Analyzing histories of film reception, convergence, and race relations over seven decades, this pioneering book undertakes a superb, multifaceted reading of one of Hollywood’s most notorious films, Disney’s Song of the South.
The Walt Disney Company offers a vast universe of movies, television shows, theme parks, and merchandise, all carefully crafted to present an image of wholesome family entertainment. Yet Disney also produced one of the most infamous Hollywood films, Song of the South. Using cartoon characters and live actors to retell the stories of Joel Chandler Harris, SotS portrays a kindly black Uncle Remus who tells tales of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and the “Tar Baby” to adoring white children. Audiences and critics alike found its depiction of African Americans condescending and outdated when the film opened in 1946, but it grew in popularity—and controversy—with subsequent releases. Although Disney has withheld the film from American audiences since the late 1980s, SotS has an enthusiastic fan following, and pieces of the film—such as the Oscar-winning “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”—remain throughout Disney’s media universe.
Disney’s Most Notorious Film examines the racial and convergence histories of Song of the South to offer new insights into how audiences and Disney have negotiated the film’s controversies over the last seven decades. Jason Sperb skillfully traces the film’s reception history, showing how audience perceptions of SotS have reflected debates over race in the larger society. He also explores why and how Disney, while embargoing the film as a whole, has repurposed and repackaged elements of SotS so extensively that they linger throughout American culture, serving as everything from cultural metaphors to consumer products.
- Chapter 1. Conditions of Possibility: The Disney Studios, Postwar "Thermidor," and the Ambivalent Origins of Song of the South
- Chapter 2. "Put Down the Mint Julep, Mr. Disney": Postwar Racial Consciousness and Disney's Critical Legacy in the 1946 Reception of Song of the South
- Chapter 3. "Our Most Requested Movie": Media Convergence, Black Ambivalence, and the Reconstruction of Song of the South
- Chapter 4. A Past That Never Existed: Coonskin, Post-racial Whiteness, and Rewriting History in the Era of Reaganism
- Chapter 5. On Tar Babies and Honey Pots: Splash Mountain, "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," and the Transmedia Dissipation of Song of the South
- Chapter 6. Reassuring Convergence: New Media, Nostalgia, and the Internet Fandom of Song of the South
- Appendix. Timeline for Song of the South and Its Paratexts
- Selected Bibliography
This book is dedicated to understanding the lost ideals, disturbing truths, and hard facts underlying the histories of Disney's most notorious film. I wish to state upfront that I empathize with the more skeptical, even resistant, Disney fan. In many ways, I was a member of the company's key demographic. Raised by television, I was a child of the Reagan '80s, when the company most emphatically cemented its retrospective status as both a unique brand and a tradition of family entertainment. I am a white, middle-class American who grew up in the suburbs in the wake of "white flight" from major cities in the 1970s. I was also one of countless people who were themselves the product of a "Disney household." A key factor to the company's long-term business success is that parents are "encouraged" to raise their own children on all things Disney and to instill in their offspring the desire to raise their own kids in the same reassuring environment (i.e., buy recognizable stuff and get your kids to do likewise). Disney's phenomenal, largely self-generating, success in historical terms is really that simple—the plan to sell generational experiences, or more precisely, to sell the always already nostalgic experience of being a member of a particular kind of generation. This is not the only prospective audience for the company, but the one most conducive to the Disney brand today.
Growing up, I was constantly brought along on a preprogrammed journey for my parents' own commodified nostalgia. In that environment, I was initiated into a longing for a time I never experienced firsthand (and, as a new father myself, I can now understand the appeal of that thoroughly selfish impulse). I remember hearing about how my parents' first date was to a Disney movie. I remember seeing Snow White and other rereleased "classic" films in theaters when I was young—in the era, before home video, when Disney still recycled their old films theatrically for every new generation of children. I remember the yearly pilgrimages to Anaheim and Orlando. I remember paid subscriptions to the Disney Channel in its earliest cable iteration, back when it was mostly repurposed older footage with little original programming. I remember the "limited-time only" marketing of VHS tapes that created a mock-frenzy with consumers and secondhand dealers. I remember my parents' home littered with Disney memorabilia. I knew all the major films, characters, and songs. And I remember hearing in sometimes-embarrassed whispers about a film called Song of the South. But, as I would discover later, that film was more beloved, remembered, and accessible than I had first realized in the perpetual present of my ignorant youth.
As I've gotten older and somewhat wiser (in a very narrow sense), I remain sympathetic but also skeptical on the subject of Disney fandom. I'm decidedly less sympathetic when it comes to the company. My relationship to the larger Disney "universe" is perhaps ambivalent. Within those contradictions, it's been a thrilling but also daunting experience to write about the histories of a film for which I have no personal affection. There is a certain faction of fans who will never accept the possibility that either Disney or Song of the South is, or ever was, guilty of racist transgressions (to say nothing of class, gender, and other forms of ideological manipulation). There is not much to be said there. Instead, this is an informative, scholarly history written with one eye on the more reflexive and open-minded Disney fan, the one who seeks to go beyond nostalgia and consumption practices to know more about the company's too often neglected history. It is difficult to accept, or reflect on, a beloved object's complicated past without feeling as though one's own deep affections were being threatened. But there is no simple way to approach the subject.
They have kept Song of the South in a vault within a vault. I think there are three locks on it.
It is not true that we don't see what is not on the screen. On the contrary, when the absence is repeated constantly, then we see that it is not there. Absence becomes reality.
—James Snead, White Screens, Black Images
Hollywood history is littered with racist artifacts. Yet not all have vanished for good, and their occasional endurance can tell us just as much about industry practices and racial relations in the present as in the since-forgotten time in which they were first made. Disney's Song of the South (1946) is today one such film, another racist cinematic relic from a past filled with no shortage of anachronistic and offensive depictions. Song of the South depicts plantation life in the late nineteenth century—a time marked by unimaginable cruelty—as a white musical utopia. The name itself may not ring a bell at first. Yet mention Brer Rabbit, the "Tar Baby," Uncle Remus (James Baskett), or "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," and suddenly many people remember that they once were quite familiar with the film. If they do not quite remember seeing the full-length theatrical version itself, many might remember reading the Golden Book version, listening to the read-along record, watching an excerpt on Super 8mm, or humming along to the opening credits of the Wonderful World of Disney television show.
Based loosely on the nineteenth-century literary stories of Joel Chandler Harris, Song of the South mixed live-action footage of Uncle Remus, the kindly ex-slave, and his seemingly idyllic life on a Southern plantation, with animated sequences of Brer Rabbit outsmarting Brer Fox and Brer Bear. Despite being a landmark achievement in cost-cutting hybrid animation, early audiences rejected both its racial insensitivities, in the wake of World War II, and its low-budget aesthetic, on the heels of more polished full-length animation productions like Snow White (1937) and Dumbo (1941). Yet Song of the South hardly disappeared after modest releases in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, as recently as the 1970s and 1980s, this offensive film was quite popular. In the wake of the "white backlash" against the civil rights movement, the subsequent rise of Reaganist conservatism in the United States, and Disney's emergent status after the 1960s as a powerful "family institution," Song of the South was a fixture of the American media landscape, forty years after it premiered in theaters.
The first question one asks now is, Whatever happened to Song of the South? It's tempting to speculate on the circumstances of its assumed demise. Even the ideologically conservative Disney Corporation—never one to pass up a chance at exploiting older properties in its vault—has refused to rerelease it to American audiences for nearly three decades. As such, it is equally tempting to toss Song of the South back into the dustbin of Hollywood history, and with it the disturbing histories its continued presence would evoke. The uglier truth, though, is that this especially problematic movie has not gone anywhere. Thanks to decades of occasional theatrical success, cult followings, and Disney's own careful and extensive corporate remediation, the complicated histories of race and media convergence that Song of the South embodies are as present and relevant as ever. There is no shortage of infamously racist films from the so-called golden days of Hollywood—from well-known titles such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) or The Littlest Rebel (1935), to largely forgotten ones like Check and Double Check (1930) or Stand Up and Cheer! (1934). Yet Song of the South's troublingly elusive, and resilient, survival may be the most distinctive. It articulates fascinating truths about the history of American media practices, its audiences, and the at-times mutually reinforcing negotiation of racist images between them. Beyond the limits of morbid curiosity, hidden here is a more fascinating history of the relationship between industries, consumers, and racial identities.
Song of the South has been a quietly, but revealingly, persistent film for seven decades. Its existence nearly spans the entire lifetime of the more famous company that spawned, exploited, and eventually tossed it (officially) aside. Understanding the film's role within a larger history of Convergence Culture and racial formations requires (1) documenting the ways that Disney recirculated, repurposed, and rewrote the film, (2) appreciating the diverse racial and political climates in which it appeared (or didn't), and (3) articulating how different audiences responded to the film and its fragments via their own discursive production. This book employs a historical–materialist methodology that triangulates the cult history of Song of the South within all three contexts in order to move closer to answering several interrelated questions: How have the textual and extratextual dynamics of "media convergence" historically intersected with larger cultural negotiations regarding racial identity in the twentieth century? How have industry strategies of remediation and forms of participatory culture affected socially constructed notions of whiteness as mediated through, and in the reception of, representations of African Americans in classical Hollywood films? How does the subsequent repurposing of these films in ancillary venues complicate its (and its audiences') relationship to the "original" text? How do issues such as the larger political climates in the United States; personal, public, and commercial forms of nostalgia; and affective formations further problematize these questions? More specifically, in what ways do both a powerful media institution (Disney) and its considerable, and shifting, set of audiences play a sometimes-mutual role in embracing, ignoring, and exploiting the continued presence of its racist past?
