Yesterday, Disney announced that they were going to re-theme the Splash Mountain ride to The Princess and the Frog instead of Song of the South. Nobody can honestly claim that the announcement is all that surprising, but to hear it in 2020 still makes me profoundly sad.
To be clear: it’s undeniably a positive move in the long run. The Princess and the Frog is an excellent movie that pays homage to the entire history of Disney animation. It’s better representation for a ton of children who haven’t seen enough characters like them. It’s better business for Disney to have marketing tie-ins with a property they can actually continue selling. If I were any other adult Disney fan, I’d only have two complaints: First, that the movie, and the character of Tiana in particular, could be better served by a new dedicated attraction instead of a re-skin of an existing one. (But it sounds like this is set after the movie, which is a good sign that it’ll be more a continuation of the characters, like Mission Breakout, and less a pleasant-but-decade-too-late retelling of the story, like Voyage of the Little Mermaid). My second complaint is that I don’t really like any of the songs from the movie. Even the strongest, “Dig a Little Deeper,” is nowhere near the memorable classics that “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” and “How Do You Do?” are.
But this post isn’t me writing as an adult Disney fan. This is me writing as a guy who grew up in Georgia in the early 1970s, and who has a ton of early-childhood memories associated with the animated sections of Song of the South. Those characters are my earliest memories of Disney movies. (Along with the Chip and Dale or Humphrey Bear shorts that were shown at Fort Wilderness). The beginning of “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” with Uncle Remus walking through a field that turns into a cartoon, birds flying all around him, Mr Bluebird landing on his shoulder, was the quintessential Disney image for my childhood. (At least until The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon came along). And those memories are all tangled together with my “sense memories” of the Tales from the Okefenokee ride at Six Flags over Georgia — I don’t actually remember specifics except for a scary dark drop, and a character warning “Don’t go into the swamp!”
Because it reminds me so much of my early childhood, it can’t not remind me of my mother. When I was young and she was mock-scolding me or my brother, she’d imitate Brer Bear saying “I’m gonna knock your head clean off!” When I was a little older, she taught me about Joel Chandler Harris and The Wren’s Nest, since she was so interested in the history of Georgia and Atlanta in particular. It always comes across as condescending to say that “things were simpler then,” but I can honestly say that in the 80s, I never got any sense of “appropriation.” It just felt like an attempt to preserve the folklore of my home state.
So for years, riding Splash Mountain has brought back very special and very specific memories. It felt as if they’d already found a way to save just the good parts and present it divorced from anything negative. The thought of having to get rid of Brer Bear and Brer Rabbit and the singing possums feels like having to destroy part of my childhood.
Good riddance to Song of the South, though. We shouldn’t entertain the idea that it’s ever been a good movie. No doubt the message boards are already full of people making the predictably tired complaints — “it’s political correctness gone mad!” ad nauseam. But the movie on the whole is not a cherished classic, and it’s definitely not a new phenomenon to recognize that. Even in the 40s, people recognized it was, to put it mildly, “problematic.”
But I do have to wonder how many people have strong opinions of it despite never having seen it, or based on faulty memories of it. Even my own memories of it were selective. It’s been unavailable for so long that the first time I saw it as an adult was around 2000, and even then only as a bootleg recorded from a Japanese laser disc. It was almost nothing like I remembered it. For one thing, I’d forgotten almost all of the live action parts, which actually make up the majority of the movie. And I must’ve forgotten how much I disliked the main character, because I felt an instant, almost irrational hatred of him and his little velvet suit and with its lace collar and his tendency to cry about absolutely everything. Even as a somewhat delicate and precious white boy myself, I must’ve been able to recognize him as the personification of white male fragility.
I’ve seen people describe Song of the South as “shockingly” racist, but I’d disagree — I reserve that for stuff like the crows in Dumbo, or the maid in Tom & Jerry cartoons, or all the cringingly awful moments in Warner Bros and Disney shorts where a character converts to blackface after an explosion. Song of the South’s “tar baby” would qualify, which is why it was replaced in the Splash Mountain ride with Brer Rabbit getting caught in honey from a bee’s nest. (I’d personally never heard that used as a slur, so I imagine it was already outdated by the 1970s). And Brer Fox’s voice work could be interpreted as a racist caricature in the 21st century, but unlike some of the most egregious examples in the history of animation, it sounds to me more like a genuine attempt to capture a dialect.
But if it were just individual cases of insensitivity, or dated references, or tone-deaf attempts at “humor,” those could’ve been explained a way with a disclaimer, and the movie could’ve been kept in the library. The problem with Song of the South is that it’s not so blatantly, overtly racist. Instead, it’s inherently, inescapably rooted in white supremacy. It presents a fantasy version of the Reconstruction in which slavery seems to have been nothing more than a bureaucratic oversight — and now that it’s been fixed, everybody has gone back to their pre-war roles in which black people and white people all happily work together, all for the benefit of white people. That can’t be dismissed away as a relic of the past, since it’s a lie we’re still being sold, almost eighty years later. We’re still saddled with this idea that we should close our eyes and wish for a “post-racial” society, and that’s all that’s required to make everybody free and equal. “I don’t see race.” “All lives matter.”
