Disney Movies and Shaping Children’s Ideas of Gender

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Almost everyone grew up watching Disney films; we remember the characters and the story lines well. Many little girls wanted to grow up to be Belle or Cinderella and many little boys wanted to be Aladdin or Hercules. These characters were our idols; they embodied everything that we wanted to be when we were young.

But by looking a little bit further into Disney films, it’s easy to realize that they were setting up gender roles for us as kids that we aren’t completely comfortable with today.

In our society today, there is a huge pressure from all sides to conform to a certain ideal of beauty; we are inundated with all types of images and media forms telling us who to be and what to look like. These pressures can become so overwhelming, that we will go to drastic lengths to change something about ourselves.

From an early age, mainstream media puts images into our brains, telling us what is appropriate for our gender type. Young girls are hounded with images of princesses, who tell them that the key to happiness is being fashionable, beautiful, and finding a prince to save you. Young men are taught that to be successful, you must be good looking and muscular; and are sometimes even taught that to be successful means to be manipulative.

In the article, “What’s Wrong With Cinderella?,” written by Peggy Orenstein, a mother, Orenstein has a problem with the amount of princess imagery all around us. She writes that you can’t go anywhere today without someone bringing up the idea of a princess, especially if you have a young daughter with you. The author opens her article by recalling a time that her daughter was called “princess” by a waitress, who brought her “princess pancakes” and tried to guess “the princesses’ favorite color.” The author goes on to ask the question of, “does every little girl have to be a princess?,” which is a valid point. Why is it important for little girls to be feminine, wearing pink, and playing with dolls? Why must young girls stick to such domestic stereotypes?

The princesses are possibly the most popular Disney characters besides Mickey and Minnie. They are instantly recognizable to us in terms of their name, dress, story, relationships, etc. When we begin to look closer though, we notice certain similarities between the princesses in terms of physiques and attitudes. In the article by Towbin et al, “Images of Gender, Race, Age, and Sexual Orientation in Disney Feature-Length Animated Films,” the authors grant these four common characteristics to female Disney characters: “(a) A woman’s appearance is valued more than her intellect, (b) Women are helpless and in need of protection, (c) Women are domestic and are likely to marry, and (d) Overweight women are ugly, unpleasant, and unmarried .”

We also see many commonalities in terms of body type: the princesses all have long legs and small waists. Their facial features are dainty and feminine. They have long hair, flawless skin, and have nice clothes (with the exception of “pre-princess” Cinderella). The princesses are good singers, wealthy, and many of them seem to thoroughly enjoy household chores, such as cleaning. They have seemingly perfect lives and their beauty only helps them advance in life.

In “Things Walt Disney Never Told Us” written by Kay Stone, similar findings on stereotypes and gender roles were found, but Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Cinderella were the only princesses analyzed. Stones results concluded that all three princesses were pretty and passive and all three had female villains. This strongly enforces a popular stereotype of innocent beauty victimized by villains. Stone also found all were patient, obedient, industrious, quiet, and all required to be saved by men.

Young males who watch Disney films see male characters who are above average in physical ability, like in “Mulan,” “Pocahontas,” and “Beauty and the Beast.” In an article discussing the images and portrayal of different genders and races in Disney films, the authors, Mia Adessa Towbin, et al, write that, “(a) Men primarily use physical means to express their emotions or show no emotions, (b) Men are not in control of their sexuality, (c) Men are naturally strong and heroic, (d) Men have non-domestic jobs, and (e) overweight men have negative characteristics.”

As Michael Kimmel points out in “Bros Before Hoes”, girls aren’t the only one who grow up with forced gender stereotypes they feel the need to live up to.  The young boys that watch these movies eventually grow up to be young men who still strongly believe in these gender roles because that is what society has pushed on them from a very young age. As Kimmel points out in his article, this can lead to the idea of “Guyland”, which involves the potentially dangerous cultures of entitlement, protection, and silence when it comes to violence and sexual assault.

Now, obviously, Disney movies and their huge popularity are not disappearing anytime soon (nor should they, because although they do enforce gender roles, they do teach other important lessons children need to learn; and are just generally good movies).  Although we can be more proactive as a culture to make sure that children know that these movies should not be guides for how to form one’s attitude on gender.

-A

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