It was while I was thinking over Lady and the Tramp that I came up with the following thoughts. Of course, one aspect everyone remembers about that film are the two wicked Siamese cats who torment Lady, complete with a gleeful song about themselves. And it’s standard practice today to cringe over them a little as Oriental caricatures.
But here’s the thing to keep in mind: everyone in that film is a caricature. You’ve got the Siamese cats, but you’ve also got the Scottish dog, the Southern dog, the Russian dog, the German dog, the Park Avenue dog, the Floozy dog, the Mexican dog, and the Clark Gable dog (I can’t be the only one who sees a lot of Gable in the Tramp, can I? Or maybe William Powell…no, Powell’s too ironic. Gable all the way). Not to mention the Irish cop, the Italian cooks, the dweeby professor among the human cast.
The point, you see, is to make each character as vivid as possible so that the audience grasps what they’re about as soon as possible and then remembers them afterwards. And it works. Everyone remembers those cats and that evil little song they sing. The Russian wolfhound has one scene, but you remember him.
Personally, I don’t mind caricatures or stereotypes. For one thing, you can’t actually avoid them, people divide into groups and those groups tend to show certain characteristics. Hence the two figures of the stereotype, who fully exhibits these characteristics, and the caricature, who exaggerates them. As long as it isn’t mean or hostile or disingenuous, there’s nothing wrong with it. Quite the contrary, I’d say; it often emphasizes the uniqueness and particular charm of different cultures (see the Nutcracker sequence in Fantasia for instance, with its mushrooms and thistles as caricatures of Chinese and Russian dancers).
That isn’t quite what we’re getting with the cats, since they’re definitely antagonists (they also have a bit of a buck-tooth expression going on, which I do find a bit uncomfortable), but then, they’re cats in a dog film: it makes sense to cast them as ‘exotic’ and as foreign to the other characters as possible. Which, I suppose, is the problem in some people’s eyes, though it’s good storytelling-logic.
And that’s kind of the point, I think: this isn’t politics or social commentary, it’s just storytelling (we so often forget that these are different disciplines). It would be an extraordinary reach to say that this is intend as a statement about Siamese people in general. It’s just an attempt to make a particular set of characters particularly vivid.