Skip to content
Home » Blog (hidden) » “Students’ open letters to Disney”

“Students’ open letters to Disney”

By Sarah Benor

I teach a freshman seminar at the University of Southern California called “Language, Race, and Identity in the United States Today.” Students learn about linguistic diversity among American racial and ethnic groups, focusing on language discrimination. After reading parts of Rosina Lippi-Green’s book English with an Accent, we analyze clips from films and TV shows. Disney films always lead to interesting discussions. For almost a century, Disney has been inculcating children and adults with harmful ideas about language, mostly through the accents of animated characters.

It started with the Big Bad Wolf in The Three Little Pigs (1933), which at one point was depicted as a Jewish peddler with a large nose, sidelocks, black hat, and a Yiddish accent (changed after complaints). Then there were the black crows in Dumbo (1941), who spoke African-American English (one was not so subtly named Jim Crow). Peter Pan (1953) portrayed Native Americans (“Injuns” and “the red man”) using broken English and nonsense words like “hana mana ganda.” What’s wrong with representing ethnically distinct English or using nonsense words in animated films? Nothing, if they’re used evenly and respectfully. The problem is when the heroes of the film use general American English and only the “bad” and “funny” characters have marked accents. That perpetuates “standard language ideology,” the idea that native-born, upper-middle-class Americans speak correctly and everyone who speaks differently is deficient.

Based on these class sessions, I included a prompt on last year’s final exam: “Write a letter to a Disney executive about how past Disney films perpetuate standard language ideology and raciolinguistic stereotypes. Offer suggestions for addressing the problems in future films.” I was so impressed with some of the students’ responses, that I created a blog to highlight them. They analyzed language in films like MulanThe Lion King, and Lady and the Tramp, connecting their findings to class readings by Lippi-Green and others. And they offered ideas for how Disney can improve. As one student wrote, “It is important to include a diversity of characters on screen as normal, everyday people, not just as romanticized, exaggerated typifications of their culture.” I also posted my own open letter to Disney, highlighting Coco as a positive example of language and ethnic representation in animated film.

This exam question certainly helped me determine whether the students absorbed some of the course material. I don’t know if the blog made its way to the desk of any Disney employees. But I hope it will raise awareness about this important issue, encouraging viewers to think critically about the accents they hear and perhaps convincing the creators of media to be more sensitive in future portrayals.

Sarah Bunin Benor is Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies, Hebrew Union College and the University of Southern California

From JLA:

The co-editors-in-chief (Das and LaDousa) of the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology would like to bring to your attention two articles and a special issue focused on racializing discourses, including Urciuoli’s 2009 article about race in higher education discourses about diversity, Dick and Wirtz’s 2011 special issue Racializing Discourses, and Jonathan Rosa’s 2016 article about racialization in ideologies of standardization.

-Urciuoli, Bonnie. Talking/Not Talking about Race: The Enregisterments of Culture in Higher Education Discourses. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 19(1): 21-39.
-Parsons-Dick, Hilary and Kristina Wirtz (Eds.). 2011. Racializing Discourses: A Special Issue of the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology. 21(S1).
-Rosa, Jonathan. 2016. Standardization, Racialization, Languagelessness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies across Communicative Contexts. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 26(2): 162-183.