Teaching Children How to Discriminate: What We Learn from the Big Bad Wolf

In the following discussion of systematic patterns found in a defined body of children’s animated film, the hypothesis is a simple one: animated films entertain, but they are also a vehicle by which children learn to associate specific social characteristics linked to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and religion with specific life styles and characteristics, and thereby to develop a narrow and exclusionary world view. In fact, children’s films are particularly adept at this precisely because they do entertain, an irony that might be called a spoonful of sugar.

Excerpted from English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States. Francis and Taylor, 2nd edition 2012. Revisions summer 2012.

By 1930 —  despite the tightening grasp of  the Great Depression — there were some 20,000 motion-picture theaters in business,  serving 90 million customers weekly (Emery and Emery 1988: 265).  In this same period, Walt Disney’s animators created a short cartoon which would make an $88,000 profit in the first two years after its 1933 release (Grant 1993: 56).

Thus Disney’s animated The Three Little Pigs, a familiar story with a message of hard work in the face of adversity and the power of good  over evil, was widely seen. The theme was  a timely and popular one, and it has not gone out of favor:  Disney’s Three Little Pigs is still shown with regularity, in part or whole, on Disney’s cable television channels. It has also been released numerous times on video, laserdisc, and DVD, in at least four distinct editions.[ref]It is also available, sporadically, on YouTube; somebody puts it up; Disney takes it down.[/ref]

One of the topics which is often discussed in relation to this particular Disney animated short is a scene included in the original release, in which the wolf – in yet another attempt to trick the pigs into opening the door to him – dresses as a Jewish peddler (Grant 1993; Kaufman 1988; Precker 1993a).


Consider these three images. The first was an image created for Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda under the title Der ewige Jude, “The Eternal Jew.”[ref]In a carefully organized campaign the propaganda arm of the Nazi party put out a book, a movie, and a large, elaborate  exhibit simultaneously. The concept of the ‘eternal Jew’  as an ongoing threat did not originate with the Nazis, but  with a story first recorded in the chronicles of Roger of Wendover and Matthew of Paris during the thirteenth century (Holocaust Research Project).[/ref]  The second image — a screenshot of Disney’s original animation — actually predates the first. Note the strong similarities, from the cap, the exaggerated large nose, the long dark beard, the clothing and the manner in which the right hand is extended, purportedly to symbolize greed or avarice.  Disney’s caricature of a Jewish peddler is remarkable for the way it parallels the anti-Semitic propaganda coming out of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.

Kaufman interprets the original 1933 animation of the wolf as an unscrupulous Jew in a way that is deferential to and protective of Uncle Walt.  Corporate apologists employ what has been called the everyday language of white racism.[ref]See Jane Hill’s excellent and very detailed look at this concept from her viewpoint as an anthropological linguist in The Everyday Language of White Racism (Wiley 2008):

Critical theorists do not deny that individual beliefs figure in racism. But we prefer to emphasize its collective, cultural dimensions, and to avoid singling out individuals and trying to decide whether they are racists or not. Furthermore, critical theorists insist that ordinary people who do not share White supremacist beliefs can still talk and behave in ways that advance the projects of White racism. (Hill 2008: 7).

Ethnic stereotypes were, of course, not uncommon in films of the early Thirties, and were usually essayed in a free-wheeling spirit of fun, with no malice intended. By the time the film was reissued in 1948 . . . social attitudes had changed considerably. (Kaufman 1988)[/ref]

Disney would not allow a screenshot of the original animation of the wolf as Jewish peddler to appear in the print edition of English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States.[ref] Giroux provides more background on the way Disney has limited access to its archives and use of materials in academic publications for those scholars and academics whose work conflicts with the image they want to project. This may well be within their legal rights, but in the end it amounts to limiting and censoring discourse. The two Disney images above are provided here under the Fair Use doctrine, United States Copyright Act of 1976.[/ref] The refusal to allow reproduction of such images protects their corporate image, but it also stifles discussion about the role of animated film in the socialization of children and the history of antisemitism in the U.S.  It is likely that many younger readers are not familiar with the visual stereotypes that were so common prior to World War II.

Discriminatory and extreme stereotyping has not been limited to Disney, as can be seen by the short compilation of cartoon clips by liquidgeneration.com; however, critical critical analysis of Disney film has been and to some extent, continues to be oddly protective in tone, a phenomenon that has been of interest to critical discourse analysts.

