Teaching ‘Song of the South’ – Part 1: Why?

At the University where I teach, we have an “interterm” in January during which I have, for the past two Januarys, taught: “The Walt Disney Company: From Animation to Empire.”( I posted about this last year.)

It’s a really broad class that is primarily historic, but includes issues of industry, labor, marketing, aesthetics, technology, broadcasting, hyper-reality, globalization, cultural imperialism, and representation. (In 12 short class sessions and screenings!)

… that IS what makes everyone love or hate “Disney”: what they represent and how they represent it.

The class attracts mostly undergraduates from Advertising, Public Relations, and Marketing with a sprinkling of Film Majors. Most of these students haven’t yet encountered any serious, scholarly writing on issues of representation, and it is only one of the many topics covered in my class, although it is undoubtedly one of the most important. After all, that IS what makes everyone love or hate “Disney”: what they represent and how they represent it. But rather than just chatter about what is or isn’t being represented at any given moment in any given film (the internet does plenty of that), I really try to get my students asking and exploring the “where-is-that-coming-from?” behind those representations. And doing that requires all those other issues.

… the elephant in the Disney archive when it comes to Representations is, of course, ‘Song of the South’…

Last year our lesson on representations focused on princesses – changing gender roles from 1937 to the present, princesses of color, princess body-images, princesses sans princes, etc. To my chagrin, when half of the class has grown up embracing its inner princesses, it’s darned near impossible to get any perspective on those issues.(1)

Plus I had the nagging feeling that, as an instructor, I had chickened out by avoiding the core of the Issues-of-Representation issue. That is to say, the elephant in the Disney archive when it comes to representations is, of course, Song of the South (Foster, Jackson, 1946). So this January I knew I was going to have to man-up and deal with it if I really wanted to get students thinking about representations, why they matter, and what’s at stake.

It was a terrifying proposition. I am first to admit, I am a history nerd — history of cinematic technology is my metier. I am a scholar-out-of-water when it comes to cultural studies in general, and issues of race in particular. Not that I think these are unimportant realms of study. Quite the contrary. I suppose I never felt qualified to speak to those issues… because I am white — or rather beige, I guess, due to my Mexican heritage — or would that be mauve, because my great grandmother was half native american? Race is confusing in my family. Not to mention class, of which we have little, so…. Technology is cool to study!

… we were not watching Song to celebrate it, or redeem it, or apologize for it. We were watching it to deal with it…

On top of my own insecurities about addressing the topic, I have friends and colleagues who suspected me of being a covert-racist, a blind Disneyphile, and/or a misguided fool for even considering showing Song of the South in Disney class. (Did they think I was gonna jump up and sing along with Remus and Johnny? And, no, I am not advocating that Disney release Song of the South on home video! [2]) So I planned to go out of my way to make sure the class understood we were not watching Song to celebrate it, or redeem it, or apologize for it. We were watching it to deal with it… however tentatively, clumsily, or confusedly.

Dealing with it, to my mind, however, means more than just watching it and pointing the finger at all its many offensive and unacceptable representations of African Americans. That is too easy. That allows one to say — as so many on the internet are delighted to say — “Disney is racist,” and to thus feel superior and above such racism oneself, and call it a day. That, in my opinion, is not at all the kind of thinking higher education is supposed to inspire.

What is alarming is that Disney… could somehow think white-washing the legacy of slavery in the American South was a positive and good thing to do. How could they think that?

The Walt Disney Company, from its inception, made it a policy to avoid offending anyone. For the most part, this was true for all of the major and second-tier Hollywood studios established in the 1920s-30s. Offensive material doesn’t make for profitable box office. Clearly, however, they frequently offended all kinds of people! It is precisely because, in all but a few cases (i.e. WWII propaganda), Disney, and Hollywood in general, were not charging forward with a goal of being offensive, that their offensive depictions are so insidious, powerful, and hard to escape.

What is alarming about Song of the South is not that evil, aggressive racists at Disney put together an outrageously racist film to assert white supremacy — exactly the opposite! What is alarming is that Disney, the company that aimed to make everyone smile, sing, and feel happily safe (so they could relax and spend money), could somehow think white-washing the legacy of slavery in the American South was a positive and good thing to do. How could they think that? Ridiculously stupid? Yes, obviously. But why so stupid?

I wanted my students to see Song of the South in the much bigger picture, as part of an on-going problem or set of problems.

There’s no easy answer to that, of course. There seems to be no end to the ever-evolving, ridiculous stupidity of racism. — The Oscar nominees and #OscarsSoWhite outrage hit the headlines as I was anguishing over my Song of the South lesson plan. And yesterday Last Week Tonight asked “How Is This Still A Thing?” — In other words, I wanted my students to see Song of the South in the much bigger picture, as part of an on-going problem or set of problems.

How to convey that in the class setting though? How to use Song of the South as a case study through which to raise issues of racial representation in general and the history and legacy of Hollywood’s representations of African Americans specifically? How to navigate the morass?

Did I mention, I had a mere four-and-a-half hours in which to do this — including the screening of the film?

[Part 2 tomorrow….]

(1) If you’re interested in issues of princess culture, representation, and feminism I recommend Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Covering more than Disney, it’s an hilarious and insightful glimpse into generational feminism and consumer culture.

(2) Thankfully Disney is still refusing to release Song of the South on home video in the U.S. For the record, I agree with Roger Ebert on this topic: “I am against censorship and believe that no films or books should be burned or banned, but film school study is one thing and a general release is another.”

[[Top Image: Song of the South Concept Art by Mary Blair]]

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