Embodying a range of contexts central to understanding these questions, Song of the South offers a fascinatingly unfortunate cult status as a notoriously racist film at the (hidden) heart of a particularly image-conscious entertainment media empire. Disney's film has appeared prominently in moments of technological change and media platform transitions, and in periods of cultural upheaval and racial tension. As some older Hollywood films migrated—all or in part—across newer media and ancillary market channels, Disney repeatedly returned to Song of the South as a source for revenue and repurposed material despite its troubled origins and problematic history. Alternately, the film's theatrical appearances and reception over the last several decades often closely reflected white America's racial consciousness, and lack thereof. Not surprisingly, then, fragments of the old Brer Rabbit film still exist in a variety of forms to this day. The future-oriented, vaguely utopian logic of both Convergence Culture and post-racial whiteness imply, or insist, that audiences forget the larger history of media practices underlining both. Yet Disney's Most Notorious Film instead seeks to illuminate the powerful ways that the history of media convergence has alternatingly intensified, shifted, and dissipated representations of racism and constructions of whiteness.
My analysis also suggests the possibility that any thorough understanding of the political implications of a given film or television show requires sustained attention to its many ancillary reiterations and adaptations. "Given their extended presence," writes Jonathan Gray in Show Sold Separately, "any filmic or televisual text and its cultural impact, value, and meaning cannot be adequately analyzed without taking into account the film or televisual program's many proliferations" into supplementary media texts. This attention to the "paratexts"—the additional texts and contexts surrounding a primary text—becomes especially acute when focused on a Disney film that has benefited from its parent company's noted success in exploiting its theatrical properties across numerous forms of cross-media promotion and synergy. Song of the South is another beneficiary of what Christopher Anderson has dubbed Disney's "centrifugal force . . . one that encouraged the consumption of further Disney texts, further Disney products, further Disney experiences." In the seventy years since its debut, Song of the South footage, stories, music, and characters have reappeared in comic strips, spoken records, children's books, television shows, toys, board games, musical albums, theme park attractions, VHS and DVD compilations, and even video games (including Xbox 360's recent Kinect Disneyland Adventures, 2011). By conditioning the reception of the main text, these paratexts are fundamentally intertwined with it, thus problematizing the hierarchical distinction between the two. What I hope to add to this discussion is the powerful and often unconsidered role that paratexts have played historically and generationally in shifting perceptions of the full-length theatrical version. Thus, looking primarily at the many histories of a single text, such as Song of the South, is not merely adequate to the complex task of articulating how media industries and consumers negotiated both racist imagery and its attendant cultural histories—given the historical unimaginability of any particular film's textual ubiquity, let alone its many possible interpretations and meanings, such a focused, sustained approach might even be necessary.
Song of the South
Disney originally released Song of the South in 1946, and then reissued it in 1956, 1972, 1980, and 1986. Song of the South is the story of a white woman, Sally (Ruth Warrick), and her son, Johnny (Bobby Driscoll), who go to live with her mother on a Georgia plantation. There Johnny befriends Uncle Remus, who lives in a cabin behind the mansion and teaches the children parables about life. For instance, when Johnny wants to run away to reunite with his father, Uncle Remus intervenes to let him know, "You can't run away from trouble. Ain't no place that far." The parables are visualized through striking animated sequences, featuring such characters as Brer Fox, Brer Bear, and Brer Rabbit (two of which were also voiced by Baskett). Merging animation and live-action was cutting-edge for its time, though the decision—as with many such choices in the early decades of Disney—was made largely to save money. Owing to the logistical and financial limitations caused by World War II, theatrical revenue was scarce and studio output tied up with government propaganda and training films. Under these conditions, a partially animated feature-length film was much cheaper to produce than a fully animated one.
Despite the film's groundbreaking technological innovation and Oscar-winning song, "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" (for which it is still most remembered today), many post–World War II audiences in 1946 found Song of the South not only aesthetically underwhelming but also troubling in its regressive depiction of race relations in the American South. Over time, the film's reputation was complicated by having emerged from a studio that long privileged an overtly white view of the world. As Patricia Turner noted in 1994, Song of the South was the first and only Disney feature "in which an African-American actor played a prominent role," and as a happy-go-lucky former slave no less. In fact, until 2009's animated The Princess and the Frog, it was shockingly the only Disney theatrical film to feature a lead black character at all. Although initial reactions to Song of the South in 1946 were not unanimous for either white or black audiences, the influential National Association for the Advancement of Colored People denounced the film as an idyllic presentation of racial relations in the post-Reconstruction South. At best, the film stretches credibility in its depiction of contented servants in a position of obedience to Southern whites. For years, this aspect of the film renewed controversy with its subsequent (and sometimes just rumored) rereleases.
In 1946, Song of the South was an unsurprising critical and commercial disappointment. As Neal Gabler documented in his recent biography of Disney, the studio was underwhelmed by the initial performance of Song of the South, which it had hoped would be its big postwar smash. Evidence from the time, as published in Variety, confirms his archival research. Song of the South earned $3.4 million in the United States and Canada in late 1946 and 1947, enough to rank only as high as twenty-third among all films for the same period. In Making Movies Black, Thomas Cripps noted that several African American activists around this time actually abandoned their intended boycott of the film, in no small part because Song of the South did not prove the high-profile project they had anticipated. As part of the postwar challenge to Hollywood to offer more positive representations of African Americans, cultural critics and activists had planned to make an example of the film because of Disney's well-known brand name and the visibility that came with it, but they lost momentum when Song of the South underperformed. The film's disappointing box office explains in part why it was not released for another ten years (in 1956), and then not for another sixteen years after that (in 1972). While the film was not pulled permanently until the late 1980s, rumors of its possible disappearance first circulated at least twenty years earlier.
As its popularity increased over time, Song of the South was considered a consistent moneymaker only much later in its theatrical life cycle. Its first big financial splash was during its third release, in the early 1970s—only a couple years, ironically, after it was rumored that the film would be shelved permanently because of its controversial status. Several months after Song of the South's rerelease in 1972, the Los Angeles Times boldly proclaimed that the film was expected to earn over $7 million that same year, and become at that point the highest-grossing reissue in Disney history. Peggy Russo went so far as to assert that the film "grossed twice as much [during that year] as it had in its two previous releases." More modestly, Variety reported in early 1973 that Song of the South had earned nearly $6 million during that one reissue alone. But even the slightly revised number was considerable. In 1972, Song of the South was the highest-grossing reissue from any company that year, ranking it sixteenth among all films. It more than doubled what Variety had reported just a year earlier as the film's total gross in the previous twenty-six years ($5.4 million). Disney released the film again eight years later, in late 1980. Between January 1981 and January 1982, the film grossed another $8.6 million in the U.S.–Canadian market. By the time Song of the South completed its final theatrical appearance in 1986 and into 1987, the film had earned nearly another $8 million. The old Uncle Remus film remained on Variety's list for the "All-Time Film Rental Champs" well into the 1990s—a list on which it did not even first appear until three decades after its original theatrical debut. The trade paper, surprised by the film's late resurgence, speculated in 1973 that Song of the South was "probably helped by a bit of racial stereotype dispute early in its run." Although it is very difficult to prove a direct causal relationship, Song of the South made more money after acquiring a sustained notoriety for racist images that caused it to disappear from circulation for nearly two decades.
But how? Why? Regardless of how one reads a controversial film such as Song of the South, such interpretation speaks to the limits of textual analysis. In addition to Russo and Turner, there have been other illuminating readings of Song of the South's racist imagery—particularly those by James Snead and Donald Bogle. They offer a partial picture of the ways the film's representations have worked since 1946. At least as far back as Helen Taylor's book on Gone with the Wind fans, there has been a movement to shift away from universalized critics' readings of racially controversial representations and toward a richer picture of how audiences have interpreted such content. In general, there has been more written about the political and cultural representations in Disney texts than about the diverse range of audiences who have negotiated them. Any attempt at articulating a film's ideologies over such an immense amount of time is better shaped by two larger questions: Why did the producers and distributors (i.e., Disney) do what they did when they did? And how and why did certain audiences at the time respond as they did? As my book will show, this approach offers a fuller historical account of the relationship between race and media convergence. Whether one reads the film as "positive" or "negative," or "accurate" or "inaccurate," is idiosyncratically rooted in a complex web of cultural, economic, and educational factors. But this is not to suggest false equivalence. Criticism of Song of the South over the years has outweighed support for the film. Rather, truly understanding what a film's problematic representations do, and why, requires sustained attention to those contexts that invariably shape audiences' ephemeral reactions. This approach focuses on reception contexts, then, but also on the constantly shifting technological platforms and industrial practices that affect how people can (and cannot) see, hear, and manipulate the film for themselves.
