When Childhood Classics Aren’t Innocent, Ctd

by Chris Bodenner

Another classic cartoon is thrown in the mix:

Have you guys seen Dumbo? Pay close attention to the crows that appear near the end and teach Dumbo to fly. The stereotypes deployed with these characters is almost unbelievable by today’s standards. And yet, not only are they essential to the plot, but Disney has expanded the profile of Dumbo in the new Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World here near Orlando.

If children going to the new Fantasyland haven’t seen Dumbo yet (it was released in 1941), they probably will want to see it after visiting. And then they’ll see these guys (one of whose name is actually “Jim Crow”!). While their end purpose in the movie is certainly admirable, they are portrayed as cavalier bullies at first, and the way they’re berated by Timothy Mouse is just unreal in today’s context. Hell, Song of the South is almost expunged from vision at Disney, but here’s Dumbo, portrayed in their featured theme park as one of their touchstone old films. Don’t they get it?

Another actually defends blackface, in a way:

There is a contemporary assumption that it is inherently racist for a performer to perform in blackface. Obviously this was not always the case. As recently as the mid 1980s, Billy Crystal regularly appeared in blackface to do his Sammy Davis Jr. impression:

Though of course the blackface he used was quite different from the minstrel show variety featured in your thread, where performers have their mouths accentuated, clown-like, with white makeup. Still, Billy Crystal would NEVER get away with that today. But why not? His intent wasn’t racist. It was realism. He also wore a wig and a false moustache. So the dark makeup was of a piece with the rest. But cultural norms change.

Still, the assumption that a blackface performance from the 1930s or ’40s is racist just doesn’t seem on the mark. I had a pop-culture professor back in grad school who was always going on and on about the minstrel show. He actually wrote a book on the subject. He saw the minstrel show as the sort of wellspring of all sorts of musical styles that followed, from jazz to blues to hip hop and as a very positive force in black American culture, and his argument was persuasive. The minstrel show, it is important to remember, typically featured black performers (not white ones) in blackface.

By the 1930s and ’40s, these old performances were likely a well-understood part of the cultural zeitgeist of the past, along with vaudeville. Throwing the odd minstrel show number into a musical seemed no stranger than throwing in the odd vaudeville number I’m sure.

Don’t get me wrong. White attitudes towards black Americans in the 30s and ’40s were insensitive and casually racist. But these performances are not racist in and of themselves, and we would do well as a culture to try to get over looking at them in that way. (Though I must admit that I can definitely understand how a black person watching this stuff today could be deeply offended.)

Another takes more of a middle ground:

Can I ask why everybody is so uncomfortable watching those old classics?

Are they not aware that times and culture have changed? I am asking because as a cartoon fan, I regularly reread the Tintin cartoons, and especially the first ones, written in the ’30s and ’40s have some pretty bleak stereotypes of the Soviets, Native Americans, Chinese, Japanese and Africans. Tintin in the Congo hasn’t been published in English in a long time because of its racism. But remember, the Congo was still under Belgian control in the ’30s! And if you read through the series, you see the change in culture between the ’30s and ’70s. And you see how author Herge gets more modern. How awesome is that?

I have never been perturbed by Tintin and old, off-tone films. Times change. Culture changes. You know it, so why not enjoy it? The changed culture does not make these old pieces of art better or worse; it just makes you aware that culture has changed. And since we live now, we think it’s for the good. Let’s celebrate that instead of cover it up. And who knows what they’ll think of us in another 50 years.

Another example of how a classic series reformed itself:

From 1910 to 1930, more than half of the American juvenile fiction market was produced by the “Stratemeyer Syndicate” founded by Edward Stratemeyer, who produced nearly a thousand volumes by providing 2-3 page outlines of proposed books to impecunious ghostwriters, who would do the actual writing.  The Syndicate created numerous iconic series in the period including Tom Swift, the Rover Boys, Dave Fearless, Ted Scott and the Bobsey Twins, but their most famous series today are The Hardy Boys (starting in 1927) and Nancy Drew (1930). Edward Stratemeyer died in 1930, but his daughter, Harriett Stratemeyer Adams, continued the work of the Syndicate almost to her death in 1984.

The earliest Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books reflected their times; many of the books contained racial stereotypes (See the Hardy Boys’ The Hidden Harbor Mystery, 1935), or Jewish stereotypes (See Nancy Drew’s The Hidden Staircase, 1930).  During the 1950s, the books’ publisher, Grosset and Dunlap, started receiving complaints about the racial and religious stereotypes in the old books.  The old books also had outdated printing plates, and a much slower pace than the new titles concurrently being published.

Beginning in 1959, Harriett Adams and the Syndicate addressed these issues by discarding the original texts and putting new books inside the old titles. Some were just rewrites of the old story; some were completely new stories with the same title.  But the racial stereotyping in the original texts was gone. One of the earliest Hardy Boys books to be revised was The Hidden Harbor Mystery, 1961.  In the 1935 version, the black characters who worked on an old plantation in the South were the bad guys, stealing from the plantation owners and fomenting a feud between neighbors. But in the 1961 version, the black characters were suddenly the good guys, helping the Hardy Boys solve the mystery and end the feud.

Other stories with Chinese and Mexican stereotypes had similar revisions.  Once the new book with the original title was published, the old book simply went out print, only to be found in used book stores, or later on EBAY. (Some of the original books were also reprinted as collectors editions in the 1990s).  Despite their racist content, most collectors of the series think the original texts were much better written.  The revised texts from the 1960s remain in print today. In addition, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew are now owned by Simon and Shuster, which continues to publish completely new titles to this day; the new titles current 2013 sensibilities.

This is an example where we went back and excised the old racial stereotypes.  But did we lose something authentic when we painted over the 1930s America in the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew original texts with the more sanitized 1960s America reflected in the revised texts?

On that note:

My own experience with this kind of thing occurred a few years ago when I bought some DVD collections of the old Warner Bros. cartoons for my young kids to watch on long car rides. It turns out many of these contain vile sexist and racist stereotypes. But to Warner Bros. credit, they have mostly released these as is, with a note advising essentially that times have changed and they recognize that many of these are not acceptable by today’s standards, but that they are a record and reflection of their times.

I think this is basically healthy. I think it is good that we be reminded how recently these types of terrible images were considered perfectly acceptable. It’s a good wake-up call for folks anytime we start to celebrate how far we’ve come. Many people, especially white males, but also many younger people who may never have really witnessed racial or gender-based prejudice first-hand, need to be reminded how hard it was in this country for almost every out-group until very recently.