40 Acres and a Movie

Disney owns a piece of every living person’s childhood. Now it owns Marvel Studios, too. The co-hosts Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris look at depictions of racist tropes and stereotypes in Disney’s ever-expanding catalog. The company has made recent attempts to atone for its past. But can it move forward without repeating the same mistakes?

On Today’s Episode

The Marvel Cinematic Universe

Earlier this year — during “season three of the pandemic” — Jenna binged the M.C.U., the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While she appreciated the moral messaging of the movies, which are centered on a fight against evil forces, she was appalled by the lack of nonwhite characters. “You mean to tell me they’ve been making these movies for over a decade — 12 years — and you have still not managed to decenter the whiteness of this universe?” she exclaimed.

Jenna and Wesley talked about these offerings from the Marvel universe: “Avengers: Endgame” (2019), “WandaVision” (2021) and “The Eternals” (2021).

The Disney of Your Childhood and Now

Wesley and Jenna discussed how rewatching classic Disney movies with adult eyes has been unsettling, from the colonial undertones in “The Little Mermaid” (1989) to the Orientalist tropes peddled in “Lady and the Tramp” (1955).

Disney, however, has tried to atone for its history. On the Disney+ streaming service, some older movies, such as “Dumbo” (1941) and “The Aristocats” (1970), contain warning labels about “negative depictions” and “mistreatment of people or cultures.” And one musical, “Song of the South” (1946), does not appear on the platform at all.

Still, the labeling effort isn’t comprehensive and seems to address only movies with instances of blatant racism, Jenna noted. “It’s worth interrogating how all of these movies reinforce the ideas that are so harmful in the formation of this country,” she added.

In recent years, Disney has started to make movies that feature more diverse casts and story lines, such as “Coco” (2017), “Moana” (2016) and “Soul” (2020). They’ve also remade classics, including the live-action “Mulan” (2020) and a super-realistic version of “The Lion King” (2019).

Black Futures

Jenna mentioned the essay, “Fandom, Racism, and the Myth of Diversity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe,” which unpacks how Black and Asian stereotypes are employed in Marvel comics.

She also pointed to Alisha Wormsley’s art project “There are Black People in the Future,” which began as “a response to the absence of nonwhite faces in science-fiction films and TV.”

Alisha’s project gets at the importance of thriving representation in popular culture. “What is on our screens matters so much,” Jenna said, and “has a huge impact on how we see ourselves.” She added: “We have to be able to imagine ourselves whole, happy and healthy in the future for that to be possible today.”

Hosted by: Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris
Produced by: Elyssa Dudley
Edited by: Sara Sarasohn and Sasha Weiss
Engineered by: Corey Schreppel
Executive Producer, Shows: Wendy Dorr
Executive Editor, Newsroom Audio: Lisa Tobin
Assistant Managing Editor: Sam Dolnick
Special thanks: Nora Keller, Julia Simon, Mahima Chablani and Desiree Ibekwe

Wesley Morris is a critic at large. He was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his criticism while at The Boston Globe. He has also worked at Grantland, The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Francisco Examiner. @wesley_morris

Jenna Wortham is a staff writer for The Times Magazine and co-editor of the book “Black Futures” with Kimberly Drew. @jennydeluxe

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