Disney Discussions: Is It Wrong to Put Stereotypes in Movies? (Dumbo)

I need your opinion on something. Yes, you, who just read that title and are about to flame me in the comments section. We all agree that stereotyping people is wrong, but is it wrong to show a stereotype in a movie? What’s the difference, you ask? Well, here’s the thing…

If you read anything about the movie Dumbo on the internet, you’re going to hear about one of two things: the trippy “Pink Elephants” scene or the racial insensitivity. There’s a bit of a point to the latter. What appear to be black men set up the circus tent singing a song about how they’re uneducated and throw away their money. And then there are the crows which may as well have big lips and sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Dumbo, cute as it is, does not have a very nice portrayal of black people.

But I have a massive question.

Is a film wrong for showing us the ugly side of real life?

Dumbo was released in 1941. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t happen until the 50s and 60s, so black people really were by and large uneducated or poorly educated, especially in the south where the film seems to be set (the train is seen driving through Florida). In real life, black people were little more than cheap laborers and entertainers. Was this wrong? Of course! But is the movie evil for portraying what was truly happening?

Now, let’s take this question one step further into stereotyping. Why do stereotypes exist in the first place? You probably said ignorance, cruelty, or some word ending in -ism. And you would be right. But there is another nasty truth nobody wants to admit. Stereotypes exist in part because someone perpetuates them.

There are black people who live in ghettos and steal cars. There are white people who live in trailer parks and pronounce it “Murica.” There are Latinos who drive low riders and Asians who are good at math. Somewhere right now, there is an Irishman who’s drunk and a Canadian saying “Eh?” There are nerds with glasses and jocks who are bullies. There are men who cheat and women who nag. There are gays with limp wrists and lesbians who wear plaid. Muslims who suicide bomb and Christians who Crusade. Every race/culture/orientation/religion/gender/preference has an ugly, cruel, or just silly subcategory that we don’t like, and they’re all, sadly, real.

So is it wrong for a film to showcase this side of reality?

Where is it stated that films have to show only the favorable parts of people? What’s the line between honesty and cruelty? How do you tell if a film writer is intentionally or unintentionally ridiculing a demographic or just looking out the window and writing what they see? When is a filmmaker just being mean or prejudiced? What role does perspective play?

Most importantly…what do you think?

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4 thoughts on “Disney Discussions: Is It Wrong to Put Stereotypes in Movies? (Dumbo)

  1. I think that it’s not really our place to comment on these issues. Ultimately if we want to know whether it’s right or not we should be turning to the people who are being portrayed and asking them how they feel about it. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about us so what we think doesn’t matter, all we can do is support what they say.

    Those are my basic thoughts on the issue.

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  2. Some very good questions and I don’t know that I have any answers. Part of this issue is in the perception. The person writing the material may have done so as a portrayal of reality, but someone else may be offended, as is so horribly common in our society these days. I agree that stereotypes exist for a reason. What we do with them is what matters. I don’t think that it’s wrong to show reality in a movie, as long as it’s not done in a way that would be cruel or demeaning. I think that watching movies with things like that shown also remind us of how much things have changed – hopefully for the better. Just my off-the-cuff thoughts on this.

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    1. Some very good points. My only issue with the perception is that even good things will offend someone or some group. I’ve seen people get offended over the simplest issues, even if they weren’t the ones “targeted” by what was one the screen. So finding that line between consideration and coddling is very tricky. Not to mention artistic freedoms.

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