Reflections on That One Scene in Peter Pan

Today, I thought we’d talk about something light.  Something casual.  Something easy.  So let’s do that.  Let’s talk about racism.

I’m planning a Disney World trip in the coming months.  In preparation for that, I’ve gotten myself a Disney+ subscription and have been marathonning through a bunch of the classic Disney animated movies.  I’ve found, over the years, I like going through the works of different cultures and different times.  It feels like it opens my eyes, just a little bit, to different ways of life, to different sets of values.  And going through the classic films, which pull from a lot of different cultures and are both made and use source material from a wide variety of different time periods, so the Animated Canon has been a real trip on that.  

A lot of the classic films on Disney+ have a bit of a racist warning at the beginning.  Which is understandable.  Values change with time, our comprehensions of race and people have changed with time, and the things Disney presented then may not match what they want to present now.  And generally the content they’ve been warning of has been pretty benign, in my view.  

And then I got to Peter Pan.  And that was… something.  Now, to be perfectly clear on my own lens on the issue, I wouldn’t consider myself hypersensitive to racism in media.  I’m vehemently against categorism in general, which tends to put me at odds with the mainstream anti-racism lens on things that drives a lot of the outrage that crosses at least my sphere, and I think context and understanding are important before leaping to offense.  And yet even with all that, the intensely stereotypical Native American tribe in Peter Pan and the extended goofy savages show we got out of them was incredibly cringey to me.  The hooting and backwardsness and the extended segments essentially making jokes about a wholesale collection of real world people, I found it uncomfortable.  

“Well, I don’t think we’re ever watching that again,” said one of my family members when we were done.  But I don’t agree.  I actually found the racial insensitivity here enlightening and thought provoking.  The original Peter Pan play was released in 1904, explicitly based the Native American tribe more on what the average child at the time expected of them because of their portrayal in media rather than any actual fact, and was considered pretty noncontroversial.  Because, after all, most people had no knowledge of Native Americans outside of what was displayed in fictional works, and this lined up with that.  Most people didn’t know any better.  That portrayal was then interpreted through the lens of 1953’s American culture in the Disney film, and that goofy savage portrayal described above was actually considered a pretty positive portrayal.  Because in films of the time, Native Americans were generally vicious enemies, whereas this one, although briefly antagonists and possessed of strange ways, showed them to be generally amicable and competent.

Of course, looking through the modern day lens on it, it seems abhorrently insensitive.  And rightfully so.  As we are coming to understand, anything that implicitly represents “this is what this group of people are like” is going to run into that because human beings aren’t stereotypes and dealing with groups rather than individuals leads directly to insensitivity.  There’s a lot of dialogue out there being rather judgmental on the creators.  And if it came out today, I might agree with a lot of that basis.  As is, though, given the context of the time it was made in, I find it hard to make personal aspersions for people who at least seem to have made this is good faith, creating something that was viewed as being in the right direction at the time.  Even if it did turn ugly in the future.  But, I did find this ugliness thought-provoking, as I said.  

Twelve Years a Slave is the auto-biography/memoirs of Solomon Northrup, a black man who was born free in the pre-Civil War north, and was then illegally kidnapped and lived in the south as a slave for twelve years before being rescued.  All that.  Anyways, the first person to buy Solomon, never knowing he was born a free man, was William Ford, who was, as Solomon describes him, a gentle, God-fearing man who was full of kindness and generosity to all.  Solomon really respected William, and thought of him as a great person.  In his view, William was a good man doing evil simply because the environment in which he lived was such that slavery was normalized to the point that it couldn’t occur to him that it was wrong.  

After going through the Native American scene in Peter Pan, I ended up reflecting on that.  The creators of this scene were, I’m just going to assume, generally well meaning people making something in good faith that seems to have been unusually good for the standards of the time.  It’s wrong now, and we know better, but they didn’t back them.  Solomon Northrup went so far to say that slavery would have lost a lot of its sting if all slavers were like William Ford.  But slavery was still evil, and William and his environment were such that they largely didn’t know better.  So what now are common thoughts, actions, behaviors, ways of living that are acceptable at the modern time, but become absolutely abhorrent and seen as evil in the future?

It’s a question with no answer, as yet, but I found the mental exercise valuable, and I’m glad to have run into the racially insensitive spots of Peter Pan to have prompted that.  Several times over, I can recall running into outrage over screenings or reprintings or whatever of old works of media that feature views less controversial at the time but abhorrent to many today.  Lots of calls to either not expose or outright censor those views, so people don’t have to confront them today.  I don’t think that’s the right way to go about it.  I don’t begrudge decisions such as Disney’s determination not to release Song of the South, if it made a statement then they don’t want to now, but I do believe that facing the insensitivity of the old both as a means of seeing what things were like then compared to where we have gotten now and as a means of reflecting on what might be wrong with current habits that will be viewed in the future just like we do on the past is a much better way forwards.