Kaufman (1988) recounts that the antisemitic depiction of the wolf as a Jewish peddler remained intact until Three Little Pigs was re-released in 1948, 14 years later. At that time the Jewish peddler was replaced with an all-around rough guy (see the third image above), and then only because of pressure from the Hays Office[ref]In 1930, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (M.P.P.D.A.) created a self-regulatory code of ethics. The office charged with this duty was put under the direction of Will H. Hays, and went into effect on July 1, 1934. The Hays Office outlined general standards of good taste and specifically forbade certain elements in film. The code specified that “no picture shall be produced which will lower the standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” The specific regulations included (in paraphrase): (1) Revenge in modern times shall not be justified. (2) Methods of crime shall not be explicitly presented. (3) The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. (4) Miscegenation (interracial sexual relationships) is forbidden. The Code specifically addressed the inadvisability of caricaturing national origin groups or portraying them in offensive ways. In 1968 a Rating system was put into effect, and the Code was no longer used.[/ref] which brought the issue of Jewish sensibilities and the Holocaust to Disney’s attention. Grant (1993: 54) reports that Disney later admitted that the original scene was in bad taste.

In addition to the visual clues, the actor who supplied the voice for the wolf used a strong Yiddish accent to make the stereotype complete.[ref]Yiddish is a variety of German that originated in Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and spread to Jewish communities all over the continent. It was the first language of many Jews who immigrated to the United States in the last two centuries. While Yiddish spoken in Russia and the east is still vigorous, western European Yiddish is dying out. In the U.S. about 150,000 people report speaking Yiddish at home, most of them resident in New York or Florida, with smaller populations in California, Pennsylvania and Illinois.[/ref]That is, while Disney did change the animation in 1948, the peddler’s Yiddish accent.[ref]To date I haven’t been able to locate the audio of the original release of the animated short, but there are multiple examples of Yiddish or Jewish accented English on the internet. Gertrude Berg was a hugely popular radio and television actor and the title character in “The Goldbergs” a comedic family drama. Clips from “The Goldbergs” which first aired on CBS in 1949 (twenty years after the premiere of the radio program of the same name) can be found here.[/ref] was left intact for much longer. At an unspecified date the segment was finally re-recorded:“[I]n case the Yiddish dialect of the original scene might itself be found offensive, the dialogue was changed as well. Now the Wolf spoke in a standard ‘dumb’ cartoon voice” (Kaufman 1988: 43–44). This means that the underlying message rooted in antisemitism and fear of the other was maintained, establishing a link between the evil intentions of the wolf and Jewish identity.

Grant also relates that the newer animation and dialogue still leaned on more general stereotypes and fears, in that the “disguised wolf no longer has Hebraic tones or mannerisms, instead saying: “I’m the Fuller brush-man. I workin’ me way through college” (Grant 1993: 54).[ref]Grant and Kaufman both claim that the original image of the Wolf-as-Jewish-Peddler had been edited out upon urging of the Hays Office. In 1997, I bought a VHS tape of three classic Disney cartoons from an official Disney store, however, and found, to my surprise and disquiet, that the original animation of the Wolf with a yarmulke and side locks, large nose and peddler’s pack was intact. How – and why – this release of the cartoon came to include this particular redacted scene is unclear.[/ref]

Tyson Looney Tunes Meal
Speedy Gonzales is an animated caricature of a mouse in the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series. This tie-in between Warner Brothers and Tyson Foods is marketed specifically to children, an example of the pervasive nature of stereotypes — both visual and vocal — common to all animated features, films and cartoons.

Sixty years later, a similar controversy would arise over the portrayal of characters in Disney’s Aladdin, a movie set in an imaginary, long ago Arabic kingdom. An offending line of dialogue in an opening song “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face/It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home” was partially changed in response to complaints from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (AAADC), but as the representative of the AAADC pointed out, the accents of the characters remained as originally filmed. In a newspaper interview, the representative particularly objected to the fact that the good guys – Aladdin, Princess Jasmine and her father – talk like Americans, while all the other Arab characters have heavy accents. This pounds home the message that people with a foreign accent are bad (Precker 1993b).

Any actor necessarily brings to a role his or her own native language. In many cases, the variety of English (we are still focused here on film and theater in the United States) is irrelevant to the characterization and can be left alone. Some actors have spoken openly about the decision to never attempt to portray an accent other than their own, regardless of the nature of the story or the character. Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Ricky Gervais, Diane Keaton all made or make public statements about their unwillingness to attempt foreign accents.