The other big lie of Song of the South is that the fantasy world it presents is the essence of “The South.” It’s all white plantation houses with all white people in elaborate suits and dresses lounging around complaining about the heat, while poor but honest, magical black people use their gifts of storytelling to make white people feel better. Americans have had centuries to come up with an image to represent the south, and over and over and over again, they’ve chosen one rooted in segregation and treason. For my entire life, I’ve seen people trying to present tortured justifications for the Confederate flag or Confederate memorials as if they were symbols of our “heritage” instead of symbols of racism. Of course it’s bullshit, but I can’t put the blame entirely on them — for generations, they’ve been told that this shallow, segregated fantasy was their entire identity.
I’m part of a generation of southern white men who were born over a century after the Civil War, but we’ve still spent our entire lives being saddled with a white-washed, propagandized version of it as our only “legacy.” Lately I’ve been seeing odious videos on YouTube from New Yorker-turned-country-boy-impressionist John Schneider, talking about filming The Dukes of Hazzard (in my hometown!) while just asking some casual questions to give you something to think about, like was the show really all that racist? Did people intend it to be racist in the late 1970s to make a shamefully faux-populist TV show about a car with the Confederate Flag painted on the top and named after a Confederate general? And while he’s at it, what is all this “division” getting us, anyway? Aren’t things just fine without a bunch of rabble-rousers stirring them up? I’d bet that Schneider’s main incentive these days is to help pay off his alimony, but the sentiment is the same today as it was in 2000, as it was in the 1970s, as it was in the 1950s, as it was in the 1930s, as it was in the 1900s, as it was in the 1880s — to keep the right kind of white people in power, by convincing other white people that racism and rebellion are the bedrock of their culture. We can mock the people getting upset at seeing Confederate statues torn down, and many of them are stubborn fools if not outright racists. But they’ve also spent their entire lives being lied to, told that the only connection they have to a larger history is one failed insurrection.
And even though southerners have been practicing racism for so long that they’ve gotten to be experts at it, it’s by no means a purely southern phenomenon, even though it’s the one that’s sold as an essential part of their identity. I’ve said before that I grew up trying to get rid of my accent and any affiliation with being a “redneck,” and then as an adult moved to Marin County, the most segregated place I’d seen in my entire lifetime. In fact, I’d say that the newly-energized civil rights movement of the past 5-10 years has been the result of America spending a century and a half telling themselves that their problems with racism were all safely sequestered in one corner of the country. After all, Song of the South wasn’t intended to play just in the southeast, and The Dukes of Hazzard wasn’t only a hit in Georgia. Tell people that systemic racism is a uniquely southern thing, and they can “not my problem” it out of existence, convincing themselves that all the incidents they see across the country are weird one-off aberrations, instead of signs of a deeper problem.
The Princess and the Frog is, obviously, another fantasy presenting a “South” that never actually existed. But it’s the kind of fantasy that I’d rather see being perpetuated for another century or two. It’s got actual magical black people, and it has wealthy whites and working-class blacks living together in harmony, and it’s likely taken all kinds of liberties with actual religions with its mishmash of generalized Disney-esque magic and voodoo. But much like the real New Orleans, there’s more a sense of a mixture of races, cultures, and religions, instead of a fixed and segregated social structure. One of the most subtly clever things about the movie is that it takes a very European fairy tale and “appropriates” it for Disney’s first African-American princess story. It’s a synthesis of all its disparate influences, which builds on its past, instead of being beholden to it.
So it’s ultimately a positive move, especially since as an attraction re-design, it’s being creatively led by black women. If we want to believe that we are getting better painfully slowly, instead of just repeating the same cycles over and over again, that’s a sign of progress. Kids being able to see themselves represented in movies and being inspired to make more stories to share with an even wider audience. No doubt there are plenty of cynical dismissals of it as nothing more than “optics” or public relations, but that’s missing the point entirely — when the issue is so closely tied to our perceptions of ourselves and each other, and what we’re all capable of, then showing audiences the right images is crucial. When the problem is representation and visibility, “optics” are important.
In any other year, I’d probably be better able to be excited about it and look forward to the changes. But this is 2020, a year filled with death and loss. It’s hard not to think of it in terms of loss. So many happy memories of my childhood, my formative Disney experiences, my mother’s love of history. Even a vague sense of southern identity that wasn’t completely ruined by the Confederacy. But ultimately, none of that is real — I shouldn’t overstate my love of Song of the South, since I never really liked the bulk of the movie and only actually remembered the “good parts.” There were plenty of Disney movies I liked better, and the source material was already a white man’s interpretation of African American folklore for white audiences. My mother’s interest in history was more about Native Americans, the founding of Savannah, and the histories of Atlanta and my hometown than some simplistic Gone With the Wind-inspired fantasy version. And my pleasant associations with the south aren’t the kind that can be co-opted and ruined by white supremacists: good food, cicadas, hot and humid summers with amazing clouds, people being polite to each other. In every case, the reality is so much more interesting than the over-simplified version.
Splash Mountain exposes the limitations of “The Disney Version,” trying to the best parts of something out of its original context and presenting a sanitized, family-friendly interpretation of it. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that — I don’t need The Little Mermaid to learn her lesson, and having been to the real Venice just made me better appreciate the one in Epcot. But whenever you remove the context and try to keep just the good parts, there’s always the risk that you’re left with something hollow. Like a ride from the 1980s based on a movie from the 1940s based on the works of a writer in the 1880s re-interpreting stories from the early 1800s. The core of the original stories, and especially the people telling them, was completely lost. The Princess and the Frog is a much more solid foundation for people to be building memories on.