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Race Coding in Animated Films

_caleb

Well-Known Member
Original Poster
An interesting topic came up in another thread: the racial coding of animated characters (especially animal characters). The idea of “coding” comes from linguistics and typically refers to the phenomenon of multi-lingual groups switching between two languages in order to best communicate ideas, attitudes, and concepts (ex: Spanglish among Latin Americans).

But coding can also refer to veiled references to cultural, social, and racial stereotypes. Most cultures have some prevalent stereotypical categories for sub-sets of their own group and of groups outside their group. It’s social shorthand. For example, if you’re in a play, and playing a character who is, say, uneducated, poor, and lazy, you might try to communicate all of that to the audience just by the way you dress and speak.

Which brings us to race coding in Disney films. Do some animated films featuring anthropomorphic animals use negative race coding? The most widely discussed examples are:
  • Song of the South: Some see the Br’er characters as being coded as African Americans. This would present a problem, given the racial insensitivities of the live action segments of the film.
  • Dumbo: The Crows in the film are often identified as being coded after Black stereotypes.
  • Jungle Book: Is King Louis a caricature of Luis Armstrong? Are the monkey coded as African Americans? This essay says yes, and goes on to identify other animals coded after racist stereotypes. Disney seems to agree.
  • Lion King: Are the Hyena villians (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings) coded as Black and Hispanic?
  • Zootopia: The film clearly has a racial theme and plays on racial stereotypes (as well as social power structures). But does the film handle these well, or does it fall into the same trap of painting with too broad a brush in its depictions of racial difference?
  • Lady and the Tramp: The depiction of the Siamese cats seem pretty racist to me.
Are characters racially coded? Is that a problem? What’s the difference between racial representation and stereotyping? And what are the effects (positive or negative) of this racial coding? Why is it more than just “they’re animals, not people!”?
 

sullivan.kscott

Well-Known Member
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I don’t see the inherent coding as racist, but the overtones certainly go there from time to time. It’s definitely improved over time. Louie in P&tF, for example, or Ray as a minority Cajun. They’re fun and lighthearted, obviously coded, but not disrespectful. I agree 100% that some of the older films, like Aristocats or Lady and the Tramp get pretty cringeworthy. I have always kind of struggled with whether Trusty is supposed to be an AA grandpa or inspired by Andy Griffith. Perhaps a crossover of both, and that’s where imitation can be flattering.

Specifically to Zootopia, I think the broad brush makes it easier to have the discussions of racism’s, and prejudice’s, dangers. The importance of judging an individual becomes paramount and they improve as a society when the characters themselves learn to look past their own prejudice. The social power/social justice themes are also important.

This is obviously a Disney forum, but similar themes come up in An American Tail with treatment of European immigrants to New York and the struggle to achieve the American dream when you struggle with culture and language.
 

_caleb

Well-Known Member
Original Poster
I don’t see the inherent coding as racist, but the overtones certainly go there from time to time. It’s definitely improved over time. Louie in P&tF, for example, or Ray as a minority Cajun. They’re fun and lighthearted, obviously coded, but not disrespectful. I agree 100% that some of the older films, like Aristocats or Lady and the Tramp get pretty cringeworthy. I have always kind of struggled with whether Trusty is supposed to be an AA grandpa or inspired by Andy Griffith. Perhaps a crossover of both, and that’s where imitation can be flattering.

Specifically to Zootopia, I think the broad brush makes it easier to have the discussions of racism’s, and prejudice’s, dangers. The importance of judging an individual becomes paramount and they improve as a society when the characters themselves learn to look past their own prejudice. The social power/social justice themes are also important.

This is obviously a Disney forum, but similar themes come up in An American Tail with treatment of European immigrants to New York and the struggle to achieve the American dream when you struggle with culture and language.
Great thoughts. It's funny, because An American Tail (not Disney) kept coming to mind as I was thinking about this!

I think the biggest issue I have with the way racial coding is often used is that it's implemented as a lazy approach to storytelling. Rather than create characters with depth, animators often seem to rely on hints (many not-so-subtle) that tell the audience "this is THAT kind of character."

I see evidence of this in the side characters and villains, who typically aren't much more than two-dimensional plot devices. I know it's "just animation," but racial coding relies so much on the preconceived ideas of the audience, and often these ideas are not things we need to be perpetuating.
 

LittleBuford

Well-Known Member
Great topic. Another (not very subtle) example that comes to mind is the blackfish—represented as a caricature of a black female singer—that puts in a brief appearance during Under the Sea in The Little Mermaid. Such a caricature wouldn’t fly (or swim!) today.

A more recent example is Flo from the Cars films, who definitely reads as (and is voiced by) an African American woman. It baffles me that they gave her green eyes, almost as if they didn’t want to acknowledge her implied race.

