Disney’s Loss of Innocence: language, race and gender in children’s animated movies

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Disney Orlando castle at night. By Veryhuman (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Most of my peers grew up with Disney animated movies. They watched the classics — The Lion KingPocahontasBeauty 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?

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Walt Disney’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Public domain photo by Neelix via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Public domain photo by hhyunma

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.

Timon Studler photo

Children learn by observing. Public domain photo by Timon Studler

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.

134 thoughts on “Disney’s Loss of Innocence: language, race and gender in children’s animated movies

  1. Very interesting. We’re not a Disney family- it wasn’t a conscious decision, just not my thing and my kids ended up not being that interested. My mother-in-law is the type to go see Disney movies as an adult, and I think my husband was happy to marry someone with more grown-up tastes😉
    My older kids saw many of the movies, but my younger boys just didn’t gravitate toward them at all. We’ve never taken our kids to Disney World, and I don’t think they feel deprived. For the money, there are so many places we’d rather go.
    One thing that always bugs us is how many people just know the Disney version of a classic, rather than the original story. Some of the original stories may be dark, but to just know the dumbed-down, sanitized version seems odd.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I guess a lot of adults enjoy Disney movies because they bring back fond childhood memories. And it’s probably similar with Disney World. I don’t want to sound sanctimonious or like I’m judging anyone who chooses to go, but to me personally, it just seems so commercialized.

      Oh yes! Grimm’s fairytales, which a lot of Disney stories (such as The Little Mermaid) are based on are…well…pretty grim.

      Like

      • I grew up with Disney in the house. I also read Grimm’s Fairy Tales at night, and my much older sister succumbed me to Nightmare on Elm Street before age 8 while I played with Barbie in her princess dream palace. Growing up, I think there was a healthy balance between fairy tale magical silver linings and nightmarish evil lurking in the dark.

        For many years, I scoffed at “grown ups” who watched animated movies out of choice and without kids involved. That was until I recently had a terrifying experience for 3 weeks studying abroad. When I came home, all I wanted to do was get lost in hope and silver linings because I felt immersed in a nightmare spinning out of control that didn’t seem to end. The reality of the world was a bit scarring and jarring and my shattered spirit needed a sugary juice box, a warm blanket, and to be told that everything was really going to be okay.

        Times change. Individuals change. It’s a beautiful part of human adaptability and resilience. It’s also beautiful to be artistic and express oneself creatively in life. We’re all wired with biases and prejudices. That’s just the nature of humans. There’s no getting around it. The only thing that can be done is to acknowledge it, and accept it. If everyone were the same and there were no accents, no different races, no different languages, no different cultures, I think the world would be pretty bland. Like eating mashed potatoes for dinner every night, and only mashed potatoes. As much as I love buttery, creamy, comforting mashed potatoes, think of everything I’d miss out on – spicy Indian food, nutty Thai food, heavy German food, healthy Paleo (US American?) food. Variety and moderation are key in any kind of diet, whether that diet is ingested via movies, food, experiences, education, or social interactions. It creates a whole person and fosters awareness of what the world and its people can be like – good, bad, beautiful, and ugly.

        Liked by 3 people

        • I’m sorry to hear about your study abroad experience. I hope you’re okay. I don’t know what happened to you, but yes, I agree — there’s nothing wrong with finding comfort in sweetness and silver linings.

          Thank you for your lovely and thoughtful comment.🙂

          Liked by 2 people

      • The “Little Mermaid” isn’t one of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. It was a story written by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. He also wrote, “The Little Match Girl” and “The Princess and the Pea”.

        Grimms’ Fairy Tales has stories like Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Little Snow White.

        That all aside, Disney does a great job of placing the characters from these stories in their time and place in history from where the plot of the story is centred.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I think hype sensitivity to trivial matters such as someone referring to something in the male form when they are unsure of the gender and other such things you’ve pointed out are much more damning to our culture than Disney movies. Hopefully our children learn the world will not cater to everything that upsets them and to develop their own opinions on people despite stereotypes.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree with you — hopefully children will form their own opinions without labeling or stereotyping people.

