Streaming service Disney+ launched November 12 with nearly 500 films, 7,500 television episodes, and an undetermined amount of anxiety around a handful of animated titles that contain culturally insensitive characters. From the flock of crows led by Jim in “Dumbo,” to the broken-English performance of the “Siamese Cat Song” in “Lady and the Tramp,” these films can be seen on Disney+ in their unedited, cringe-inducing glory, with the following caveat: “It may contain outdated cultural depictions.”
It’s small gesture; it’s debatable if it will be seen (it appears at the end of the logline the viewer sees before clicking on the film), or if it really matters. I rewatched the crow sequence in “Dumbo” and was surprised to see how much airtime it received (10 minutes of a 64-minute film); I also laughed at how ridiculous it was.
But being ridiculous doesn’t necessarily make it harmless, which is why the studio’s editorial note is a smart one — not only as a reflexive gesture of self protection, but also because it shows that the 96-year-old brand has some measure of self awareness.
With a market share of 36.3%, Disney controls massive brands like Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar, Walt Disney Animation, and 20th Century Fox. And, as Marvel hero Peter Parker reminds us, “With great power comes great responsibility.” For Disney, that includes reckoning with its own history as well as delivering content that reflects the full diversity of the audience that it want to pay for the new service.
Over the last century, Disney made mistakes — some, repeatedly. “Song of the South” has been controversial since its 1946 release, although it was once a fixture on the original 1969-1979 run of NBC’s “The Wonderful World of Disney.” However, Disney+ will not offer the film, which portrays African Americans as racist caricatures and seems to glorify the plantation system of the post-Civil War South.
And then there’s the Native American stereotypes in “Peter Pan” (1953); Asian stereotypes in “The Aristocats” (1970); and “Jungle Book” (1967), with its jive-talking King Louie.
By contrast, the premier offering at the service’s launch was “The Mandalorian,” the “Star Wars” serial that features a Pedro Pascal, Gina Carano, Nick Nolte, Giancarlo Esposito, Emily Swallow, Carl Weathers, Bill Burr, Omid Abtahi, Taika Waititi, Ming-Na Wen, and Werner Herzog. The series also boasts inclusivity behind the camera with episodes directed by Waititi, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rick Famuyiwa and Deborah Chow.
Among the originals being developed for Disney+ are “Diary of a Female President,” a series told through “the narration of a Cuban-American 12-year-old girl’s diary, as she navigates the ups and downs of middle school and her journey to becoming the future president of the United States; Marvel’s “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” which stars Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan; “Ms. Marvel,” a series focused on the Muslim Marvel character Kamala Khan; and a “Cassian Andor” series, based on the “Star Wars” character portrayed by Diego Luna.
It’s an extension of what Disney’s already done with films like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” which feature diverse and inclusive casts, as well as “Black Panther,” “A Wrinkle in Time,” the “Avengers” franchise, and upcoming Marvel “Phase 4” projects like “The Eternals,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” “Ms Marvel.” Even the Disney princesses have grown increasingly diverse, with the additions of Jasmine (“Aladdin”), Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana (“The Princess and the Frog”), and Moana. And all of them, eventually, will be available on Disney+.
However, one area where the studio still lags is in its representation of the LGBTQ+ community. According to GLAAD’s 2019 Studio Responsibility Index , Disney “has the weakest history when it comes to LGBTQ inclusion” of all the major Hollywood studios tracked for the study.
Company reps promise that change is coming: “You’re gonna see even more new faces, and faces from all different backgrounds, all ages, all ethnicities, LGBTQ, people who are differently abled,” casting director Sarah Halley Finn told Vulture in April.
Additionally, Disney continues to introduce initiatives like its Launchpad: Shorts Incubator, which is designed to create opportunities for individuals with diverse perspectives including women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, military veterans, people with disabilities, various religious groups, and others.
There’s every reason to believe that Disney’s commitment to diversity is legitimate, especially since studies have all but confirmed that it’s good for the bottom line. Its decision to let the studio’s films stand in their original forms also honors that stance, if only to serve as reminders of Hollywood’s history of overt prejudice and marginalization. They need to exist as is, for the same reason that it would be a mistake to re-edit D. W. Griffith’s abhorrent “Birth of a Nation” to make it more palatable for modern audiences. To do so would be to pretend that the original film never existed, and recognition of its social impact — which still exists — would be rendered moot.