Several interlocking factors affect interpretation at any given moment. The wide range of meanings that have been attached to Song of the South through the years are often products of an idiosyncratic mix of issues. The simplest, if still complicated, approach is textual—looking at the film's characters, themes, and plot. The critical task of analyzing Johnny, Uncle Remus, the plantation, and so forth may seem like straightforward narrative analysis. Yet even such images are steeped in complicated historical and industrial contexts, such as African American stereotypes, representations of the child, and the cultural logic of the Hollywood musical, to name only a few. Other important questions include: How do economic, educational, and racial backgrounds influence one's preexisting attitudes? What were the larger racial climates in the United States when viewers saw the film? In what venue, and in what format, did they see it (or parts of it)? How did Disney's socially constructed position as an American cultural institution, as a standard-bearer for notions of "family entertainment," influence reactions? What familiarity, if any, did audiences have with the text (hearing the songs, reading the books, talking with family) before seeing the film? How often, over a particular period, did they see it? How much time passed from the moment they last saw it to the time they wrote about their reaction to it? How does nostalgia for Disney, for the film, for ancillary memories the film may incidentally evoke, affect interpretation? How do the intensely affective components of Song of the South—its bright colors, skillful animation, and lively music—intersect with more cognitive questions about the film's representations? These questions highlight the difficulty in offering just one reading of the film. There is no one issue that overrides the others, and they all come into play at some point or another.
Of course, Disney often succeeded through this kind of ideological ambiguity. Like most Hollywood films, Song of the South's "ideology" can be tricky to pin down, since its depiction of plantation life works through obscurities (such as which exact year it is set in). As a result, by 1940s standards the film is careful to avoid overtly offending either liberals or conservatives, even while its choice of the magnolia myth setting—that of white plantation houses, chivalrous men, virtuous women, and second-class African American workers—submerses the film in a reactionary nostalgia. Disney often appealed to contradictory ideologies, making films that not only reflected their times, but also allowed diverse audiences to read their own favorable elements into the text. This is another way that basic textual readings ultimately offer little definitive evidence. In the 1930s, Disney had an unexpectedly huge hit in Three Little Pigs, which a range of audiences then read as symbolic of everything from the Great Depression in the United States to the rise of Fascism in Europe. In the 1950s, meanwhile, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea offered a nostalgic allegory about the United States' rising fear of nuclear technology; the film ultimately suggested that such power depended upon who had access to the technology and what their purpose was. A decade later, Disney's rare live-action smash The Love Bug commented on the emergent countercultural movement in a way that offered potential laughs for both flummoxed conservatives and flattered hippies, resulting in the highest-grossing film of 1969. Even 1989's Little Mermaid, the film that saved Disney feature-length animation, contained contradictory elements regarding U.S. attitudes toward post-feminism in the 1980s. This is not to defend any one film, but to emphasize the careful contradictions through which major entertainment companies work when investing heavily in high-profile projects that depend on acceptance with the widest possible audience. In each case, Disney consciously made the decision to avoid editorializing on what the "true" interpretation should be, so as to prevent any single segment of the paying public from feeling offended or marginalized. In short, it is impossible to reduce any problematic film to one reading, even when there is no shortage of contexts explaining why Song of the South is racist.
The Plantation Myth
At its narrative core, Song of the South's representation of African Americans is quite problematic, perpetuating cinematic and literary stereotypes rooted in images of the magnolia myth. This cliché was common in Hollywood films early on, especially prior to World War II. These pictures often presented the nineteenth-century Southern plantation as an idyllic, racially harmonious utopia, and were mostly ambiguous about whether they were set before the Civil War. Initially, the idea for Song of the South was motivated by Disney's attempt to build off the phenomenal success seven years earlier of David O. Selznick's Gone with the Wind, easily the highest-grossing film of the period. Disney originally obtained the rights to the Harris books in 1939, hoping to exploit Gone with the Wind's popularity before the war, but financial issues and propaganda obligations during World War II pushed back the film's production. Beyond the animated sequences, much of the film's Southern imagery is a watered-down version of Selznick's lavish spectacle. Song of the South, Taylor argues, recycled "GWTW's worst clichés." Within this nostalgic distortion of history, African Americans are depicted as subservient to, and dependent on, their white masters.
Song of the South, for example, features not one, but three noted racist cinematic stereotypes that were often prevalent in this genre. In addition to Uncle Remus as the always smiling, magical "Uncle Tom" who exists only to serve the needs of white people, Hattie McDaniel repeated the same "mammy" stereotype she had played to great acclaim in Gone with the Wind. Bogle has even argued that Uncle Remus really evokes the "coon" stereotype (for which "Stepin Fetchit" is most well-known), since his role is more comic than tragic. Finally, in Song of the South there is also the character of "Toby" (Glenn Leedy), the embodiment of the "pickaninny," a term that Walt himself used to describe the character. A younger variation on the "coon," this character was often an impossibly dim-witted black child whose main narrative function never extended beyond being the constant butt of visual gags for the amusement of white audiences. The fact that these three characters maintain largely "positive" relationships with Johnny and the other white characters does not offset the deeper problems within the film's racial hierarchies. All three ultimately reinforce the vision of an illusory utopia where African Americans are perpetually helpful, passive, and nonthreatening to the privileged whites, who are the only ones to benefit from this way of life.
One typical defense against the film's plantation context is that American history cannot be changed. Yet evoking the legacy of slavery in the South as an unfortunate reality is disingenuous in this context. For one, it is inherently silly to hide behind notions of historical realism regarding a film that depends heavily on lively musical numbers, colorful hybrid animation, and talking animals. Setting that aside, Song of the South is further undermined by the willful inattention to the physical and emotional violence used to maintain this way of life, before and after the war. Instead, audiences are treated to images of content African Americans who, of their own choosing, seem perfectly happy with their lower lot in life. In this regard, the use of the musical form is particularly degrading. This pop-culture stereotype of the pre–Civil War South often migrated into generally hazy depictions of postwar life, and reinforced a hierarchy of racial superiority that white audiences decades later could find simplistically reassuring during the complicated racial upheavals of the twentieth century. Moreover, these films are notable for the fact that they were really the only representations of African Americans in Hollywood during this time. African Americans may have largely worked on plantations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but as a diverse group they had achieved many other accomplishments since then. Thus the continual perpetuation of plantation movies and racist stereotypes ultimately said more about the cultural and economic dispositions of the predominantly white moviegoers than about the harsh truths of U.S. history.
At the same time, it would be inaccurate for at least two reasons to say that the historical context in which the film was produced somehow makes it more acceptable. For one, as I develop below, Song of the South's stereotypes were already outdated by the time Disney made the film. As scholars such as Taylor have noted before, the 1930s may have seen a huge surge in the popularity of "the 'Southern films' . . . [which] presented to Depression audiences nostalgic and idealized images of a feudal 'paradise lost' of large plantations, white-columned mansions, beautiful Southern belles and their chivalrous beaux, against a backdrop of loyal and humorous slaves." These most prominently included musicals such as Bing Crosby's Mississippi (1935) and the 1936 version of Show Boat, as well as dramas such as Gone with the Wind. But those representations that may have been more prevalent before World War II were decidedly different from those that were accepted just a decade later. Also, a deeper issue transcends the film's initial release and follows it to this day. Namely, Song of the South does not become any less offensive now just because it was produced several decades earlier. Audiences' varying interest in a film reflects the period in which they are viewing it more than the (often forgotten) period in which it was created. This is especially true when a film such as Song of the South becomes more popular later. Temporal distance does not make the present affection for, or empathy with, racist relationships from the past any more acceptable today.
Civil Rights and the White Backlash
Even more than identifying racist Hollywood stereotypes, a brief history of the civil rights movement is crucial to understanding both audiences' and Disney's respective relationships to Song of the South over the course of the twentieth century. The theatrical reappearances of Disney's film coincided with, and reflected, several key moments in white America's negotiation with the emergence of increased rights and visibility for African Americans in mainstream media culture. Invariably, Song of the South was positioned, by Disney as well as by critical and supportive audiences, as a reaction against particular moments of cultural upheaval. For decades, the reappearances of the company's most infamous film corresponded with significant shifts in white America's attitudes toward African Americans' collective struggle for equal rights and opportunities. What was occurring in the United States during the 1940s, the 1960s, the 1980s, and so forth greatly shaped how people received and interpreted the film. Just as important, these periods within the civil rights movement also deeply affected if and when Disney chose to rerelease the film, and in what format, to general U.S. audiences. There are in particular three distinct periods characterizing white attitudes toward the progress of the civil rights movement: liberal activism during and after World War II, the "white backlash" in the 1960s and 1970s, and the era of "post-racial" Reaganism that began to settle in during the 1980s and that largely continues to this day. Collectively, they offer a clearer picture of the socially constructed discourse of "whiteness" that has historically shaped the recirculation, reception, and perseverance of a racist artifact like Song of the South.
