Watch Out! Classic Movies with Racial Stereotypes

Times have changed, but the characters in these movies haven't. Be ready before you push play. By Betsy Bozdech
Watch Out! Classic Movies with Racial Stereotypes

Confession time: I know plenty of people love it, but I don't really care for Breakfast at Tiffany's. Sure, Audrey Hepburn is all kinds of fabulous. But her character, Holly Golightly, drives me nuts, and there's no getting around the fact that, in this day and age, costar Mickey Rooney's extremely stereotyped performance as Holly's Japanese neighbor, Mr. Yunioshi, is beyond painful.

Storytellers have always relied on stereotypes as a shorthand to explaining characters. But as we all know, stereotypes are a delicate matter. They can bolster negative perceptions, justify prejudice, and reinforce unsympathetic views about particular groups.

And it's not that modern movies don't have their share of stereotypical characters (Jar-Jar Binks, anyone?). It's just that the classic movies hold a special place in our memories, and in our eagerness to share these films with our kids, we sometimes forget that they served up plenty of old-fashioned attitudes. What might once have seemed socially acceptable (or funny) is now the kind of thing that's likely to make you cringe -- and wonder how to explain it to your kids.

If your kids are old enough to understand, you can use outdated stereotypes as teachable moments. But if they're not, you might want to hold off on watching these movies for now. (And if you end up blindsided by a stereotypical character you didn't see coming, these tips might help.)

  • Annie (1982): Daddy Warbucks' mysterious, inexplicably mystical bodyguard is named Punjab, which is a stereotypical reference to the Indian state and its people. And he's not even played by an actor of Indian descent.
  • Annie Get Your Gun: This upbeat 1950s musical is more often called out for its anti-feminist message ("you can't get a man with a gun"), but it also portrays Native Americans as crude and ignorant.
  • The Bad News Bears: One of the young characters in this rough-edged 1970s kids' baseball comedy has a habit of spouting racial epithets.
  • Breakfast at Tiffany's: As noted, Rooney's performance -- which includes false buck teeth and pronouncing "Golightly" as "Go-right-ree" -- is absolutely wince-inducing.
  • Dumbo: The flock of cheerful crows whom Dumbo and his friend Timothy encounter speak, sing, and act in a way that smacks of African-American minstrel-show stereotypes. Plus, their leader's name is Jim Crow.
  • Gone with the Wind: Although it's famous for producing the first African-American Oscar winner (Hattie McDaniel), this sweeping Civil War epic also portrays slaves as actually seeming to enjoy their lot. And they're depicted as either superficial and ignorant or fussy and smothering.
  • The Goonies: Clever Data (Jonathan Ke Quan) helps the gang get out of some sticky situations, but he also speaks with a stereotypically "Asian" accent and is (of course) a gadget freak.
  • Holiday Inn: This classic 1940s Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire musical gave the world the beloved song "White Christmas" ... and a number that the white stars performed in full blackface.
  • Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: Plucky Short Round (Quan again) speaks in an exaggerated "Asian" way, and the barbaric cult that he and Dr. Jones go up against is far from accurate in its depiction of Indian people.
  • The King and I: The ancient Asian culture of Siam is characterized as backward and sexist, with oversimplified characters whose poor grasp of English is played for laughs. And the main Thai characters are played by white and Latino Americans.
  • Lady and the Tramp: The pair of Siamese cats who wreak havoc in Lady's life are drawn in a very stereotypically Asian fashion. (A similarly drawn character also shows up in The Aristocats.)
  • Peter Pan: Disney's classic tale of the boy who doesn't want to grow up is full of Native American stereotypes, from use of the word "Injun" to the song "What Makes the Red Man Red."
  • Short Circuit: An East Indian scientist's stereotypical speech and struggles with the English language provide much of the movie's humor -- and he's played by a white actor (Fisher Stevens).
  • Sixteen Candles: Oh, Long Duk Dong. People who've loved this movie since the '80s find you hilarious, but you're also extremely stereotypical. And why must a gong play every time you're on-screen?
  • Swiss Family Robinson: The broadly stereotyped Southeast Asian pirates make it a lot harder to enjoy this otherwise family-friendly story about the castaway Robinsons and their amazing tree house.
  • West Side Story: Race relations and discrimination are at the heart of this classic Romeo and Juliet story -- which makes it all the more puzzling that the key role of Latina Maria is played by white Natalie Wood.

