Monday, December 12, 2016

"Worst Disney Songs" and "Racism!"

            I have not been posting nearly enough this year and I want to steer back from that.  To that end I have found a 30-day blog challenge and fluffed it out to 31 entries (since December has 31 days).  I have done a 30-day challenge before for movies, though that one was poorly executed (I started it in the middle of a month, at one point I posted 2 entries on one day, it is a mess).  I did another one just this year in August on Video Games, that one was better, go read it after this one, all of it.  Or don’t, no pressure.
(For some reason the formatting is being a jerk, and I can't get everything centered)

            Today is day 12 and the topic is “Worst Song”.
There are really only two possible contenders for this crown made of thorny twigs held together with poo.  And really, it is because Disney is such a venerable institution that they have a metric ton of OLD SHAME hanging around tainting their legacy as an American icon.  Family entertainment used to be kind of racist on multiple levels, and these two songs are racist on the most obvious level.
Is it fair to judge modern Disney by the actions of their company at a time when social norms were different?  No, and I am not judging modern Disney, I am judging them as a whole.  Looking at weaknesses in their legacy makes sense, and shouldn’t be held against the modern company who is obviously not too appreciative of this stuff.  Both of these tunes keep appearing at or near the bottom of every “Best/Favorite Disney Songs” list on the internet to no objection and nobody at the company seems to be lionizing them.  All that being said, let’s look at these things.

You know how white people are the default race?  Like how everyone used to be white till some folkloric BS turned them into their current race?  Some people actually think this stuff—which is fucked up when you hear some people claim that black people are the descendants of Cain, the Bible’s first murderer, cause Adam and Eve were not only literally real, but also definitely white according to these people—yeesh!  So what race is just discolored white people according to an old Disney movie?  “What Makes the Red Man Red” from “Peter Pan”.

What is sad is that this song happens in an otherwise good movie.  Peter Pan is an energetic figure who embodies a fun idea of never having to grow up and just having adventures forever with one’s friends.  The adventures have pirates, Indians, mermaids, hidden forts, and FLYING!  The movie even has subtle stuff like how Captain Hook and Wendy’s father have the same voice actor.  “Peter Pan” also introduced Tinkerbell, the—I going to say first—in a long line of strange pop culture sex symbols; a tiny mercurial-backstabbing-jealous-insecure pixie obsessed with a 10-year-old boy; Harley Quinn was not the first unhealthy animated fixation.

Maybe I am reading too much into a woman in a short skirt standing on a mirror floor.
There is nothing sexually suggestive about that right?
So what is the other song? This one is less obvious for reasons.  Rather than having minority characters they have animals that embody racial stereotypes singing about how they are a particular ethnicity.  You know, cause using animals to embody de-humanizing stereotypes is okay!  No, not really.  Not when you explicitly point out the ethnicity as the source of the stereotypes, if anything it makes them worse.  This sort of racial coding is what was wisely avoided in “Zootopia”.

The song is “We are Siamese (If you Please)” from “Lady and the Tramp”, a movie that many people probably would have forgotten existed if not for the iconic image of eating spaghetti leading into a kiss.  Overall this is less racist, as it is just buck toothed, slant eyed, and devious cats introduced with the sound of a gong…. I guess that is—strictly speaking—less racist than “What makes the Red Man Red”.
But here is the thing, it is a worse “song” from a musical perspective as it has no energy.  Slinking background music taken from some stereotypical Asian den of inequity of the era, and insidious back and forth rhyming by two characters who—I am guessing—are only two characters so they could get the rhyme of saying “we” at the beginning of the tune.  I would even say that their interchangeability could be seen as another Asian stereotype.

So which of these two is the worst song?  Do I have to choose?  In addition to being awful by the standards of subject matter they sound like crap!  They have no redeeming features and serve only as mill stones strung around the necks of their respective films.  Neither really tie into anything, they are not about or by substantive characters, they just show up, make female leads of their respective movies miserable, and then bug off.
If I had to pick one, I am going with “What makes the Red Man Red” because it uses human characters the stereotyping and racism is less masked and thus worse.  It is a close call.

