Since its establishment in 1920, the Disney Corporation has since become a household name for wholesome family entertainment. Disney is often associated with promoting pure and innocent fantasies, oftentimes through the use of fairytales. As technology’s role in the lives of children increases, it has become evident that accumulated media experiences, including television and film, have increasing and lasting effects on children’s beliefs and values. Therefore, it is critical to understand how Disney’s ideology of gender types and race, through the use of film, consequently shape children’s values and lead to the formation and reinforcement of stereotypes.
Increasing research on the gender typing messages promoted through Disney films has shown various recurring themes for both male and female characters. Males in Disney films were generally portrayed as: independent, unemotional, brave, physically attractive, and performed non-domestic jobs (England, Descartes & Collier-Meek, 2011). However, females were portrayed as being a victim, physically weak, submissive, sensitive, and valued more for their beauty than intellect (England, Descartes & Collier-Meek, 2011). In a study conducted by Blaise (2005), female kindergarteners understood that make-up could be used as a powerful tool to determine and express femininity. One young girl chose to wear red lipstick and grow long hair to attract her “prince”, just like she had seen Princess Ariel do in the Disney movie ‘The Little Mermaid’. It becomes apparent that Disney’ s portrayal of gender roles leads to learned associations of gender typing that can lead to and shape stereotypical views of gendered activities, values, and roles.
Disney films largely impact the images children are exposed to shaping their attitudes towards racial prejudice. Although children can be influenced by a variety of sources, media is often most influential. In an analysis on race and culture in Disney movies, Towbin, Haddock, Zimmerman, Lund and Tanner (2003) noted three recurring themes; negative representation of non-dominant cultures, exaggerated class stereotypes, and characters with shared values are grouped together. Other research on race and culture in Disney films also note that characters of color are generally seen as villainous, therefore leading to racially stereotypic images of marginalized groups. One movie that evidences this includes Aladdin, where the hero, Aladdin, is depicted as having European features, with no accent, as to the villains whom all have Middle Eastern characteristics such as beards, and foreign accents (Anderson & Cavallaro, 2002). In addition, Disney movies have been predominately depicted to relay Western cultural norms, therefore disseminating American cultural messages to children in other cultures, leading to the “Americanization” of cultural norms (Lee, 2010).
Consequently, Disney is able to shape childrens values on gender typing and race by scripting aspects of childhood and society. One example includes the Disney adaptation of Pocahontas, which portrays themes of gender typing and race. As Giroux (1997) points out, Pocahontas was portrayed as a “brown-skinned, Barbie like supermodel with an hourglass figure”, which is an unrealistic representation of a Native American woman, let alone an average female. As Giroux (1997) points out, many young children fail to recognize the objectification of the female bodies in Disney movies. Additionally, conflicting messages about gender typing included her initial portrayal as a strong woman, only to end with her choosing to remain at home out of a sense of duty to her community rather than for herself (Towbin et al., 2008). Pocahontas was portrayed as being constrained to a certain role, thereby reinforcing stereotypes of gender typing and race.
Although children can be influenced by a variety of sources, media often serves as a powerful learning tool that helps to convey messages about race and gender roles. As Lee (2010) point out, the messages that are conveyed through Disney films have become important socializing agents that help formulate children’s identities. Although, children may not emulate exactly what they see from the films, they may see possibilities in emulating that person. Ultimately, It is imperative that children understand that gender roles are not rigid, and that race and gender do not define roles and values. Parents and educators have the power to counter these unrealistic images by displaying realistic and accurate representations of people and by exposing them to a variety of role models.
Anderson, K. J., & Cavallaro, D. (2002). Parents or pop culture? Children’s heroes and role models. Childhood Education, 78(3), 161-168. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00094056.2002.10522728
Blaise, M. (2005). A feminist poststructuralist study of children ‚”doing” gender in an urban kindergarten classroom. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 20(1), 85-108.
England, D., Descartes, L., & Collier-Meek, M. (2011). Gender role portrayal and the Disney princesses. Sex Roles, 64(7-8), 555-567. doi: 10.1007/s11199-011-9930-7
Giroux, H. A. (1997). Are Disney movies good for your kids?. Kinder-Culture: The Corporate Construction of Childhood (pp. 187-195). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Lee, L. (2010). Disney in Korea: A socio-cultural context of children’s popular culture. Red Feather Journal: An International Journal of Children’s Visual Culture, 1(2), 41-45. Retrieved from
Li-Vollmer, M., & LaPointe, M. E. (2003). Gender transgression and villainy in animated film. Popular Communication: The International Journal of Media and Culture, 1(2), 89-109. http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/S15405710PC0102_2
Towbin, M. A., Haddock, S. A., Zimmerman, T. S., Lund, L. K., & Tanner, L. R. (2004). Images of gender, race, age, and sexual orientation in Disney feature-length animated films. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 15(4), 19-44.