(ABC4) – When James Singer was growing up, he says his peers had certain ideas about what Native Americans were like from popular movies like “Peter Pan.”
They would start to mimic it and thought it was hilarious, Singer, a professor at Salt Lake Community College and a Native American, explains, “I could see what they were doing, but I knew it wasn’t accurate.”
Disney+ viewers may have noticed something new at the beginning of certain movies like “Dumbo,” “The Jungle Book,” and “Peter Pan.”
The streaming service recently added an advisory before certain films that contain “negative depictions or mistreatment of people or cultures,” Disney’s website states.
The advisory reads as follows:
“This program includes negative depictions and/ or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it, and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.
Disney is committed to creating stories with inspirational and aspirational themes that reflect the rich diversity of the human experience around the globe.”
Additionally, Dr. Seuss Enterprises will stop publishing six books by the author that contain racist and insensitive imagery.
These steps are attempts by companies to reduce the impacts of racial stereotypes in children’s entertainment.
What is representation in entertainment?
Adrienne Andrews, AVP for Diversity & Chief Diversity Officer at Weber State University, says there are dangers in negative stereotypes in mass media.
“The danger then becomes the only imagery you see of yourself is the negative one, which then makes you feel negative about yourself. If the only thing you ever see in the media or in print or movies or any other medium is a person who looks like you or has identity aspects that you have, and they’re always in a negative light, they are the butt of jokes, they are demeaned, they are portrayed as inferior, as never a part of things, always foreign or excluded, then that begins to be how you might see yourself,” she says. “Additionally, it can become how other people start to see people like you.”
For Andrews, who is Black, this topic hits close to home. She says she remembers watching Disney’s “Song of the South” as a child and seeing characters like Uncle Remus and tar baby.
“As a Black child, that actually really did affect me negatively, and I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand why I was a joke or people who were Black like me were a joke… I just knew that it didn’t feel good to me. Other people laughed and just thought it was fun and that I was being sensitive,” she says. “But if that’s one of the only images you have, you’re not being too sensitive at all. Other people are being insensitive and failing to understand the impact of that imagery.”
For example, one of the racist images in a Dr. Seuss book that will no longer be published shows a person of Chinese descent with slanted eyes and yellow skin, Andrews states. She says she has heard people say things like, it’s just one image.
“But that fails to fundamentally understand that it’s not just one image. It’s that one image that for many people shapes how they see all people that identify as Chinese,” she explains. “And it’s not a positive identification. It could be that you end up being the butt of the joke.”
According to Andrews, apart from negative depictions in entertainment, lack of representation makes a difference too.
“For folks who don’t understand representation in media, it’s because you already see yourself in media, so you don’t question representation because it’s all around you,” she states.
“Think about all of the people who are not represented in the media, people whose images, voices, experience, you never see or hear about.”
An example is that up until the last election, there were no female vice presidents.
“But now, any young person can look at that leadership role and say, not only could I want that position,” she explains, “I could achieve it because I see someone who shares an important identity with me in that role.”
On the topic of negative portrayals in media, Andrews says some people may think we’re smarter than this. We know that people aren’t really like these negative images we see.
But “the reality is that’s all unconscious process,” she says. Meaning, people may adopt these negative beliefs from the media without even realizing it.
“For people who constantly see themselves presented in positive ways, in leadership roles and perspectives that are for the most part positive, it becomes very hard to understand why a negative depiction here or a comment there is so critical… The power of representation is that one negative image can become the image for everyone like you.”
Singer describes representation as the ability to see someone who fits the same kinds of categories that you do, whether that be sexuality, gender, race, or ethnicity, ability, social class.
“These are different indicators when we look at a part of society in the media, we want to see, is it reflective of the general demographics of the society or community? Or is it skewed toward one way of being?” he explains. “Representation is just being able to see yourself reflected in the larger media.”
Singer is Diné, or a member of the Navajo Nation. He says that members of his community want to see themselves represented accurately in media, but that hasn’t always been the case.
