Thursday, February 25, 2010

Dumbo (1941)

Is the depiction of the crows in Dumbo racist? Well, of course it is; no need to equivocate, but the fact remains, there's racist and then there's racist--the crows are stereotypes, sure, but they're nonetheless sympathetic characters and they aren't treated in what I would call a condescending manner. Basically, while there's no way that such characters would appear in a movie today, and with good reason, I do not find them especially troubling--especially given that this is also the movie that features the mind-boggling "Happy-Hearted Roustabouts," where the giant, faceless, black workers cheerily sing about their own economic exploitation ("when other folks have gone to bed/We slave until we're almost dead/We don't know when we get our pay/And when we get our pay we throw our money all away").

It's easy to just say "holy shit" and leave it at that, but within the context of the movie, I'm really not entirely sure whether that is an adequate response. Dumbo takes a pretty dim view of society generally--witness the piously self-satisfied bourgeois hypocrisy of the non-Dumbo's-mother adult elephants, the vicious cruelty of the children, and the thoughtless exploitation of Dumbo by the clowns. These are all decidedly white people (or, in the elephants' case, unambiguously coded as such).

Contrast this with the good-hearted, black-coded crows, on the other hand, who live outside of this uncaring (white) society, and it certainly seems highly plausible that there could be some subliminal anti-racist messaging going on here. This does not, of course, mean that the crows become automatically unproblematic, but for a Disney movie released in 1941, it's still a surprisingly progressive move, if you buy it.

And of course, you might not. But if you do then I think you would have to conclude that it's not outside the bounds of possibility that "Happy-Hearted Roustabouts" could be intended as a particularly vicious bit of satire--it does kind of come out of nowhere, and the "look how viciously they're being exploited! And enjoying it!" message strikes me as just a little too pointed (on a partially related note, I wouldn't absolutely swear that when one of them calls another a "hairy ape," it's not an oblique reference to the Eugene O'Neill play by that name, either). I don't at all care to be an apologist for Disney; their films often contain highly objectionable content, and I will readily heap scorn and ridicule on them when called for--but I'm not sure whether it's called for here. This seems like a more ambiguous case than most.

Anyway, that's all I have to say about that, really. I like the movie generally. Timothy the mouse is what Jiminy Cricket might be like if he were less useless and irritating. The hallucinogenic, small-children-traumatizing "pink elephants on parade" sequence is something else--try putting a scene where the main characters get blitzed out of their minds in a modern Disney movie and see where it gets you. The sequence where Dumbo's mother sings to him from the cage is really heartrending. Also: Sterling Holloway as the stork! I'm not sure why, but I always get a kick out of his vocal performances.


Blogger Unknown pontificated to the effect that...

Dumbo may be the most bizarre Disney movie I have ever seen. I really enjoyed it as a kid.

3:01 AM  
Blogger twunch pontificated to the effect that...

I was thinking about writing on this topic and then you went and have already said most of what I was thinking three years before I thought to think it.
I watched Dumbo last night and "Happy Hearted Roustabouts" is so on the nose and the music so dark, scary, unsettling against these 'happy' lyrics.
I think the movie is subversive. According to wikipedia the movie was designed to be quick, short, and make lots of money.
There are so many non-Disney tropes here: female characters who speak to each other (A Disney film that passes the Bechtel test!), level after level of counter cultures (circus culture which appears to be sub-divided into ring leader, acts, animals, clowns, roustabouts). The interest in substance abuse, animal cruelty, infertility, bullying- there's not a Disney film remotely like it.
I've been trying to find an interview where one of the authors discusses the topic of race but I've been unsuccessful.
I really enjoyed your post.

11:27 AM  

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