More often, however, the director and actor, working together, will target a particular social, regional or L2 accent, perhaps because it is intrinsic to the role and cannot be sacrificed. U.S. audiences may or may not suspend disbelief when Robin Hood sounds like he grew up in Nevada, but it would be harder to cast someone with an upper-class British accent as Ronald Regan or Richard Nixon and not do serious harm to credibility, audience expectations and reception. In a similar way, non-native speakers of English who come to the U.S. to be actors bring their L2 accents to their work. This accent may restrict the roles they can play, or they may have roles written or rewritten to suit the immutable nature of their accents (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Djimon Hounsou, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Chow Yun-Fat, Marion Cotillard, Benecio del Toro, and Juliette Binoche provide examples).

American actors may undergo accent training of various kinds in an attempt to learn to imitate what they need for a particular role, although there are many examples where this effort fails despite expensive and careful tutoring, even in the limited way it is asked of them during filming. What is particularly relevant and interesting in this context, however, is the way that actors attempt to manipulate language as a tool in the construction of character, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Educational programs for the training of actors for stage and screen often include classes on speech, dialogue, and the contrivance of accent.

The materials used in actor-oriented accent courses are interesting in and of themselves, because the approach often includes not just the mechanics and technicalities of one particular regional or foreign accent, but also issues of content and approach.

Dialect actors must avoid going so far with certain speech traits that they end up creating ethnic or linguistic stereotypes . . . language or dialect background does not dictate character actions. Characters with accents must have the same range of choices available to them as characters whose speech is identical to yours (Karshner and Stern 1990: Preface)

This is an enlightened and realistic position, certainly. Other materials prepared for actors are not always so even-handed, as seen in Foreign Dialects: A Manual for Actors, Directors and Writers (Herman and Herman 1943 [1997]). The pointers on how to imitate one particular national dialect (an abstraction in itself) are chock full of stereotypes. The 1997 edition has been stripped of the worst passages but some stereotypes remain, such as the advice on how to talk like an Irishman: “The pace is a bit faster than American but this is because of the Irishman’s ability to voice his thoughts quickly and easily and also because of his habit of falling back on verbal clichés and other hackneyed expressions” (Herman 1997: 67).

Of course, a person using Herman’s book to learn a particular accent for a particular role on stage or screen would not necessarily buy into Herman’s characterizations of whole nations. But it’s not adult viewers at the center of this discussion; we are looking at entertainment media and the way children are systematically exposed to stereotypes.

In a film set in a country where English is not spoken, the writers and director have to come to an initial decision: they could hire actors who are native speakers of the language that is spoken in that setting and use subtitles; they could have the dialogue spoken in English, each actor using his or her native variety and simply abstracting away from the question of logical language spoken; or the more common approach, at least in recent times: Native English-speaking actors speak English, but sometimes take on the accent of the language they would logically be speaking in the time and setting of the story.

If a French accent is meant to remind viewers that the story is taking place in France, then logic would require that all the characters in that story speak with a French accent. But this is not the case in animated or live action; for the most part, in movies set outside English-speaking countries only a few actors will contrive the accent of that country. The decision about which actors will try to sound French, for example, is not random, but follows logically from the dominant stereotypes (or in some cases, from the actor’s native language). Consider Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (Trousdale and Wise 1991, directors) set in France. All of the major characters speak English with American accents with three exceptions: the sexy chamber maid, the amorous butler, and a temperamental cook are voiced by actors contriving French accents.

The exact opposite approach was taken with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, also set in France; in this case, there were no French accents used, but those voice actors who were portraying the dark-skinned Romani took on inconsistent and unidentifiable linguistic features. That is, actors voicing Anglo characters spoke their own varieties of English and made no attempt an accent; those who voiced people of color made a have hearted attempt to sound different. And why? Different from whom? What were they hoping to establish?

A final consideration that is very relevant to analysis of language manipulation in  films has to do with a new direction in casting that began in the 1960s with the production of The Jungle Book. This was the first animated Disney feature in which voice actors were cast on the basis of public recognition and popularity. Actors and musicians who had already established a personality and reputation with the movie-going public were drawn, quite literally, into the animation and story-telling process so that the relationship between voice, popularity, language and characterization in Disney film entered a new era.

This strategy was not greeted with enthusiasm by all film critics:

[B]reathing heart and soul into a film is not so easily accomplished. The Jungle Book lacked this quality, and substituted for it a gallery of characters whose strongest identity was with the stars who provided their voices. The animators enjoyed working with people like George Sanders, Louis Prima, and Phil Harris, and incorporated elements of their personalities into the animated characters. Audiences naturally responded, so the animators felt justified in continuing this practice. “It is much simpler and more realistic than creating a character and then searching for the right voice,” [producer] Reitherman contended. (Maltin 1987: 74–75)

Disney’s animated films are set in a wide range of places and time periods, but sometimes Disney seems unconcerned with the setting and time and simply puts modern-day people and sensibilities in exotic places. Tarzan takes place in the Victorian era, somewhere on the African continent – which we must take on faith, as there are no local (African) humanoids in speaking roles. The Lion King is set in Africa, but again the story does not involve human beings; here we know it is Africa because the writers go out of their way to remind the audience. The Jungle Book is set in India, with a single human character – Mowgli – to establish that this story is set somewhere foreign.