      But we’re all influenced by the society we live in — and accent is a very strong indicator of the way we form judgements. For instance, the media tends to display negative stereotypes about some Southern accents. Even if they aren’t necessarily negative things, I think we often associate certain qualities or traits with accents, like the Californian “Valley Girl” (to give another example).

      So the aim of my post is really to point out how Disney uses accents as a way of forming characters, and children can pick up on that kind of thing from a young age.

      Most of the male African American-accented characters in Disney movies are either lazy, aimless or frightening characters.

      Most of the good characters have white British or American accents, but the evil characters are significantly more likely to have foreign accents. Isn’t that worth considering?

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. It’s an interesting discussion, and I hoped my post would spark debate.🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It is an interesting discussion and one I have been thinking about for years.. I think the best antidote is tons of family time where parents and children (hopefully over dinner) DISCUSS these things – lets talk about it – with our kids. Thank you! An excellent essay on the topic.

    Liked by 4 people

    • That is absolutely key! Unfortunately, our children (who we are hopefully teaching properly) are inevitably exposed to children of parents less involved (or, perhaps, just as involved but in ways contrary to our teachings). But, we can only do the best we can do and be the best we can be. Aside from teaching and discussing, we must make sure to MODEL appropriate character and socialize them with others who will also model said character.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. This is such a fascinating topic and I’m glad you wrote about this! I wasn’t necessarily a total Disney fanatic growing up but I did see my fair share of Disney movies. I remember being absolutely drawn in by Mulan and being so excited by it. At the time, I didn’t think much of it but in retrospect, I think it’s because for the first time in my childhood, I was seeing MY culture being represented in mainstream media (there were probably some problematic representations in there too but we won’t go into that). Overall though, I agree with you that even such seemingly trivial details like accents are maybe the ones that are most damaging, precisely because they are so trivial and hence we’re not actively conscious of how we perceive them until it’s too late. I tend to zero in on visual cues, from skin color to body language but your point about accents and auditory cues is just as valid. Lots of food for thought here, great post!🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think Disney is omnipresent in many childhoods. It’s such a huge part of our Western culture. Even my eight-year-old niece, whose parents don’t actively encourage Disney, is obsessed with Frozen. I’m on the train home right now from spending the weekend with them, and she was very proud of all the Frozen merchandise she has bought with her pocket money.🙂

      Yeah, I just think accents are so interesting. Even as adults who consciously think about these topics, we seem to inevitably hear accented speech through the filter of our own perceptions. There has been a lot of sociolinguistic research about accents and perceptions — it’s fascinating!

      Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed my post.🙂

      Like

  5. This is so interesting! I have often thought about how SO many Disney movies feature one or both of the main characters parents as deceased?! I didn’t think much about how much the women speak, but now I’m going to be looking out for all of the things you mentioned in this post next time I see a Disney movie!

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s interesting that you mention deceased parents in many Disney movies. When I was researching this post, I found an article that talked about how Disney’s plots often involve characters who face hard times (including the deaths of their parents) and through them, they reach maturity. I guess the Cinderella story is a prime example.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting. The only…argument I’d like to make is that while male dialogue may outweigh female dialogue in quantity, I believe a close study of the content of the dialogue will reveal that male dialogue is very driven toward making them appear shallow, foolish, ignorant, and stupid. Female dialogue is less in quantity, however they are typically far wiser, caring, and meaningful in the words they say. I feel confident in saying (as a father of a young daughter), that women are presented with much more respectable character than men in most modern animated films.

    In terms of racial/cultural stereotyping, I agree that some (maybe even most) of it is a little over the top and unnecessary. My gut reaction is to say that it’s just because it helps children identify and remember different characters. However, I then realized that maybe we shouldn’t be encouraging such simplified thinking in our children.

