Is there still a place for culturally insensitive classics?

Disney Plus has been a welcomed gift during this time of social distancing, and my family has taken advantage of its extensive library. My kids have discovered some of the older, or “classic” Disney films such as “Pinnochio,” Alice In Wonderland,” and “Peter Pan,” to name a few.

While I adore “Alice In Wonderland,” I never felt the same love for “Pinnochio” or “Peter Pan.” “Pinnochio was always just to creepy for me (yes, creepier than Alice, because Alice is awesome weird, not like weird weird), and Disney’s version of “Peter Pan,” for me never held up to the televised live stage version featuring Mary Martin.

Yet, there I was the other day, sitting with my two boys viewing the animated tale of the boy who never grows up.

For the few of you who aren’t familiar, like all versions of the classic story, Peter Pan creeps up on the home of the Darling family, and persuades children Wendy, Michael and John to fly away with him across the Londo sky to a place called, “Neverland.”

Neverland is a fantastical world filled with all sorts of characters from mischievous mermaids to nasty pirates, and of course the Lost Boys. Among the characters the Darling children encounter in Neverland are the “Indians.” 

Caricatured as indigenous people of the Americas often were at the time (and often still are), the Indians in the Peter Pan story are depicted as unintelligent, cruel and savage. 

My oldest son noticed the “Indians” in the film had red skin, and exaggerated facial features.

He was also quick to point out how the Indian princess Tiger Lily, who is seen as one of the “good” Indians and an object of affection of Peter and the Lost Boys, had lighter skin.


In that moment, I had some choices to make:

  1. Ignore my son’s comments and keep watching the movie.

  2. Fast forward past those “uncomfortable” parts.

  3. Use this time as an opportunity to teach about the inhumane treatment and depiction of indigenous peoples.

I chose to teach. 

We spoke about Native American stereotypes that have long been held by Europeans, and talked a bit about America’s history in relation to the treatment of indigenous people. I acted on what my son was already noticing, and confirmed his suspicions that this was not an “OK” portrayal of a group of people. I also reflected on my own past viewing of this story and how I might have missed its major flaws as a child and even recently as an adult.

With greater awareness, we continued watching the movie, which, overall, my boys seemed to enjoy. However, I am not likely to keep this film in regular rotation, as I would prefer my kids to watch and read things that do a good job of showcasing diversity.

The question is, in this age of greater awareness of harm inflicted upon historically marginalized groups, is there still value in entertainment that demeans and often dehumanizes those who aren’t white?

Viewing the film through a historical lens, one could argue Peter Pan’s depiction was just “how things were” in the 1950s, and that people should get over it. Another argument could be for editing out those scenes all together, but I’m not sure that’s right either. I do think that Disney might be wise to offer some context, such as a note before the movie to “Peter Pan” and other earlier films, such as “Dumbo,” which include racist or culturally insensitive content. When it comes to stage productions of Peter Pan, the opportunities to create a more positive show that doesn’t revert back to racist stereotypes are welcomed. Of course, I am not an indigenous person, and I hold no authority in this matter.

Recent discussion has suggested forgoing the reading of certain racially problematic and culturally insensitive texts in school, citing the real harm reading a book with the “N-word” repeated constantly can cause to black students in the class. And, as a Jew it wasn’t lost on me that Shakespeare often resorted to antisemitic tropes in his works.

We wonder, is there still a place for Mark Twain or William Shakespeare?

I say, yes. But, with reservations.

As with any media — past or present — that has depicted groups of people in stereotypically harmful fashions, these “classic” stories need to be called out clearly and repeatedly for what they are. Merely excusing their creators as “products of their time” is unacceptable, and opportunities for discussion and guidance on how to approach these works in a manner that is sensitive to students of color and others who may feel uncomfortable studying them. 

There has also been a loud call to replace or supplement many of these long-studied works with more BIPOC authors to create a more diverse approach to education, and I am all for it. Why stick to the same tired curriculum year after year?

We can’t erase the past, but we need to confront society’s past wrongs and acknowledge when those wrongs still happen.

I imagine my family will encounter other books and films that are racially insensitive. As a parent, I will use my discretion in deciding what is beyond redemption and what is worth consuming and using as an opportunity for learning.


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