Representation matters. It’s important for kids to see themselves reflected on screen, and also to teach them empathy towards others who look, sound, or seem different. We are all human, and Disney has done a wonderful job of utilizing storytelling to help convey that message.
With such wonderful anti-racism resources out there for kids, from children’s books to the Sesame Street special to PBS Kids, we have all we need to teach our children to be anti-racist. Sometimes these methods seem overwhelming or we need to ease ourselves into race conversations, and classic Disney movies provide great conversation starters.
Anti-Racism Disney Movies
There may be some spoilers here if you haven’t seen the films yet! Proceed with caution.
- Zootopia uses allegory to show how blaming one group for civilization’s problems is dangerous. They also show that those fueling the fire can be government employees and those in positions of power who are abusing it. Learning to recognize your own bias and examine your instincts is a valuable lesson included in this film.
- Pocahontas may not be historically accurate, but it still teaches great lessons. From not jumping to conclusions to acknowledging the distrust of those who are different, this film tackles big topics in a way our kid’s minds can comprehend. We see why Chief Powhatan makes the choices he does, and we know what drives the settlers. We see Governor Ratcliffe using fear to fan the flame and make a bad situation worse. We also see a brave woman step forward, and say, “Look around you. This is where the path of hatred has brought us.” She has stepped between her father and ‘the enemy’, and asks him which path he will choose. We see her respectfully challenge her leader, her father. He responds, “We have all come here with anger in our hearts. But she [Pocahontas] comes with courage and understanding. From this day forward, if there is to be more killing, it will not start with me.” One girl, one voice raised against the status quo, saved many lives. That is a powerful teaching tool. The entire song Savages also explains racism quite well. The line, “They aren’t like you and me/which means they must be evil,” is especially potent.
- Frozen and Frozen II probably aren’t the first anti-racist Disney movies you can think of, but they have some wonderful anti-racist themes. The theme of fear driving hatred in Frozen lays the groundwork for the sequel, in which we see King Grunard plotting to battle the Northuldra while pretending to be friendly. Elsa even says, “That’s just your fear. Fear is what can’t be trusted.” We also see the suspicion with which the Nortuldra and the Arendellian soldiers treat each other, even after having been locked in the enchanted forest together for 34 years. Elsa and Anna bridging the two groups of people and approaching the situation with care and respect is also a wonderful message. Not to mention the representation of people of color and various sizes and shapes. Just an all around great job of representation here.
Though these aren’t overtly anti-racist, they are anti-prejudice and deserve mentioning.
- Tarzan shows two opposing groups and how an undercurrent of malice can impede growth. Strangers Like Me is a good allegory as well.
- The Jungle Book is a worthy example because Mowgli is targeted by Shere Khan because he’s human, and therefore an enemy. Shere Khan is only afraid of man’s gun and fire, which Mowgli can yield, and so Mowgli is an enemy (even though he’s only a child). Once again, fear drives hatred.
- Who Framed Roger Rabbit features animosity between two groups, cartoons and humans. Some coexist peacefully while others treat each other with fear and hatred. There are some frightening moments and more adult themes, so this is perhaps best saved for older kids. The PG rating leaves it up to parental discretion.
- The Fox and the Hound focuses on two animals who are meant to be enemies yet become friends. It can be quite allegorical. However, dark themes and the sadness that they don’t remain friends in the end may be too much for younger kids. There is quite a bit of intense and thoroughly depressing parts, so watch with caution.
- Beauty and the Beast exemplifies prejudice from multiple angles. The Beast is prejudiced against the enchantress and is punished, then his appearance makes him fearful and angry of Maurice. Belle is in turn afraid of the Beast and assumes things about him based on his appearance. Quite a bit of allegorical prejudice that can help jump start conversations, especially after Gaston and the townspeople storm the castle.
- The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride is a Romeo and Juliet twist set on the savannah. After Scar’s defeat, the lion pride fractions into two groups, one of which is exiled. When Simba’s daughter and an exiled cub become friends and then fall in love, it challenges the us versus them mentality in an elegant way. “Them, us? Look at them. They are us.” So worth the watch…even if it was a direct to video sequel.
- Mulan tackles gender prejudice. It’s important to educate our children with how the world was and teach them how to make it how it should be.
- Brother Bear is a sob fest, but teaches such valuable lessons. When your family is personally hurt, it is easy to let hatred and fear rule your heart and actions. This film tackles prejudice allegorically, with Kenai (a human) having to become what he feared and hated (a bear) in order to learn to see the world from a new perspective.
- Atlantis shows how devaluing human life is dangerous while also challenging gender stereotypes.
Some of these films tackle racism and prejudice outright, while others use metaphors and allegories to transmit the message. What we take away is the same though; love, equality, and empathy are what saves the day. Fear and hatred only hurts you and others.