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10 Disney Characters With Controversial Histories

by William Cushing
fact checked by Jamie Frater

We think of Disney as this idealized, perfect family company. They are clean and polished and keep anything bad out of their films. They’re the ideal of family entertainment. Or are they?

Disney may have this politically correct, perfect reputation, but if you look back at their history, there are some really shocking things you can find. Disney has gotten extremely controversial multiple times that they would prefer you forget about, sometimes not even due to anything they did. Take a look at ten times Disney crossed lines that some people said shouldn’t be crossed in children’s entertainment.

10 Jessica Rabbit

Who better to start with than the character you can hardly believe Disney allowed in a movie featuring their characters? From the already edgy film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Jessica Rabbit was particularly controversial. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great movie, and she’s a great character, but she’s sort of the antithesis of what Disney stands for. She’s supposed to be the most oversexualized animated character imaginable to provide shock value to the fact that she is married to Roger Rabbit, who is, well, a rabbit.

But that’s not even where the controversy is. A few frames of the movie had some interesting animation mistakes (of the “wardrobe malfunction” variety) that led to a need for the first home release to be redone.[1] This character definitely deserves to be considered one the most controversial to appear in a Disney-related film.

9 The Crows From Dumbo

Dumbo When I See an Elephant Fly & Dumbo Flies HD

The main crow is named Jim Crow.[2] Seriously. This was often considered racist, as it used a name synonymous with the unequal treatment of African Americans at the time, and it was also the only crow not voiced by an African American voice actor. This was on top of the fact that the various mischievous actions of the crows were seen by some as fulfilling racial stereotypes of the time.

A lot of things on this list were insensitive or unintentionally offensive, but this one is just blatantly racist in almost every way. This is shocking, especially in a film about acceptance of differences. Granted, the crows are some of the only characters who are kind to Dumbo, but . . . one of them is named Jim Crow! No one saw that as an issue? It’s understandable that in the trailers for Dumbo’s live-action remake, the crows have been noticeably absent.

8 The Siamese Cats From Lady And The Tramp

Peggy Lee – The Siamese Cat Song

I don’t know what Disney has against just showing cats as cats, but they have a really bad history of racist uses of Siamese cats. The most famous example is obviously the Siamese cats from Lady and the Tramp, where they are depicted as troublemaking villains.[3] Their appearance is also filled with racist Asian stereotypes, like buck teeth and small eyes. They even get a song that is really cringeworthy from a modern perspective and filled with more racial stereotypes. They start destroying things and are animated in an insensitive way, with buck teeth and offensive eyes.

Let’s hope Disney cuts the Siamese cat scene from the Lady and the Tramp remake.

7 The Siamese Cat From The Aristocats

Fortune Cookie Always Wrong!

Another Siamese cat? Unfortunately, yes. The Aristocats features another racist depiction of a Siamese cat playing the piano with chopsticks. At least this time it is a minor character only appearing in one scene, so there is less racism, but the cat (as well as another one playing the drums) is animated in a similar fashion to the Siamese cats from Lady and the Tramp.[4] It’s a small part of a larger dance scene.

The cat doesn’t exactly have a lot of lines, but given that he shouts, “Fortune cookie always wrong,” it’s definitely something that wouldn’t fly today. And again, the cat’s entire point is a joke about an Asian cat playing a piano with chopsticks.

6 The Siamese Cats In Chip ‘N Dale: Rescue Rangers

Yet another racist Siamese cat depiction? Again? Disney did the same racist thing three times? Yes. Yes they did. And this time was way too recent for them not to have known better. The TV show Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers featured Siamese cats running a criminal organization.[5]

What makes this one different from the first two is it was done in the early 1990s! At least with the first two, you can use the “It was a different time” excuse. But this one . . . how did this happen? They are animated in the same racist way and portrayed as the villains once again.

