Disney's 'Lady and the Tramp' Remake Is an Orwellian Sanitation of America's Past of Institutionalized Racism

Like many parents, my wife and I eagerly awaited the launch of Disney Plus, which finally rolled out on Tuesday. In addition to the huge library of content expected to be available on the new streaming service, new original content was a major enticement. Months earlier we were blown away by the trailer for the live-action/CGI remake of Lady and the Tramp. I had been skeptical before (I’ve never really enjoyed seeing realistic dogs with mouths moving and speaking like humans)  but the trailer made it clear to me that I just had to watch it. Which we did on Tuesday night.

Like The Lion King remake, the visuals were stunning. I appreciated the visuals of the movie as a period piece more than anything else. Like the original 1955 animated film, the new Lady and the Tramp begins on Christmas Eve in 1909, in an unnamed Midwestern town inspired by Walt Disney’s hometown of Marceline, Missouri.

Despite the visual achievements of the movie, the new version failed to match the charm of the 1955 original. It is by no means a shot-for-shot remake. Much of the dialogue and scenes play out much differently from the original, all while maintaining the plot.

Fans of the original may find these changes jarring but expected. Some changes, however, seem unnecessary. The Scottish Terrier named Jock, for example, is now a girl dog, who is still called Jock, which is short for Jacqueline. We never met Jock’s owner in the animated film, but in the new film, we discover that Jock’s owner is a crazy artist lady obsessed with painting portraits of Jock into famous paintings. It’s kind of creepy but amusing. I always liked Jock in the original film, and the changes to the character didn’t work for me, and completely changed the dynamic of the relationship with Lady and Trusty.

The entire sequence featuring the Siamese cats has been rewritten, because, apparently, the original version was deemed racist towards Asians, but it still works, all the same. The depiction of the destruction they caused was perhaps a bit over the top, but otherwise, it was well done.

But, something else was off about the movie. Disney seems determined to make up for past wrongs by proving their newfound wokeness. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast remake feature an “exclusively gay moment” with LeFou, who is very clearly infatuation with Gaston throughout the movie. Toy Story 4 features what appears to be same-sex parents in a classroom with their child. The new Lady and Tramp makes Jim Dear and Darling an interracial couple.

An interracial couple in 1909.

Something just felt off about this. How common was interracial marriage in those days? Not common at all. In fact, interracial marriage wasn’t simply uncommon at the time, it was illegal in many states, including in Marceline, Missouri. In fact, interracial marriage was illegal in the state until 1967, when the Supreme Court ruled that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional. Lady and The Tramp may not actually take place in Missouri, but if we presume that it takes place where interracial marriage wasn't illegal, it's still safe to say the movie's portrayal of attitudes toward such marriages were not so blasé as the movie depicts. In a movie about dogs that talk, it may seem silly to question Disney’s decision to sanitize early 20th century America as being accepting of interracial marriages, but the movie treats the relationship and race relations so unrealistically for the era that the effort on their part feels Orwellian, not idealistic.

In fact, I dare say it is as unsettling as efforts to ban or censor books like To Kill A Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn for including language and situations that make some people uncomfortable today. What purpose does it serve to portray historical periods reflecting modern attitudes? What message does it send when we sanitize the past by pretending that slavery never happened or that racism didn’t exist? Shall we censor the scourge of slavery from our history books, too? Is whitewashing racism the answer to current-day racism?

Disney’s agenda may simply to be to make up for past wrongs when it comes to the depictions of minorities in their classic works. But given their influence on culture today, the damage they could to our nation’s sense of history, growth and overcoming past failings seems to insult the memories of those who worked so tirelessly and sacrificed so much to achieve racial equality in our country.

 

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Matt Margolis is the author of Trumping Obama: How President Trump Saved Us From Barack Obama's Legacy and the bestselling book The Worst President in History: The Legacy of Barack Obama. You can follow Matt on Twitter @MattMargolis