Disney+ Content Warnings Won't Let You Ignore the Past

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Key Takeaways

  • Disney+ customers will see a 12-second warning before movies with racist scenes.
  • Films include classics such as Dumbo, Peter Pan and The Aristocats.
  • Hollywood continues to face the ongoing challenges of improving diversity at the top ranks.
The Disney+ logo is displayed on the screen of a computer
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Disney has added advisories before movies with racist scenes in hopes of spurring a conversation about negative depictions of people and cultures in the media. But is it enough?

While we often think of Disney movies as the ultimate family-friendly content, some older classics feature racist stereotypes and inaccurate depictions of people. Instead of erasing the content, the media company has added an advisory before these films on its Disney+ streaming platform to acknowledge the problematic scenes and encourage viewers to read more about a new initiative dedicated to better representing its audience.

Choosing to show these scenes with commentary—as opposed to erasing them or showing them without any mention of their problematic nature—is an "important step" for Disney to reckon with its own film library, as well as the country’s reckoning of the past, Darnell Hunt, UCLA’s Dean of Social Sciences, told Lifewire in a phone interview.

Stronger Warnings

Disney says on its "Stories Matter" website that it sees an opportunity for these advisories to help start a conversation about representations of people and cultures in films, which comes at a time when Hollywood studios are tasked with increasing diversity among its top ranks in addition to better representing cultures and people on screen.

These advisories are a step up from Disney’s previous efforts to address offensive content on its Disney+ streaming platform, which launched in Nov. 2019. It previously included references to "outdated cultural depictions" in certain film descriptions, which some criticized for not being strong enough and leaving out some movies. These new, 12-second warnings are more detailed and cannot be skipped, Polygon reports.

The Disney+ content advisory warning that will appear before select titles.

Disney has indicated several classic movies that will include the warning for particular scenes that depict people or cultures in a negative way, such as: The Aristocats (1970), Dumbo (1941), Peter Pan (1953) and Swiss Family Robinson (1960).

On its website, the company explains why the scenes in several movies are inappropriate. For example, it explains that Peter Pan "portrays Native people in a stereotypical manner that reflects neither the diversity of Native peoples nor their authentic cultural traditions," including references to "redskins" in addition to other offensive depictions.

Reckoning with the Past 

The advisories are part of a bigger effort on Disney’s part called "Stories Matter," which aims to use the content to spur a conversation about history.

"We also want to acknowledge that some communities have been erased or forgotten altogether, and we're committed to giving voice to their stories as well," Disney says on the site.

Several organizations are guiding these efforts, including the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE), Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) and others.

Moving Forward 

While these advisories can help create a dialogue about past movies, some experts say that a key part of ensuring that studios tell accurate stories going forward is increasing diversity among the executives calling the shots about which (and how) movies get made.

"People of color want to see themselves in the stories they watch."

This is one of the metrics that Hunt and other UCLA College colleagues track as part of an annual Hollywood Diversity Report (for transparency, Disney has been one of the corporate sponsors contributing funding to the report).

While the first part of the report released in February showed that acting roles for women and minorities in films has been increasing since UCLA started compiling this data, it also found that white men are still making most of the decisions about approving new films, direction and setting budgets at 11 of the most important studios. 

A newly-released second part of the report focused on television showed that minorities directed only 21.8% of TV episodes between 2018-2019, despite representation in acting roles improving over the previous year. That report also showed that women and minorities only held 32% and 8% of studio chair and CEO jobs in TV, respectively.

"The underrepresentation of people of color in the executive suite as creators, writers, and directors is problematic, even if there are more people of color in acting roles, because their characters’ storylines may lack authenticity or will be written stereotypically or even 'raceless' if the disparity continues," says Ana-Christina Ramón, director of research and civic engagement for UCLA’s social sciences division, and a co-author of the diversity report, in a press release.

So while the Disney advisories are one way to address problems with representation in past films, telling accurate stories going forward also depends on who is calling the shots behind the camera. It is unclear how much things will change by the next Hollywood Diversity Report, but Hunt says one thing is certain:

"People of color want to see themselves in the stories they watch."