“It’s hard to combat the power of Elsa,” says Sarah Coyne, associate director of the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, Utah. “But it’s important to point out the misperception that blonde people are better than any other type of people. And talk to the teacher and address this at the school level, so she’s hearing it from lots of different people”.
However, while this is something that my partner and I have indeed tried to address with the help of teachers, we’ve had mixed results, as it’s such a huge systemic problem that it can’t be overturned by a few conversations in the playground. It’s a problem though that Shah thinks Disney can actually do a lot more to help with. Currently, the only teaching resource on negative stereotypes the media company provides is a website that goes through their animations’ history of offensive imagery. As mentioned before, the company also provides warnings before certain films on streaming platforms, such as Aladdin, but these will only have any real impact if they’re backed up with an adult explaining why exactly the depictions being warned about are offensive. “What’s missing is a more comprehensive media literacy component,” explains Shah. “They could create materials that they could share with schools and parents to talk about why [certain] images are problematic.”
In the meantime we’re left with a situation in which new animation films are pushing to create a more diverse landscape, with mixed results, while systemic racism still casts a shadow over the genre. The Space Jam films are actually the perfect amalgamation of this problem, featuring as they do both strong black role models and outdated cartoon characters, like Speedy Gonzales (based on offensive Mexican stereotypes) and Bugs Bunny, who, as mentioned above, was originally inspired by minstrel performers. “[With Bugs Bunny alongside Michael Jordan and LeBron James] we’re seeing two different versions of how America views blackness and one version that doesn’t really acknowledge their race or racial identity,” as Hassler-Forest puts it.
Nevertheless, while the presence of Bugs Bunny may be a throwback to historical bigotry, Space Jam and now its sequel at least show some of the way forward for Hollywood animation in reckoning with its race problem, and centring stories with strong nuanced characters of colour. Indeed, when my daughter is old enough, I’d love for her to enjoy the Space Jams and to be lost in a virtual world where blonde is not the default. These films may seem like wacky inanity but for parents like me, they can be used to show our children that there’s an alternative to white culture – and that is far from frivolous.
David Jesudason is a freelance journalist who writes about culture and has a weekly newsletter Episodes of My Life on Substack
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