The Jungle Book: Colonial Propaganda or Wholesome Family Fun?

The Jungle Book: Colonial Propaganda or Wholesome Family Fun?
American University of Beirut
Rami Yashruti

Abstract

This paper analyzes the discriminatory undertones of Disney’s The Jungle Book, examining apparent differences in social class, race, nationality and gender. It was found that although the film carries some colonial connotations, some racist and sexist innuendos, and can be seen to promote a nonchalant, carefree attitude towards life, specifically parenthood.

The Jungle Book: Colonial Propaganda or Wholesome Family Fun?

While Disney’s animated films generally depict unreal situations involving talking animals and plants, there is no doubt that even the most fictional of characters and relationships is a reflection of some real life phenomenon. A classic example of this is The Jungle Book(1967). The main character, Mowgli, is the only human character in the film (with the exception of the brief appearance of a young girl at the end). But the voices and mannerisms of Baloo the Bear, Bagheera, Shere Khan, the vultures, King Louie, and others can all be related to the ‘real world’.
The racist and sexist undertones in the film are there, but generally exaggerated and overstated. For instance, King Louie’s “I Wanna Be Like You” has often been seen as highly racist. The “jive” accent of King Louie, coupled with the song and dance, can be viewed as a mockery of African-American culture, suggesting the view that they strive to be white, but they will always be “monkeys” (i.e. Louie thinks that if he has the secret of fire, he will be human, but in truth he will always be a monkey). Another point is the voice of Baloo the Bear. His rendition of “Bare Necessities”, coupled with his New York/New Jersey working class accent, might represent the popular racist view that “immigrants” are lazy and simply mooch off the system. But on the flipside is the fact that Baloo is one of the few father figures that Mowgli has. He takes the boy under his wing and represents a positive influence in his life. This may be seen as promoting the “working class hero” image as opposed to being racist. There is also the notion that the film is sexist in that the only empowered female character in the film (Col. Hardy’s wife) has an aura of royalty and nobility about her. The only other female character in the film is the unnamed female at the end of the film whose role is merely to seduce Mowgli with her beauty. Also interesting are the different points of parenthood. At first, Mowgli is without a family, abandoned in the jungle. Then he is adopted by wolves and raised lovingly, and then once again he is abandoned, until being semi-adopted by Baloo and Bagheera, and then finally he abandons them and the jungle that he strived to stay in. This idea of non-permanent fatherhood (and the complete absence of a mother figure) could affect vulnerable children in skewing their ideas of parenthood, not only as children, but also as future parents. One of the most prominent forms of discrimination in the film is one that seems to be present in many Disney classics. This is the idea that all the authority figures in the film have British noble accents, while the slang, jive, and working-class accents are reserved for bums (Baloo), vultures (who speak in a working-class Liverpool accent), and uneducated kingpins (represented by the self-made ‘nouveau riche’ King Louie and his monkey delinquents. This in stark contrast to the more “civilized” Bagheera, Col. Hardy, Shere Khan, and the wolf pack, who all speak in distinguished British accents. Aside from the obvious difference in power reflected by the difference in accents, there are subtle imperialist overtones as well. For example, the wolves (although not the most ‘noble’ animal) hold council and have their own little quasi-democracy in place. Or the distinct colonialist nature of a British colonel (Col. Hardy the elephant) and his troops constantly patrolling and marching across the Indian jungle, for example.
The film as a whole, however, is not distinctly racist, sexist or class-ist(after all, the “lower class” good guys emerge victorious over the “imperialist conquerors”). Some might argue however, that in spite of this, at the very least the lazy, unambitious nature of Baloo (incidentally the most popular character) may inspire similar habits in children, a notion that parents may have to be wary of.

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