ABLEISM IN DISNEY?
It should come as no surprise that we live in a world highly catered to able-bodied individuals. More than that, people with disabilities are so often underrepresented in the media, TV, literature, and film. People with disabilities are habitually only cast if their disability serves to explain some tragic backstory or denote a questionable morality. Disney, in that sense, is no different. Main characters rarely have any form of disability, especially if they are to be considered in any sort of romantic or heroic way. More often than not, it is the villain or henchman that is in some way differently abled (requiring a cane to walk, needing magic to keep their bodies alive, etc).
Disability is also used to show that someone is not a threat romantically or for power. For example, the Hunchback of Notre Dame is ridiculed and ostracized for his appearance. Despite preforming all of the feats a standard Disney prince does, he ends up single and only with the privilege to be seen in public at the end of the film. For that matter, all of the dwarfs in Snow White have some sort of difference in functioning that allows them to live with Snow White in a non-sexualized way.
On top of the more obvious examples, there seems to be an underlying theme of dehumanization of certain characters/groups of characters in Disney films and TV. For example, it has been pointed out before that Goofy is a dog living in a world of animals acting as humans. At the same time, Pluto is also a dog (and shown to understand language and think in complicated ways), but is treated as a pet. Is this a purposeful commentary on slavery or the place in society for people who may be differently abled? Disney has a history of humanizing some animal creatures, while leaving many others in the same universe as more purely animals. In Mulan, Mushu can talk, but Cric-Kee and the horse Khan cannot. In Cinderella, the good mice can talk to Cinderella and even sew a dress, but the cat cannot talk (or at least chooses not to). One of the ones that bothers me the most is The Little Mermaid. Many under the sea animals can talk and interact in human ways, but others are tasked with carrying around King Triton or being used as musical instruments.
These inconsistencies may be the inevitable products of universes where animals are anthropomorphized, therefore leaving no actual animals left. But does that negate that there are some animals being used as for all intensive purposes slaves or pets, owned by other animals sometimes of their own species? Since Disney already has a difficult time with portraying anyone who is differently abled in a positive or competent light, maybe these mistakes reflect an accepted central truth of worth and place, whether consciously or unconsciously thought. It might mean something that Disney cannot imagine and create a world where equality is universally experienced, even when Disney is actually building these worlds from the ground up.
Or more importantly, what does this say about us as people (particularly those privileged as being seen as able-bodied and “normal”) that we often do not question or notice inequalities and illusions to slavery within our imaged utopias and cartoon wonderlands?
Ableism in disney
We all laugh and feel a little uncomfortable looking at Pluto from the Mickey Mouse cartoons. Ha-ha, he’s a dog like Goofy but instead of being able to walk on his hind legs and have a language he walks on all fours and wears a collar…comic gold? I don’t know if this was intended to be funny but it’s something most audiences have noticed and questioned, why does Pluto, a dog like Goofy, get resigned to the character of friendly pet? Is he just not tame enough to be educated like the rest of the anthropomorphic characters on the show? Well, I’d say as far as the Disney universe goes he got the good end of the stick.
There are a lot worse examples of characters that look just like the rest of the characters in various Disney movies that for some reason or another are ‘evil,’ ‘comedic’ or ‘mysterious’ just because they don’t talk. I don’t know if this is Disney saying something about able bodied people or not but it’s pretty clear that they think only able bodied people should be able to talk and those who don’t should be shunned and never taught anything.
Gargoyles was in 1997 was Disney’s answer for a ‘dark’ children’s cartoon. It had a good plot and great voice actors, mainly voices from Star Trek. All of the Gargoyles had their own distinct personality traits like the leader, the comic relief, the muscle etc. But one fell in to the Pluto trope. He was Bronx and his character trait was dog. He was the pet that couldn’t talk, walked on all fours and was there just to fill Disney’s mold from the Mickey Mouse cartoon cast.
This trope translated again to Toy Story 1 (1995) and 3 (2010). In Toy Story 1 the toys in Sid’s room are all mismatched with other toys and they don’t talk but communicate through action. They’re at first seen as evil but then turn out to be good and ‘mysterious.’ They might not talk because they couldn’t get voice actors, they were traumatized by Sid or I would argue because they were disabled, due to the fact that they were torn apart. But does that mean they couldn’t talk or as 'ugly' toys shouldn't talk? Even Baby and Lotso in Toy Story 3 were traumatized yet Lotso could still talk but Baby was just a follower and didn’t have any voice. Baby too was seen as evil at first and then loveable. But Baby and the toys in Sid’s room are just as deserving of a voice than any other character. I guess them not having a voice makes them more interesting (?) but I think it just goes to show how Disney correlates able bodied-ness to language.
I think the worst examples that show Disney’s bias is in A Bug’s Life (1998) and Monster’s University (2013). Both the evil grasshopper from A Bug’s Life and the evil monster from the Roar Omega Roar Fraternity look like all the other grasshoppers/monsters but of course because they can’t talk, they can only communicate in snarls and violent actions. And of course they’re both evil and have no redeemable qualities. The evil rabid grasshopper is used as a wild dog to hunt down the ants while the monster from Roar Omega Roar fraternity who competes in the Scare Games like the other monsters, is relegated to all fours.
More recently in Finding Dory which was praised so highly I'm afraid to write anything negative about it again used the same character molds as all Pixar movies do. The one that stands out to me is Becky the mentally ill bird that doesn't have a language and everyone in the audience laughed at because she was so erratic. She is clearly intelligent flying Marlin and Nemo everywhere they need to go but why can't she talk? Why doesn't anyone want to help her? Rather, Marlin is just afraid of her because she's different. Another character is the 'odd looking/ugly' seal that isn't allowed to talk (again), and is used for comedic effect because he looks 'retarded.' Mentally disabled people are seen as court jesters in the Pixar universe. This example disturbs me the most because the movie is supposed to teach us to be more accepting of people like Dory who has the invisible disability of short term memory loss and Nemo who has the physical disability of a weakened fin but it also teaches the audience to laugh at 'stupid' people. It doesn't make any sense.
We’re supposed to fear the disabled. And I did fear them. I was terrified of the evil grasshopper from A Bug’s Life but what does that say about me or about how Disney portrays some animals as able bodied and good and the ones that are missing a language as savage and evil? We need to be all inclusive and rather than portray people who don’t have a language on all fours and violent help them learn and treat them as equals.