Lady and the Tramp is a Disney cartoon considered one of their classics and based on Disney’s conventional plot which circles around two main protagonists comprised of the damsel in distress, Lady, and the hero who comes to her rescue, Tramp. This essay aims to examine reinforced stereotypes, stigmas and certain roles that are portrayed through characters in The Lady and the Tramp, while also discussing the influence and the insights of the protagonists in the cartoon.
Keywords: Hollywood, Disney, misrepresentations, stereotypes, stigmas
Lady and the Tramp
There is a very typical Disney scenario that is present in “Lady and the Tramp”. There is always a damsel in distress that needs to be rescued, and in this particular animation it is a Cocker Spaniel called Lady, that is owned by a married couple that lives in a wealthy suburban region, and is quite pampered. She is a good-looking female dog with big inviting eyes, long and thick eyelashes and a groomed coat. She is comparable to other Disney female characters like the little mermaid, Cinderella, Snow White, etc. because she embodies the stereotypical beautiful and attractive female.
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For every damsel in distress there is always a hero ready to save her. The hero here is called, Tramp; a free spirited ladies’ man. Surprisingly, he doesn’t fit into the traditional male hero role when it comes to his appearance (a street dog) but, like all heroes, he ends up winning the female’s heart and they live happily ever after together.
According to Disney’s Dolls article, archetypal Disney characters who are generally young females are in their nature happy and remain in suspended animation awaiting a man who would give them a life of adventure and meaning (Kathie Maoi, 1998). Here, Tramp rescues Lady after she is attacked by dogs that pursued her when she escaped from her foster’s house. Lady was under the care of Jim Dear and Darling, right until Tramp came along. Although Lady is not a human, she is nonetheless created with some makeup on, shaped eyebrows, long feminine eyelashes with big blue eyes and flowing hair; groomed and physically taken care of, unlike Tramp. Her speech is also quite refined and reflects a rather high status as a dog. Lady is purely another version of other Disney female characters that are repeatedly depicted as dependent, powerless damsels that fall into danger and require a male hero to save them from the trenches. (TV Tropes, n.d).
The plot of the movie itself is not as complex as other Disney animations since here there are no actual villains but instead situations that simply oppose the two protagonists, like Aunt Sarah (the temporary foster) and the dog catchers. It is still however, a story centered on love and romance, highlighted in scenes like when Tramp invited Lady out for on a date at an Italian restaurant and they ended up kissing, and when he ultimately won her heart by attacking the rat at the end. The animation in its core is somewhat different from other classical Disney movies since all the leading characters are dogs. The supporting characters are the Siamese cats and the two human men Tony and Joe, the Italian owner/manager and chef. It still however presents characters that are charged with Asian, Mexican, Russian and Italian stereotypes.
The Siamese cats in the movie, Si and Am, are represented with clichéd Asian manners of speech and typical slanted eyes. Their personalities are quite sneaky and cunning, always plotting and do not have the best of intentions. They even trashed the house’s living room where Lady was living, attempted to devour the pet fish, and even put the blame on Lady for the clutter that they themselves caused. Siamese cats in their nature however, are actually quite affectionate, reliable, and friendly, so their real characteristics were not reflected, but instead presented under false stereotypes of Siamese cats and of cats in general (Pet Wave, n.d). “Lady and the Tramp” was released soon after the Korean War ended and stereotypes of Asians were very widespread in the states, which explains the hidden implication of the Siamese cats.
There is also the Chihuahua, Pedro, who lives in the dog pound and of course, has exaggerated Mexican traits and features. He is given a heavy Latino accent and actually says that he is in the country illegally. He appears only in the scene where Lady is taken to the dog pound after she is caught, and he is doing nothing except sitting in a pile of straw throughout the entire scene. He only says two lines in the whole movie; “pardon me, amigo. What is this ‘chili heel?” and “…my sister Rosita Chiquita Juanita Chihuahua, I think”, both indicating the typical Mexican stereotypes of them having long names and being uneducated, obviously generalizing and misrepresenting (Pierre, 1999). These are among the standard stereotypes of Mexicans that are still evident today, continuously “[they are] portrayed as illiterate criminals…lazy, dirty, and physically unattractive” (Holder, 2012).
There is also Boris, a Russian wolfhound that has a heavy Russian accent and is seen as the philosopher and deep thinker in the dog pound scene. Here there is more of a positive stereotypical representation of Russians that indeed portrays how Russians were once the heart of European philosophy, but is still a stereotype nonetheless. As a matter of fact, it was refreshing to see a constructive portrayal of Russians as they are often linked to the Mafia in American media (Ferguson, n.d.). There are also Toni and Joe who work at Toni’s restaurant, where the Tramps took Lady for their dinner date, who are both based on predictable Italian stereotypes as being chubby and jovial people who speak in a heavy accent and always use fast hands gestures. This is also a stereotype that steered away from the expected Mafia/gang association that is shown in mainstream media, but nevertheless does not reflect the truths of all Italians (Ferguson, n.d.).
Some other representations are present in this Disney movie that are not exactly grounded on stereotypes but more on stigmas and positive images. The scene of the rat creeping into the babies’ room at the end of the movie to bite him does not seem very credible, and there exists a repetitive stigma of rats being wicked, crafty, and filthy, regularly correlated with disease and grime (TV Tropes, n.d.). Although the rat is not given an identity or a name, it is reproduced in such a negative light that the audience can easily form a negative image of rats in real life. When it comes to positive images, Lady’s’ neighbors, Jock and Trusty who are also her friends, are given positive roles that mirror true dog qualities such as outgoingness and devotion and even the obsession of burying bones in the yard (TV Tropes, n.d.).
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It is safe to say that Lady and the Tramp is a typical cartoon that is full of stereotypes and unreasonable beauty standards that are recurrently seen in other Disney classics. It heavily displays stereotypes that ultimately generate stigmas on particular ethnic groups like Asians and Latinos, which eventually lead to outbursts of aggression towards such minorities (Ferguson, n.d.). This warps the perceptions of such races and nationalities and even some animals, as in the case of the rat and cats as a whole, for young viewers who are exposed to these (mis)representations (Ferguson, n.d.). Lady and the Tramp is still probably a less intense version of other Disney movies that are fueled with heavy stereotypes, such as Aladdin, who rely greatly on negative stigma to formulate images of certain groups of peoples that usually end up being very far from accurate.
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