@sullivan.kscott, not that it undermines your point (since they still are a minority), but Cajuns are white.
 
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Heppenheimer

Well-Known Member
King Louis was voiced by the very Italian-American Louis Prima, and both the vocal performance and animation incorporate his well-known stage mannerisms. Even if they tried to get Louis Armstrong originally, what we see in the finished film is pure Louis Prima. Its not race-coded, or even-ethnic coded, just Prima-coded.

I really don't see anything in the other monkeys other than monkey behavior either.

Likewise, you could argue Shere Khan is an ethnic stereotype of a cruel member of the British aristocracy, but to me it seems more like George Sanders playing the same kind of upper class cad he always portrayed.
 

sullivan.kscott

Well-Known Member
Great thoughts. It's funny, because An American Tail (not Disney) kept coming to mind as I was thinking about this!

I think the biggest issue I have with the way racial coding is often used is that it's implemented as a lazy approach to storytelling. Rather than create characters with depth, animators often seem to rely on hints (many not-so-subtle) that tell the audience "this is THAT kind of character."

I see evidence of this in the side characters and villains, who typically aren't much more than two-dimensional plot devices. I know it's "just animation," but racial coding relies so much on the preconceived ideas of the audience, and often these ideas are not things we need to be perpetuating.
Perhaps it’s the villain/hero relationship that makes it more jarring, stereotypes aside. The Siamese cats are the worst, along with their “cousin” in Arostocats, because it’s not even funny, it’s lazy, and they’re soooo over the top in a time when the nation didn’t need to perpetuate East Asian stereotypes to heal culturally after WWII.
Another example I just thought of is The Little Mermaid. Now, I know interracial marriage exists, but Ursula is meant to be Ariel’s aunt according to the story and mythology. But she is clearly an “evil black woman,” who wants a “pretty white voice” (drag Queen inspiration aside). Sebastian kind of works comedically as a Caribbean, and at least he’s not actively toking on a whatsit or whoozit in the grotto. But his character is lazy and mostly useless in Triton’s eyes, and that’s unfortunate.
The villain issue goes well beyond animation to tell us who to hate, just look at the villains during the Cold War era, or surrounding 9/11. It’s why Voldemort seemed so much more jarring than Grindelwald: the former is a home-grown threat trained at the heroes’ school. Movies and the literature they’re based on often use foreigners or the marginalized to represent evil. Animators fall into the same, easy, trap, but don’t need to. Look at Frozen. It’s so refreshing to have the villain be within and not an outside witch or spell or whatever.
I enjoy all of these movies, BTW. But I’m glad that we can have these discussions and (hopefully) do better.
 
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sullivan.kscott

Well-Known Member
Great topic. Another (not very subtle) example that comes to mind is the blackfish—represented as a caricature of a black female singer—that puts in a brief appearance during Under the Sea in The Little Mermaid. Such a caricature wouldn’t fly (or swim!) today.

A more recent example is Flo from the Cars films, who definitely reads as (and is voiced by) an African American woman. It baffles me that they gave her green eyes, almost as if they didn’t want to acknowledge her implied race.

@sullivan.kscott, not that it undermines your point (since they still are a minority), but Cajuns are white.
I was using that as an exact example of how whites also “other” whites that are different from themselves. My wife’s aunt was very active with the nursing school at LSU for a time after her naval retirement, and the way they’re pushed aside except for their food and music is disgusting (sound racially familiar?).
 

LittleBuford

Well-Known Member
Another example I just thought of is The Little Mermaid. Now, I know interracial marriage exists, but Ursula is meant to be Ariel’s aunt according to the story and mythology. But she is clearly an “evil black woman,” who wants a “pretty white voice.”
Ursula isn’t Ariel’s aunt, though they did toy with the idea when developing the film. I don’t read her as black at all—nothing about her voice or the way she’s drawn seems to point in that direction—but I think it’s legitimate to wonder why her status as a villain translates into non-white skin (the same goes for Maleficent).
 

LittleBuford

Well-Known Member
I was using that as an exact example of how whites also “other” whites that are different from themselves. My wife’s aunt was very active with the nursing school at LSU for a time after her naval retirement, and the way they’re pushed aside except for their food and music is disgusting (sound racially familiar?).
Sorry for the unnecessary correction in that case. In other threads, people have mistakenly discussed the Cajuns as black.
 

sullivan.kscott

Well-Known Member
Ursula isn’t Ariel’s aunt, though they did toy with the idea when developing the film. I don’t read her as black at all—nothing about her voice or the way she’s drawn seems to point in that direction—but I think it’s legitimate to wonder why her status as a villain translates into non-white skin (the same goes for Maleficent).
Fair point on Ursula’s race. Maybe that’s me projecting purple-ish as black. Rather illuminating personally. While living in the Caribbean, I often overheard Dominicans referring to their (often) darker-skinned Haitian neighbors as “purple.”
 