About Betsy Bozdech

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Betsy's experiences working in online parenting and entertainment content were the perfect preparation for her role as Common Sense's executive editor of ratings and reviews. After earning bachelor's and master's... Read more
Tell us: Have you ever been shocked by a character based on a racial stereotype?

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Comments (31)

Adult written by Joe M

I must admit whole heartedly. It sucks to live in society today. I grew up in the 70s and 80s, during a time when most people still acted normal. Christian morality was still clear cut. People didn't identify it as such. It was just the norm. It still influenced the schools for the most part. And the lack of the Internet, and most technology of today, made it a far better world to be in. We didn't have to put up with the news unless we tuned in at 5pm or 11pm. Popular culture wasn't constantly in our faces. Politics had a very limited presence in schools. And teachers still acted like caring parents to all the children, give or take the usual "mean" ones. Stereotypes were a fact of life. Around for thousands of years. Because blacks, whites, asians, hispanics, etc etc are NOT FULLY ALIKE. The good thing about that has always been maintaining separate cultures in the world. Not only does it fuel hope and excitement. But it also acknowledges the differences. Some call it agree to disagree. The sickening thing about today is the politically correct society that would rather live in denial. Pretending that everyone is the same. This is conjuring up a dumbed down, false minded generation. Life sucks to the point of finding no real purpose in life. Other than to self indulge. We are seeing this proof in our youth. I grew up watching TV sitcoms of the 70s and 80s. The greatest entertainment to ever grace the television set. Blacks and whites could laugh at one another. Just ask any blacks that were part of Hollywood at the time. They sneer at today's crap. The real evil in the world are the people who are sterilizing culture today. America is spreading it's modern stench around the world in the name of "democracy". Trying to globalize the world into one DUMB STUPID CONSUMER CATTLE CULTURE to be fully indoctrinated into the BUY/SELL mentality. Self indulge. Work and spend money. That's all. Mindless bots that can barely add 2+2. It is why I removed my family from mainstream culture and went off grid in the country. We raise our kids the old way. We control all media in the home. They love watching Three's Company and old classic movies. We rarely watch anything newer than 2000. Since GW Bush came into office, the world has run amock. And it symbolized the downward spiral culture would take. Today is proof of it. Regardless of who the leaders are. It is a global agenda. Taken from the 1950s playbook for Moral Deconstruction that sat right in the Presidential files.
Adult written by Joi.kool

I am of mixed race, black, Asian & Native American. I grew up with these movies. I have 14 year old twins who are for all intent purposes black & white looking. They have seen these movies and love them as well. As a society we've become too sensitized to things. We close the door on race & say don't talk about it and push it under the rug when it's the white elephant in the room. It's time to open the doors and have honest conversations about race & gender. Everybody is not going to agree with everything but as a parent, our role is to teach and mentor our children. How can we do this if we are constantly coddling and sheltering them on these issues. This is why we live in America because we have the freedom & right to speech. 14 year old Mooney said it best, people should embrace their race instead of reacting to every little thing.
Teen, 14 years old written by Moony718

