Disney’s Bad Voodoo and other Pagan News of Note

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 24, 2009 — 26 Comments

Top Story: Pop-culture critics have been seemingly too distracted by the 3-D CGI spectacular that is “Avatar” to give much attention to the latest Disney 2-D hand-drawn “princess” movie. Luckily, Religion Dispatches delivers us temporarily from discussions about Hollywood’s pantheism to instead talk about presentations of New Orleans Voodoo in “The Princess and the Frog”. According to Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Miami, the film gives a prejudiced and misinformed” reading of the often misunderstood religion.

“I do not know where to begin my comments on how this film perpetuates offensive stereotypes about Voodoo. The loas are represented as evil spirits full of greed and anger … The terms Voodoo, Hoodoo, and conjuring are used interchangeably throughout. In the end one is presented with an evil religion that will ultimately fail. I did not expect critical race analysis or a sophisticated presentation of Voodoo when I walked into the theater. It is, after all, Disney. I did not expect such a blatant, racist, and misinformed presentation of Voodoo, however. The reduction of religion to magic is also reaffirmed in the curious absence of Catholicism in the film. My son is correct, Disney Voodoo is bad magic; it just doesn’t have anything to do with the authentic African Diaspora religion.”

In addition to getting New Orleans/Louisiana Voodoo horribly wrong, it seems the film gets New Orleans itself all wrong. In another Religion Dispatches piece, Anthea Butler, associate professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania, says the film is a big desecrating “lump of coal” that “picks up where Katrina left off”.

“I’m going to go all out and say that the entire movie is a wholesale desecration of New Orleans, Creole culture, Cajun Culture, religion, zydeco music, the Evangeline story, and Louis Armstrong (I’ll get to that in a minute.) Rolled up, Disney hates the South, period … I know it’s only a movie, but movies shape how people, especially children, view the world. In the case of New Orleans and the myriad of cultures it holds, to stint on all of the facets that make New Orleans and Louisiana the wonderful, complex, and sometimes exasperating place that it is is a crime. Disney’s princesses, once again, may have big beautiful eyes, but while kids are enjoying the view, Disney’s hack job of deconstructing history by making it “cute” is just as destructive as a category 5 hurricane. Fun and truth do not have to be mutually exclusive to sell a movie, unless of course you’re just bankrupt of ideas.”

Of course, Disney has a long history of acquiring and terraforming pieces of culture, transforming them to a point where most people think the Disney version is the original. There’s a reason why “disneyfication” is a pejorative term. So you get a Disney New Orleans where the Voodoo is bad, Catholicism is absent, tradition is ignored, and history is mangled. In the end, it’s more about extending the Princess brand, than doing something creative or original.

In Other News: The Pierce County Herald spotlights Circle Sanctuary’s efforts to send holiday care packages to troops in Iraq.

“The Circle Sanctuary in Barneveld is also remembering soldiers at Fort Hood Texas – where a Wisconsin unit lost three of its members in last month’s shooting rampage. Selena Fox, a senior minister of the Wiccan Church, said the Circle group sent packages to about 50 active duty personnel at Fort Hood to show extra support. They’ve also provided counseling for the Pagan soldiers at the base – and they sent holiday cheer to 150 Pagan troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

I’m sure it’s still not too late to donate, and help them in their efforts.

NPR reports on the rise of sorcery and witchcraft-related arrests and sentencing in Saudi Arabia, and talks to an expert who posits that the recent increase is a reaction to the government trying to curb the influence of the religious police.

“Saudi political analyst Tawfiq al-Saif says religious authorities truly believe they are helping society by discouraging faith in the supernatural. But, he says, there is also a political reason for the recent rise in sorcery cases. In the past few years, the government has tried to curb the influence of the religious establishment by sacking key religious figures, pushing for reform in the courts and criticizing the religious police. “One time, I met the head of the Hey’a [the religious police] and he was really sorry because in the past he was saying that they were free to do whatever they like to enforce the Sharia laws — even, he said, in the public buses, in the train, in the airports,” Saif says. But now that they are under pressure, the religious police are trying to flex their muscles in the few ways they still can, including looking for people who practice magic or who don’t pray five times a day, and for women who don’t properly cover their hair, Saif says.”

