As young children, the amusement of watching light-hearted scenes with animated stray pets who are able to talk is likely to distract from the underlying stereotypes going on in a children's classic, All Dogs Go To Heaven. As those same children grow up, the obviousness of racial undertones often make a person scratch their head as to how they hadn’t noticed.
For years, animated films and shows such All Dogs Go To Heaven, The Aristocats and Tom and Jerry have assigned race — and corresponding racial stereotypes — to a collection of animals and pet characters. The animalistic qualities of these animated characters regularly mask the hidden messages sewn into film — allowing cinematographers to sometimes get away with scenes that could be seen as offensive in real-life movies.
“(Film makers) did a bad thing called Song of the South ... very racist,” Lorraine Wochna, subject librarian for the School of Film, Theatre, English and African-American Studies, said
According to the NAACP, Song of the South is a Disney movie created in 1946 that depicts an offensively “idyllic” master-slave relationship. This post-Civil War movie likely would not be acceptable under today’s standards, however, more discreet language and imagery is used in today’s cinematic world.
“When I was little and watching them, I didn’t notice. But I have four younger siblings so I watch Disney movies all the time now and it’s just crazy obvious and it makes me really uncomfortable,” Gwen Kunkel, a sophomore in the Honors Tutorial College studying communication sciences and disorders, said.
Shaylee Marshall, a freshman studying English, is among many who say they overlooked these patterns in film throughout childhood.
Growing up on movies that potentially contained some racial stereotyping in the script was the norm, Marshall said. For this reason, it was easy to subconsciously glaze over the questionable dialogue and mannerisms of characters.
“I don’t think I noticed (stereotyping in movies) until I got older and would kind of look back,” Marshall said. “I think people can get away with it if they’re doing it with animals because people just don’t think about it.”
A reason for much of the discomfort, Kunkel said, is the racial assignments of animals are often completely unrelated to the actual plot of the film.
“Maybe they’re trying to include diversity into their film but I just feel they’re going about it the wrong way,” Kunkel said. “A better way to do diversity is just have a diverse cast of voice actors and you don’t need to make the animal’s characteristics stereotypical.”
Julia Staben, a ﬁrst-year student in the film studies M.A. program, said the phenomenon is complicated. Adding stereotypical characteristics to pets and animals in film can be explained by looking into power hierarchies in society.
“The issue of representation in cartoons, and children's media in general, comes from an acceptance of the exaggeration of form,” Staben said in an email.
The most glaring examples of animators getting away with scenarios that live-action directors simply could not, Staben said, is in cases of violent scenes against animals of different races.
“While you can't beat up a dog on screen, you certainly can draw one being violently assaulted in a cartoon. Because of this, the punishment for colored pet characters can be more severe and more justified,” Staben said.
As Kunkel proposed, including diversity into films could be the motive behind some animators implementing race into their characters. Zootopia, a 2016 film about a mammal metropolis where various animals live and thrive, according to IMDb, is one in which Kunkel suggested there might be positives to the blatant racial depiction of characters.
“Zootopia did it really well … it was very blatant that it was talking about racial issues,” Kunkel said. “But, I think a huge point of why they made Zootopia was to address the recurrence of racial tension in our country today.”
However, not all animated movies use race in a positive way.
“For movies (that are) not actually trying to address a racial issue, it’s dumb to put it in.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the producer of All Dogs Go To Heaven. The movie is directed and produced by Don Bluth and released by United Artists and Goldcrest Films. The article has been updated with the most accurate information.