The Disney Phase in Childhood

Our childhood is the part of our lives that is to be reflected on, cherished, and remembered throughout our adulthood. This is the time where we have no care in the world and can live freely, solely seeking enjoyment. Many children in a similar era share the same type of childhood, one in which they indulge themselves in what they like, be it games, movies, or toys.

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One prominent and popular aspect of childhood that is frequent in the lives of many children in this day and age is the Disney phase. Disney has many great themes ingrained in its movies, such as acceptance in Beauty and the Beast and bravery in Mulan. However, there are many obvious aspects to Disney that are overlooked in its movies that more often than not harm the mentality of the viewer. 94% of all Disney movies give importance and mention physical appearance (Hathaway). Disney, most likely unintentionally, teaches young girls that their most valuable aspect is their beauty, making everything superficial and clawing at their self-esteem. This push into the direction of making value solely physical is known as the feminine beauty ideal, which is shown in almost all Disney movies with a female protagonist. There is a sharp contrast in the number of times Disney mentions feminine physical attributes and masculine. In each movie, the average number of incidences for this topic is 13.6 times, “with a range from 0 to 114 times for female physical appearance and a range from 0 to 35 times for male physical appearance” (Hathaway). This difference is representative of the polarity and inequality present when portraying genders in Disney movies. The manner in which Disney movies portray a perspective of femininity and masculinity to young girls and young boys has altered their self-images and perceptions.

Media, movies, and television are critical components of children’s lives. This can be positive and negative, as many studies have found that when shown non-traditional depictions of gender on television, children were more likely to be open-minded regarding assigning certain characteristics to a certain gender. Many articles and studies have been done where we see negative behavior from children following excessive or even limited exposure to media. Research suggests that “by the time a child is 18 years old, he or she will have seen 200,000 acts of violence and 40,000 murders on television, based on average viewing time” (Towbin). Increased exposure to violence on-screen has damaging effects on individuals, desensitizing them and stripping them of their sense sympathy gradually. Similarly, when shown beautiful and ideal characters on the same screen has negative effects as well. An obsession with beauty can increase the tendency for children, particularly girls, to involve themselves in risky behavior, and can increase vulnerability to eating disorders, mental disorders, body image issues, and sexual behavior, as Peggy Orenstein recounts (real-time) in her 2012 book Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Media has a massive impact on children, as much or perhaps even more than family and friends at some points. Therefore, what we show children truly affects their mindset.

In general, in these movies, men and women are portrayed very differently. A research “found that 96% of girls and 87% of boys had viewed Disney princess media, and more than 61% of girls played with princess toys at least once a week, compared to 4% of boys” (Salyer). For both genders, “engagement with Disney princesses was associated with more female gender-stereotypical behavior a year later” (Salyer). The influence could be positive for the boys because it encouraged better body esteem and helpfulness. It could be more negative for girls, causing them to have bad body esteem and less confidence. Moreover, men are depicted as physically aggressive, non-expressive, and as heroes for their female counterparts, reflecting the phrase “men don’t cry.” Their counterparts are shown as consistently beautiful, dependent, and are frequently involved in domestic work. We can take Beauty and the Beast (1991), for example, where these particular gender qualities are depicted. We see the malicious, arrogant Gaston undermine Belle for her intelligence and discourage women from taking part in intellectual tasks. He is not fond of her hobby for reading, which he sees as a huge difference from what women should be doing: the ideal female qualities, that consist of housework and domestic duties. Belle is shown as a very distinct woman of her time because she was much more interested in reading than in marriage or Gaston himself. He says, “It’s not right for a woman to read. Soon she starts getting ideas and thinking??”” (Beauty and the Beast). Particularly, since he is depicted as the antagonist in the movie, it discourages viewers from thinking that his statements about the place of women are correct in the first place. This stands in slight contrast to previous Disney movies which glorify and implement the views that Gaston has on women. Belle, later on, embraces typical, expected feminine characteristics when she is caring for her father and displays her constant affection for the Beast. The same movie, then, highlights expected stereotypical characteristics that a woman is to entail. Thus, children who view this movie may begin to believe that a woman must have certain character traits to make her who she is. In many of these movies, the idea of love is glorified and almost worshipped. In Cinderella and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, for example, Snow White and Cinderella are sought by a man who is in love with them. They long for a “happily ever after” with their respective partners, who are to provide everything in their lives. Snow White and Cinderella have no legitimate goal except to gain their love and get married. The male characters are charming and strong, prioritizing and fighting for their love. Marriage, love, and men are the driving forces in these movies,while women are much more passive. These ideals may cause young girls to internalize the idea and to seek admiration and love from their male peers. A seemingly irrelevant example can be seen today, with the increasing number of relationships teenagers are getting in to. Their childhood was full of characters falling in love and eloping to a land far away to live happily ever after, and they seek to mimic this in their own lives as well. Depending upon a man for the ideal, happy life becomes one of their important dreams and goals, and pursuing a career comes second to this.