Everybody is being so over sensitive about race. People should start embracing their races instead of reacting to every little thing connected to their race. I'm Arab, and my older sister and I noticed that in Aladdin, there's a lot of Arab stereotypes and the villains have darker skin (more like an Arab's) while the heroes have lighter skin. And we laughed. We laughed and laughed, and took pride in the stereotypes (who doesn't want to live in a desert surrounded my camels and souqs)? Whenever Arabian Nights comes on (very stereotypical Arabic music, and doesn't actually resemble traditional Arabic music at all), I like to sing along, and be like "This is my song" instead of screaming "racist!" And...none of these movies are racist. While there are stereotypes, these movies aren't against races, or saying anything bad. Why is it a big deal that in Peter Pan the Indians are called Redskins? That's what they were called back in the late 18th century-early 19th century (whenever the book takes place), so that's what they called them. In Gone With The Wind, it's supposed to be racist, of course--they're living in Civil War era south. It's called "history". Everybody should lighten up--it's the way the world works, and unless there's actual problems going on (like intolerance and stuff), then don't react. Otherwise embrace your race and enjoy other races instead of screaming racist.
Teen, 15 years old written by Spiderfan99

I don't (fully) agree on your review for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, mainly on your view on the cult. In the film, they are a separate group of people (hence the word "cult") that belonged to a cult that was thought extinct. So they were not the Indian people as a whole, but a secret cult. Plus, you have to remember, THIS IS FICTION.
Adult written by lezleel

I think these are classics and still play a valuable part in helping our youth see how things were i the past and how far we have all come in life, attitude and as a society. Don't throw out the classics! Just use them as a teaching tool and find the humor in how ridiculous it was for people to actually think that way.
Teen, 14 years old written by animateddisneyfan

It's racist because the crows name is Jim Crow and i'm pretty sure it's based off the Jim Crow Law. But if you look it up on Wikipedia it explains it. Here's the link
Parent of a 14 and 17 year old written by Mama Gordon

I'm African-American (A-A) and I grew up with these movies. Those movies depicting A-A negatively during that era was just ...."that era." Which during that era was alot of ignorance to true identity of our people. That era was history and as we know it today, you can't change history, but you can learn from it TODAY. I'm a parent of two wonderful teens (17 and 14) and we've watched these movies together as a learning tool. There were 4 generations of women in my family that enjoyed watching "Imitation of Life (1959 version)." The reason being was my youngest aunt related to Sarah Jane's character (played by Susanna Kohner) which wasn't A-A. The movie's storyline drew our attention at that time. In today's era, some have learned not to repeat what was done in the past and instead do more for the better of ALL people. I don't stop my children from watching movies that may have some learning points to it. Now I would love for them to STOP watching these Ghost Hunters show...Uuuuhhhh!
Teen, 13 years old written by ICantThinkOfAName

Nobody should be insulted by any of these. I'm not saying they're all excusable, but you need to remember time and context. Don't shy away from these movies, they're good movies. Just explain to your kids when something's not right. Also some of these weren't even REally rascist. In West Side Story for example, they probably had their reasons for casting Natalie Wood and it's just about money anyway. If you're offended by that, I can't imagine how you would act to things that are actually offensive.
Adult written by Adamson-CT

Bad News Bears anyone?!? My kids watched that when they were quite young and I did forget about "Jews, Spics, the "N" word, Pansies and a Booger-Eating Moron". I still laughed out loud while I explained to them about how racist these lines would seem today. Could we please be a little less politically correct? As an Iroquois Indian I am not offended at all by the portrayal of the "savages" in the old Westerns - they are a piece of American culture.
Adult written by chrijeff50

