Who doesn’t want to introduce their kids to the movies that they grew up on? Passing on true cinematic moments is virtuous, but don’t let nostalgia blind you to what’s really happening on the screen. Kids movies from even just a few decades ago are steeped in casual racism and sexism and while they were entertaining to 7-year-old you, they will now likely shock, horrify, and lead you to start difficult talks that are likely to go over your kids heads. In other words, if one of the following films was a childhood favorite you’re looking to dust off, proceed with caution.
Still in heavy rotation among the Disney classics, and guaranteed to pop up even more with a much-discussed live-action remake on the horizon, the appeal of Dumbo is undeniable, as it’s an underdog story about a floppy-eared elephant who strives for success under the big top. Still, there’s a lot that has aged about as well as a discarded hunk of string cheese. The trippy “Elephants on Parade” sequence is the stuff of nightmares, a hallucinogenic, alcohol-induced fever dream that seems more like a White Zombie video than kids entertainment. And then there’s the troubling racial elements…
Cringeworthy Moment: About those crows: They’re nothing short of a squawking, flying Jim Crow-era minstrel shows right down to the raggedy clothes and cackling dialect. And lest you think that’s just being sensitive, it’s all hammered home by the fact that one is actually named, yep, Jim Crow.
Peter Pan (1953)
The classic tale of the boy who never grew up is a certified Disney classic — in spite of its racist overtones, casual misogyny, and many other problematic elements. Peter Pan ticks pretty much every box of outdated tropes, from a vampish and arguably abused Tinkerbell to Native Americans offered up as extreme racial caricatures. Peter Pan may never grow up, but audiences do, and each passing years makes the original cartoon less inspiring.
Cringeworthy Moment: The head dress-flaunting, peace pipe-puffing musical number “What Makes the Red Man Red?” probably seemed offensive way back in the ’50s, and it hasn’t gotten any less jarring since.
The Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
An adventure yarn featuring a whole family gone Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson has everything you’d hope for in a classic Disney live-action romp: Ostrich rides, family bonding, and lions. Then there are the hordes of stereotypical “Asian” pirates speaking gibberish and aiming to destroy a family of white people because … they’re there? Ill-defined, evil ethnic enemies is an unsettling trope that endures today, but seeing it in an otherwise fun family adventure where there’s nary a shade beyond white among the heroes manages to unsettle in a way most modern films have shunned.
Cringeworthy Moment:Everything about the pirates, including their unexpectedly violent (and dismissed) demise at the hands of children is disturbing.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
Christmas is a time for lessons, and there are ample to be gleaned from this stop-motion classic that follows Rudolph as he transitions from outcast to hero, among them overcoming adversity, self-acceptance, and eventually embracing one’s true self. But parents putting the classic on for the first time might be a bit startled by the ceaseless bullying that follows Rudolph on his journey — insults are doled out by elves, toys, reindeer, and Santa himself. The bulk of this story is about Rudolph getting ridiculed for being different, and it’s a long, hard road to the moral. Then there’s the veritable punching bag that is Hermey the elf.
Cringeworthy Moment: About Hermey: the efete elf is constantly ridiculed for wanting to be a “dentist.” The endless barrage of insults that greet him immediately endure throughout the movie.
The Bad News Bears (1976)
Fondly remembered for laying the template for all kids’ sports movies about ragtag misfits coached to victory by a gruff-but-redeemable coach — here played by grumpy hall-of-famer Walter Matthau — The Bad News Bears holds up as a spitfire of an underdog comedy. Heck, even sequences where the kids are shown drinking beer (courtesy of Coach Buttermaker) can be dismissed as lighthearted. What can’t is the casual racism that permeates the film, and exists as one child’s defining trait. And that’s before Tatum O’Neal’s character enters the scene, throwing a thick layer of sexism into the mix.
Cringeworthy Moment: Little Tanner Boyle unleashes a torrent of racial slurs as O’Neal’s character is introduced, culminating with “and now a girl?” Not exactly the kind of punchline that parents want to hear repeated in daycare.
It’s not that there isn’t a lot of fun to be had in this rags-to-riches tale of an orphan who goes to live with a mysterious rich man and enriches his heart. The songs are great, and the characters are heartwarming, though some may argue that the capitalist message is a little heavy (that’s a separate conversation). The problems come more from Daddy Warbucks’ manservant Punjab, who is named after the region he’s from and manages to personify the “magical minority” stereotype with his mythical powers.
Cringeworthy Moment: Punjab isn’t even played by an Indian actor: He’s portrayed by African-American Geoffrey Holder.
A Christmas Story (1983)
The story of Ralphie’s yuletide quest for a Red Ryder BB Gun is a perennial favorite and a tradition among many, so much so that TNT airs it on a 24-hour loop for Christmas. The blue-collar characters and 1940s Cleveland setting are naturally a little rough around the edges, mostly hilariously so. But there’s also an undercurrent of racial humor that comes to a head toward the end of the otherwise good-natured film that derails it. A conversation about gun safety — and what the hell a decoder ring is — is wholly appropriate for this kind of story. Explaining why we’re expected to laugh at racial stereotypes, not so comfortable.
Cringeworthy Moment: Get your fast-forward buttons ready for the grand finale, set at a Chinese restaurant and featuring a caroling group of immigrants singing “Deck the Halls” with a chorus of “fa-ra-ra-ra.”
Space Jam (1996)
The entire history of Looney Toons is stockpiled with egregious, outdated tropes — homophobia, sexism, racism, jingoism, and rampant gun violence run roughshod through the classics, to the point that most modern collections include a primer on how to take them as a product of their era. By the time Space Jam rolled around, parents could at least count on not having to explain anti-semitic slurs to their kids. Yet the intervening decades have rendered the story of an intergalactic basketball that enlists Michael Jordan and Bill Murray to beat aliens severely dated, and not just because kids have no idea who Larry Bird is or why that iconic R. Kelly song makes their parents uncomfortable. One of the film’s main characters, Lola Bunny, continues the tradition of sexualization of female characters and amps it up to 11.
Cringeworthy Moment: Lola’s problematic enough due to the fact that she’s treated more as an object of desire to all the characters rather than as a valued teammate, which isn’t exactly a great lesson for aspiring female athletes. Her skimpy outfits and bimbo-y persona represent elevated levels of creepy. She looks like she emerged from an adult cosplay convention.
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