In a researcher’s analysis of each gender’s occupations in Disney movies, it was found that “male Disney characters held a diversity of jobs, including miner, governor, salesman, chef, doctor, lawyer, sailor, space ranger, and musician” (Towbin). There were 26 different male occupations in just 16 movies, which stands in sharp contrast to the three occupations for women, which were a sheep tender, thief, and fairy. Regarding domestic work, there were 24 occurrences where the jobs were given to women, and only four for men, two of which were for the butler in Aristocats. (Towbin)

A thematic analysis was done by Towbin, which involves doing studying the elements of 26 Disney movies from 1937 to 2000 and noting the recurring themes and depictions. There were five themes regarding men. One was that men primarily use physical means to express their emotions or show no emotions (Towbin). Gaston in Beauty and the Beast uses violence and threats to attempt to intimidate and win Belle’s attention, making it seem like women admire physical displays of strength. Men are not in control of their sexuality (Towbin) is another one; men seem enchanted when they view a beautiful woman. Men are naturally strong and heroic (Towbin) is shown in many movies, a famous one being Tarzan, where Tarzan is known to save Jane. Men have non-domestic jobs (Towbin) was analyzed in the previously mentioned study as well. Finally, we see the theme overweight men have negative characteristics; they are portrayed as “sloppy, unintelligent, and overly focused on eating” (Towbin) in movies.

Similar categories for themes were analyzed for women. A recurring theme in a lot of movies, not just Disney, is the idea of a woman’s appearance being valued more than her intellect. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, for example, the Queen’s intent on killing and getting rid of Snow White is because she is the fairest of all, showing a sort of competition and longing to be beautiful that should be instilled in all women who are deemed to be unattractive by society. Another prominent theme is the idea of helplessness, where women are shown to be dependent on men to survive, to be saved, and to be protected. The typical example is of those princesses who need their one true love’s kiss to be released from their sleep (Sleeping Beauty and Snow White). Women also tend to be domestic and more likely to seek marriage, as we see in Cinderella; her ultimate goal is marriage saving her difficult life. A final theme which is touched upon is the parallel between unattractiveness, goodness, and love. Overweight women are ugly, unpleasant, and unmarried (Towbin). The stepmother in Cinderella is overweight and mean to the protagonist. This emphasizes the unrealistic idea that bad people are not pleasant to look at, which is not true; children may start to believe this ideal and avoid strangers who do not seem thin, fair, and beautiful to them. These five themes portrayed for men and for women are very harmful to the children viewing them because children have no real-life experience and their television and media experiences become their source for their young lives. Following these ideas may affect them later in their lives and cause them to be subconsciously following the values presented in their beloved Disney movies.

One extremely controversial example of women fitting in to these themes is found in Aladdin, where Jasmine plans on distracting the Sultan by taking on the role of a seductress. This being in a children’s movie may show children that the way for a woman to have power and get what she wants is to manipulate them with her sexuality. One other shocking example is in Beauty and the Beast, where the Beast captures and imprisons Belle, keeps her from her father, shouts at her constantly, and lets her starve unless she eats with him. Regardless of this treatment, Belle falls in love and submits the majority of the time. This can hint at an example of domestic abuse and put out the idea that it is justified for men to abuse women; women should tolerate it and love their abuser regardless of their maltreatment. Finally, other research which showed the number of speaking lines male characters and female characters had in Disney movies showed that male characters are found to be speaking for a longer period of total time than their female counterparts. One specific example is in The Little Mermaid, where Ariel literally loses her voice to go on land and meet her love. This shows, in some respects, that her voice doesn’t quite have too much importance, and that she must sacrifice her expression of her thoughts and solely use her appearance to appeal to the Prince. She could not express her mind, thoughts, or intellect to win her love, which brings about the idea of appearance being the only criteria for validation for a woman and the sole reason for marriage.