With regard to these criticisms: "Annie Get Your Gun." Remember it IS from the '50s, a time when all women were expected to want to be married and live conventional female lives. "Dumbo." All right, the crows are Jim-Crowy, but they play a very important part in teaching Dumbo the lesson he needs to learn--that he must have faith in himself! (And at no time is the boss crow called "Jim.") "Temple of Doom." Short is supposed *not* to be an American kid. Naturally he doesn't speak English well. And who said Mola Ram's cult was intended to portray *all* Hindu people? Outlaw gangs don't portray *all* the American West, but many Westerns feature them. "The King and I." The "Siamese" (shouldn't you say Thai, if you're going to be politically correct?) culture may have been ancient, but it*was* sexist. So were most cultures at that time. And it was not allowed, under the codes then in operation, to have a non-white person (even made up) in a role that would suggest romantic or sexual connections with a white one. I doubt there were even any Thai actors in Hollywood back then. "Peter Pan." So-called Native Americans do not call themselves that. Ask one what he is, and odds are he'll either identify by his tribe ("I'm a Choctaw") or he'll say "I'm an Indian"--or "an Injun." "Short Circuit." Many East Indians--and other people not born in the US--struggle with the language. It's part of becoming an American. English seems easy to us because we grow up with it, but it's really a very idiosyncratic language--in part because it borrows from about every other language on the planet! "Swiss Family Robinson." What's stereotyped about them? They're flashy (pirates were) and vicious (pirates are--see Somalia). "West Side Story." Codes again. Tony (a white boy) could not have a romance with a Latina character played by a Latina. Last but not least: Political Correctness is silly. People are far too thin-skinned. The only reason to be insulted is because somebody says something about YOU, yourself.
Adult written by nguest

I disagree on what Besty put on the list. You have to be a very overly sensitive person to think that they're offensive . Most of these movie was made in the 40's 50's and 60's that was how race was portary back then. Some of the character don't even act like stereotypes to me.
Adult written by chrijeff50

Absolutely agreed! It seems to me that complaining about movies like these is like the (still-prevalent) tendency to say that, say, "Huckleberry Finn" shouldn't be in libraries because of Jim-the-slave. You have to look at a movie, or a book, through two lenses. First, when and by whom was it written? Any work of art is the product of the time and place where its creator grew up--even if he's rebelling against them. Second, does it give something of the feel of the time? Any movie or book that is set in the past must, inevitably, include customs and attitudes that may seem all wrong to the "more enlightened time" of Now. That doesn't mean it has no value. It may have a very great value--it shows that there were things in the past that we have grown beyond.
Parent of a 11 and 13 year old written by michelec2

Thank you for this list. It provides important warnings so watchers can remember to be aware.
Teen, 13 years old written by ashlyynn

one thing first: YOU. DID. NOTTTTT. JUST. DISS. WEST. SIDE. STORY OR HOLLY GOLIGHTLY!!!!!!! Okay ARE YOU FOR REAL???? You relize Breakfast at Tiffany's cam out in the early 60'S!!?? i mean COME. ON. that is NOT a big deal. the Siamese cats??? they ARE siamese!! The goonies?? all the kids are the same here what are you talking about??? Swiss family robinson: there ARE pirates !!! and west side story? IT IS TRUEEE!!!!! IT MAKES SENSE!!! IT IS HISTORICALLY ACURATE!!! i asked my mum about all of these and agrees with me on this. we both say this list is bs!!!
Parent written by qkeepa

I very much appreciate this article and list of movies. I think parents far too often allow their children to watch films without any critical thought or conversation afterward. Children internalize the racism/sexism/homophobia and share it with friends at school, often citing verbatim what they heard without having a conversation with an adult. The author isn't saying to boycott the films, she's saying you should be aware of it, which as a parent, I appreciate.
Adult written by ralphl

What's wrong with watching a movie and then talking to your kids? Don't white-wash their world. Talk about what's wrong with the portrayal of Punjab and the Asp in Annie, explain why the characters are there (they were in the old comic-strips and often helped Annie, they were portrayed as having a life-debt to Oliver Warbucks, and were personal assassins, and FOR THE TIME were fairly un-racist.) Another thing to talk about is Dumbo. The birds' names are never given, Jim Crow is a play on the fact that it's a crow, and they are definitely voiced by black characters, but they HELP and are quick witted, smart, and willing to change their attitude and mind to be friendly, which means it's a positive portrayal. Compare with the earlier song of the roustabouts (which may be black or white but definitely portray the poor workers as willing to drink their money away, or the clowns who are cruel and abusive, the crows are GOOD.) Watch the movies. Address concerns. Kids learn why that humor existed and why it doesn't today.
Parent of a 10 year old written by Trebuchet