During World War II, the United States and its allies were engaged in a long and costly global conflict with Germany, Italy, and Japan. The country found itself in a moment that required the deep commitment of every man and woman to supporting the cause, regardless of color. Whether it was fighting in segregated units in Europe, working the factories in the North, or plowing their fields in the South, African Americans were needed every bit as much as the next person. At the same time, the ugly White supremacist rhetoric emerging in particular from Nazi Germany evoked for many Americans an uncomfortable similarity to the cultural logic underlying decades of Jim Crow laws in the South and institutional racism in the North. As such, the U.S. federal government, through the Office of War Information (OWI), actively worked with the NAACP and Hollywood studios to create more positive, less stereotypical images of African Americans in feature-length fiction narratives and nonfiction government films. Meanwhile, these images were largely well-received by wartime and postwar audiences of every race, who were anxious to both support the common national cause of the war effort and to see themselves as more racially enlightened than the enemies they were fighting overseas.
Within this environment, Disney decided to make a film that reduced black characters to the same prewar stereotypes that the OWI, NAACP, and most other Hollywood studios had consciously made a decision to avoid. Disney may have hoped that plantation films would still find a receptive audience a mere seven years after Gone with the Wind's record-breaking success. Yet making the film when they ultimately did revealed a shockingly tin ear regarding the activism and racial climate of the time. Many people were thus deeply critical of the racist assumptions in Song of the South, much more than they might have been a decade earlier. This was not a response limited just to African American activists and white liberals. In the pages of mainstream publications like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, critics and audiences expressed their disappointment and even anger at seeing old stereotypes return in such a prominent Hollywood film so soon after the war had ended. Although Song of the South was not a box office flop, it was a major disappointment for the studio, in considerable part because of the progressive backlash to its racist images. In short, Song of the South was not typical of other Hollywood films of the time in terms of its depiction of idyllic life on a peaceful Southern plantation. If anything, one could argue that Disney's film was the first of many nostalgic films after World War II that went out of its way to revive this otherwise dormant, even shunned, subgenre of the Hollywood melodrama.
Of course, despite the best efforts of political activists at the time, this was not the end of the story for Song of the South, unlike many now-forgotten films. Disney's film would reappear and take on new meanings for audiences as circumstances changed. But this original historical context for Song of the South's debut in 1946 should not be forgotten or marginalized. Song of the South was always considered a racist film. Yet this truth is easily distorted by personal nostalgia and by a muddled, generalizing understanding of Hollywood history, which mistakenly assumes that every film or television show made before the 1960s was either racist, sexist, or both. In turn, this assumption lends itself to hollow historical statements based on a false equivalence—since most films were racist "back then," the argument goes, Song of the South should not be so harshly criticized now. But aside from simplifying the history of Hollywood to the point of blatant inaccuracy, this assertion also misses the more local history of Song of the South's initial reception.
Despite this racial climate, Disney was not anxious to give up on high-profile theatrical product like Song of the South, particularly when so much of their business model is focused on reusing older properties. As early as the 1940s and 1950s, the company's existing feature-length films provided seemingly endless revenue opportunities in the form of theatrical reissues and ancillary consumer markets. Yet even Disney was not oblivious to the larger cultural attitudes at the time, and the company approached Song of the South carefully. The company rereleased the film in 1956; while the film elicited fewer criticisms, it also made relatively little money. After that, the film did not appear again until 1972. Disney's official line then was that the film just "skipped a reissue cycle," since it would have been due to reappear around 1963 or 1964. Yet the film's absence during the 1960s tells us as much about Disney and the United States' complicated relationship to the civil rights movement as its reappearance a decade later ultimately would. When Song of the South finally returned, sixteen years after its last appearance, the racial attitudes of white America had changed as well.
The year 1964 was arguably the apex of the Civil Rights movement, and public polls repeatedly indicated that white support for the cause of African American equality was at an all-time high in the United States. The activism that had begun with World War II, and persevered through the spectacle of racial discrimination and violence in the 1950s, was finally paying off. That year marked a landslide electoral victory in Congress for the Democrats and the reelection of President Lyndon B. Johnson. This achievement would lead to the passage of various pieces of "Great Society" legislation in Congress. In addition to providing health care and aiding community action programs designed to educate and empower the inner-city poor, the Great Society included laws that were intended to put an end to racial discrimination at the voting booths, within housing policies, and in employment practices. The Great Society was arguably the single biggest legislative achievement in the history of the civil rights struggle for African American causes, and it benefited from widespread support among many white voters. It should not be surprising, then, that Disney decided to "skip" releasing Song of the South in the mid-1960s.
But 1964 was also important in the history of white America's racial consciousness for other, less honorable reasons. In retrospect, it was the beginning of the end for largely sympathetic attitudes among whites toward the civil rights movement, leading to what the sociologist Doug McAdam has called the "white backlash," which was in full effect by the end of the decade. Most prominently, Southern and other conservative Democrats abandoned the party, believing that the Great Society betrayed their core beliefs about the lower social and economic status of African Americans, who should be left to take care of themselves. Republicans successfully played on a building sense of white lower- and middle-class resentment. They argued that the government treated blacks better than it treated whites—an astoundingly ignorant, but frighteningly effective, claim that conservatives continue to make to this day. Urban rebellions in the cities and increasing white flight to the suburbs widened the divide further. Even moderate and liberal Democrats who remained deeply sympathetic to the civil rights movement in the mid-to-late 1960s found their collective attention and energies quickly distracted by the more urgent, costly fiasco that was the Vietnam War. Thus, almost as soon as the Great Society was coming into effect, conservative politicians were already mobilizing a combination of active resentment and inattentive indifference among whites to seize power throughout the country. The Republican Ronald Reagan was elected governor of traditionally liberal California in 1966; two years later, Richard Nixon was elected president. By the 1980s, socially conservative Democrats were supporting Reagan for president in droves—the culmination of a decades-long, white conservative attempt to stop, and undo, the progress of the civil rights movement.
Not coincidently, Song of the South quietly began its resurgence during this period. Three equally important factors influenced the film's resurrection from the dead during the 1960s. While Disney's strategies of convergence and ambivalence among African American audiences were both key, the shifting attitudes among white Americans in the wake of the Great Society cannot be overstated. By the end of the 1960s, as support for the civil rights movement dissipated, Disney begin floating the idea of rereleasing its most notorious film, which they claimed was now the "most requested" title in the vault. By 1972 Song of the South was back in theaters and suddenly doing record business. As a nostalgic look back to a pre–civil rights utopia, Song of the South offered these audiences a reassuring image of harmless and content African Americans—back at the plantation, hard at work for their white masters, and completely uninterested in equality, let alone freedom. It is inaccurate to pin the film's newfound popularity only on a white, anti–civil rights desire to return to the illusory era of white privilege that the film depicts. Yet this was undoubtedly one of the central reasons for its success, and it created an environment in which Disney could finally rerelease the film without provoking much controversy. By 1980, the film was back yet again, and continued to do strong box office throughout the conservative climate of the Reagan '80s. Song of the South's appeal was so prominent during this decade that critics and activists began to finally take note of the film again, explicitly tying its nostalgic, reactionary popularity to the larger political atmosphere created by the sitting U.S. president.
Reaganism brought into relief a particularly potent form of whiteness that invariably shapes most defenses of Song of the South. "Whiteness" does not mean the same as "white people." Rather, it evokes a hegemonic cultural logic that consciously and unconsciously reinforces white attitudes, beliefs, and positions as the dominant, unquestioned way of life. Regardless of his or her race, every American at some point or another negotiates the norms of whiteness—equally capable of either uncritically reproducing or self-reflexively questioning them. Neither attitude challenges this framework as the dominant way of seeing the world. After World War II, many people critical of Song of the South acknowledged their own subject position in relation to the dominant discourse of whiteness that had produced the film in the first place. Yet others, especially those sympathetic to Disney, became increasingly resistant over time to acknowledging racial categories. Instead, they embraced a post-racial attitude that claimed to do no less than deny racial difference altogether. This has been especially prevalent since the end of white support for the civil rights movement, but it can be seen in some of the earliest defenses of the film as well. Post-racial politics are really the most insidious and resilient type of whiteness, emerging largely unseen in the 1960s and continuing its destructive impulses to this very day.
On a superficial level, post-racial attitudes seem positive enough, since they mimic long-held liberal ideals of racial equality and tolerance. Indeed, it is a definite improvement from the days when lynching, rioting, and racial epithets were thought to be "acceptable" ways for many whites to interact with, and control, African Americans. But the reality is that post-racial mind-sets have done nothing to make people equal. Rather, they have been used to support conservative policies that inhibit progress toward social justice. By denying racial difference, one can deny the very possibility of racial discrimination, and thus undo the accomplishments of the civil rights movement. No U.S. politician mastered this better than did Reagan, who always appeared optimistic and carefully color-blind in his use of language, which appealed on the surface to the best of people's ideals. Yet within his post-racial speeches, he also managed to include coded terms like "welfare queens," which demonized minorities as lazy and undeserving, and stoked the anger of white voters who resented African American progress. Because the color of one's skin shouldn't matter, Reagan and his followers argued, there is no reason to help blacks or any other minority group, even though they continue to suffer the brunt of institutional, legal, and economic inequality.