Does this mean that the plight of people like Fawza Falih Muhammad Ali and Ali Sibat are due to the last grasps at control by a shrinking power in the country? Or has the “muscle flexing” by the religious police shifted matters to their liking, and we’ll only see more madness and death in the near future? I suppose it remains to be seen, but I worry that any long-term solution to this anti-sorcery madness will come too late for the unlucky caught in this cultural crossfire.

For a somewhat different take on the problem of sorcery in the Middle East, The Epoch Times looks at Dubai, who have far more liberal laws concerning sorcery, but who also deal with rampant fraud and scam-artists.

“In the United Arab Emirates, and Dubai in particular, authorities take a more liberal stance. However, because of the large number of scam artists posing as sorcerers and exorcists in Dubai, police have set up a special task to crack down on so-called “magic-related crimes.” “Some people are just simple and anything will fool them,” Khaleel Al-Mansouri, the head of Dubai’s Criminal Investigation Department, told local newspaper seven days earlier this year. “It’s due to a lack of education, but also because the victims are greedy and are looking for a quick profit. “Our officers are highly skilled and they carry out special undercover patrols in shopping malls throughout Dubai looking for any sorcery crime that might be occurring.” In 2008 alone, fraudsters fleeced Dh130 million (US$35.5 billion) out of unsuspecting members of the public in sorcery scams.”

They also manage to interview a taxi driver, Hassan Hamadi, who also works as an exorcist. He claims he charges no money for his services, and lives in fear of being arrested by the sorcery task-force. However, despite the threat of arrest, because laws are more liberal (no death-penalty) places like Oman in the Persian Gulf has become, according to one journalist, a hotbed of “sorcerers and mystics”. Such is, I believe, the consequence of creating a legal gray area. They eliminate death-penalties and long prison terms for sorcery, but enough of a penalty remains to keep the practice criminal, underground, and unregulated. One wonders if they repealed all laws and dealt with fraud on a purely secular basis if a home-grown “neo-sorcery” would emerge, much like Wicca did in England. Maybe, maybe not, but arresting, and in the case of Saudi Arabia, killing, “witches” doesn’t seem to ever “solve” the problem.

In a final note, here’s a unique opinion essay at the American Thinker by Selwyn Duke that debunks the pagan origins of Christmas, while acknowledging the great debt we owe to “pagan” pre-Christian cultures.

“If we were to discard all things pagan, I should think we’d plunge ourselves back into the Stone Age. We walk on concrete, record our knowledge with letters, and designate our months with names originated/invented by the pagan Romans. We steer our boats with rudders invented by the pagan Chinese; make calculations with numbers invented by pagan Indians; and create computer graphics, medical imaging, and designs for buildings and bridges using geometry formalized by pagan Greeks. And much of our philosophy (and much of that drawn upon by early Christians, mind you) was generated by pagans such as Aristotle and Plato. Should we “go Taliban” and burn all their works — and other books thus influenced? A pious Christian must believe that pagans could not have had the whole Truth, but only an ignorant Christian would believe they had no Truth.”

I would happily concede Christmas as wholly Christian if those same culture-warriors would acknowledge that their foundation is built on the advances made by “pagans”. Heck, I’d even call it a “Christmas miracle”.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Baruch Baruch

    Recent news from Dubai suggests that its movers and shakers have been living in a protracted vacation from financial reality. Perhaps it's no surprise that the common people fall for "spiritual" charlatans. (Hey, this all reminds me of another country…)

    Baruch Dreamstalker

    • Tomb

      I still think the movie was one of my favorite this year….