    Interesting thoughts. I really enjoyed the article. It is thought-provoking and insightful. Thank you.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I’m glad that you enjoyed my article.🙂

      It’s very interesting to hear your perspective on the type of dialogue as opposed to the quantity. That’s a good point, and one that I think would be advisable for the researchers to consider.

      After all, as I used to remind myself when writing long essays for my classes, it’s quality rather than quantity that counts. It’s better to write (or say) fewer words of genuine meaning than many words without substance.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Very interesting and poignant topic! I actually grew up being annoyed by Disney, but I’m a middle child, so I’m annoyed by everything my siblings like. I find myself watching them more as an adult for the emotions that are conveyed. I cry every time during Beauty and the Beast when she confesses her love for him as he dies, or during The Princess and the Frog when the mosquito sacrifices himself. Also Lady and the Tramp, Toy Story 3… The only one I’ve truly disliked for it’s message is The Little Mermaid. It’s similar to my dislike of Grease – if you can’t get your man, change for him, ladies. That does not sit well with me.

    I consider myself a feminist and activist, and I’ve never noticed what you’ve described above. I do now see what you are pointing out, however, so I don’t disagree. I have to hope that these things are not done intentionally though and are part of the many things in society that are done that end up being insensitive in some way. Granted, the crude and racist depictions made in Dumbo (also makes me cry) are pretty blatant, but I hope that we have come a long way from when that film was made. And when my daughter watches that movie at an older age, we will talk about how that was an unfair characterization.

    Also – I’m not as sensitive as this post describes me to be😉. For some reason, Disney movies just get me in the heartstrings.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Oh, some children’s movies are real tear-jerkers, aren’t they? I cry when beloved characters die in the Harry Potter movies!

      Yes, I doubt that the use of accents to evoke specific characteristics is always an intentional, conscious choice. It’s more likely to be that it reflects lingering stereotypes in society as a whole.

      Thanks for your lovely comment.🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. It’s wonderful when someone acknowledges the implications of media on early childhood social and emotional development. Especially when media demonstrates the pervasive omission of important female roles and their influences! Thankfully, the introduction of Pixar to the Disney seems to have created a balance with Princesses like Merida and Anna/Elsa having a more prominent role than their male counterparts.

    However it still remains that the parents of children hold some antiquated views on what is male and what is female and the meaning behind these roles. And this could be a far more influential pressure on children’s understanding of gender than any Disney movie.

    Rome wasn’t built in a day, mind you. Perhaps we praise how far we have come but understand that there is still a very long way to go!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think the media is a really important area of study because it is so pervasive. We’re flooded with media info from so many sources – online, the TV, magazines… – and it’s worth considering what impact it has on children’s development.

      I haven’t seen any of the recent Pixar movies, but they sound as though women and girls have more equal roles in them, which is encouraging.

      I agree with you that parental views can be more influential than movies. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.🙂

      Like

  9. I could care less what Disney does because I’ve got more important issues to ponder. Having done the “obligatory ” trips to Disney World when the kids were young, I couldn’t enjoy myself because I was too fascinated by the enormous amount of adults with missing or no teeth, eyeglasses held together with white medical tape, tattered clothing, greasy hair and bad sneakers. Yet, they were sporting over priced Mickey Mouse shirts and sweatshirts and carrying Disney trinkets in Disney totes. So depressing that I needed to pop my meds. In the words of my dearly-departed dad: ” To think a god damn mouse started all this shit”..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, these issues can be viewed as quite important, depending on who they influence. If young children are being repeatedly exposed to certain subliminal messages, it could have an impact on them, as linguistic research is indicating.

      Like

      • I never relied on animated characters to teach my children about social or cultural or object lessons in life. I did that. It was my responsibility as a loving and caring parent. As such I have three socially aware and caring adults.

        Like

    • That’s true — entertainment can be used as propaganda sometimes. But I doubt very much that Disney is using their animated movies to “deceive” children.