“Instead, it fell back on very specific kinds of tropes or stereotypes on indigenous peoples, and in these stereotypes, they’re usually negative. They don’t usually paint indigenous peoples as intelligent. They’re lazy, they’re alcoholic- that is the experience of maybe some people, but it’s definitely not of a large majority of indigenous Americans today. Most indigenous people don’t live on reservations, they actually live in urban areas,” Singer states.
“What a native person even looks like and the cultural practices that they’re involved in often don’t even look anything like what Hollywood portrays, especially some of these older films.”
Singer cites the Disney movie, “Peter Pan,” saying this might be the only glimpse children have into Native American culture, so they may believe the stereotypes in the movie are accurate. They may read about Native Americans in a textbook, but that’s pretty abstract, Singer explains.
“It seems harmless if you’re from the group that’s not being mocked. Every joke is funny until it’s about you. So part of this is thinking through respect…” he says. “Putting yourself into the shoes of another is a really important trait of humanity. I think it’s something we can be a lot better at, especially as our whole society is going through some turmoil.”
Edmund Fong is an associate professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Utah. He also explained the meaning of representation in entertainment.
“Representation refers to how our society, our culture, is filled with images, stories, depictions, visuals, all around us which we kind of internalize. That’s what builds the common culture we have in any society. Representation refers to the sum total of those images and their associations that we have of them.”
He explains that mass entertainment like radio and television originated in the early part of the 20th century.
“This was a time of really intense racialization in American pop culture. When we’re talking about those genres, they often have origins out of culture that was filled with what we would see now as racist images.”
Professor Fong says as an academic, he cares a lot about American history, saying it is through history that we educate ourselves and decide what we want to move forward with from the past. He says he hopes that representation should reflect society’s current values.
“…we tend to see the racist past as something we want to move beyond as a society. In that sense, that means we should re-evaluate as a society, some of the representations that fill our culture, fill our airways today.”
He also discussed cancel culture, a concept he says he doesn’t support.
Dictionary.com defines cancel culture as “the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive.”
Professor Fong says the term is a hyperbolic exaggeration and loaded.
“We’re not talking about some single culture ministry that’s telling everyone what to think or do. We make decisions, we are empowered as individuals. We do it all the time about what we choose to consume or buy, so in that sense, society is always engaged in making these decisions, which we could call cancellations,” he says. “We could also frame it as making choices, more affirmative choices about things we choose to value and things we leave behind.”
He says he understands, however, that people may feel that society is moving past things they cherished as children and may not be completely aware of why people are doing it.
If someone did have the power to censor everyone, the decisions that we make, and things we consume or purchase, then there would be a real question about that situation, he says. “Is it better to simply erase things from the past because then we have a sanitized version of our culture?”
This topic can tie into a debate about the different approaches that companies like Disney are making. Fong says that perhaps Dr. Seuss Enterprises is taking a more dramatic step by deciding not to publish certain books anymore.
“Simply erasing books doesn’t really inspire conversation. Disney disclaimers suggest that viewers should be more mindful of some of the depictions that are in their older films and use that as an occasion to deepen the conversation around these stereotypes, so they’re two different approaches,” he says. “It’s debatable which is the better one.”
Andrews says she thinks cancel culture is a misnomer.
“I think that there is this perspective that calling things into question is canceling them, and I don’t think that’s canceling things at all. I think what that is calling things into question and asking: could there be another way to see, experience, and interpret what’s happening in a way that might be harmful to someone else?”
In the case of Dr. Seuss books, she doesn’t think it’s a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
“Dr. Seuss books are not being taken off of shelves. They are no longer publishing the books. The publisher and the Seuss family are the ones who have decided that the materials, while in their original construction were conceived as benign, actually have harmful negative impacts. That’s not canceling anything. It’s seeing that there’s an impact that might not have been the intent of the writer, so removing those pieces from future publications is one way to address it,” she says.
She says it’s not taking away any of the positives that Dr. Seuss brought into the world, but saying, “we don’t want people to see a negative representation of themselves that becomes the only representation they see of themselves or the frame for which they see all other people like that.”
Andrews says as an adult, her capacity to engage with books is different from that of a child.
“And because the books that we’re talking about are books that are aimed at children, the families of Seuss and the publishers and others are recognizing how important it is to have positive images so that children see who they can be rather than how other people see them as a deficit.”