This cuts to the core of the problem in any cultural defense of Song of the South that insists on seeing the movie as a color-blind celebration of a (rich) white boy's seemingly positive friendship with a (poor) black man. Aside from being a patronizing white fantasy of racial relationships in the United States, this reading also avoids—and even reinforces through its evasion of the subject—a deep ignorance about the larger cultural, economic, and racial hierarchies being unquestionably perpetuated by a film with no grounding in historical fact. These post-racial attitudes support the hegemonic position of whiteness precisely by denying that racial differences exist. Just because Johnny doesn't see Uncle Remus as a black person doesn't mean that the latter ceases to live on a plantation, or ceases to be subservient to whites and their needs, or ceases to have no identity or opportunity outside white culture. At best, it represents what I have elsewhere called "evasive whiteness." What are perhaps well-intended attempts at avoiding the often-incendiary topic of race nonetheless produce the side effect of maintaining the existing state of racial affairs. If society does not have to recognize the rights of minorities, then it also does not have to acknowledge the presence (and power) of the white majority.
Strategic Remediation and Transmedia Dissipation
Such complicated racial climates play a key role in informing how a controversial text is historically received. The resiliency of such racist imagery is also dependent on the complex relationship between industry producers, paratexts, and media audiences. Hollywood's racist past haunts the cultural politics of modern convergence media. "Convergence," Henry Jenkins defined in Convergence Culture, refers broadly to "the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want." As a conceptual model, convergence emphasizes two historically interlocking influences regarding the analysis of media—the industry that produced the text(s) and the audiences who consume, interpret, resist, or casually notice them. Studies in convergence today see both sites of meaning production as increasingly intertwined and even interdependent. Thus studies in convergence have focused largely on contemporary issues, since technological developments in new media have both expanded, and streamlined, the ways that consumers and media institutions can directly interact. "Everything about the structure of the modern entertainment industry," Jenkins writes, "was designed with this single idea in mind—the construction and enhancement of entertainment franchises" across multiple media platforms and ancillary markets.
I see the various meanings attached to Song of the South and its paratexts through the years as grounded in a longer history of convergence. My research works through two interrelated concepts: strategic remediation and transmedia dissipation. As I will show, both offer theoretical frameworks for convergence that are more ambivalent. The former, strategic remediation, focuses on how companies often have had an active investment in what becomes remediated. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin defined "remediation" as a process whereby newer media re-represent and re-produce older media, and vice versa. Grusin and Bolter discuss how emergent media such as the Internet, digital photography, and video games fit within a history of media studies that goes back to television's recycling of film, film's adapting of literature, and so forth. In the age of convergence, newer media today are neither ahistorical nor unique to our current historical moment. Moreover, different media remain in tension with one another, regardless of which form they assume. "The new medium can remediate by trying to absorb the older medium entirely, so that the discontinuities between the two are minimized," write Grusin and Bolter. "The very act of remediation, however, ensures that the older medium cannot be entirely effaced; the new medium remains dependent on the older one in acknowledged or unacknowledged ways." Content migrates from platform to platform as various media appropriate and rearrange preexisting forms, while older media can in turn remediate newer ones (such as a short story about going to the movies, or a film about the Internet, and so forth). What results is a detailed web of remediation that stretches across the history of modern media formations and practices. And there remains the need for a closer look at the cultural implications of this otherwise-standard industrial and aesthetic practice.
Remediation is never a politically or culturally neutral act, any more than it is a purely aesthetic one. Any number of reasons influence why a major corporation repurposes older intellectual property the way that it does (or doesn't). For instance, Disney found numerous profitable avenues for recycling Song of the South in ways that rarely ever recirculated the film uncritically, whether as a television episode, children's book, or theme park ride. Instead, they strategically remediate only the least offensive parts of Song of the South for further profit, such as the recent pop star Miley Cyrus (aka "Hannah Montana") doing a seemingly innocuous cover of "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah." The company, both embracing and resisting its valuable but problematic property, carefully reused selective parts of the film in other media platforms. The result is transmedia dissipation, where intellectual property diffuses across the dispersed texts of media Convergence Culture. Over the course of several decades, Disney's corporate strategy scattered Song of the South in fragments as much as it expanded the film's narrative universe.
The persistence of such images across platform transitions is a point often less examined by new media scholars and critical race theorists. The former's focus on being technologically timely can create the effect of ahistoricism. Meanwhile, the latter offer detailed critiques of problematic texts and moments of reception, but they can miss a film's resiliency through both remediation and recirculation. Since nostalgia is such a dominant feature in remediation, racist images from the past will often follow. Svetlana Boym noted that nostalgia "inevitably reappears as a defense mechanism in a time of accelerated rhythms of life and historical upheavals." The comfort of appealing to the past, she argues, naturalizes the volatility of technological change in modern society. At the heart of shifts in newer media platforms, ironically, are often nostalgic appeals back to older existing properties, even racist ones, for a sense of aesthetic reassurance and creative stability within the new medium's unfamiliarity. For example, Amos 'n' Andy was a popular 1920s radio show featuring two laughably incompetent black characters (voiced by white men), who provided comic relief to large, white and black audiences. It reinforced the "coon" stereotype of African Americans as lazy and impossibly stupid. Yet, despite its notorious status, the program endured for decades through different media. The radio program's popularity was so widespread that it culminated in a 1930 feature-length film, Check and Double Check, which featured the white performers appearing in blackface. The program ran well into the 1950s, during which time it also spun off into a short-lived television show. While activist protests forced this new televisual version off the air after only a few seasons, episodes continued to run in syndication well into the 1960s. Amos 'n' Andy was the rule, not the exception, for representations of African Americans during the first half of the twentieth century. Its resilience throughout the years and across several different media platforms testified to the racist ideologies within the audiences who supported it. But just as important, this survival spoke to the reassuring durability of old stereotypes during the upheaval of new technologies and new historical eras.
Nostalgic audiences play a crucial role in the survival of racist images across multiple media, a fact often marginalized within more utopian articulations of reception practices. One such conception is Jenkins's notion of "participatory culture," a cultural shift whereby "consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content" as a result of these transmedia worlds. Convergence Culture presents one of the most recognized models for examining the relationship between media producers and audience behavior in an age of corporate horizontal integration and transmedia intellectual property. Working from Pierre Lévy's theories on "collective intelligence," Jenkins argues that the Internet, with its seemingly endless networks of blogs, forums, and forms of social media, provides an ideal platform for people with shared interests to go online and pool their accumulative knowledge of a given subject. Online communities, Jenkins believes, are "held together through the mutual production and reciprocal exchange of knowledge." Everyone can contribute pieces of information to the larger group and, in turn, share in the benefits of such accumulative comprehension. Collective intelligence, he writes, "refers to this ability of virtual communities to leverage the combined expertise of their members. What we cannot know or do on our own, we may now be able to do collectively." Moreover, according to Jenkins, these online communities force media producers to stay honest in how they negotiate audience participation, for fear of organized rejection or reprisal.
Although digital participatory culture has simplified some forms of communication within various audience communities and with media gatekeepers, it would be inaccurate to presume an equal, or even relatively democratic, power relationship between potential participants. Economic and cultural status invariably dictates which audiences can interact more easily. Meanwhile, media companies have become increasingly savvy about shaping, limiting, and controlling the relatively modest ways in which consumers can contribute. And especially with a major entertainment giant such as Disney, access and participation are often defined through purchasing power. It is difficult to accept unquestionably the idea that "the age of media convergence enables communal, rather than individualistic, modes of reception." Given how many platforms—literal and symbolic—each individual consumer has at her or his disposal these days, physical and intellectual isolation would seem a very real possibility. While Jenkins expresses a complicated view of these issues, he places critical approaches to convergence in a binary: critical pessimism and critical utopianism. One can choose to be either cynical or optimistic about the intentions of media conglomerates, and about the democratic potential of collective audiences. Much of Convergence Culture's optimism is rooted in the belief that more media platforms will spell greater opportunities and interaction for producers and users to both expand and contest existing media content. The transmedia dispersion of content inspires a certain "epistemophilia," a love for seeking out knowledge and reconnecting information that motivates fans, bloggers, and other users.
In the age of media convergence, knowledge not only expands—more often it dissipates, becoming less and less coherent. The vastness of new media just as easily reinforces ignorance when audiences seek out like-minded folks online and settle down in ideological echo chambers. It is true, as Jenkins notes, that "knowledge becomes power in the age of media convergence," but willful ignorance can be just as potent. The recent online behavior of Song of the South fans, as I document in the final chapter, is testament to such a particularly ugly subdivision of participatory culture today. Various media content—their stories, images, and cultural histories—can just as often scatter across these transmediated landscapes as a result of the collective diligence of fans and media conglomerates, especially in the case of problematic works such as Song of the South. Meanwhile, particular, isolated ideas can momentarily intensify during their occasional reappearances. This is not to suggest that there are narrow truths to be maintained in the history of transmediated texts. Rather, I wish to emphasize that the inner workings and ambiguities of Convergence Culture hide as much as they reveal—a complicated, contradictory process in which both media producers and audiences play a key role. Song of the South's transmediated ubiquity—as both a property for Disney to carefully exploit and repurpose, and a beloved text for fans to defend—has for the moment dissipated the immense cultural and racial legacies contained within it.