  • http://Fire-Lyte.blogspot.com Fire Lyte

    Umm… I don't know if this will gain me some sort of flaming or what, but I like Disney. I grew up watching Disney, and as far as I can tell, they're big fans of making kid-friendly fantasy stories – perhaps with a bit of true fairy tale thrown in. I mean, the Princess and the Frog story isn't even African based. Why doesn't somebody gripe about that? Maybe, because it's not really a big deal…

    I think people will take it for what it is: a cute, kid-friendly story with plenty of memorable characters and magic. If you can be okay with the Simpsons doing a story with 'Wiccans' who were nothing of the sort, why complain when Voodoo is just used as the name for the magic of the Fairy Godmother character and the bad guy?

    Love and Lyte,

    Fire Lyte

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/Erynn Erynn

      And I'm sure that some folks thought Disney's "Song of the South" was a lovely kid-friendly pic too.

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/youngsoulrebel Ruadhan

        Have you ever actually seen Song of the South? I've noticed most people who rails up against it actually haven't — at best, they last saw it at the 1974 or 1986 cinematic re-release. It's never had a NTSC VHS release nor any DVD release to speak of, so only a handful of people alive today have actually seen it recently enough to remember.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Song_of_the_South
        If you've actually seen it recently (it's not at all hard to obtain a pirate download film), you'll notice that it begins with a card reading "1867", making the accusations of "master-slave relationship" false, as it's technically set very early in the reformation. As recently as 2003, the Online Film Critics Society ranked it as #67 out of the 100 greatest films of all time — and while a perusal of the first 1/3 of their members at the top of the list reveals some overwhelmingly pale faces, I find it hard to believe that in 2009 that none of these people would realise many of the more obvious things that African diaspora peoples in the United States would consider offensive.

        I'm not going to say that it's some awesome racially-sensitive film — but it's reputation makes it seem like some kind of "cutesified" Birth of a Nation, when it very much is not. I would totally watch this with my hypothetical child, and then discuss the elements I found problematic (the worst was, I tell you, the lead child's birthday where he's already befriended a poor little white girl living in a shack with her single mother and two siblings, and a little Black boy, Johnny's mother neglected to invite either child, and Johnny is only making a fuss cos the little girl wasn't invited — serious, this is the worst thing in there that I would want a child to know is "not OK").

        The film has some considerable flaws in writing, and is definitely a product of its time in some negative ways, but in all seriousness, I'd feel better showing a child Song of the South –which, at least realistically portrays (even if made more "kid-friendly") the casual racialism and classisms of the early reformation South, than some stuff that was produced in the 1970s or later which pretty blatantly tokenises forced positive Black/White friendships, to the point of being pretty condescending to everybody involved. Better to face history head on, discuss both the bad and the good intelligently, than to pack it up and pretend it never happened.

        …but then again, kids like me cos I talk to them like they're real people.

        • http://intensedebate.com/people/Erynn Erynn

          I saw it in the 60s when I was a kid.

          • http://intensedebate.com/people/youngsoulrebel Ruadhan

            Impossible. It never saw a cinematic run in the 1960s. It's possible that you may have caught it at the 1956, 1972, or 1973 runs, but there is no way you saw it in the 1960s:
            http://www.songofthesouth.net/movie/campaigns/ind

          • http://intensedebate.com/people/Erynn Erynn

            Then it was 1972 because I was still living in Connecticut. It's not like I keep this shit on file or anything.

          • http://intensedebate.com/people/youngsoulrebel Ruadhan

            Claims are only as good as the facts behind them.

          • http://intensedebate.com/people/Erynn Erynn

            I think I can be forgiven for not remembering if I was 9 or 11 when I saw one particular movie once. I'm not a Disney fan and don't obsess over their details.

        • Robert M

          OK, I'll risk being flame-bait, in order to open a window into the past for those who were born after World War II.