      You might like to check out the WordPress Community Pool (if you Google it, it will come up). There are opportunities for everyone to give and receive feedback about their blogs, and I find it very helpful.🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I think you might be on to something with the fact that characters who speak foreign accented English are often the antagonists, but the supposed decrease in dialogue for female characters is probably just a coincidence.
    Still, it is a thought-provoking post and one that shows a good use of published research findings.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I guess it’s hard to prove for sure, as many of the characterisations in Disney are probably subconscious.

      Thanks for commenting. I’m glad you enjoyed my post and the inclusion of research to back up my thoughts. Academics are great at doing interesting research, but they’re not always as good at communicating it beyond their niche academic community. Fought and Eisenhauer’s Disney princess research project (which is still in its early stages) has been widely reported though — I first heard about it from The Washington Post.

      Like

  11. I loved this post, it was a great angle on these racial issues that have been around so long. I believe that some movies do go too far in relation to picking characters and their personalities. But i also thin its a creative right to be able to make the characters from your imagination. I don’t feel as if they targeted people but just found that some characters worked better with different traits. Loved the read. Although I’ve only been to Disney land once, I always found comfort in their movies as a child, not so much as an adult.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your kind comment. I appreciate it.🙂

      “i also think its a creative right to be able to make the characters from your imagination” — Oh, absolutely! IMO it just gets problematic if accents are repeatedly being used as a method for evoking specific traits.

      I suppose another question that could be asked is: does it matter if accents are used to convey positive character traits/stereotypes? Or is it only an issue when accents are being used to convey offensive stereotypes? E.g. giving a chef a French accent may be relying on cliches and stereotypes of French culinary excellence, but it’s not exactly racially offensive.

      Lots to ponder over…

      Liked by 1 person

  12. While I’ll agree that Disney has had their issues with gender and racial stereotypes, I think the “silent princess” theory should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, some of the referenced characters (Ariel and Pocahontas) had specific reasons for their silence. Pocahontas lacked English at first. Ariel’s silence was part of the original fairy tale by Hand Christian Anderson and, if anything, it emphasizes the importance of her voice as part of her identity.

    Other characters, like Tiana from Princess and the Frog, Anna from Frozen, and Belle from Beauty and the Beast, are not “silent” at all.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Very interesting. I live in Germany where Disney is not as big as in the US, but very present nevertheless. The first Disney film I actively remember is “The Aristocats”, which is definitely loaded with negative gender stereotypes. It follows a classical damsel (with children) in distress plot. All the brave characters are male. As much as I love “Everybody wants to be a cat”, I think it’s dangerous to throw these role models at little girls.
    Greetings, Kim

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, yes — the swashbuckling, brave, adventurous characters are almost always male. But it’s encouraging that new characters, who don’t always fit in a stereotypical female role, are becoming popular. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games springs to mind…

      Thanks for stopping by.🙂

      Like

  14. This new information is very interesting. As much as I like watching a lot of Disney Movies, especially “The Lion King” and “The Little Mermaid”, I haven’t watched any of those Disney movies I watched when I was small in a while. I’ve always loved the laughter, kindness, music and the magic in the movies. It makes my heart leap!

    Kind regards, Amethyst

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Great read I always mention this to my husband a lot of hidden things in Disney movies. Most noticeable to me would be Cinderellas mice. And don’t worry bambi is pretty traumatic anyway😉

    Liked by 1 person

  16. It seems to me that the more we advance as a society, the more we stay the same. The old stereotypes are still with us and so they will always be it seems. Most of the movies today, at least the big money makers, are starring men and filled with violence. It is hard to find a movie that I would actually like to see now in the movie theaters.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. sometimes, children are just fascinated wit what they see as the characters act and play on the movie. they would only understand things when they watched it couple of times or if they can already understand the gist behind the story and the symbolism it has. But at the end of the day, parents should be the one responsible on explaining things to what they’re watching. that’s why its ‘parental guidance is advised’ is being seen.

