Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Letting the cat(s) out of the bag

(c) Disney, thanks
I'm full of puns when it comes to the topic of race, apparently.

So... anyway.

Since Aunt Sarah's Siamese cats, Si and Am, are the first (and only, for several decades) Asian characters in the Disney animated canon, I thought it important to write a post about how they are portrayed.

It seems like Disney held nothing back in bringing every negative Asian racial stereotype to life in this pair. Their extremely slanted eyes and buck teeth seem to underline their overall suspicious demeanor. They speak a very heavy "pidgin" dialect which accentuates their foreignness. That there are two of them could even imply that all Siamese [cats] are the same.

Si and Am's song "We are Siamese" is unfortunately quite catchy, probably the most memorable in the film. I know that as a kid that's the one that stuck with me. But its tune and harmonies mimic a certain oriental musical style, and here it is used to give a chilling, uncomfortable feeling.

Most of all, Si and Am are undoubtedly villains. Even while Aunt Sarah seems to have a change of heart at the end of the film, there is nothing redeeming about Si and Am. We have seen racial stereotypes in previous movies (such as Dumbo and Peter Pan, which I never got to talk about), but this is the first time the stereotyped characters have been pegged as outright villains.

So what do we do when a good film like Lady & the Tramp features such offensive racial stereotypes as Si and Am's characters?

I should mention that most of the other animals in Lady & the Tramp also have distinct ethnic accents, which are associated with their personalities. Jock is a feisty Scottish terrier. Trusty is a slow-speaking, old-fashioned Southern hound. There's also an English bulldog, a Mexican chihuahua and a Russian borzoi (I had to look that one up, definitely never heard of that one before.) The filmmakers made a deliberate choice to give each animal character certain traits that would make them stand out and give them more of a personality to act and animate to. This seems to make sense when you're dealing with a lot of animal characters that could be hard to differentiate from one another.

But I think the offense here lies in how Disney allows viewers to make assumptions about the people groups that are associated with their characters. Having interacted with not a few ignorant people, the broken "Engrish" that the Siamese cats use brings back bad memories of people making fun of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans alike. It perpetuates the idea that because someone sounds Asian or even just looks Asian, they are somehow less civilized, educated, and decidedly "other." Similarly, the mischievous nature of Si and Am harken back the idea of "yellow peril" which was definitely fresh in the minds of Americans at that time, less than a decade after World War II ended. I find it unfortunate that Disney did not use their influence to reverse the impact that World War II had on attitudes towards Asians, but rather enforce negative stereotypes.

Although this movie was made nearly 60 years ago, the stereotypes of Asians portrayed in Lady and the Tramp still linger. This has led to events as terrible and violent as the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982, and as embarrassing and ignorant as the YouTube "Asian rant" by a UCLA student just this year. And because of that, we must recognize the ways timeless films like this shape our ideas about race and ethnicity.

1 comment:

  1. well said, laura. these animated films not only shape our ideas of culture, race and ethnicity from a very young age, but as you've mentioned in previous posts, they shape various ideas and thoughts about love, relationships, beauty, and what society finds attractive or powerful. unfortunately, Disney was following the signs of the times when it came to stereotyping and following racist patterns (as we've seen throughout the films so far). it is unfortunate that Disney did not use their influence to help reverse the negative impact, as you said in your post. the world and voice of Disney are powerful tools for shaping the ideals of young children.