Like many people my age, I was encouraged to whistle “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” when I was in grade school. I don’t think my (mostly white) grade school teachers were racist, but, as we all know, that’s not the same thing as actively being anti-racist. What we talk about when we talk about racist kids’ media almost always has to include the 1946 Disney movie, The Song of the South. In the past few years, with the promise of Disney’s entire film vault suddenly streaming on the cheap, many parents and critics have wondered about how Disney was going to deal with The Song of the South problem. The short answer is: They avoided it. But the more bizarre thing about Disney pretending like Song of the South doesn’t exist is the fact that it’s still a fucking ride at Disneyland and Disney World.
When you rode Splash Mountain as a kid, you probably weren’t aware it is directly modeled on The Song of the South. It is! As several prominent media critics and writers recently pointed out the pervasive existence of Splash Mountain seems to defy an explanation, especially when you consider that the ride was constructed in 1989, not 1946. More recently, in 2019, Disney outright “canceled” Song of the South and has insisted it will never re-release the movie in any way, shape, or form. Whether you think this erasure is bad for history and the movie should have just come with a disclaimer or you think that this move good and you’re glad you don’t have to explain the evils of Reconstruction to a child, we can all agree: Cancel the movie, cancel the ride. Don’t cancel the movie? Cancel the ride. It really should be that simple.
So, even if you’re in favor of having Disney stream The Song of the South the movie — or not — how could anyone be okay with the ongoing continuation of The Song of the South- THE RIDE; AKA, Splash Mountain?
Disney made a LOT of…uh, problematic…movies, but none quite so indefensible as Song of the South, a Reconstruction movie in which a formerly enslaved man tells a young, wealthy white boy about how nice things were during the slavery era.
— Cory Doctorow #BLM (@doctorow) June 10, 2020
If you dive into this really excellent Twitter thread from writer Cory Doctorow, you’ll come away with a few salient pieces of information.
- Even in 1989, Disney wasn’t planning on re-releasing Song of the South on VHS but made Splash Mountain themed around it anyway.
- Shockingly, the approach to be “not offensive” was to remove the only black character from the experience entirely. As Doctorow puts it: “The compromise that Splash Mountain struck was to only include Br’er Fox, Bear, and Rabbit, and to expunge Uncle Remus entirely.”
- This is why, if you are a child of the ’80s, you have no idea that Splash Mountain comes from a racist Disney movie.
Basically, Disney made the racism of Song of the South worse than it already was by yanking the cutesy cartoon characters from the movie, creating a ride around them, and leaving out any of the black characters. This all would be inexplicable enough, but the real question is why the hell does this ride exist in 2020?
For context, Disney scrapped the nifty underwater Nautilus ride from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, mostly because they just decided that steampunk-y submarines weren’t cool anymore. That was in 1994. These are the kinds of decisions that were made at Disneyland when most of us were children: Let’s get rid of the cool submarines, and keep the racist log ride.
If parents are supposed to help their kids into a better world, one that fights racism forever, it would be really nice if the largest kids’ brand in the world would show better leadership. Not putting a racist movie on streaming is probably a good idea, but when you’ve got a ride built on that racism that still brings in the bucks, it makes the gesture of burying Song of the South look like cowardice.
Right now, some folks have created a petition to recreate Splash Mountain as a ride that takes place within the universe of The Princess and the Frog. This makes some modicum of sense since The Princess and the Frog features one of Disney’s only “princesses” of color: Tiana. This petition seems to have its heart in the right place, but it’s not clear if having Tiana take over Splash Mountain will help undo the bizarre racist history Disney has perpetuated here. It might help, but in some ways, the damage has been done, and the worst part is — just like being taught to sing “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” for children, this racism was hiding in relative plain sight.