Cancel Culture, Censored Centaurs and the Big Bad Wolf | Opinion

Raging combatants in today's battles over "cancel culture" should consider the successful resolution of similar controversies in in the past. Before the Disney company emerged as a corporate behemoth, its founders and their scrappy animators found a way to placate both proponents of interracial respect and advocates for unfettered free expression.

In 1933, Walt and his crew released one of their "Silly Symphonies," an irresistible eight minutes retelling the old tale of The Three Little Pigs who follow contrasting survival strategies in coping with the salivating menace of the Big Bad Wolf. After the rapacious marauder blows over the carelessly constructed homes of straw and sticks, he finds himself foiled (spoiler alert!) by "Practical Pig" and his formidable house of bricks, which also shelters his two surviving porcine pals. Aside from addicting the whole world to the insanely catchy song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" the Little Pigs gobbled up an Academy Award as the year's best animated short film.

The only discordant note in the international chorus of praise involved a few seconds of toxic anti-Semitism that intruded on the otherwise genial and moralistic proceedings. As the wolf attempts to penetrate the brick fortress of his frightened prey, he dresses in a fake beard, huge hook nose and floor-length cloak. To complete the transformation into a stereotypical Jewish peddler, he delivers a line ("I'm the Fuller Brush Man; I'm giving a free sample!") in a thick, wildly incongruous Yiddish accent.

Scholars have subsequently pointed to the uncomfortably close resemblance between the animation of the predatory beast in Hebraic disguise and even uglier, later images of predatory Jews in Nazi propaganda films, but Disney waited until after the war—and the Holocaust—to make alterations to the prodigiously popular Three Little Pigs. In 1948, the company remade the offending scene to remove the beard and fake nose while re-dubbing the wolf's line in unaccented American English to say, "I'm the Fuller Brush man; I'm working my way through college."

In this altered form, the eight-minute marvel continued to win fans in every generation, making it to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 2007 for its "cultural, historical or aesthetic significance."

No one has ever questioned the significance of a subsequent Disney masterpiece, Fantasia, released in 1940. Extraordinary for its ambition, imagination and technical innovations (including a pioneering form of stereophonic sound in specially wired theaters), Fantasia used some of the greatest animation ever drawn to bring to life some of the greatest music ever composed.

In addition to compositions by Bach, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky and more, the film gave especially lavish treatment to the five movements of Beethoven's sixth symphony. The Disney treatment took viewers more than 2,000 years back in time beyond the symphony's 1808 composition, elegantly animating fantastical creatures and Olympian deities from Greco-Roman mythology. Most memorable among them: the glamorous centaurs, half human and half horse, seeking amorous connection with others of their species. Unfortunately, two specific female centaurs (identified in press materials distributed with the film as "Sunflower" and "Otika") stood out from the herd, and not in a good way. They were both Black, complete with ribbons tied in their stereotypical "pickaninny" hair, bulging eyes and exaggerated lips, with their trunks attached to squat donkeys rather than noble steeds. Still worse, they appeared to be servants, or even slaves: Sunflower happily shines the hooves of her aristocratic mistress, and later installs flowers in the horse-lady's luxurious locks.

By 21st-century standards, these brief segments—totaling no more than 90 seconds—count as cringeworthy. But for 30 years they survived as part of the justly acclaimed cinematic triumph that surrounded them, through numerous rereleases in theaters and early tape versions for home viewing. In time for a major reissue in 1969, at the height of the "Black is Beautiful" revolution in consciousness, Sunflower and Otika quietly disappeared. Someone in the company's higher echelons came up with the simple expedient of shrinking the frame of the offending segments so the preening centaurette appears in closeup, while the humble helper below her isn't visible at all.

Robert Iger Disney
The Walt Disney Company Chairman and CEO Robert Iger delivers remarks during an event introducing Disney's new "Magic of Healthy Living" program at the Newseum June 5, 2012 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Every available version of Fantasia for the last 52 years has featured these discreet adjustments, allowing countless millions to savor its splendors without the discomfiting jolt of demeaning, racist tropes. Is this an example of "cancel culture," or "clean-up culture"—a minor and judicious repair that allows a masterpiece to live again in a new era, free from threats of cancelation?

Other Disney classics—Dumbo, Peter Pan, The Aristocats—have faced their own reckonings over racially disrespectful content, with a different outcome due to very different circumstances. In these films, the problematic moments play a much more significant role than the quick flashes in Three Little Pigs and Fantasia. In Dumbo (1941), for instance, a quintet of minstrel-show crows (led by their leader "Jim Crow") performs a crucial musical number ("When I See an Elephant Fly") which concludes with the little elephant's very first successful airborne experience.

Re-voicing or re-animating this substantial segment would be unthinkable, as would any attempt to hide the beloved gem in the studio's vaults. Instead, Disney will continue to make the unedited original film available to adults, who can share it with their children if they so choose, together with an appropriate warning about "negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures."

"These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now," the attached message declares. "Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it, and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together."

It's too bad that the estate of Dr. Seuss didn't follow a similar policy with the six works by the beloved master of children's literature that it chose to remove from publication earlier this year. A thoughtful warning label, or explanatory notes to parents and educators, would have been preferable to trying to hide the cherished classics entirely.

Or the Seuss estate could have followed the example of Disney's earlier trouble spots, and removed the offending illustrations that featured crude racial stereotypes (none of them essential elements in the relevant books) or even edited them for modern audiences.

Such adjustments don't amount to profanation of holy writ, but rather recognition that even the most treasured stories for children don't necessarily age well. We still enjoy fairy tales by the brothers Grimm, for example, though they've long ago been purged of the bloody, cruel and even sadistic elements of the original German editions, sanitized with the brothers' own approval before their deaths in the mid-19th century.

"Cancel culture" may feature its share of idiotic excesses, but hysterical comparisons to Nazi book burnings or Orwellian censorship deserve their own cancellation. Attempts to adjust or update creative triumphs from the past may be benighted, of course, but can also be benign. The fact that we no longer merely wink or chuckle at crude and racist content is a sign not of societal decline but of striking progress. In the end, worries about attacks on classics we are still, for the most part, free to cherish have, like fears of the Big Bad Wolf himself, been much overblown.

Michael Medved hosts a daily radio talk show and is author, most recently, of God's Hand On America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era. Follow him on Twitter: @MedvedSHOW.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.