Watch Out! Classic Movies with Racist 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 co-star Mickey Rooney's stereotyped performance as Holly's Japanese neighbor, Mr. Yunioshi, is beyond painful.
Storytellers have often relied on stereotypes as a shorthand to explain characters. But as we all know, stereotypes are harmful. They can bolster negative perceptions, justify prejudice, and reinforce unsympathetic views about particular groups. For kids of color, seeing racist stereotypes can affect self-esteem and add to the cumulative trauma of prejudice.
And it's not that modern movies don't have their share of stereotypes (Jar-Jar Binks, anyone?), but classic movies can hold a special place in our pasts. And when we think about sharing these movies with our kids, we might struggle to decide whether the racist stereotypes in them are harmful, or whether they can act as conversation starters.
Kids as young as six months old recognize racial differences, so avoiding conversations about race and stereotypes in movies (or in life) isn't going to make them less aware of them. Once kids are in elementary school they're able to have somewhat nuanced conversations about race, racism, and stereotypes. So if you decide to share these movies with your kids, be prepared for discussions by reading our reviews and checking out the conversation starters. (And if you end up surprised by a stereotypical character you didn't see coming, these tips might help.)
- Annie (1982): Daddy Warbucks' mysterious, inexplicably mystical bodyguard is named Punjab, not typically a name but rather a reference to the Indian state and its people. And he's not 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 racist epithets, including the "N" word.
- Breakfast at Tiffany's: As noted, Rooney's performance -- which includes false buck teeth and pronouncing "Golightly" as "Go-right-ree" -- is painfully racist.
- 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 enslaved people as actually enjoying 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 strong accent that's played for laughs and is 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 blackface.
- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: Plucky Short Round (Quan again) is again set up as comic relief with his strong accent played for laughs , and the barbaric cult that he and Dr. Jones go up against is a negative 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 Latinx Americans.
- Lady and the Tramp: The pair of Siamese cats who wreak havoc in Lady's life are drawn with slanted eyes and slightly buck teeth. (A similarly drawn character also shows up in The Aristocats.) They're also portrayed as sly and deceitful, a negative stereotype about Asian people.
- Peter Pan: Disney's classic tale of the boy who doesn't want to grow up is full of Native American slurs and stereotypes, from use of the word "Injun" to the content of the song "What Makes the Red Man Red."
- Short Circuit: An East Indian scientist's exaggerated accent 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: Long Duk Dong made some people laugh in the '80s, but the humor is based on exaggerated behavior that makes him seem like a caricature, rather than a fully developed character. And why must a gong play every time he's on-screen?
- Swiss Family Robinson: The pirates are portrayed as a mass of scary foreign marauders -- a familiar racist trope of vaguely ethnic enemies attacking White people -- which makes 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 Maria, a Latina, is played by White Natalie Wood.