          I did see Song of the South as a child in the late '40s or very early '50s. I liked it very much for Uncle Remus's storytelling — he was clearly the most important and admirable person in the whole movie. But the way most people treated one another in it made me very sad — I had way too much empathy for my own comfort as an emotionally labile child.

          In those far-off days, racial prejudice against Blacks was not seen as that much of a big deal by most Whites. Also, in the San Francisco Bay area at that time, the most virulent racial prejudice was against Asians, not Blacks.

          My parents had no use whatever for any rigid moral or ethical systems that went beyond the laws of the land, nor for the people who advocated them — and they would have been utterly appalled by our present ways of judging speech as "politically incorrect" or "inappropriate" — speech was, after all, just words, and therefore not very important, as their generation saw the world. But they did make a very strong case against racial prejudice to me and by brother — not because it was morally or ethically wrong, but because it was downright stupid, since the differences between "races" arose so very late in the evolution of humankind, and also because most people would turn out to be racially mixed, if only you looked deeply enough into their ancestry. Only really, really unintelligent people would take the "races" at all seriously, or waste much time thinking about them.

          So that was the context in which I saw Song of the South, soon after it came out, and how I and my parents reacted. I would have been glad to watch it again with my children in the '70s or '80s, if it had been available then; and I would have presented much the same arguments to them. I think it would have done them more good than harm.

          • http://intensedebate.com/people/youngsoulrebel Ruadhan

            I remember seeing SotS at its final re-release in 1986, I was five and so have sparse memories of that first viewing; I do remember asking my father why Johnny acted in some of the ways that he did, and his response was "that's just how people acted in the South back then, and they don't always act much better now"; twenty-three years later, I still can't argue with that.

            I can also say, now in my twenties and far more aware of racial stereotyping (and also after having having re-watched the film on a ripped MPEG) that its general portrayal of the Black characters is far more condescending than, say, King Vidor's 1929 talkie, Hallelujah (the first talkie from a major studio featuring an all-Black cast — a film Vidor had to largely fund with his own money because the studio didn't think his script would appeal to white people); but Hallelujah! is also considered remarkably "un-stereotyping" for its day, especially so when one considers it's from a white director and a major studio. Nearly fifteen years later, when Disney released SotS, there really wasn't anything stopping them from creating something better than what they did — I'm just saying that the stereotyping and condescension toward its Black characters really isn't as nasty as many people seem to believe it is. The film is also wrought with largely unquestioned class issues, and the opening scene, wherein Johnny's father leaves his wife and son with his mother "for their own safety" because "a lot of people don't like the things father writes", is too short and too ambiguous to redeem it — an optimistic person might guess that Johnny's father is pro-Reformation, while more pessimistic types could easily assume other things. Personally, I think the whole thing is more surreal than anything else.

          • Robert M

            Thanks, Ruadhan, for the link to the website about the various release dates. This helps me pinpoint my own memories better. Now I'm certain that I saw it in 1956, since I have a clear memory of the 1956 theater poster. I'm not at all sure that I didn't also see it in 1946, since that poster looks familiar also. But in 1946 I would have been too young to have understood what my father had to say about racial prejudice.

        • Ananta Androscoggin

          I remember watching it at least once on the Sunday night broadcast of "The Wonderful World of Disney," back when they still did that.

      • Riva

        "And I'm sure that some folks thought Disney's "Song of the South" was a lovely kid-friendly pic too."

        Ahh you beat me to it. Remember when Disney had to change a line in Aladdin's opening song because it was demed by some to violent and offensive the the Arab community;

  • Juliaki

    Saw Song of the South (thank you foreign DVD imports) recently and can't wait until our kid is old enough to share it. Really enjoyed the storytelling and the music. Always sad that I haven't been able to go on Splash Mountain to see how the movie has translated into the ride, but the drop at the end isn't my cuppa tea.

    Haven't seen The Princess and the Frog yet, but it's on the list of must sees for me. After seeing a clip of Mama Odie working conjure in a way similar to something I've done, I can't wait to see how she works into the movie at large.