    Liked by 3 people

    • That’s true — children won’t consciously understand the symbolism or intentionally make the connection between accent use and gendered or racial stereotypes. But Rosina Lippi-Green suggests that “Animated films entertain, but they are also a vehicle by which children learn to associate specific characteristics and life styles with specific social groups, and to accept a narrow and exclusionary world view”.

      I agree with you that parents are ultimately responsible. Talking about issues like these around the dinner table, as Cecilia mentioned further up the comments section, is a good idea.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Pingback: Silent Princesses, Lazy Crows: On Disney’s Language Problem | benapolebd

  19. Hi there! I’m feeling a bit as if you were telling my story. My mother let me grow up without anything Disney-, Barbie- and babyborn-related stuff and when I first saw a Disney movie, which was “frozen”, apparently, I just felt super-weird by how skinny and weirdly animated they were. I totally agree that children get a lot of influence through tv. Where I currently live, in China, children watch far less tv and I can really see a difference! Thanks for your great description!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Do you feel as though you missed out by not growing up with Disney movies or Barbie? I have to say, I don’t, even though people of my generation sometimes think it’s unusual.🙂

      It’s interesting to hear that children watch less TV in China. If they spend more time playing, away from screens (TV and computers/tablets/phones), that seems to be a better option.

      Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed my article.🙂

      Like

      • Haha noooo my childhood was great! I am often asked questions like that: “you haven’t watched Arielle? God you must’ve had no childhood!” Do you get that, too?
        In China, even the young children need to study a lot, so in the remaining time the parents will tell them to go out or spend time with the family. I think it’s nicer that way…

        Liked by 1 person

  20. Pingback: Silent Princesses, Lazy Crows: On Disney’s Language Problem | tripleactionblog

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  22. Pingback: Silent Princesses, Lazy Crows: On Disney’s Language Problem – fizyblog

  23. Why don’t I show Disney to my daughter? Because there is nothing to digest in those cartoons. They are flat. Those cartoons are so polished, they represent only rosy personalities and premade a decisions who is bad and who is good for us. It is reminds me fast food, which was already processed before by someone and “recycled” straight into my mouth. I probably even don’t need to digest it already…cause nothing left there. Don’t get me wrong – it made beautifully!

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Pingback: Disney’s Loss of Innocence: language, race and gender in children’s animated movies – Critic of Politics

  25. Reblogged this on Critic of Politics and commented:
    An interesting article that complies studies of various academics that dissect the unequal and/or essentialist representations of different groups in popular Disney movies.

    These unequal/essentialist representations are especially salient because of the popularity of Disney movie among children, thus strongly impacting child socialization.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. An interesting read on many of the topics raised in this article is a novel by Peggy Orenstein called, ‘Cinderella Ate my Daughter.’ It is amazing that still in the 21st century we still face such inequality and gender stereotypes.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Pingback: Silent Princesses, Lazy Crows: On Disney’s Language Problem – ~*~tightlines and sunshine~*~

  28. This is fascinating! Like a lot of people here, I’ve thought about this a lot, and it’s good to know people are really researching it and coming to meaningful conclusions.

    I am interested though – I come from a very feminist family, and Beauty and the Beast has been (and still is) one of our favourite films. I think Belle is a pretty strong role model so I’m surprised to see the gender balance in how much the characters speak.

    The other one I’m thinking of is Mulan… awesome female role model but in a film massively (and necessarily for the story) dominated by male characters. Any numbers for that one?

    Liked by 2 people

  29. Pingback: Silent Princesses, Lazy Crows: On Disney’s Language Problem – golchoorg

    • That’s true. But even some relatively recent cartoons (Lippi-Green looked at Disney movies from 1938-1994) use accent as a way of signifying characteristics.