But if parents do choose to share this media with their kids, how do they go about it?
What should parents do?
In fact, Andrews says she has one of the Dr. Seuss books that will no longer be published- “And to Think that I Saw it on Mulberry Street”- in her home, and she is ready to have a conversation with her child about what might be problematic about messages in the book when the time comes.
“You bet I am. As a Black mom who works in higher education, I have to be ready to have those conversations with my child,” she shares.
She says talking to kids about race doesn’t have to be scary.
“People always get really nervous about having these conversations with kids, but that’s adults being nervous. Kids are always willing to have those conversations. You can help children by facilitating a discussion and asking them, “do you think it’s okay to make fun of people because of their skin color, their accent, the way they have facial hair, or the traditional clothes that they wear? Talk about how that hurts everyone.”
She advises parents to “get comfortable feeling uncomfortable.”
“If we don’t have those conversations with kids, what they get is the message that we don’t talk about it because there’s something so wrong with it… We have to begin having those uncomfortable conversations with our kids and with ourselves and asking ourselves, what’s so uncomfortable about talking about race? Why do we feel uncomfortable? Is it because we don’t want to say the wrong thing?”
Singer says that parents need to talk to their kids about all different kinds of people and make sure they’re exposed to accurate depictions. This may take a little bit of work, he says.
“But that’s part of overcoming our past. The kind of inactivity and hoping schools will take care of it… we can’t continue on that path. We’ve seen this past year with so much racial strife and coming to a reckoning with that. We need to be better neighbors to each other.”
Impacts of Racism and negative representation
Racism and negative representation or lack of representation are related. But according to both Andrews and Singer, racism looks different in 2021. It’s not always intentional.
Andrews says no one likes being called a racist. “Racism happens to all people. Good people, bad people, indifferent people.”
If someone is called a racist, Andrews says instead of pushing back, ask “what did I say or do to make you think I’m racist? Because I may have been engaging in this action or activity for my whole life because I’ve seen it around me and I thought it was okay and no one ever told me that it wasn’t.”
“Just because you find out something you’ve said or done is racist, doesn’t mean you have to stay in that space,” she adds.
And even though racism can be unintentional, it can still cause harm. Singer says people may know not to use racial slurs, but racism can be built into systems. He uses the analogy of a building.
“It’s like being in a building,” he says. “If you are an able-bodied person, you can get around that building without any problem because it’s built for you. For someone in a wheelchair, there needs to be some changes to the system.”
“The Society is the building and it has been built around specific tastes and distinctions and ideas and in so doing, it marginalizes others, and when it marginalizes people based on race, that is the racism we’re talking about,” he adds.
Singer says these systems can be built when people subconsciously believe and create rules in businesses or schools based on stereotypes or tropes they see in books or movies.
“It creates an environment wherein a group of people have a more difficult time accessing resources or being successful in certain ways,” he explains. “We want to make sure it’s an accurate portrayal, that it’s not based on stereotypes. When anyone is dehumanized into that template, we lose that part of our identity, of who we are.”
Singer uses the example of how members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asked to no longer be referred to as “Mormons” by the media.
“An organization or group of people that said, look there is some baggage that comes with the term Mormon and we want to overcome that. We’re not like those stereotypes.”
He explains that those being stereotyped may even begin to believe those things about themselves.
“Once tropes or stereotypes move past the abstract into the world, then we start to see that those biases creep into their actions. We begin to see that people start to live up to those stereotypes because that is what’s expected of this person. It can also be that if you’re not the one who is being stereotyped, that you will be creating environments or conditions in which that’s the only choice for someone to follow.”
Andrews says she doesn’t want to change anyone’s beliefs so much as help people understand we share a common humanity.
“It doesn’t matter if my skin is black or brown; it doesn’t matter if I have an accent or not. It doesn’t matter what my facial features look like. I am a human being and you are a human being, so no matter what differences we have at a fundamental level, we are human beings together,” she says. “We can figure out the rest.”
Though she says it’s good to see these conversations about race and representation playing out on a national level, there is still progress to be made.
“We’re doing better, but we’re still not done,” she says.