Walt Disney and Me (Black and Disabled)

By Cynthia Barram

I have an incredible love-hate relationship with Mr. Disney. The first time my dad wheeled me and my chair into a theater we watched The Little Mermaid. The lyrics from Ariel’s “Part of Your World,” pierced me. She equated so much of being human and happy with walking. But before Ariel, no one had articulated my secret childhood longing to dance, to move. And Iin could move so much easier in the water. I could swim, walk, jump, and hold my breath until adults made fools of themselves trying to save me from a pool. Ariel convinced me that a secret society of mermaids waited beneath every puddle for my orphan soul to rejoin them. Years later, I realized that Disney’s portrayal of Ariel as wearing only a bra for the first half of her movie, and as silent, lovingly clueless, and unrelentingly sexy for the second half was a serious problem from a feminist perspective. But honestly, if I woke up one morning with white skin, a petite build, an able body, and red hair I would train my voice to hilt, move to Los Angeles, force Disneyland to hire me, and sing that song with more conviction than anyone who had never been in a wheelchair ever could.

Cinderella presented me with other problems. I fell in love with her because of her ability to “buck up” under difficult circumstances. Mimicking her came in handy on days when Dad was irate, Mom was clueless, and my two sisters were evil. I would have swapped her housework for my surgeries in a heartbeat. Secretly I hoped that, like her, I could have mice and a fairy-godmother that would not rest until they had given me the means to accomplish all I dreamt of. I believed that at some point, the trauma I had suffered as a child, my scars, would vanish and give way to new life. Not exactly.

Cerebral palsy, though not unlovable, can be a clumsy thing. I would never acquire Cinderella’s ability to move and behave with absolute grace in every situation. And the other side of the mirror would never show me Cindy’s pretty blue eyes, blonde hair, hourglass figure, or perfect toeless Barbie doll feet. Never mind that my biological mother actually had blue eyes and blonde hair. My coffee with cream skin, midnight eyes, and black-cat no-I-will-not-get-into-braids-until-I-am-properly-stroked hair that I inherited from my biological father were having none of it. Cinderella indeed!

Mom would smile at me through her wily green-eyes as she attempted to ameliorate some of this tragedy every summer:

“You’re getting tan faster than me. Stop it!” she would scold me in her play voice.

“You’re not going to beat me,” I would retort, “Give up.”

“Never!” she would howl before we both busted a gut. But Cinderella’s white-is-good-and-pure mentality still etched itself into my adopted brain.

One Christmas I asked my mother, “Black people don’t go to heaven, do they mamma?”

In utter shock, Mom asked me where I heard such a thing. I told her, “Well, I have never seen a Black angel. They all have blond hair and blue eyes.” She sent my father to Atlanta promptly and he returned with a framed picture of a Black angel and the same of a Black Jesus. Every couple of Christmases thereafter relatives would bring Black Marys, Black fairies, a music box where a Black girl held a bright red present, and even my first Black baby doll—a chubby, smiling little girl who I promptly named Natasha. Yet, these toys were often the first to end up horribly mutilated. I wasn’t killing them on purpose, but I would subject them to my inherent clumsiness a lot faster than my more fragile, white toys.

I spent a lot of time at the library in third grade investigating Cinderella. I found out that she had red hair, brown hair, and black hair. I found out that she was a lovely Black woman (also named Natasha) who grew up in Africa, and had “counterparts” all over the globe. I found out that other princess stories like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Beauty and the Beast were similarly archetypal and had heroines from France, Italy, China, Egypt, Appalachia, everywhere. But all this cultural education did not stop me from making remarks like, “Oh my God! I have never seen so many Black people in all my life! They are everywhere!” When my father took me to see an Andrae Crouch concert, he told me, “You’re Black, now hush!” It was the only discussion Dad and I had about my race. That blue-eyed Cinderella was still the woman to conquer.

And things got worse. I used to watch Dumbo on Disney channel looking for the black crows. They are still my favorite part of the movie. In their defense (and mine) I never thought they were vicious—just jovial, excellent at wordplay, and a little sarcastic. I mean, let’s face it. They taught Dumbo how to fly, and stuck by him to keep him out of trouble at the end of the movie. Without them, Dumbo and his smart talking little mouse would be nothing. I took a Jazz, Pop, and Rock music class during my freshman year of college, and learned the origins of the blues and scat that made me love those animated crows. I also learned that associating any Black person with a crow, with Jim Crow in fact, was a horrible and hideous thing to do. Jim Crow was the name of a so-called code of conduct, which basically gave Whites pseudo-legal license to persecute and murder Blacks. No wonder Dumbo isn’t shown on public television anymore! And yet, may God help me, I still miss those crows. It’s not every day that a person meets friends who can laugh playfully at themselves and at you, and who have no qualms when it comes to teaching the down-and-out of how to fly.