_caleb

Well-Known Member
Original Poster
King Louis was voiced by the very Italian-American Louis Prima, and both the vocal performance and animation incorporate his well-known stage mannerisms. Even if they tried to get Louis Armstrong originally, what we see in the finished film is pure Louis Prima. Its not race-coded, or even-ethnic coded, just Prima-coded.
That's a great point! It's funny, because it seems a lot of people who are only familiar with Prima from his voice work in Jungle Book seem to assume he's black. To your point, this was not a "schtick," Prima grew up in New Orleans and, according to this thoughtful post about it, was something of an Armstrong imitator. So in this case, any "coding" in Prima's voice work would not be specific to the King Louis character, but to Prima himself, who was a white man making music that was (at the time) associated with black people.
I really don't see anything in the other monkeys other than monkey behavior either.
There's also the broader question of why use Prima or the jazz/scat-type musical number at all for a film set in the Indian jungle. The association of African Americans with jazz music and the racist association of Black people and monkeys seems to be part of the problem.
Likewise, you could argue Shere Khan is an ethnic stereotype of a cruel member of the British aristocracy, but to me it seems more like George Sanders playing the same kind of upper class cad he always portrayed.
The essayist I linked above finds Asian "mongol lord" stereotypes in Shere Khan. Not sure what I think about that.
 

Angel Ariel

Well-Known Member
Ursula isn’t Ariel’s aunt, though they did toy with the idea when developing the film. I don’t read her as black at all—nothing about her voice or the way she’s drawn seems to point in that direction—but I think it’s legitimate to wonder why her status as a villain translates into non-white skin (the same goes for Maleficent).
Not in the movie, but she is absolutely introduced as Triton’s sister in Disney’s Broadway version of the story.

Interestingly, the actress playing Ursula on Broadway was white, while the actor cast as Triton was Black.
 

sullivan.kscott

Well-Known Member
There's also the broader question of why use Prima or the jazz/scat-type musical number at all for a film set in the Indian jungle. The association of African Americans with jazz music and the racist association of Black people and monkeys seems to be part of the problem.
It’s this paragraph that is my biggest rub with the scene. For a movie released at the zenith of the civil rights movement, the call to monkeys performing traditionally African American music is a pretty obvious reference regardless of the voice and whose stage presence was being imitated. Then the lyrics ... “monkeys” wanting to be “more like you,” in their walk, talk, and undoubtedly living circumstance. They live in a former human sign of power and glory that has turned into a slum. Not unlike the way inner Harlem and her jazz clubs had become an inner city marginalized and decimated neighborhood by the ‘60s.

Maybe the animators wanted to make a cultural statement that the monkeys were no different that Mowgli and the humans, or at least deserved equal footing. But it hasn’t aged well. My two boys were shocked at the scene when they first watched it, and were probably 8&6 with a more inclusive education than I ever had.
 
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LittleBuford

Well-Known Member
Fair point on Ursula’s race. Maybe that’s me projecting purple-ish as black. Rather illuminating personally. While living in the Caribbean, I often overheard Dominicans referring to their (often) darker-skinned Haitian neighbors as “purple.”
I don’t think you’re entirely projecting. She may not be black, but the fact that they chromatically differentiated her is not insignificant. It’s worth noting that Scar, too, is notably darker than the other lions, though his voice and mannerisms are those of a classic British villain.
 
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ImperfectPixie

Well-Known Member
I don’t know that there was ever a time I didn’t think they were related, TBH - even without it being explicitly stated.
I think it's mentioned somewhere in the movie, because I've never done research about it, seen any of the stage shows or anything, and I've known since forever that she was Triton's sister.
 

LittleBuford

Well-Known Member
I don’t know that there was ever a time I didn’t think they were related, TBH - even without it being explicitly stated.
Really? I can’t see anything in the film that even hints at a family relationship. We know Ursula once lived at court (she refers to her former life in the palace), but nothing beyond that. I believe the idea of her being Triton’s sister is there in one of the early book tie-ins. Might it be that you read it?
 

LittleBuford

Well-Known Member
I think it's mentioned somewhere in the movie, because I've never done research about it, seen any of the stage shows or anything, and I've known since forever that she was Triton's sister.
OK, I’m beginning to question my sanity now, because I have seen the film dozens of times and would bet my life on there being no such reference!
 

Angel Ariel

Well-Known Member
Really? I can’t see anything in the film that even hints at a family relationship. We know Ursula once lived at court (she refers to her former life in the palace), but nothing beyond that. I believe the idea of her being Triton’s sister is there in one of the early book tie-ins. Might it be that you read it?
The Disney animated tv series maybe? I watched that a ton as a kid.
 

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