My Baby Is Obsessed With A Potentially Racist Cartoon

Dumbo rises above his problems
Dumbo rises above his problems
My two-year-old daughter Brontë is obsessed with the movie Dumbo. Every morning, it’s the same thing: “Dumbo? she asks, “Watch Dumbo?”

I trudge over to the coffee maker in an attempt to slam down some caffeine… “Dumbo?” I fix her a bowl of cereal and cut up some banana slices… “Dumbo?” I get my daughter dressed and start trying to plan our day… “Dumbo?”

“ALRIGHT, we will watch Dumbo!”

“Yaaaaaaaaay!” Brontë squeals, running over to the couch and plopping down, preparing for yet another installment of baby elephant awesomeness.

When kids really like something, they want to read it or watch it over and over again. Brontë never gets tired of this movie. Every single time she watches it, she acts just as excited as when it was brand new. Her favorite part is when they unwrap the baby elephant for the first time. She will grab me right before it happens, so I don’t miss it, then cover her mouth with both hands as baby Dumbo is revealed, whispering “Aww!”

She gets incredibly emotionally involved. When the other elephants start bullying Dumbo and his mom, it makes her jump up on the couch and wave her arms in frantic outrage. When Dumbo’s mom is locked up, she gasps and tells me, “Her sad!”

As soon as the credits roll, she exhales in deep satisfaction, stares for a moment, looks over at me, then asks, “More Dumbo?”

Kids this age have a five minute attention span, my butt. People who say that obviously never had to read Goodnight Moon twenty freakin’ times in a row.

I had no idea she would be so taken with the movie. Digging into our collection of kid DVD’s, I had happened to pull out Dumbo one day and throw it on. She was instantly captivated and I was kind of relieved because she had been wearing me out with the Disney princess sagas lately.

Very meaningful to toddlers
Very poignant for toddlers
And she’s not alone. According to other parents of toddlers, Dumbo is a very popular film within the under-five set.

It makes sense. Dumbo includes a lot of animals, trains, and mommy issues, which very young children are more likely to recognize than the unrequited love stories of the Disney royals.

Preschoolers can relate to being sad because you can’t be with your mother.  They understand how it feels to have the other kids laugh at you, to worry about being liked, or different. There is even fantasy wish fulfillment as Dumbo triumphs over all his bullies with his magical ability to fly.

They get all this stuff, whereas I’m not sure they understand the socio-political dilemma of Aladdin wanting to marry Princess Jasmine, but not having the proper rank and background to do so. All they see, at this age, are pretty clothes and fast carpets.

So while I was glad that my daughter had found a film she can emotionally relate to, I was a little disturbed by a couple of the details. Having not seen the film since I was tiny, I had forgotten most of it. Watching it again, I started to get uncomfortable when the black crow characters showed up with their stereotypical, old-timey black accents and ragged clothes. “Uh oh,” I thought, “Is this racist? Is there some kind of weird Jim Crow symbolism going on?”

You have to be careful, by the way, with old cartoons. One time I pulled up a random Popeye episode on Youtube for the amusement of my children, and it ended up including a bunch of really racist stereotypes about ring-nosed black savages trying to cook Popeye in a cauldron of boiling water so they could eat him. That kind of thing used to fly in children’s entertainment in the 1930’s, so it’s a good idea to vet this stuff beforehand.

It’s a little like when one of your grandparents ups and says something racist out of the blue and embarrasses everyone. My grandma, for example, likes to call black people “colored.”

“Grandma,” my cousin told her one time, “You can’t say ‘colored’ anymore. It’s racist.”

“It’s not racist,” she replied, “That’s what they’re called!”

And you don’t know how to handle it because you know she doesn’t mean any disrespect. She was born in the 30’s when “colored” was the official, government term for black people. It wasn’t considered an insult in her day, so when you try to explain that “colored” now makes people think of segregated water fountains and lunch counters, she just blinks at you, thinking you’re being completely unreasonable. You really don’t want to keep hammering the point, but you don’t want family members running around talking about “colored people,” either.

Safe, or setting back race relations 80 years?
Safe, or setting back race relations 80 years?
I felt the same way when the black crows showed up, lopsided straw hats and all–nervous about the different notion of racial sensitivity back in 1941. After much thought, however, I decided the film is okay.

Here’s why: almost everyone else in the film is really mean and stupid. The elephants are arrogant and catty. They are cruel to Dumbo and his mother, calling Dumbo a “freak” for his large ears, banishing Dumbo and his mom from elephant society, and gloating over her lockup and estrangement from her baby. The human kids are bullies who pick on baby elephants and the ringmaster is a greedy sadist who beats Dumbo’s mother and separates her from her child. The clowns want to throw Dumbo off increasingly higher and riskier platforms, unconcerned with child endangerment.

The crows, apart from Timothy the mouse, are the only characters with real empathy. They are sympathetic to Dumbo’s plight, crying when Timothy tells them about it, and want to help Dumbo by teaching him to fly. Since they invent the psychological feather trick, which works, they are arguably also the smartest characters in the movie. Without their help, Dumbo never would have been reunited with his mother or learned the value of what makes him different.

All in all, it seems to me that the crows are portrayed in a very positive light. They are resourceful, kind, and intelligent in a film in which most other characters are greedy and shallow. From my way of thinking then, Dumbo seems safe to show my children, but I’m open to other perspectives.

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