals or whatever the Reddit rhetoric is right now. We see these arguments every single time the topic of content warnings come up, regardless of how benign or fervent the conversations are. It’s an issue that admittedly can get heated, often with good reason, but in 2019, seeing a multi-billion dollar corporation with immense power and influence over its vast primarily young fanbase doing the bare minimum on this issue is worth celebrating, even if the bar is pathetically low.
Disney has a very strange relationship with its own past. This is a company whose cultural clout and long-term business strategies are reliant on the most weaponized strain of nostalgia. It’s not enough for people to like the films and series they grew up watching: They have to wholly define their childhoods by the impact Disney had. For generations, Disney was the default in family-friendly viewing, and even now with a more international market and greater access to entertainment available for all, it’s still Disney who rule the roost. It’s not hard to see why, of course: They’ve produced classic after classic, titles that helped to push the boundaries of animation and essentially define the medium in a way few others have managed.
They’ve also been scarily effective in ensuring those properties from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s have staying power well into the 21st century. With Disney, it’s seldom just a movie: It’s also a long-term marketing and branding strategy that can branch out into merchandise, theme park attractions, TV specials, Halloween costumes, remakes and reboots, and Disney Channel sing-alongs. When you think about it, it’s sort of stunning that films like Dumbo, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Fantasia are still favorites with mainstream audiences from generation to generation, especially considering how increasingly short-term our cultural memories are. This is a strategy Disney wants to keep going for decades to come and Disney+ is a key part of that.
However, it is 2019 and audiences have different expectations and demands from their entertainment, old and new. Dumbo was made at a time when Disney was utterly unconcerned with appealing to or not directly insulting black audiences, hence the jive-talking minstrel-esque crows with one infamously named Jim. That movie may be a classic but it wouldn’t benefit Disney to stridently stand by the mistakes of the past. If they wanted to do that, then the crows would have been in Tim Burton’s live-action remake of the movie. Spoiler: They’re not.
There were vague rumors floating around earlier this year that Disney planned to remove the crows from the streaming version of Dumbo, which always felt like a bad move. This is a company that’s all too happy to pretend the past didn’t happen when it most benefits them. There’s a reason you can’t get Song of the South on DVD and that it remains missing from Disney+. However, that seldom means that these problematic elements disappear forever simply because Disney took them out of sight. On top of those nostalgic memories audiences continue to cling to, Disney is notorious for strip-mining those properties for parts and keeping them alive through other means. You can’t watch Song of the South but you can still find endless Disney-approved covers of ‘Zip a Dee Doo Dah’ on YouTube, often sung by their own stars, or go on Splash Mountain and see characters from the movie in intricately planned animatronic tableaus.
As long as there is still money to be made, Disney will never fully shelve such titles, but at least a content warning is a good acknowledgment of that past they are often so hesitant to interrogate. Still, this is, as I said earlier, the bare minimum and there’s much room for growth. As many people have pointed out, these content warnings have not been applied uniformly. Aladdin has many outdated racist and Orientalist tropes but doesn’t have the warning. Fantasia is described as being ‘presented as originally intended’ although that remains inaccurate given that the studio removed the Sunflower character many years ago. Even now, the company is hesitant to present the full context of their history, even as they present it to new generations as the preferred representation of their childhoods. The warning could use some work too. Presenting something as a ‘timeless masterpiece’ that simultaneously contains ‘outdated cultural depictions’ is a minor whiplash moment, but what do you expect from Disney? Warner Bros. got there first with its content warnings and they present a much more self-aware understanding of what happened in the past and why the present needs to change.
Warner Bros has been doing the same thing with their home video cartoon releases. Their disclaimer is way better than Disney’s. pic.twitter.com/APyzyih06n— Paul Sanchez 🇵🇷 (@PhotogSanchez) November 12, 2019
Disney can’t pretend the past didn’t happen, especially if they’re so enthusiastic about endlessly mining it for future content and nostalgic thrall. It’s unlikely a company this beloved will ever truly change on this front. They don’t have any motivation to do so when their own fanbase is so dedicated to their every whim. However, even the most minor of shifts into the 21st century is welcome.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.