5 The Redhead

Photo credit: Inside the Magic

The Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland and other locations has had its share of controversies in its 50-year history, but one in particular recently made headlines. Since it opened, it has featured a scene where pirates are selling brides off at auction, particularly one redhead. In recent years, this became more controversial, and it was removed from all but one version of the ride in 2018.[6] It was replaced with a reimagined redhead named Redd, who became the first female pirate in the ride’s history.

This decision was applauded by some for adding some historical accuracy in including a female pirate. Others felt it removed some historical accuracy as well as one of the last things Walt Disney had personally seen added to Disneyland. This character’s controversy is likely to continue for years to come.

4 The Native Americans In Peter Pan

Peter Pan – What Makes The Red Man Red (English)

This one isn’t as much Disney’s fault as it’s the fault of the source material it came from. Right from the original play Peter Pan was based on, Native Americans have been portrayed in racist ways in almost every adaptation of this children’s classic. They are shown as violent and primitive people, especially when compared to the white English children they come into contact with.[7]

Disney has a whole song full of racist depictions of Native Americans in their classic film, and it is often the part of the movie that is left forgotten, for good reason.

3 Donald Duck

Donald Duck der Nazi

Everyone loves Donald Duck and his angry escapades, annoyance with Mickey Mouse, and dreams of Nazi Germany. Wait, what? Yep, Disney made a Donald Duck film where he dreamed he was in Nazi Germany working in a war factory around cartoonish Nazi imagery. Not only that, but it won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film.[8]

This was one of many propaganda films Disney made during World War II to support the US government in their fights overseas. However, due to the obvious controversy present in the short, it was seldom released publicly after the war, despite Donald Duck’s presence and its Oscar win. There were also other propagandistic films made during the war, also starring Donald Duck, but this is the most famous. Granted, all of the propaganda movies were pro-American, but it still can be pretty jarring to see Donald Duck surrounded by Nazi imagery.

2 The Orange Bird

If you visited Magic Kingdom in its first decade, you were probably exposed to this character. Surprisingly, this controversy has almost nothing to do with the actual character but still involved the bird being removed from Disney parks for decades. The Orange Bird was a character created by Disney for the Florida Citrus Commission (FCC) in exchange for a sponsorship deal with the Enchanted Tiki Room. The character was a silent bird with an orange for a head who spoke in thought bubbles. It was an astonishing success, leading to theme songs for the Orange Bird being written by the Sherman Brothers, makers of such hits like “Winnie the Pooh” and “It’s a Small World,” and sung by Anita Bryant.

That is, unfortunately, where the controversy begins. Anita Bryant became an opponent of a Floridian anti-discrimination legislation that would have protected homosexuality. This led to a boycott of the FCC, which then dropped her, leaving the Orange Bird permanently connected to her bad publicity. The Orange Bird was quietly removed from the Magic Kingdom in 1986. Then, in 2004, the character was reintroduced in Tokyo Disneyland. With no introduction, the character was sold on merchandise for the Japanese holiday Orange Day, and it was a smash hit.[9] With the controversies long forgotten, the Orange Bird would later return to the Magic Kingdom and even spread to Disneyland and Epcot.

1 Uncle Remus

Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah (Original)

If you’re like many people, you probably have no idea that this character exists. You may never have even heard of the movie he is from. This is shocking because almost every Disney resort has a gigantic ride dedicated to the movie (Splash Mountain), and one of the most famous Disney songs of all time (“Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”) is from this film and is sung by this character. Song of the South was an Oscar-winning Disney film featuring both live action and animation depicting an African American man, Uncle Remus, telling life lessons to a white boy on a plantation.[10]

The movie is vague about whether this takes place before or after slavery. It technically takes place after, but it’s left unclear. Now, think about the lyrics to “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Nice, carefree, happy. Imagine them being sung by a slave. Yeah . . . you can see how racist this film was. Even if it’s after slavery, he’s still living on a plantation working for the family that probably used to own him and singing about how great his life has been. Zip-a-dee-doo-dah?

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fact checked by Jamie Frater