Cartoonist and cartoon historian, Koriander seeks to preserve the magic of animation.
No Smoking Inside the Disney Vault, Please
While most pre-2020 cartoons have their fair share of problematic content, most of the companies who own the rights to these cartoons have released most of the more offensive shorts and shows to DVD and Blu-Ray with plenty of disclaimers. Popular apps such as HBO Max now air old cartoons with parental controls.
But Disney has been far behind their competitors in re-releasing their old cartoons.
Rumors have persisted that even when Walt Disney himself was alive, he only wanted "certain markets" to be allowed to play the now classic Disney animated films, and that he only wanted select shorts and productions released for television while targeting specific TV markets.
The rumors suggest not only that he wanted only the more "high brow" of fans at his events (laughable when you consider how many Mickey Mouse toys find their way into what he would consider to be "urban" neighborhoods today) but also that he wanted to protect his image and stay fresh and new for younger generations.
The latter two seem to hold true, as some of the cartoons have either remained behind the vault for generations or have only seen release in specific markets.
A common complaint among Disney fans is that since the Mickey Mouse Club became a household name, each decade, the Disney company has forced and pushed for a younger, more "hip" look, pushing newer shows while holding back the classics. As each decade passes, the previous decade's cartoons become harder to find on home media.
In keeping fresh, Disney tries to keep up with the times, which means outdated staples now deemed offensive must be sent back into the vault in order to maintain that squeaky-clean, new image.
For example, cartoons where the protagonist smokes are not cartoons Disney wants to push.
While you can watch Peter Pan where children and tweens are smoking from a peace pipe on an adult's Disney+ account, that same movie is missing if you log into a child's account. This is because smoking is as bad for tween Peter's developing lungs as it is for Disney's image if a child watches the film without an adult telling them why the scene took place and why it isn't imitative behavior.
The 1951 cartoon No Smoking follows Goofy trying to quit smoking with realistic bouts of withdrawal and mood swings. While the argument could be made that this is a great way to teach kids about what tobacco addiction does to your mind, this is a cartoon following one of the main stars of the Kingdom Hearts video game series, which targets tweens and teens, and this coupled with the fact that we already see him as Max's dad, makes this cartoon a hard sell.
While a handful of shorts on Disney+ have allowed Goofy to be seen on screen with tobacco chew and a cigarette, these shorts are out of reach on the Disney+ kids profiles, and many more tobacco laden shorts hide in the vault.
But as you can see in the above graphic, there's also the problem of the "tobacco store Indian" stereotype, which brings on another problem with older Disney shorts.
The Dark Side of the Vault
When most people think of Disney and racism, they think of the 1946 live action/cartoon hybrid film Song of the South, which depicted a fantasy universe where slaves never wanted to leave the plantations once slavery had ended.
While this is a great example of the normalized racism once sold to children in the form of toys, this isn't the only one.
There is a slue of cartoons with racist stereotypes against people who are indigenous, Asian, Hispanic, Jewish and African American, and they were exactly as offensive as similar cartoons from Warner Brothers and Famous Studios.
There is an alternate cut of Fantasia where little Black centaur girls are working as child maids to the "pretty" centaurs, whose features are Caucasian. The tween centaurs are depicted topless with buck teeth, bulging bubble lips and with unruly hair in bows, and they are treated as pets rather than as girls.
Mickey's Man Friday follows Mickey Mouse on a deserted island. He stumbles upon a Black man who is drawn with giant lips. Mickey "adopts" him as a pet, naming him Friday. Friday is mentally challenged, so "the gag" is that Mickey "has to" lead him around like a child. As if this wasn't offensive enough, Mickey—voiced by Walt Disney of all people—soon finds himself fighting "savages" who are crudely drawn "cannibals" with large lips.
1933's Mickey's Mellerdrammer has Mickey, Minnie, and Horace Horse in a stage play of Uncle Tom's Cabin, with Mickey donning blackface to play as both Uncle Tom and as Topsy, complete with a raggedy dress.
Mickey's offensive role as Topsy served as a double joke, one being that Mickey—like other characters such as Oswald and Goofy—was himself born from minstrel blackface. This is why his face is pale, but his body is black and he wears white gloves, so he is wearing blackface on top of blackface. The other joke?
There Is No Rainbow in the Dark Side of the Vault
Dressing as another gender was considered to be a "gag," something to be laughed at for doing.
It's hard to imagine that before Doc McStuffins featured a lesbian couple in 2017 and Pixar released Out in 2020 that Disney would have ever balked at properly representing their LBGTQ viewers, and yet that very much was the case.
When they weren't flat out ignoring this group, they were mocking them.
House of Mouse, which ran from 2001 to 2003, ran a short in which Mickey and Donald Duck dressed up as their girlfriends, mocking them, mocking women in general, and mocking those who present as another gender.
Gay men in old cartoons were depicted as weak, girly crybabies. They were often beaten or mocked by supposed "good guy" characters for laughs. Women who appeared to be "tomboys" were seen as ugly and brutish and treated as monsters.
It was a cruel time made only more cold by the violence normalized on screen.
What Happens In the Vault Stays In the Vault
While cartoon violence isn't always a bad thing, there are some shorts that are a little hard to watch in front of the kids.
Poor Poppa sees a frantic Oswald the Rabbit, whose first wife Fanny won't stop having babies. Enraged, Oswald resorts to shooting storks in the neck and even shooting at his youngest babies.
Donald Duck's shorts cross the line with jokes about suicide, segments where he tries to beat his nephews, and even cannibalism where he seems perfectly fine with eating other birds. Then in Der Fuehrer's Face, Donald has a nightmare about becoming a Nazi—and enjoying it.
Mickey himself isn't immune. In Pluto's Christmas Tree, Mickey is seen choking his own dog and flying into a rage. Plane Crazy and Mickey's Rival show Mickey putting Minnie's well-being on the line and behaving in an aggressive manner.
It's understandable why Disney doesn't want to push cartoons like these, but like what Warner Brothers has done with Looney Tunes, the right thing to do is to release the cartoons uncensored, put them all on the adult side of Disney+, and let the consumer decide for themselves what they want to watch.
If Disney doesn't learn from the mistakes of their past, they will repeat them sooner rather than later.
© 2021 Koriander Bullard