5 responses to “Reflections on That One Scene in Peter Pan

  1. This is definitely food for thought – the idea that things that seemed progressive back in the day are horribly backwards-looking now. I do think that intention does go a long way in determining the quality of a work of art. Touch of Evil is a great film (usually considered Orson Welles’s best by those who don’t think Citizen Kane is), but despite portraying its Mexican protagonist in a positive light and condemning the racism of its antagonist, it doesn’t have a single Mexican in its cast. That’s because it was released in 1958 when the idea of having non-white leads was, for the most part, a foreign concept. What really matters is that the intentions were good and the writing is top-notch.

    Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there are things like The Birth of a Nation, which is often cited as a turning point for cinema, but was incredibly racist even for 1915, and therefore absolutely could be considered a terrible movie by today’s standards. Really, the most flattering thing you could say about it now is that it was an incredible technical achievement for its time, but that is absolutely the only reason it’s not completely condemned by film buffs today. Historical value can only get you so far before you realize the work in question has nothing to offer normal people; especially when you realize it had an overwhelmingly and objectively negative impact in real life by causing the Klan to reemerge. Same goes for The Sheik, which was a critically acclaimed book from 1919 that is now universally despised for its overt misogyny.

    Ultimately, while I do think some artists and journalists do occasionally get in their own way when it comes to being progressive, I’m always going to have more sympathy for them than the people who stand opposite them who immediately dismiss (or are hostile towards) any kinds of discussions regarding race or gender at all, as the former camp actually has redeeming qualities. They’re really more guilty of being misguided than anything.

    • Intention is absolutely a big part of how well something will age. I’d say humility goes a long way around. That said, I believe both of those are really hard to communicate or pick up through a medium. I imagine especially so because in the modern age, a lot of online discourse just assumes the people at the subject of them aren’t acting in good faith. Although, to be fair, in most large scale arguments, a lot of people at the center of them aren’t acting in good faith. So… I don’t know.

      The factor is probably also helped by the fact that works that have their ideologies too front and center tend to have priorities that lead to them not actually being all that good. So they don’t last long in the public discourse, as people just lose interest in them.

      In any case, a lot of works that try to make statements about race or gender or whatever other facets of identity tend to not be very good at stating them, because it’s a matter that’s way more complicated than the limited runtime and scope of a polished piece of media is capable of addressing and crosses more cultural barriers than even to this point most of us are really ready to face, so I don’t really mind people who’d rather not dive into it, because whatever point a work might be making, it has a high likelihood of being either rather dumb or way too easily misinterpreted. Which, either way, is going to leave it looking really weird as values change again in the future. But, as I mentioned in this post, it might still be a good prompt for further education and reflection.

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  3. I didn’t even remember this scene until you brought it up. Granted last time I saw Peter Pan must have been 25 years ago or so, but then maybe the fact that it was pretty damn uncomfortable as you say here blocked it from my mind.

    I agree with you that it’s important to consider the context of a work when talking about racism and other such issues in them. The World War II shorts are a good example — the way the Japanese in particular are portrayed is pretty damn horrific, and while it doesn’t excuse the portrayal, it’s important to understand the atmosphere in the US after Pearl Harbor and its entry into the war when considering those works. How can you properly understand the work without understanding the environment around it when it was made?

    The same is true for a film like Gone With the Wind, based on a novel that’s been criticized since for romanticizing the South during the Civil War. I haven’t read the book, but certainly the film deserves criticism for a lot of its portrayals — but then it also shouldn’t just be locked in a vault, in part because it’s helpful to understanding the mindset in 1930s Georgia and the South. I haven’t seen Song of the South, but maybe a similar case can be made for that movie (though I also get why Disney wouldn’t want to put it out on Blu-ray.)

    • To be fair, I think I previously watched it more recently than that, and I had no idea about the scene. It just completely slipped out of mind. Made no impression on me whatsoever as a cub. But was shocking as an adult.

      A lot of the criticism, at least on any given work from the past, about it’s racial content is probably good and healthy overall. Talking about this stuff is how the culture as a whole moves forward on it. But I really can’t agree with locking stuff in the vault. Or directing it towards the creators rather than the work. Or even hating a work like Gone with the Wind. Because that type of content has value too. Saying that the only thing that defined the Pre-Civil War South was the horrors of slavery is really short-sighted, and does nobody any favors. The South had it’s good points too. Some of which were worth romanticizing. None of which excuses slavery, but if you can’t even acknowledge them, you’re going to get an incredibly wrong view of history and the world.

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