One of the biggest issues in these movies is the body that is visually glorified. A good character is fair, thin, and beautiful, usually shown by a princess. On the opposite spectrum, evil characters are shown to have an unattractive physical appearance; an example is Ursula in The Little Mermaid (1989). Girls are pushed to thinking that beauty defines good character and that ugly, unattractive, and overweight characters are evil and have bad intentions. Introducing more stereotypical images in the media, like Disney princess depictions, to young girls causes them to believe that these are the types of bodies they should have to gain love and be a good person. Disney princesses have unrealistically tiny waists, large breasts, batting eyelashes, long necks, thin wrists, and enormous eyes. The images of each of the princesses are exaggerated, and this image doesn’t really serve a purpose either; there is no justification for this portrayal. Disney could do as well with an animated character that had more realistic body parts and proportions. In an interview, the majority of the preadolescent girls acknowledged that many images in the media are often unrealistic and unattainable (Towbin). They view these images as favorable, causing them to still be unhappy with their body image. It may be acknowledged that Disney princess films contain unrealistically thin body images. Nevertheless, in accordance with this view, young girls may become dissatisfied with their body shapes because they believe that other individuals view the idealized princess images as desired.

Racism and colorism in Disney are prominent in older films; Disney protagonists tend to be light-skinned. Disney classics from the 1950s have predominantly white characters. In, “Seeing White: Children of Color and the Disney Fairy Tale Princess,” Dorothy Hurley speaks about culture and racism in Disney. She explains, “The problem of pervasive, internalized privileging of Whiteness has been intensified by the Disney representation of fairy tale princesses which consistently reinforces an ideology of White supremacy” (Hurley 223). Snow White and Cinderella, the classic films, portray white-skinned female characters. Snow White is loved by many and is known to be the “fairest of them all,” which makes the Queen jealous. This proves that being white and light-skinned was an admirable visual trait for women. Furthermore, Cinderella fits the characteristics of a white woman with blonde hair and light skin, which is juxtaposed with her evil stepsisters’ complexion; they are darker. Young girls of all ages and from all countries were shown the images of princesses that reflected the prevalent white favoritism of the time. Disney also affects children in the way that they feel about minority groups and thus their own identity; the racism of reality is reflected in these films. Minority groups did not make an appearance in the earlier films, indirectly representing that they are not as important. Huntemann and Morgan explained, “Children and adolescents who do not see characters “like themselves” on television are learning a fundamental lesson about their group’s importance in society…a loud and clear message that they do not count for very much in society.”

Numerous research studies have been done on elementary school children, between the ages of five and ten, to discover the effects that Disney images have. Young girls who come from a minority group may not be happy with where they come from because they do not resemble the characters whom they view on a daily basis. Their sense of belonging is skewed and taken away, causing confusion and chaos in their developing minds. They may not believe that cultural differences are valued and that they must be lower than those who are portrayed so frequently. In later films, the underrepresented are more present and take on more important, positive, and impactful roles.

Many movements for body image have been made in the recent era. There are three waves of Disney films: the first one includes Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty; the second one includes The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Mulan; the most recent era includes The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Brave, and Frozen” (Johnson). The more recent era has progressive messages regarding body images; Disney has formed and broken many stereotypes over the three eras. It is much more inclusive of minority groups; The Princess and the Frog has a black female protagonist, Tiana. Tiana does, however, seem a bit more westernized in her characteristics. She is “like all the other princesses are young, slender, and has flowing straightened hair showing how she fits the white idealization of beauty” (Johnson).

In addition to body image, things seem to be changing for the better for all images in Disney; modern progressive messages about gender equality and breaking the gender roles play a huge role in movies now. There are more culturally diverse characters. Asian, Native American, and even Arab characters have had representation in films.

is one of the first movies where Disney steps away from the typical group of white characters. Towbin states, “Mulan is the first animated Disney film to attempt to accurately depict Asian culture” (37). Although they do not portray these groups accurately, the inclusion of them itself is a huge step and relays positive messages to the viewers. Some ethnic groups are shown in a positive way; Towbin explains, “Pocahontas’s village is presented in a natural setting, with Native American characterizations that are respectful” (32). This film shows the norms on the opposite spectrum, portraying the white characters as the barbaric and the dark-skinned characters as the peaceful. This display of the opposite may cause boys and girls from minority groups to have a wider array of information, versus the previous era with a single type of depiction.

Disney is a huge part of many of our childhoods. It has many positive effects and many negative. Gender policing is a critical component of young boys and girls’ lives, dominating their sense of social inclusion. Transgressing the socially moulded gender expectations can cause them to experience alienation. Boys and girls face this issue when exploring themselves and trying to form an identity. To avoid ridicule and mockery, children may look to Disney and other media to learn about the behaviors that they should have according to their sex. Lacking role models and turning to television as guidance, young girls and boys identify themselves with these characters, which affects the way they form beliefs about their true importance and role in society. Many positive themes come out of Disney movies, although they may be seen as outnumbered by the negative. Disney movie characters become the ideal person for young boys and girls; they serve as role models. If those roles are exceptionally gendered and stereotypical, then young girls will perceive these images to be the socially accepted norms to follow.

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