Does epistemophilia, the collective drive to learn ever more and share that knowledge with others, best describe audience behavior in the age of convergence? Or does the repetition and fragmentation of transmedia worlds allow fans and media producers to simplify interests in a particular text down to only that which matters the most to them? Many Song of the South fans go online not to expand their understanding of the film, but rather to have their own interpretation reaffirmed. In the process, they align themselves with other sympathizers to shut out anyone who expands comprehension of the film's cultural histories and racial ideologies in unsightly directions. Such fans may be motivated at times by a desire to know more about the film—its production history, distribution practices, and so forth. Yet they are not always open-minded toward the wealth of knowledge that the Internet provides about their beloved cult object. Which approach (collective intelligence or transmedia dissipation) is more relevant to audiences and media corporations in the age of Convergence Culture? They seem equally valid, but also inadequate in isolation. A renewed emphasis on ambivalence for the convergence scholar—that newer media present both utopian and dystopian possibilities, that audience behavior is reactionary and indifferent as often as it is progressive—is required. In either case, such an evaporation of certain narrative and thematic content across platforms has considerable cultural and political implications, the historical and cultural gaps that new media theories have thus far been reluctant to approach. What I propose is transmedia storytelling's more frequent, ambivalent side effect—transmedia dissipation.
Disney's Histories of Convergence
As a company with a trailblazing history of convergence, Disney deserves renewed attention. They maximized the processes of media convergence several decades ago, building the "Disney universe" long before it became commonplace to talk about the interaction between media industries and platforms. They were particularly apt at crafting what Gray recently called media's "paratextuality," a film or television show's ubiquitous presence throughout a universe of ancillary material (books, records, and so forth), which were traditionally seen as doing little more than highlighting and promoting a given text's release. Since its inception in the early decades of the twentieth century, Disney carefully exploited ancillary markets and dedicated fan bases while shrewdly reusing old material. "An intrepid entrepreneur as well as a storyteller," observes Patricia Turner, "Disney delivered much more than the stories themselves. This dimension of his influence began in the 1930s, when he signed an agreement allowing a manufacturer to inscribe Mickey Mouse's image on a note pad. Today the mouse reigns over a battalion of Disney-spawned items." Disney understood early on the power of expanding its media reach across every possible media platform available, as a means to both expand and exploit its rich vault of entertainment stories. Most famously, in the 1950s Disney was able to parlay its library of feature-length and short subject films into an agreement with ABC for Disneyland (1954), a television program that also paid for the famous theme park of the same name in Southern California. The ABC show was also one of the first venues the company used to recycle its wide variety of old content for a new audience (The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Seal Island, clips from feature-length films, and so forth)—another twist on Disney's successively selective distribution practices. "Long after many of the major studios had sold TV rights to their films," writes Anderson, "the Disneys boasted that they still owned every film they made." With the exception of low-budget live action pieces such as the Davy Crockett phenomenon and "Uncle" Walt's introductions, much of the show was repurposed archival material. These parks and TV shows pushed traditional boundaries of film studies "toward a more pervasive sense of textuality," and offer an early glimpse into histories of convergence.
In particular, the media giant's success since the 1920s has been based on two premises that are today the cornerstones of studies in convergence: technological innovation and extensive cross-promotion among numerous texts. On one trajectory, as J. P. Telotte most recently explored, Disney long positioned itself at the cutting edge of experimentation in film technologies. The company, "in order to survive in an increasingly competitive environment," he writes, "repeatedly had to innovate or adopt new technologies or move into new media forms." This included advances in music and sound synchronization (Steamboat Willie, 1928), three-strip Technicolor (Flowers and Trees, 1932), character animation (Three Little Pigs, 1933), the multi-plane camera (The Old Mill, 1937), theatrical exhibition surround sound (Fantasia, 1940), hybrid animation (Song of the South, 1946), widescreen CinemaScope (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 1954), television synergy (Disneyland, 1954), computer-generated imagery, or CGI (TRON, 1982), subscription cable television (Disney Channel, 1983), and computer-aided animation production (The Rescuers, 1990). More important, even when the newness was overstated, such as with Steamboat Willie or 20,000 Leagues, the company was aggressive in promoting itself and the perceived novelty of these various new technologies and multimedia advances. While the company is viewed today largely as a media empire built on nostalgia and conservatism, at its core is an impressive, if also often accidental, history of future-oriented technological and economic innovations.
At first, Disney relied on partnerships with other companies to help spread its brand and its merchandise, since its modest revenue allowed for little ambition beyond animated films. As early as the late 1920s, the company was licensing the rights to Mickey Mouse's likeness to a variety of businesses—a move that was largely motivated by the need for money to offset Walt's often-reckless investments in film production. The same economic logic motivated Disney's agreement with ABC on Disneyland, as well as with Golden Books and others, in the 1950s. The goal was as much to pay the theme park's spiraling costs as to spread the company's brand recognition. Another key early business innovation involved Disney's partnership with Capitol Records to circulate and promote its various film soundtracks and other kid-marketed records in the 1940s. This was a time when, as Jacob Smith has documented, "children's records experienced a remarkable surge" in general. Notable as well was their subsequent collaboration with the NBC network and RCA Television in the 1960s to exploit Disney's desire for color broadcasts, beginning the notable run of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color (1961). By the time Disney was dominating the television landscape, the company had become self-sustaining enough to control its own ancillary revenue streams, operating its own distributor for theatrical exhibition (Buena Vista) and for books and records (Disneyland). This emergent ubiquity planted the seed early on for a U.S. cultural environment in which Disney was now perceived as having "always" been "everywhere"—a socially constructed logic of media consumption that paid off for the company in the long run, and continues to do so.
Through these ancillary channels, retrospectively, Disney increasingly promoted its own revised studio history as a landmark in the annals of classic Hollywood, further cementing its cultural status as an American institution. This prominence, plus its long history of cross-promotional ambitions, paid huge dividends by the time Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg took over in the 1980s. A central goal of "Team Disney" was to further exploit revenue streams such as home video platforms (VHS) and new theme parks and attractions (Tokyo Disneyland), and increase corporate partnerships with companies such as Delta Air Lines and McDonald's. Another key business strategy in the 1980s was to idealize Disney's own studio history, and the larger history of classic Hollywood that images of Uncle Walt and Fantasia Mickey inevitably evoked. There was perhaps no bigger embodiment of this strategy than the building of Disney-MGM Studios in Florida at the end of 1980s (now called "Disney's Hollywood Studios"). The third Orlando theme park spatialized Disney's desire to memorialize and idealize its own history, so crucial to the company's nostalgic appeal. It also rewrote Hollywood's heyday as being largely defined by the presence of Disney.
Ironically, the park's depiction of the "golden age" of Hollywood is completely inaccurate. Disney mostly struggled to stay alive through the 1940s and early 1950s—the generic time period that becomes historical pastiche as the overall mise-en-scene of Disney's Hollywood Studios. The 1940s was not a period of prosperity, but rather one of deep financial struggles, marked in particular by the terrible labor strike in the studio and the disastrous theatrical fortunes for Fantasia. There is no shortage of historical irony in the fact that a grotesquely large version of the Mickey sorcerer's hat now serves as the central image of promotion for Disney's classic Hollywood–themed amusement park. The cap evokes memories of Walt Disney's biggest theatrical fiasco, the movie that—had it not been for government funding of the studio during World War II—would have bankrupted the Disney company and sent most of their work to the dustbin of film history. Even at the height of its early phenomenal success in the 1930s, Disney was never more than a minor studio—a cottage industry that specialized in state-of-the-art animation, but which was dependent on other, often-bigger companies for technological innovation, for repurposing, and for distribution. They did not hold a candle, in prestige, revenue, or sheer output, to Hollywood giants such as Warner Bros., Twentieth Century Fox, MGM, and so forth. The name change in 2008 to "Disney's Hollywood Studios" even more explicitly rewrites history to suggest that Disney's golden age and the classic studio system's golden age were one and the same.
One of the main critiques often leveled at the Disney empire for decades has been its distortion of history.45 Disney's romanticized view of its own past, as the self-appointed king of the golden age of Hollywood, is one thing. Yet more disturbing is its rewriting of American history in general. Whether it is Frontierland's romanticizing of the American West, Pocahontas's absurd representation of colonial America, or Song of the South's mythologizing of the post–Civil War South, Disney has a long record of distorting the U.S. collective past in a way that troubles modern awareness of economic, gender, and racial struggles in American history. Disney's fondness for rewriting American history, often to the benefit of white, middle-class consumers, came to a head in the 1990s, when cultural critics, historians, and political activists successfully pressured the company to abandon plans for a history-themed amusement park in Virginia, to be called "Disney's America." In questionable taste, this endeavor would have awkwardly mixed Disney's own idealization and whitewashing of history with the uglier history of the surrounding areas, which feature countless institutionalized reminders of the country's violent colonial and Civil War legacies. Aside from exploiting these tragedies for profit, Disney's distortion of history could condition audiences to believe that its representations of the past are really "the way it was." We see this appeal to history prominently in defenses of Song of the South—not only the nineteenth century inaccurately depicted in the film itself, but also in the separate history of the film's exhibition, recirculation, and repurposing. Yet what is often referred to in this regard is not really history, but nostalgia.
