‘Lady And The Tramp’ Just Isn’t The Same Without The Racism

The original 'Lady and the Tramp' was released in 1955.

A mostly timeless tale of bridging class divides, it featured Lady, an upperclass pampered pooch, falling in love with Tramp, a living by his wits street dog.

It also featured a whole bunch of cultural insensitivity. But watching the lackluster, largely pointless live action version, I found myself practically begging for those old stereotypes. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm not pro Disney stereotyping.

In fact, I've already written about how unsettling it is to experience the racism and sexism in classic Disney movies like Dumbo and Peter Pan, especially when you watch them with a child without knowing what they’re absorbing. (That’s probably why Disney has put warnings on some of the old movies on its new streaming service, Disney+.)

Even more unsettling is the fact that those culturally flawed movies are far superior to any of these live action remakes with modern sensibilities that Disney has been bombarding us with -- and this is especially true for the new Lady and the Tramp.

Yes, the Siamese cats are gone, which is great. That was some serious, 1950s post-Korean War anti-Asian racism. Mickey-Rooney-in-Breakfast-At-Tiffany’s type stuff.

No one misses these cats. (Image: Disney)

Also gone are the accents. In case you've forgotten, for some reason, the original Lady and the Tramp town is full of dogs from different parts of the world -- and they have the kind of over the top accents you'd expect in a cartoon from the 50s.

Jock’s Scottish brogue has been toned down considerably (he's now Jacqueline, voiced by the wonderful Ashley Jensen) and the Italian restaurant owner Tony no longer has that exaggerated accent. (Classic Disney loves this accent -- Pinocchio’s Stromboli has it too.) And there's no more Irish policeman.

And Tramp doesn't mimic those accents anymore. In fact, he's a lot nicer all around, especially where women are concerned. He doesn't call Lady “Pigeon”, which is a step forward, I suppose. But is naming a dog “Lady” progressive to begin with? I'm not sure. And are we allowed to call someone or something a “Tramp” in 2019? Isn’t that like calling your pet “Hobo”? “Here, Hobo… here boy…”

Again, I'm not sure.

The over the top Italian stereotypes didn't make it into the reboot. (Image: Disney)

I was especially confused by the depiction of 1910 New Orleans, Louisiana, where the reboot is set, as some kind of multi-racial paradise. Lady’s human owners are a mixed race couple. Black people and white people co-mingle peacefully. The townspeople have a variety of backgrounds -- an Asian doctor, a South Asian pet store clerk, a Latino dogcatcher and cook -- and no one bats an eye. 

This place is incredible. I wish I had grown up there.

But this is supposed to be New Orleans in 1910. 1910! I’m sure the multicultural port town was in some ways more integrated than the rest of the US, but did it look like this?

Given the historical context, I seriously doubt it.

In 1896, the US Supreme Court decided that racial segregation was totally cool with Plessy vs Ferguson. -- a case that was triggered when Plessy, who was one-eighth black, sat in the white section of a New Orleans train. So this was the Jim Crow South.

In 1900, a former major in the Confederate Army wrote a New Orleans newspaper column in which he promised a race war and “extermination” if black people had a problem with white power.

That year, Robert Charles, a black man, shot and killed a white police officer while trying to escape arrest. The black community was blamed and there was a manhunt and a white riot. That’s right. White people started killing black people in New Orleans. They even burned down a couple of black schoolhouses. 

It's hard to say definitively, but in 1910, when Lady and the Tramp takes place, interracial marriage would likely have been against the law in Louisiana. The state had banned "concubinage" between white and black people, though the laws weren’t as strictly enforced in the case of white men with black women. Maybe that’s why Lady’s owners seem to just sit around all day, petting their dog and singing songs to each other. If they were aware of the groups of men demanding allegiances to white supremacy, they didn't show it.

Just a normal, probably illegal mixed race couple in the deep American South. (Image: Disney)

Of course, not every movie set in the past needs to reflect the prejudices of the time. But when they go so far in the other direction that it looks like they’re just making up some fantasy land, that is equally unsettling.

At the same time, Lady and the Tramp is meant to be for kids (as far as I can tell). And kids don’t need to be hit in the face with the racial realities of America in 1910. There'll be plenty of time for that when they run into one of those Confederate statues.

But does providing the optics of a racially diverse and harmonious society do those kids a disservice? 

Furthermore, should stories set in the past reflect our current standards of inclusion?

No racial strife here! (Image: Disney)

I honestly don’t know the answer to these questions. If it doesn’t have anything to do with the story, why include racism? But completely leaving it out -- or pretending it didn’t exist -- makes things look jarringly, even neglectfully, phony. Just imagine, for a moment, what the rebooted Lady and the Tramp would have looked like with an honest recounting of the Robert Charles Riots. Now that would be a movie.

Maybe the comparisons to the cartoons are unfair. Maybe these movies are meant to exist in a new world where the young people have never heard of the old cartoons (or racism). Well, if I was one of these "young people", I'd feel ripped off. They're getting an inferior product. The older generation is also getting ripped off because they remember the better version.

So what is being served here, exactly, other than Disney’s bottom line?

Take the dog pound scene.

In the reboot, it plays like an animatronic monster movie. A bunch of big robot rats singing. It's terrifying.

(More than ever, I'm convinced that Disney has to stop making live action versions of cartoons about animals. It is not working. The animals' faces don't emote. Also Tramp looks like a large, taxidermied plague rat.)

In the original, the dogs are weeping. They’re howling, singing the blues, showing actual emotion. They hate being in that pound. And they know that, in some cases, they might die in there. That’s right. In the original film, which was for children, one of the dogs is killed. It is heartbreaking.

This one shot from the original movie has more depth than anything in the reboot. (Image: Disney)

And when Peg sings “He’s A Tramp”, you can feel her very real pain.

The scene is wonderful.

It's also completely inappropriate. Not just because of the puppy-murder, but all the dogs fit some kind of broad cultural stereotype, totally needlessly. There’s a British bulldog, a German dachshund, a Russian dog of some kind and a Mexican chihuahua.

I love old movies. And I don’t love casual bigotry. That can make loving old movies complicated. But I would rather have that complicated, uncomfortable experience than watch something devoid of personality and meaning.

One gives you something to think about. The other leaves you empty. Which is the more valuable experience?

Also my nine-year-old son thinks the new version "sucks". So there's that.

This article first appeared on November 27, 2019.