In extreme cases the filmmakers seem to want to draw on the atmosphere and cultural awareness associated with specific times and places, but the more pressing concern is how to engage the interest of the viewers by making the setting familiar and comfortable. In all of these movies, the logical setting dictates a particular language or set of languages, but there is no attempt to try to build those social behaviors into the story. It makes a certain amount of sense to set aside issues of logical language use and simply tell the story in English, especially if the audience is very young. However, in most cases the directors or actors continue to draw on language-focused social differences to establish character.

A case in point here is Tarzan’s best friend, another smart-aleck sidekick with a strong Brooklyn accent (voiced by Rosie O’Donnell). The Emperor’s New Groove (Dindal 2000, director) is probably the most extreme case of a disconnect between the proposed time and place and the way the story is told. Groove is set in Incan Peru, a fact that is never explicitly named or identified in the film itself (Silverman 2002), but was spoken about freely when the creative staff were interviewed. Animators and producers talked at length about research into Incan culture and the fact that they went through many centuries of archeological artifacts to find those which appealed to them as supportive of a light-hearted, comedic plot. Silverman, an archeologist, estimates that as it is presented the film contains elements that span 3,000 years and 275,000 square kilometers of space (ibid.: 309). As a result, “In Disney’s hands, Groove so significantly departs and appropriates from the archaeologically known Inca Empire and other pre-Columbian civilizations of ancient Peru, that it is a textbook example of hyperreality and simulacra.” The terms hyperreality and simulacra are often used in media studies; simulacra are copies of an original that no longer exists, or as in this case, that never existed to begin with. That is, Disney’s ancient Peru looks as though it is meant to be a copy of the original, but in fact is created out of whole cloth. Baudrillard (1994: 1) calls this hyperreality, or a map that precedes the territory it supposedly describes.

It could be argued that Groove is simply a well-intentioned but failed attempt to represent Incan culture. Images and icons might be seen as nothing more than an attempt to establish an unusual and exotic setting. In fact, the feel of the film is distinctly present day U.S. in narrative strategy, social conventions, humor, and language. This is a case where all voice actors use their own varieties of English; there are no attempts at an accent that would evoke Incan culture, because the story, in reality, has nothing to do with that time and place.

The goal seems to be to evoke other cultures only in as far as they will mesh with the expectations of an American audience. This is done by assimilation and objectification, and the result is a children’s film which strips an entire culture of its history and trivializes what is left behind. And accomplishes all this in some 90 minutes.

The unfortunate result of all this is that the majority of children who see this movie – many more than once – will retain Disney’s version of Incan culture because it is the only version they will ever be exposed to. Few American students will have an opportunity to learn in more detail about the more complex – and interesting – history of the Incan people. Animated films offer a unique way to study how a dominant culture reaffirms its control over subordinate cultures and nations by re-establishing, on a day-to-day basis, their preferred view of the world as right and proper and primary. Precisely because of animation’s (assumed) innocence and innocuousness, the film makers have a broader spectrum of tools available to them and a great deal more leeway:

As non-photographic application of photographic medium, [animators] are freed from the basic cinematic expectation that they convey an “impression of reality” . . . The function and essence of cartoons is in fact the reverse: the impression of reality, of intangible and imaginary worlds in chaotic, disruptive, subversive collision. (Burton 1992: 23–24)

A study of accents in animated cartoons over time reveals the way linguistic stereotypes mirror the evolution of national fears: Japanese and German characters in cartoons during World War II, Russian spy characters in children’s cartoons in the 1950s and 1960s (Natasha and Boris meet Rocky and Bullwinkle), Middle Eastern characters in the era of hostilities with Iran and Iraq. All of this in addition to long-standing prejudices against people of color and minority religious groups.

Animated films entertain, but they are also a vehicle by which children learn to associate specific characteristics and life styles with specific social groups, and to accept a narrow and exclusionary world view. In fact, they are particularly adept at this precisely because they do entertain, an irony that might be called a spoonful of sugar.

The full study and analysis of Disney animated films is included in English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States (2012). The entire bibliography is available in pdf format, here.

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