At this point, watching any mainstream kid’s media that was made in the 20th century is a minefield. From drug references in Pinocchio to the sexism that pervades princess movies like The Little Mermaid, sometimes it feels like everything from the past is problematic. Parents, of course, often stumble upon these problems without remembering how screwed-up these old “classic” are until we’re confronted with something ugly while we’re watching an old favorite with our kids. And, when it comes to old Disney movies, one of the most egregious offenders is the 1953 version of Peter Pan. Look, Peter Pan isn’t only the boy who never grew up, he and the Lost Boys are a giant gang of racists.
“What make the red man red?” the Lost Boys ask in the film. “Centuries of prejudice, and genocide!” you might want to scream back at the screen, which would likely confuse and frighten your 3-year-old. So you probably shouldn’t do that. But you should probably do something. Like the Westerns of the time, 1953’s Peter Pan features plenty of Native American caricatures; “savages” who speak in monosyllables and yet oddly revere the white man-child who they call “great white father.” So, what do you do? You could shut the TV off, or crowdfund an animated version of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
But you won’t escape this problem if your kid has already seen it. And don’t try turning on Dumbo instead. The signature song “When I See an Elephant Fly” features crows who serve essentially as minstrel chorus, led by “Jim Crow.”
Anyway. Back to Pan. On some level, if your kid has already seen the terrible portrayals of Native Americans in this film, it might actually be a good thing. In fact, it’s never too early to talk about race. Recent studies have shown that many very young children might be racist on accident. But, the only thing that makes this worse is having their parents reinforce that racism by not talking about it directly.
Obviously, if your kid has never seen the original Peter Pan, and you only remember it hazily, I’ve just saved you a lot of trouble by reminding you that this movie is racist as hell. But, let’s get real for a second. At some point, your kid is going to see Peter Pan or Disney’s bizarrely historically incorrect Pocahontas. They will encounter racism in older media that is less-than-thoughtful, but newer media, too. Obviously, it’s important to find entertainment that counters stereotypes, but it might be worth it for parents to accept that teachable moment exist even when blatantly racist things are happening in a narrative. Is the story of Peter Pan inherently racist? That’s a tricky one, and probably not something parents can grapple with when they’re just trying to get through the day.
If you can’t turn off the TV, and if your kid has already seen Peter and his racist Lost Boys, you have a duty to talk to your kids about it. Neverneverland is a place where kids never grow up, which means, in that world, they never learn about their own damaging biases. But, children do grow up. And it’s our job to guide them. Pan used the stars to figure out where he was going, but as parents, we need more than that. Peter Pan might need to be banned from my house, but if our children learn about the racism of the past, maybe they’ll be better armed to stop it in the future.