Forms of Disney Nostalgia
Increasingly, in trying to analyze Disney's relationship to the past, there emerges a blurry line between history and nostalgia. Nostalgia is a central component to the appeal and popularity of Song of the South, but it takes many different forms throughout the film's history of recirculation. On a basic level, history is an attempt to truthfully document and represent the historical past to the best of one's verifiable knowledge. Nostalgia, on the other hand, is a romantic idealization of the past that is more interested in the emotional needs and fantasies of the present. In her recent study on Gone with the Wind, Molly Haskell suggested that audiences' investment in politically difficult texts are further complicated by a natural tendency to remember, or misremember, films in a way that privileges what people wish to remember about them. "How something so full of contradiction and dissonance appears so seamless and has proved so enduring," she writes, "is a mystery made possible by our investment in the fantasy [the film evokes for its audience], often correcting or ‘improving' on the book or movie."46 Nostalgia is a simplifying, deeply affective attachment to a past time and place that is by its very definition an illusory utopia.
But there are many different types of nostalgia associated with Song of the South, which collectively suggest just how deeply nostalgic the film is. There is first the representational nostalgia in the film's narrative itself—the idyllic presentation of plantation culture in the nineteenth-century U.S. South. What we see in the film is less a historically accurate portrait of the time in which it was set, and more the embodiment of white conservative nostalgia for the perception of that way of life. In 1946, audiences critically and uncritically focused on this aspect of Song of the South's nostalgic impulses, because it seemed to cut to the core of the film's problematic appeal to the return of a certain racial hierarchy.
Over time, other types of nostalgia began to enter the picture. As Song of the South migrated into the 1970s and beyond, a more affective nostalgia also emerged, which was less tied to the film's representation of the past and more tied to audiences' potential personal memories of the film. It is also tied to nostalgia for Song of the South–related ancillary materials, such as the Golden Books, which in turn deepened their affective connection to the primary film. By 1972 the film made some people nostalgic for various aspects of the 1940s and 1950s, just as today the continuing (bootleg) circulation of the film makes still others nostalgic for the 1970s and 1980s. There is a warm attachment to some aspect of their past—memories of a place, a person, or a moment—that Song of the South affectively triggers without being directly connected to it on a representational level. This is perhaps ultimately the most powerful form of nostalgia connected to this and many other Disney films. But we should not make the mistake of assuming that this nostalgia is automatically an idiosyncratic or natural phenomenon unique to particular individuals.
On the contrary, affective attachments to an older Disney film such as Song of the South are also deeply embedded in the larger form of manufactured nostalgia, which has been key to the company's long-term success. Nostalgia was not always crucial to the company's financial fortunes. In the 1930s, Disney distinguished its brand of animation through technological innovations such as three-strip Technicolor and use of the multi-plane camera. This product differentiation resulted in lifting Disney to the status of a cultural phenomenon by the time Snow White hit theaters in 1937. Since at least the 1950s, however, the company's success has been consistently rooted in promoting nostalgia for its own products. The countless rereleases of its major feature-length films is only the most obvious example. The primary appeal of the Disneyland television show debuting in 1954, for instance, was not the chance to be sold on a new theme park being built in Anaheim. Rather, it was the opportunity to watch for free the old films and clips that nostalgic audiences had not seen in ten or twenty years. That was the hook to get people interested the Disneyland theme park. With relatively mild variations, this is essentially the same business model Disney has used ever since—promote direct and indirect appeals to the company's past in order to sell new stuff in the present. The Eisner-era Disney of the 1980s and 1990s was particularly shrewd in this regard.
Meanwhile, nostalgia also becomes important to shaping and sustaining ritualistic behaviors on the part of audiences. Whole families of Disney fans—which is also part of the company's manufactured nostalgia—begin to emerge and reproduce, creating seemingly limitless waves of generational nostalgia, which the company can and will continue to foster and exploit. To a certain degree, fans who have felt nostalgic for Song of the South, and then worked through those feelings of nostalgia by re-watching the film, purchasing related official memorabilia, and so forth, are simply acting out a consumerist role the company has actively crafted for audiences in relation to countless Disney titles. And even though the film is out of official circulation now, Disney's continuing use of parts such as "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" throughout its media empire also maintains nostalgia for the film and for the larger, Walt-era, "classic Hollywood" history of the company its memory now evokes.
The consumption practices of Disney audiences evoke a more basic distinction between private and public forms of nostalgia. Private includes one's own personal attachment to the film, and the idiosyncratic reasons for the appeal. It can also involve a specific memory or a relationship to a particular family member that otherwise has nothing to do with Disney. On the other hand, Disney's general promotion of its own past, and the ways it maximizes that for material and profit, is a public nostalgia not reducible to a single person or memory. Likewise, something such as Song of the South's idyllic, illusory presentation of Southern history is another form of public nostalgia, as generations at different times embraced the plantation myth in Hollywood films. These are often interrelated, but not synonymous, forms of nostalgia. One can have a personal attachment to Song of the South that exists within a mutually reaffirming relationship with the company's promotion of a public, consumer-driven nostalgia. But one can also be nostalgic for the film in a way that contradicts the company's official policies and practices. This is most prevalent, for instance, in the fan activities today where people circulate illegal versions of Song of the South online and through bootleg DVDs,47 since Disney refuses to release it officially. At same time, any fan who insists now on having an unauthorized copy of the film just so that they can show it to their child or grandchild is still, knowingly or not, complicit in Disney's larger strategies of manufactured nostalgia, which work to ensure a new generation of consumers. This final irony, along with their reluctance to call attention to the film, may help shed light on why Disney has been unusually lax in cracking down on copyright violations regarding Song of the South.
Disney's Most Notorious Film resists a linear history of the Disney film, instead using its habitual reappearances as focal points for layered, accumulative histories regarding transmedia properties, race relations, and participatory culture in the twentieth-century United States. I look at each moment of Song of the South's interpretation and remediation in relation to what I am calling its fluid conditions of possibility—what any given complete or fragmented version, in various moments of reception, meant in relation to its own historical time and cultural contexts. I also include a consideration of what trajectories it then created (or creates) for future reception. In addition to analyzing various versions of Song of the South, my research draws heavily on periodicals, such as newspaper and magazine articles from the past, in order to articulate as complete a vision as possible of the specific historical moments in question. This means that my work often depends on the writings of columnists, critics, spokespersons, and other people in positions of power. While such critics and activists reveal a limited, even elitist, view of certain events, which risks marginalizing others, they nonetheless provide a valuable historical glimpse into particular cultural attitudes of the past. Moreover, they are balanced out, when possible, by a wider range of general audiences, who increasingly found effective venues for expression over the decades—from letters to the editor in the 1940s to Internet forums today.
The first chapter, "Conditions of Possibility: The Disney Studios, Postwar 'Thermidor,' and the Ambivalent Origins of Song of the South," articulates the historical conditions out of which the film originally emerged. Drawing on Neal Gabler's archival work on Disney at the time, Thomas Cripps's historical reading of Hollywood's representations of African Americans, and Robert Ray's theories on classic Hollywood ideologies, the first chapter examines the film's ambivalent origins as the product of a struggling postwar studio (Disney) that was attempting to mix its own trademark animation and musical style with the 1930s cycle of Southern melodramas, most popularly realized in Selznick's Gone with the Wind. Even after the film was made, some inside Disney doubted the wisdom of releasing a movie that would be seen as racially problematic, especially at a time when Hollywood and the U.S. federal government had made a conscious effort to empower African Americans by moving away from many of the old cinema stereotypes regarding race. But the film's own textual negotiation of live action, animation, and an extensive musical soundtrack made Song of the South a problematically affective and self-contradictory text from the start. Hence I argue that the film's inherent textual incoherence would lead to contradictory audience responses in subsequent decades.
Next, in "'Put Down the Mint Julep, Mr. Disney': Postwar Racial Consciousness and Disney's Critical Legacy in the 1946 Reception of Song of the South," I closely examine 1940s periodicals, such as the Washington Post, the Chicago Defender, and the New York Times, to offer the first thorough historical account of the film's harsh reception in 1946, which was shaped by not only disappointed film critics but also frustrated civil rights groups. I vehemently argue against any modern-day perception that Song of the South was ever "just a product of its time." While the responses were not monolithic among any audience group, Song of the South was, overall, criticized at worst and dismissed at best. Film critics, such as Bosley Crowther, were disappointed on not only cultural but also aesthetic grounds, reading the partially animated Song of the South as a cheap imitation of what they saw as the usually innovative Disney visual style they had embraced in the 1930s and early 1940s. Cultural critics were even harsher, seeing Song of the South as a direct slap in the face to the emergent civil rights movement. Even general film audiences were sensitive to its offensive "Uncle Tom" representations in the immediate aftermath of U.S. racial progress and Nazi white supremacist rhetoric during the World War II. Given this response, Song of the South was seemingly destined for the dustbin of Hollywood's racist past by the 1950s. Yet by the early 1970s all that had shifted.
