The Walt Disney Animation Studios have a long-standing history of creating art in the early to mid-1900’s that while in its day was socially acceptable, has proven culturally problematic by today’s standards. This is most prominently seen in Disney’s 1955 hit Lady and the Tramp.
The film follows a privileged Cocker Spaniel named Lady whose pampered lifestyle is infringed upon after her owners have a baby. Eventually, these owners leave Lady and the newborn child in the hands of a character named Aunt Sarah who brings her two Siamese cats to the household they reside in. These twin cats are introduced once Aunt Sarah leaves the room, prompting their song “The Siamese Cat Song.” This musical number is embedded with several culturally offensive myths and stereotypes in both the lyrics and animation of the cats, Si and Am, that arguably can be consider one of the most racist cartoon musical numbers ever depicted on film.
The heritage of racist Asian and Asian American stereotypes in American film has long been depicted by the Siamese cat’s usage in representing a one-dimensional misrepresentation of the Asian human. This breed’s sociopolitical and historical rise to fame dates back as early as the 14th century. The Kingdom of Siam, known as the absolute monarchy of Thailand, gave the name “Siamese” to the cat breed (Tresor Cats). The personality and unique physical appearance of the breed gave way to Siam’s royal elite distinguishing the cat as their pet of choice (Tresor Cats). This clarifies as to why the Lady and the Tramp’s writing team decided on Si and Am for the names of their two cats and further proves how Disney was intending to portray Asian culture through these characters. The Siamese cat became a staple of an insensitively distorted film culture, specifically when Lady and the Tramp premiered in the mid 1950’s.
Si and Am emerge into the story when the protagonist of the film, a Cocker Spaniel named Lady, is left with her Aunt Sarah, a caretaker who brings along the two Siamese cats in a picnic basket. Aunt Sarah leaves Lady alone with the felines to tend to the newborn baby, beginning the sequence of “The Siamese Cat Song.” Si and Am, lurking in their basket, evaluate the terrified Cocker Spaniel as a sinister string and chime instrumental introduction plays in the background. The preeminent sound of a gong rings as the cats distinguish contact with the dog and Lady becomes aware of their presence. After eyeing the room, as if to verify the coast is clear, they emerge from their basket and reveal their large eyes with the exaggerated detail of a sharp slant. Their bucked teeth are then visible, which becomes more noticeable as the duo begin to sing with very heavy Asian accents and grammatically incorrect lyrics. This is proof of how myth is a type of speech, where this mode of representation is used In terms of individuality, Si and Am have none. They are the exact same in every aspect: their eyes and coat are identical, they sing the same lyrics, their movements seem to mirror each other’s, and they conjugate the same mischievous ideas.
The animation and lyrical style of the cats suggest the view that all Asian cultures are identical, erasing each’s respected individual customs. While they are domesticated felines, they are cynical and crafty in their destructive actions, having not a single care or remorse for the chaos they create, such as pushing over a vase, clawing at the drapes, and attempting to eat the pet goldfish. The lyrics propose that the duo is plundering the residence only until they have consumed all that there is to offer when they sing, “Now we’re looking over our new domicile. If we like we stay for maybe quite a while.” When they deem it’s no longer beneficial for them to stay there, they’ll migrate to their next innocent target. To state it denotatively, they are a colonial terror. These racial associations are clearly tied to America’s patronage to the Allied powers and their tensions during World War II with the Axis powers. Thailand was one of Japan’s biggest supporters during the Franco-Thai war of 1940, which was waged by Japan against France. This gave way to Japanese internment camps, where over 100,000 Asian Americans were detained, regardless of the American citizenship, and the sudden growth in anti-Asian views.
Lady and the Tramp premiered a decade after the conclusion of World War II; the animators of the film’s depiction of Si and Am were indisputably influenced by the lasting prejudice and fanatical American patriotism of the war. Looking at American views of their preferred pets is also a way to denotatively evaluate the Siamese pair. Dogs have been deemed “man’s best friend” for what seems like forever, while cats tend to usually have a negative reputation attached to them. In Disney’s decision to make the villains of Lady and the Tramp cats in an era of extreme American patriotism, they further allude to the growing abhorrence of the Asian man, or “other,” by depicting the antagonists they’re unarguably portraying as Asian as the less beloved house pet.
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