    But when it comes to fairy tales in general, I don't know of any fairy tale (in Disney, literature, other movie releases, etc.) that really does portray a real location as it truly is. To me, that's part of the charm of fairy tales. I can enjoy the work of the Brothers Grimm without gnashing my teeth because it isn't historically accurate. That's why it's a fairy tale and not a documentary.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Nope Snoozepossum

    Afaik, you can still get it from Blackstar UK. If you can't and want one, I have SOTS in .avi – tag me on my blog.

    I remember seeing it in the early 70's as a little kid, and I wanted an Uncle Remus who would come tell me stories like that, and be cool when everybody else sucked. For it's day, it was a groundbreaker. It was one of the first films to have a black actor get top billing, and it gave James Baskett the means to be the first black actor to win an Academy award. I think it's a shame that so many kids have missed out on his wonderful voice and presence because of PC nitpicking.

  • Caturo

    Duke said:
    «But now we'll dig deeper and discuss the myth of Mithras and Sol. That is to say, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the December 25 Christmas celebration is based on either pagan deity. In fact, all the best evidence tells us something striking about the matter: neither Mithras's birth nor the celebration of Sol's even occurred on the 25th. As to the former, writer and Mithras-cult-expert Roger Beck called the notion of the deity's December 25 birth "that hoariest of 'facts.'"»

    But, what he DID NOT say was this:

    «It is often stated that Mithras was thought to have been born on December 25. But Beck tells us that this is not so. In fact he calls this assertion 'that hoariest of "facts"'. He continues: "In truth, the only evidence for it is the celebration of the birthday of "Invictus" on that date in Calendar of Philocalus. 'Invictus' is of course Sol Invictus, Aurelian's sun god.»
    (Source: Wikipedia)

    So, 25th December was indeed a Pagan date for celebration.

  • Caturo

    Moreover, according to this,
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas#Christian_
    the first Christians didn't even celebrate the birth of Jesus, considering the celebration of any birth as a Pagan thing.

  • Caturo

    Therefore, this celebration is, indeed, a Pagan rooted festival.

  • Pingback: Disney, the Academy and Co Paves the Way Against Vodou « The Invisible Web()

  • Hathor

    I actually saw "The frog princess," and while I can attest most of the above criticisms are true, I didn't think the character of Ms. Oday was negative, but then again I don't know if they did such a great job at making the point she too is a Voodoo practitioner…

  • http://wachwurd.jimdo.com/ Malaz

    I'd like to point out that, while this media v. "us" war is always ongoing, I felt the same way about "The Mummy" in which the character Imhotep was portrayed as the "ultimate baddy" he was actually more like the Egyptian Confucius.

    As far as the 'hotbed of sorcerers', well, we can only hope. ;)

  • http://www.robinartisson.com Robin Artisson

    Being from New Orleans, I'd have to say that negative or lame portrayals of New Orleans are commonplace. I don't even stop to notice them anymore. It would be supremely nice to have someone make a movie about the place, which includes characters that can speak without sounding like morons with accents that don't actually exist there, and with depictions of how races, cultures, and religions actually exist together there. It is one of the most spiritually powerful places I know, easily as powerful in its own way as anything I ever saw in Ireland or Britain. Even the Catholicism there is somehow less offensive than in other places.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/TeNosce TeNosce

    I live for this blog. :) Have a good X-Mas Eve.

  • Heather

    I used to work at Disney and know many people who work there, including some very talented Black artists who made damn sure they weren't re-making Song of the South when working on Princess and the Frog. As has been noted, the Mama Oday character is a positive Voudoun/Hoodoo Priestess model who is more powerful than the villain Dr. Facilier and his evil sorcery. It's true that specific religious references are blurred, but this has always been a common Disney practice. Remember, this is the studio that managed to pull off setting an entire film at Notre Dame (Hunchback) without hardly showing a cross…