Most of my peers grew up with Disney animated movies. They watched the classics — The Lion King, Pocahontas, Beauty and the Beast… I didn’t. To this day, I’ve seen a grand total of two Disney animations: Dumbo and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.
Yes, yes, I know. I haven’t seen The Lion King, or Bambi, which is sometimes marked out as an oddity if it comes up in conversations with friends, as though I’m confessing an eccentric habit.
Disney’s movies are a fond presence in millions of childhoods throughout the world, and beyond (last year, a friend asked me if I wanted to go and see Cinderella with her. I suggested Far from the Madding Crowd instead). But these movies aren’t as child-friendly and full of innocent wonder as they seem. In fact, they have some symbolism in them that is pretty downright disturbing.
Carmen Fought’s sociolinguistic research project is making headlines in the news right now. With her colleague, Karen Eisenhauer, they’re analyzing the dialogue in Disney’s princess movies and collecting data on the amount of times each character speaks. You’d expect the older movies – released in the 1930s and 1950s – to be male-dominated, right? Back in those days, career options for women were limited and society viewed women’s place as in the home, e.g. the proverbial ’50s housewife.
Well, no. The surprising fact is that the male/female dialogue in the early princess movies is relatively balanced: 50/50 in Snow White (1937) and in Cinderella (1950), women speak 60% of the time. But in Disney’s modern princess movies, such as The Little Mermaid, men do most of the talking. Case in point: in Beauty and the Beast, men speak 71% of the time. In Pocahontas, it’s 76% of the time.
Although the older Disney animations were more balanced in terms of gendered dialogue, their use of accents to index racial stereotypes is problematic. Indeed, when isn’t stereotyping problematic, even though our brains seem hard-wired to group people, objects and situations into categories?
Rosina Lippi-Green, an American linguist, extensively researched accent use in Disney’s animations from 1938 to 1994. Unsurprisingly, considering that Disney is a major American movie studio, the majority of characters speak with General American accents. Most of the good characters speak with American accents too, even when the ethnicity of these characters clearly isn’t American (e.g. Aladdin and Princess Jasmine in Aladdin).
But Lippi-Green found that the characters who speak foreign-accented English are more often the ones who are evil or act badly: “Around 20 per cent of U.S. English speakers are bad characters, while about 40 per cent of non-native speakers of English are evil” (Lippi-Green, 2011).
Many other characters are given linguistic stereotypes. The male characters who speak African American English (or African American Vernacular English, as it’s referred to by sociolinguists) “seem to be unemployed or show no purpose in life” (Lippi-Green, 1997: 94), perpetrating a highly offensive stereotype of male African Americans as idle, lazy and jobless. To give just one example out of many: the aimless crows in Dumbo speak AAVE.
The question you might ask is, well, what does it matter if my child watches the animated canon of Disney movies? Your average four year old isn’t going to be taking notes on how many lines each character has, or analyzing whether the good character speaks with a Western accent as opposed to a foreign one. It would be ludicrous to suggest that every child who grows up with Disney is going to end up being a prejudiced bigot.
But the stereotypes and categorizations highlighted by Fought, Eisenhauer, Lippi-Green and colleagues are more treacherous than you might think. The effect of subliminal messages can be immensely powerful.
“…children are not passive vessels who sit in front of the television and let stories float by them. What they take in is processed and added to the store of data on how things – and people – are categorized” (Lippi-Green, 2011, p. 104).
Disney movies may seem to be harmless entertainment for all the family, but the messages within them contribute to reinforce the way we (and by ‘we’, I mean society in general) view the world. Fought and Eisenhauer’s explanation for the uneven balance of male/female dialogue in Disney’s more recent princess movies isn’t that Disney has a patriarchal agenda. It’s simply that masculinity tends to be the default – these movies have larger casts but fewer female roles. In the Washington Post article about Fought and Eisenhauer’s research, Eisenhauer comments:
My best guess is that it’s carelessness, because we’re so trained to think that male is the norm,” says Eisenhauer, a graduate student at North Carolina State. “So when you want to add a shopkeeper, that shopkeeper is a man. Or you add a guard, that guard is a man. I think that’s just really ingrained in our culture.”
How many of you, reading this post right now, automatically use ‘he’ if you’re unsure of the gender of something (a bird flying overhead, say, or a dog you just met on the street)? I know I do, and I often do it unconsciously before correcting myself.
Ultimately, the problem with the categorizations witnessed in many Disney animations is that they introduce their young viewers to a deeply flawed view of the world. It isn’t simply a matter of ‘political correctness gone mad’, as some people complain. When cartoon characterizations – such as the unemployed African American – are used repeatedly and systematically, they form implicit messages that good and bad is linked to race and skin colour. Through the use of accents and dialects to signify character traits, stereotypes are strengthened.
We begin to form categories right from the start of our lives, when we begin to perceive the world and learn to connect language with meaning. And when the average American five-year-old watches 32 hours of television per week, exactly what they are taking in from the media is a question worth asking.
The question, perhaps, is not whether Disney has lost its innocence, but whether it was ever there in the first place.
What do you think? Do share your thoughts in the comments section – I’m interested in your views.
If you’re interested in reading more, Lippi-Green has the following essay on her website: Teaching Children How to Discriminate: What we learn from the Big Bad Wolf
The quotes in this post are from:
Lippi-Green, R. (1994). English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States. First edn, New York: Routledge.
Lippi-Green, R. (2011). English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States, Second edn, New York: Routledge.
Guo, J. (2016). Researchers have found a major problem with ‘The Little Mermaid’ and other Disney movies. The Washington Post. [Online]. January 25 2016.