      It would be interesting to repeat her study, looking from 1994 up to the present day. I wonder how much has changed in the past couple of decades…

      Like

  30. Absolutely nothing in this article is new information. This is all the same disney is satan conspiracy theories that you really have to look for to even see. This all comes from bored grown ups forcing themselves to watch disney movies with their kids and looking for things to get offended at instead of just watching the movie that they most likely had to sit through fifty times already with their kid. Most of the things if not all in this article are things you would have to LOOK for intentionally to see. Im not saying there isnt steriotyping, thats a fact of life no matter what they do though, because you choose to see the characters as reprosentations of a race instead of their own person, youll think of whatever theyrr doing as a steriotype. No one says disney thinks white people are all witches because of Maleficent, so why assume theyre saying all arabic people are evil wizards because of jafar? Before you call disney culturally biased, look at yourself and how you force a single member of a race to decide on how all members of that race act in your mind. As for children being influenced by it? They dont. A child will see a person as a person and nothing more unless they have been conditioned from their parents or people around them to judge others any different. And the same goes with gender roles.

    Like

    • “No one says disney thinks white people are all witches because of Maleficent, so why assume theyre saying all arabic people are evil wizards because of jafar?” — actually, that isn’t what the researchers are saying.

      There is a well-documented body of research on these issues, carried out by linguists who are interested in language, accents and the media. This research shows that there are systematic patterns of accent use in Disney movies, i.e. it’s not just a random coincidence.

      Lippi-Green and many others have analyzed Disney animations from the 1930s up to the present day. Their findings are backed up by statistical data that shows that evil characters are significantly more likely to have foreign (i.e. non-American) accents than the good characters. Here’s an article which talks about those statistics. Out of the 371 characters that Lippi-Green analyzed, the majority of good characters are American, whereas the majority of evil characters are foreign-accented.

      And it’s not about deciding how all members of a race should act. You probably know that African American English has long been stigmatized in the States. So when animated characters are repeatedly given African American accents as a way of signifying that they’re lazy, uneducated or have no true goals in life, that’s a pretty offensive stereotype especially when you consider that shocking levels of inequality and racism towards black people still exist in the US today.

      There is plenty of research that shows that children can learn to discriminate from an early age. While parents and guardians may have more influence over their children’s worldview, the media can also contribute.

      Like

  31. I did find your post interesting. As a mother of a young daughter who is total girl and into princesses, I have to disagree with some aspects. We fight against gender stereotyping, but we neglect to notice that many children, before they are influenced by media, society and so on tend to gravitate to their gender roles (a topic that was examined in depth in my childhood socialization class in college).
    I don’t mind showing Disney movies to my daughter because I do have conversations with her about what she is watching. I feel like my greater concern is the new Disney TV shows (and much of children’s programming) which share the message that girls are better than boys, boys are dumb. As well as making girls who want to be girly or moms feel that that is not acceptable.

    Maybe we should stop focusing on having an agenda in our children’s shows and movies and having a story that can be loved by everyone. I think it’s good that there are both options out there, the Disney movies that are viewed as sexist, racist, and so on, as well as the ones that promote the opposite message. Parents can choose what they want their children to watch and also how to have conversations with them about what they watch.

    One of the best shows that just focuses on having a happy and good message for everyone is Sheriff Callie’s Wild West. It’s all anthropomorphic animals in a town striving to be nice and friendly.

    But that aside, I enjoyed reading someone’s perspective opposite of mine. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree — some children do lean towards traditional gender roles. It reminds me of my four-year-old nephew and eight-year-old niece. My nephew loves cars and trucks, and my niece likes princesses and ballet. And their parents haven’t actively encouraged it — it’s simply what the children enjoy.

      I also agree with you that ultimately it’s up to parental guidance, and that talking about these issues is important.

      I think it’s the older Disney movies that tend to have more racist content. The Three Little Pigs is a prime example — the original Wolf reflected anti-Semitic propaganda and had many parallels with Nazi pamphlets.

      I don’t consider movies with racist stereotypes to be a good thing, but society has gotten better. That said, there is still a way to go before there is no discrimination in the world.