My most shameful, and yet somehow most beloved Disney movie was Peter Pan. My favorite parts of this movie were the scenes with the “Indians”. As much as the chief terrified me when he promised to “burn ‘em at stake” if they could not rescue his daughter Tiger Lily, I loved watching the dignified way the young princess completely ignored Captain Hook as he screamed empty threats of death in her face to try and make her give up Peter Pan. I couldn’t believe her bravery and faith. She never cried out not even when she was about to drown. She knew that Pan would come for her and he did. And, when she was returned to the tribe, the same chief who had been ready to barbecue the Lost Boys earlier, invited everyone to a dance party to celebrate. It was very gracious of him I thought, and in the end he also turned out to have a sense of humor, which made him not nearly as scary. So, I made a note in my then very elastic seven-year-old brain: These red men are friendly and fun-loving people who throw better parties and can boogie down better than anyone you have ever seen. In sixth grade, a Native American dance troop performed at my school.  They did tricks with hoops and used feathers to make eagle shadows that swooped and soared across the gym floor. I was impressed, but not the least bit surprised.

Disney chose to draw the Indians in Peter Pan as bad caricatures—men as overly skinny, women as fat and toothless. What’s more, the word squaw is used three times in that movie. As a child, I asked my father what it meant and he told me it was the Indian way of saying girl. Similarly, my sisters and I used to play Indians after or during the movie. We had fake war cries and all, and those games are one of the only times I remember us running around with absolute abandon, and reveling in our ability to make noise. When my cousin’s kids met my family and I in South Dakota last year for a family reunion I remember remarking more than once, “Geez, they are like wild Indians,” as her home-schooled children whooped and hollered and stretched their bare limbs racing toward the swimming pool like their lives depended on it. They were free, yes. They were elated, yes. But did that make them “wild Indians” necessarily? Where had I learned to talk like that? My earliest and most overt teacher had been that old Peter Pan movie.

And so the queer play goes on in my head: Images of red men, black crows, and blonde Cinderellas swirl, their racist-sexist-classist messages intermingling with the pain and perfume of my childhood. What if Tiger Lilly had been able to speak? Would Dumbo be so different if the crows had been animated as cats? If Cinderella was just a little bit clumsy and perhaps had acne, would her film be ruined? And would it kill the Little Mermaid if Ariel at some point, kind of enjoyed her thinly-veiled wheelchairedness? Yet, I can never truly bring myself to hate Mr. Disney. Granted, should I have children I will not let my kids watch his dusty, old films—they lead to confusion. But part of me will always laugh at the crows in Dumbo. I’ll laugh at my fond memories of playing with my sisters. I’ll laugh because Mr. Disney introduced me to the concept of play and humor. I will laugh until somebody comes up with stories that are more engaging and entertaining, without being so off color.

* * *

Today’s contributor, Cynthia Barram is 26, an avid concert goer, an activist, and an English major. She lives with a cat who thinks she is both rich and human. Cynthia treats her wheelchair like a race car or a Queen’s throne depending on the day, and her second home is the bus station.

Disney-Related Content on Adios Barbie:

Tangled: Going Beyond the Disney Mold

Disney’s First Black Princess Makes Us Wonder

Are Your Roots Bad for Business?

Finally! The Truth About “Happily Ever After” Revealed


5 thoughts on “Walt Disney and Me (Black and Disabled)

  1. Fabulous post–thank you! Somehow, in spite of the prejudice Disney messages, you emerged with a critical eye for assessing our culture’s biases. I love that I am reading this, unbiased by any preconceived notions and stereotypes based on your appearance (ie wheelchair, CP). Thanks so much for your words.

  2. @William I think it is really important to not live in absolutes. If we find awe inspiring moments in the same media messages we also see as promoting stereotypes, that’s Ok. Personally, my favorite guilty pleasure on TV is Criminal Minds. They depict horrible accounts of violence towards women, but the team’s goal is to bring these serial killers to justice. Prentiss, one of the most intelligent, complex and well rounded female characters is the most powerful portrayal I’ve seen on TV yet. She’s equally prominent to the men and is the first with whatever other man is with her to go in with her gun to take down the unsub. Morgan, the strapping African-American male lead confronted his childhood molester. A move that inspired me, among other things to confront my own. For me these aren’t guilty pleasures. Just ways to practice our critical thinking skills. Glad you can find that in these Disney films.

  3. This post was just beautiful. It reminds me very much of my own relationship with Disney films. They make me go “aaw” even as I can sit there and pick out all of the stereotypes and problems. (Well, some of them. Some of them I just hate. :P) My big weakness would have to be Mulan – as a young, unrecognized trans boy I’ve always dug on the “go and live as a man” thing.

  4. Wow, how wonderful!!. So clever, so insightful and revealing of your experience and what all these images meant to your sense of self and life itself. So perceptive of our accepted culture with so much of the possible meaning there is for a young child that you so beautifully captured. The depth of your insight into the subject matter and the connection you have to your own depths and experience, reveal a very thoughtful and rich inner life. The education and insight you provide to us who read it, is a gift that will touch every loving and thoughtful person. It also tells us how careful the entire culture must be in guarding and fostering with great care, the impact the culture can have on a precious child. I admire you greatly for how you have let the wheelchair bring you wisdom and insight rather than resentment and despair. We look forward to meeting you soon. Joan and Bob

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