Indeed, discuss the issues and take advantage of the opportunities. But I hate being blindsided, and it is worse if I clearly approved of the movie at the start, because I forgot something. And what about picking movies for when your kids have friends over?
Parent of a 4 year old written by emaildeva

I love this piece and would love it if common sense media included a stereotype index (including racism and sexism) to all of their ratings (similar to their index on violence, sex, etc.) so that parents can use that information when deciding on media for their kids. I personally care much less about sexuality than I do about racism in media for my kids and the more information to make an informed decision, the better.
Parent of a 12 year old written by NickysMom2003

Interesting list and observations. I'm happy to see that Song of the South didn't make the list, perhaps because it's not "technically" out on DVD due to its alleged racial stereotypes, although we do have a copy. I find it one of the least offensive films Disney has made and yet they refuse to release it. It's a shame because it actually has a wonderful message unlike some of their other more famous films.
Parent of a 7, 9, 10, 12, and 14 year old written by VickyNC

Reading the list of classic films which Betsy Bozdech disapproves of based on "unacceptable" stereotypes has caused me to rethink using Commonsense media for ratings of appropriate materials for children to read or view. IMO, her list is a prime example of political correctness gone amok.
Parent of a 9 year old written by dbowker3d

Though SOME of these examples are true to the articles premise, about half of them are of course just a piece of their time. It doesn't take away the artistry of the film even if we've moved on from the world-views they depict. But calling out West Side Story because "Race relations and discrimination are at the heart of this classic Romeo and Juliet story" seems a little odd. Since when is that NOT an issue? How many films since then have explored those same themes (different classes, races, cultures, countries) as the source of conflict or the forces that keep people apart? The love conquers all may be a little simple, but the stage is a relevant today as any time. But some movies knowingly use "stereotypes" as the humor itself. That's the joke: the stereotype itself is amplified or riffed on. Sixteen Candles especially was all about poking fun at basically everyone! They used all the worst stereotypes of geeks, jocks, shy girls, white suburbia and everyone they could throw in the mix. Long Duck Dong was MEANT to be referencing the typical movie Asian. "And why must a gong play every time you're on-screen?" It's a wink and nod to all the other stereotypical Asian characters you've seen in the past and let's the viewer in on the joke.
Parent of a 12 year old written by Victorianna

I appreciate the concern over this, and parents should use discretion. However, if you eliminate or sanitize any movie or novel with a stereotype, you might as well burn the greater portion of historical media. I'm not saying that you need to watch "Birth of a Nation," but children need to learn to recognize a stereotype when they see one. They also need to learn to recognize different types of stereotypes: the grasping, rude Yankee; the ignorant hillbilly, African-American, or country person; the perpetually racist plantation-owning Southerner; the bumbling husband/father/or parents (who always seem to have "genius" kids.) One of the most popular sit-coms on TV right now features a conservative Christian woman from Texas who is presented as rather stupid and insensitive. Stereotypes are all around us; while we certainly don't want to saturate our children with portrayals that we find offensive, perhaps we need have a discussion about when a comical stereotype is or is not "okay." As regards historical media, it's a good time to dialog with children about how perceptions of others have changed, especially as most of us now are much more familiar with those from once-far-away countries.
written by Amalthea

"Gone With the Wind": "...they're depicted as either superficial and ignorant or fussy and smothering. " Only those characters are. That's not racist. If you say that, then you have to say that they portray Irish as drunken and forgetful (Father) or scheming and mean (Scarlett AND her sisters). Also, for "The King and I", this was based on a true story, and the king really WAS like that. That's not racist. It's also not uncommon for people to play different heritages and/or backgrounds. Almost half of the cast of "The Walking Dead", who are Southern American, are portrayed by Brits! Is THAT racist?
Adult written by JimHawkinsfan

Charlie Chan movies from the 1930s protray Chinese Americans in a nice way( rare for the time) and the charcters some times act out the sterotypes as trick to shock the people when they are shone to be smarter and and more in control than the nonAisian americans give them credit for