Meryl Streep: White woman complains about Walt Disney?

I don’t know what you felt when you heard that Meryl Streep took advantage of her position a  presenter at the National Board of Review Awards to call Walt Disney a “gender bigot.”  To top that off, she called him out as being anti-Semitic.

As a presenter, is it really one’s turn to voice one’s view on anything but the performer you’re giving the award to? By doing so, Streep stole the spotlight from the awardee, Emma Thompson. And was it for a good reason?

According to Wikipedia, Meryl Streep was raised as a Presbyterian and attended Vassar. She got her MFA from Yale.

She’s not a historian and while she might have played a Jewish woman more than once, she’s also not Jewish. She doesn’t belong to any organized religion. She has been a spokeswoman for the National Women’s Museum of History, but  that wasn’t her function when she made her comments.

Let’s not forget that the United States had many anti-Semitic laws in place. Dartmouth College had a quota system in place against Jewish students as late as 1945. Many Ivy League schools including Yale had admission programs meant to keep down the number of Jewish applicants. The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act wasn’t passed by Disney. The act restricted immigration and decreased the flow of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe. Henry Ford believed the Jews were responsible for starting wars for profit.  It was the antisemitism of the general voting public that prevented the U.S. from aiding the Jews fleeing the Nazis. Roosevelt’s administration might have expressed concern for the Jews, but didn’t really welcome Jewish refugees. Roosevelt turned back the SS St. Louis in 1939.

Yet apparently, Streep’s charges of anti-semitism come only from Disney’s membership in one organization and not his personal actions. The same lack of substantiation seems true for her charge that he was a “gender bigot” which I guess makes a better quote than simply saying he was sexist.

I’m not saying that Walt Disney was the perfect person, the perfect father figure. Consider the animated shorts and features he made that are rarely seen today:

  • The 1946 “Song of the South”
  • The 1943 “Education of Death: The Making of a Nazi” (Anti-Nazi)
  • The Thrifty Pig (anti-Nazi)
  • Stop that Tank! (Anti-Nazi)
  • “Der Fuehrer’s Face” (Anti-Nazi)
  • “Commando Duck” (Anti-Japanese)
  • “How to be a Sailor” (Anti-Japanese)

Disney wasn’t alone. There was “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips” and Bugs Bunny in “Herr Meets Hare.”  Merrie Melodies also had “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs” which is one of the Censored Eleven–Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons that were not put into syndication by United Artists.  Below is the chart from Wikipedia.

# Title Year Director Production
1. Hittin’ the Trail for Hallelujah Land 1931 Rudolf Ising Merrie Melodies
2. Sunday Go to Meetin’ Time 1936, 1944 (reissue) Friz Freleng Merrie Melodies
3. Clean Pastures 1937 Friz Freleng Merrie Melodies
4. Uncle Tom’s Bungalow 1937 Tex Avery Merrie Melodies
5. Jungle Jitters 1938 Friz Freleng Merrie Melodies
6. The Isle of Pingo Pongo 1938, 1944 (reissue) Tex Avery Merrie Melodies
7. All This and Rabbit Stew 1941 Tex Avery Merrie Melodies
8. Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs 1943 Robert Clampett Merrie Melodies
9. Tin Pan Alley Cats 1943 Robert Clampett Merrie Melodies
10. Angel Puss 1944 Chuck Jones Looney Tunes
11. Goldilocks and the Jivin’ Bears 1944, 1951 (reissue) Friz Freleng Merrie Melodies

To my knowledge, Disney was not actively engaged in yellow perilism like Randolph Hearst. Hearst’s racism wasn’t limited to East Asians, either.

Walt Disney’s grandniece, Abigail Disney,  has commented, providing proof  of Disney’s racism: “The Jungle Book.” Rudyard Kipling who wrote “The Jungle Book” in 1894, also wrote the 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden” but the animated feature  hardly comes across as proof of racism.

King Louie who wants to walk and talk like Mowgli was voiced by a white man and that neatly sidesteps any possibility that one could see “The Jungle Book”  as racist by portraying blacks as monkeys and possibly less human than the man-cub Mowgli.   Louis Prima who voiced King Louie is Italian and was a jazz singer so perhaps the racism is our perception that the voice of jazz is black?  The voice actor of Mowgli, Bruce Reitherman is of German heritage.

Fox did some fact-checking and found fault in Streep’s accusations.  The people quoted are not relatives as distant as a great grandniece who probably didn’t have direct adult dealings with him (since when you’re at a tender age, an older man acting paternalistic isn’t necessarily a bad thing). Abigail Disney would have been five or six when Walt Disney died. The Fox article provides examples from people who worked for Disney as adults. Who do you think makes a more convincing argument?

Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Robin Abcarian took issue with Streep’s depiction of Disney as being anti-semitic, and while she agreed he was probably sexist, she asked, “So What?” Was he in step or out of step with the times?

Disney produced both “The Jungle Book” and “Songs of the South.”  “The Jungle Book” remains popular while “Songs of the South” is seldom seen having become severely outdated.  Those war-effort animated features don’t bother me although they do seem racist. The Nazis were targets of wartime cartoons as well and the Chinese, after all, were American allies so it was more about the commonplace uglification of the enemy than the yellow perilism of Randolph Hearst.

Yes, indeed. So what? P.L. Travers was accused of being racist. That resulted in changes to the “Bad Tuesday” chapter. She was able to change her product and make it more acceptable to the changing times. Yet Travers attempted to pass herself off as married and British instead of single and Australian and that seems to be more troubling.

In any case, Meryl Streep became the news instead of Emma Thompson and that seems like just bad manners. If she really wanted to protest against Walt Disney or his company, she can surely afford to boycott them both on her own time and her own dime. At a wedding, women must allow the bride to have the limelight and at an awards ceremony, male and female presenters should let the awardees have the spotlight.

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