The third chapter, "'Our Most Requested Movie': Media Convergence, Black Ambivalence, and the Reconstruction of Song of the South," offers a detailed historical explanation for why Song of the South was suddenly regarded as Disney's "most requested" title by the 1970s. On the one hand, I discuss the decline of the civil rights movement's institutional power, and the concurrent rise of the conservative white backlash and white flight trends, as documented by Doug McAdam. While white audiences were much more sympathetic to racial inequities right after the sobering Fascist rhetoric and actions of World War II, there was considerably less support by the 1960s. Meanwhile, Disney's own rise institutionally was just as significant. This chapter offers a historical variation on Gray's theory of the media paratext, and closely explores how Disney's long history of media convergence—television shows, children's books, musical records, and so forth—worked over subsequent decades to resuscitate Song of the South's critical and cultural reputation. Many audiences, some of whom never even saw the film in theaters originally, grew up watching, listening to, and reading Disney's version of the Brer Rabbit stories in their homes, schools, church youth groups, and so forth. This transmediated presence, throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, fundamentally altered some audiences' general perception of the film, shifting from an anachronistic Uncle Tom Hollywood melodrama to the socially constructed perception of its status as a "beloved" Disney family institution. Thus, by the time it reappeared in 1972, especially on the heels of the white backlash, Song of the South was suddenly Disney's biggest box office rerelease to that point.
Yet, as the film began to endure past its initial shelf life, this reemergence was also met with criticism and satire. Chapter 4, "A Past That Never Existed: Coonskin, Post-Racial Whiteness, and Rewriting History in the Era of Reaganism," more closely examines the political climate underlying Song of the South's sudden popularity in the new anti–civil rights era of the 1970s and 1980s. The Disney film's sudden appeal was deeply rooted in a conservative desire to undermine the political and cultural gains made by African Americans in the preceding three decades. Exploring a range of texts from the period, this chapter documents how both critics and supporters of Song of the South explicitly posited its continuing theatrical success as symptomatic of a new conservatism overtaking the country. I begin with a brief discussion of Ralph Bakshi's Coonskin (1974), an explicit, adult-rated satire of both Song of the South and the subgenre of "blaxploitation." Though it failed to find an audience, Coonskin visually demonstrated a scathing cultural critique of the conservative appeal of Song of the South in the 1970s. Given its antagonistic style, however, Bakshi's film raised more questions than answers about white racial consciousness and progressive activism, issues that became more acute as the Disney film endured into the next decade.
By 1980 Song of the South's popularity was explicitly tied to the election of Ronald Reagan. In contrast to the post-World War II activism of the 1940s, a new generation of Disney fans defended the film passionately. Criticism from Bakshi and activist groups such as the Anti-Racism Coalition was met by stronger counter-resistance, as younger audiences who had been raised on the film itself, and on Disney's transmediated universe, came to its defense. Following the president's lead, this generation saw its own personal memories, and Disney's self-built heritage as family entertainment, as a substitute for objective accounts of collective historical events. Their own fond nostalgia for Song of the South became more important than any institutional history of racism or racial inequality. It is during this period that we see the emergence of a more resilient form of post-racial whiteness, what I have termed an "evasive whiteness," that reinforces racial privilege by denying the existence of any racial categories. Thus any acknowledgement of Song of the South's representation of institutional racism and white racist nostalgia is rejected, reframed as itself a racist take on an otherwise color-blind children's film. Befitting the era of Reagan, Song of the South's narrative becomes reappropriated by supporters as an image of racial utopia.
On the heels of the white backlash and the conservative culture of Reaganism, Song of the South was a potentially rewarding but tricky property to exploit, especially since "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" had since become an integral part of the Disney brand of white, middle-class family entertainment. Since Song of the South presented a long-term risk to a company now under the direction of Michael Eisner, Disney began to dissociate itself from the film by the late 1980s. Chapter 5, "On Tar Babies and Honey Pots: Splash Mountain, 'Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,' and the Transmedia Dissipation of Song of the South," documents how Disney strategically remediated its problematic intellectual property into other profitable media platforms—versions of Song of the South that played up the affective and animated portions of the film while downplaying its most overtly racist live action content. These include everything from VHS sing-along tapes (1986) to Xbox 360's Kinect Disneyland Adventures (2011). Using material from the period and from Internet discussions of the ride today, this chapter focuses in particular on the many iterations of "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" itself, as well as the theme park attraction Splash Mountain. Disney's ambitious thrill ride rewrote the narrative of the film by replacing the "Tar Baby," which ensnares Brer Rabbit, with a pot of honey. This water log ride reflected a revised version of an old film that the company otherwise had no interest in continuing to rerelease. Far from unconditionally embracing its catalog of socially constructed "classics," Disney shrewdly maximized the film's remaining market value through the company's ubiquitous transmedia empire, while also keeping the overtly racist full-length version locked up in the proverbial Disney vault.
The final chapter, "Reassuring Convergence: New Media, Nostalgia, and the Internet Fandom of Song of the South," documents Disney fandom's recent online behavior in support of the film. Working off Boym's theories on modernity and nostalgia, and Jenkins's work on contemporary fandom and participatory culture, this section considers the racial and cultural implications of Song of the South's continuing presence online. As a new century began, many of the older discourses of a Reaganist, post-racial whiteness persisted, even while Disney strategically remediated the old Uncle Remus film nearly out of existence. The official absence of Song of the South has only created a textual vacuum in the twenty-first century, which fans of the film have filled through the newer media platform of the Internet. I document fans' actions online, where they contest any charges of Song of the South's racism, circulate partial excerpts or whole copies of movie through YouTube, file sharing, or bootleg DVDs, and actively advocate for the film's official rerelease on home video formats. In many ways, Disney's decision to shelve the nearly seventy-year-old Song of the South has only worked to intensify its notoriety.
In the conclusion, I answer the question most often asked of me at conferences while presenting parts of my research: What do I personally think of Song of the South? Specifically, do I think Disney should rerelease the film today? This book is a historical–materialist reception study of Song of the South, the Disney Corporation, its various paratexts, its alternatingly critical and supportive audiences, and its richly diverse historical contexts. As such, I made an effort to set aside my own personal thoughts in favor of articulating the historical and cultural contexts that explain why certain groups saw the film the way they did, on particular media platforms, and at particular moments in time. For reasons of access and dialogue, I personally feel that Disney should make Song of the South available—to generate focused discussion about why it's offensive, to defuse both fan activism and obnoxious feelings of self-righteous indignation, and to bring the ugly text back out into the open. I have no interest in seeing Disney validate the politics of the notoriously racist film, even if they would profit further from it. Yet as the book will show, removing the film from circulation has not ever really achieved the intended effect either. In any event, based on the film's varied history, whatever happens will not be the final word on the subject.
“Disney’s Most Notorious Film: Race, Convergence and the Hidden Histories of Song of the South (University of Texas, 2012) does more than dissect a film and the pros and cons around it. In its own way, it reveals that Song of the South, more or less by accident, holds a mirror to American views on race, with beauty or the lack thereof completely in the eyes of the beholder.”
“This study is meticulously researched and current on contemporary research, and though it reads slowly…the payoff is worth the work. Summing Up: Highly recommended.”
“This excellent study of the controversy surrounding Disney’s Song of the South is an insightful and thought-provoking analysis of one of the studio’s most controversial films…Jason Sperb has produced an important analysis of one of popular culture’s most hotly debated products.”
“Jason Sperb’s Disney’s Most Notorious Film quickly overcomes any concern that there might be nothing new to say about Song of the South by demonstrating how surprisingly “persistent” the film has been.”
The Journal of American History
“While Sperb's conclusions of conscious racism are debatable, his meticulous documentation of Song of the South merchandising through sixty years and its other cultural references…make Disney's Most Notorious Film an essential reference tool to those interested in SotS-iana.”
Animation World Network
“This book is extremely smart, painstakingly researched, and it ties together many concepts and issues that too rarely find themselves in the same book. Sperb is a gifted writer, who holds his reader’s attention with skill, and he provides a fantastic piece of work here, one that will serve multiple publics and that fills in important historical territory while also advancing discussions on race, convergence, Disney, film reception, textuality, and remediation. This is really quite a spectacular achievement.”
Jonathan Gray, Professor of Media and Cultural Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and author of Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts
“Disney’s Most Notorious Film is a tremendously interesting, timely, provocative, and useful project. It is unique in studying reception and fandom through focus on a single, though also importantly dispersed and plural, text of nearly seventy years’ duration and circulation. On its own, Song of the South is a film demanding more analysis than it has received, and Sperb has given it the attention it deserves precisely by focusing on what’s most intriguing about it: Its controversial aspects, its unique place in the Disney canon and marketing work, its fans, and the ways its pleasure and affect connect with changing American ideas about race. Perhaps the most important finding of this book is that fan activity—which in contemporary scholarship is most often celebrated for creating new knowledge and engaged producer-consumers—is very complex as it unfolds over time, and that it can have undesirable outcomes.”
Arthur Knight, Associate Professor of American Studies and English, The College of William and Mary, author of Disintegrating the Musical: African American Performance and American Musical Film and coeditor of Soundtrack Available: Film and Pop Music