If I had any memory of "The Aristocats" I might have spent some time on whatever the hell this is.

Bonus Topic: Racial Stereotypes
            I have talked about perceived racism in movies before but there is an aspect I haven’t talked about until here, the idea of racially charged stereotypes and characters.  The two above examples came from an era in which they were common and seen as part of comedy, laugh at the minorities by exaggerating traits or pointing to those traits as somehow “wrong” or “distorted”.
            What about stuff from the modern day?
            Recently the TV shows of “Supergirl”, “Legends of Tomorrow”, “Flash”, and “Arrow” had a mega-crossover.  An alien menace was threatening all for shows with complete domination.  These aliens were called… The Dominators… Not the most creative thing, but aptly titled.  Why am I bringing up a CW/WB owned and operated property here?  Because the Dominators look like this in the comics.

Can you see the issue people might be having?
I mean, they're not cats singing about their Asian origins, but you can see what people might have issue with.
            They are based on—if you couldn’t tell—lots of traditionally racist Asian stereotypes.  So you might think I would be among the first to say, “having these things as the bad guys in the modern world is racist.”  You’d be wrong.
            The Dominators are aliens.  The yellow skin, yellow in the sense of yellow not in the sense of Asian; the huge teeth, huge in the sense of menacing fangs rather than goofy buck teeth; long fingers, in the sense of monstrous claws rather than portraying an Asian person as sub textually a manipulator; and the other exaggerated traits are all dehumanizing.  When taken together they do look like an old time racist cartoon of an Asian person, but the story makes no comparison between those aliens and Asian people.

Though it would help if there were more Asian cast members on the good guy team.
Or if there were more Asian roles in superhero stuff at all.
            Generally speaking, those old cartoons were about Asians and drawing them with these features was to dehumanize them, to make them alien, because these features of claws, teeth, and jaundiced skin were creepy.  You could take anyone of those features and it would make for an alien race in Star Trek or Star Wars, because they are alien, and those alien features are weird.  They are not scary because we associate them with Asian people, real Asian people don’t look like that.  Those traits are scary because they are alien.
            By saying that these traits are inherently racist you are missing the forest for the trees.  The reason the traits are racist is because they were used as racist tools, there is nothing inherently racist about the traits themselves.
            Now you could say that putting all the traits together is evoking the image of the racist caricature, that it draws on a vague cultural awareness of that image to make it scarier.  I don’t think so.  Aside from Fu Manchu there are not a lot of Asian stereotypes still floating around that look like this.
Let’s look at another example of these things with a Marvel property, the Mandarin, who in the comics is this sort of racial pastiche.  Even the Mandarin’s live action presentation in “Iron Man 3” was rightly deconstructed and mocked as a racist idea created to scare people.  The Mandarin is evoking stereotypes and breaking them, the Dominators I would argue are not even evoking stereotypes, they are using the exaggerated features of a stereotype because those features make for a good alien.

THOUGH!  These guys came to predominance in the 80's a time when fear of Japanese economic world domination was reaching a fever pitch, and they do have a bit of Japanese flag on their face.  So maybe I am giving too much credit to the creators when I assume they aren't racist.
            Boy did this turn into a completely different blog than what was intended.

            Share your own thoughts on this in the comments.  I know I am not the only person out there who is nostalgic for Disney products, and I am sure many people disagree with my selection for today’s entry.
            Feel free to comment about how racism in pop culture is not a big deal, or how I am racist for excusing the use of discredited tropes being used as such.  Whatever.
I picked Disney stuff just because I knew there was so much of it to talk about and it lends itself to discussion in the comments.  So please, tell me how my opinion about cartoon movies is biased and how your opinion on cartoon movies is objectively right.

If you like or hate this please take the time to comment, +1, share on Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook, and otherwise distribute my opinion to the world.  I would appreciate it.

1 comment:

  1. The ONE thing I've heard in favor of the "We are Siamese" song is that the cats' grammar errors are consistent with people learning English as a second language. Little syntax issues like "Where we finding baby" vs "Where we find a baby" instead of basically gibberish: "Shanghai, Hong Kong, egg foo young/Fortune cookie always wrong." Aristicats; why?