      Thanks for stopping by.🙂

      Like

      • Of course older movies do. It’s more than just older Disney movies, it’s older everything. Watch a John Wayne or Gene Kelly movie you’ll see the same things because that was the culture then. I’m sure twenty years from now we’ll be saying negative things about our movies and books too, but it’s the culture of the times.
        I agree that we shouldn’t promote racist stereotypes, but it does go back to parents. Parents should sit down and talk to their kids about what they’ve seen.
        Thanks for your views.

        Liked by 2 people

        • That is because many of today’s parents don’t want the responsibility of “parenting”. They want to be friends with their entitled little offspring. They rely on educators and entertainment to teach their children. Parenting is NOT an easy job. It can be taxing and frustrating at times, but it is the responsibility of the parents to raise socially aware, empathetic, kind and caring children to grow up to be those socially aware, empathetic, kind and caring adults. I’ve always taught my kids that the entertainment genre is delusional and real life isn’t an animated cartoon. I also taught them to take this shit with a grain of salt. Yes. I was THAT mother who told it like it is.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Agreed. Times were different back then, and we have taken steps towards equality. However, “Disney’s caricature of a Jewish peddler is remarkable for the way it parallels the anti-Semitic propaganda coming out of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s” — quote from this link to a discussion by Rosina Lippi-Green.

          In that link, she also talks about how the use of accents in many animated cartoons reflect national/political fears over time, e.g. Japanese characters in World War II, Russian characters during the Cold War era, Middle Eastern characters today… Quite interesting!

          Like

  32. “No one says disney thinks white people are all witches because of Maleficent, so why assume theyre saying all arabic people are evil wizards because of jafar?” — actually, that isn’t what the researchers are saying.
    really amazing and intresting article. i m glade to see your post.

    Like

  33. I found this post interesting to read. I grew up watching Disney movies daily. My father was a part of the Disney Collectors Society before it closed. I think too many people are putting too much thought into too many things. Disney is happiness, a dream brought to life for everyone to watch and enjoy. I’d rather my children watch Disney than play video games and think they can grab a gun and go kill someone and that person will re-spawn. My favorite Disney movie is The little mermaid, I cannot count how many times I have watched it, and I am in my 30’s. I will always be a Disney fan, there are not too many Disney movies I do not like. I really liked watching 20,000 leagues under the see for years, even though it is not animation, it was excellent. Disney is great, they are not doing anything wrong, and I pray they never change.

    Like

    • Thanks for stopping by.

      Well, there are multiple perspectives on this issue. And I’d like to say that my article isn’t about bashing Disney, but I do think it is interesting to think about the ways in which accents are used to create characters. And it is questionable when there are systematic (i.e. not random coincidence) patterns of racial stereotyping in the accents that are chosen for each character.

      Like

  34. Indeed many things may seem innocent and harmless on the surface but that’s how they creep ideas and stereotypes unknowingly into our minds. I’m sure disney movies, fairytales and even nursery rhymes can influence both children and adults in ways they may not notice. Thank you for this wonderful article which reminds us to be careful of what we watch on media, being discerning and not simply accepting what we see.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your kind comment. I’m glad you enjoyed my article.🙂

      Yes, I think it’s important not to take things at face value. That’s why this kind of research is so fascinating to me: it highlights structured patterns in the media that we might struggle to see otherwise.

      It wouldn’t be rigorous research to draw conclusions based on just a few movies, but when you look at the whole canon of them, the patterns stand out.

      Like

  35. Pingback: On Being “Discovered” | Cultural Life

  36. Pingback: Silent Princesses, Lazy Crows: On Disney’s Language Problem – vilmaswnm387

  37. I’ve never really thought about this before. I think I’ve always assumed that because they’re “princess movies,” then obviously the princesses would have the most talking time. After all, it’s their story, right? And while I don’t think little girls are going to be analyzing or even noticing which of their favorite princesses have the most dialogue (I know I sure wasn’t when I was six and dreaming of dancing through French castles), I think it’s interesting and sad that Disney is creating stories about girls while minimizing their voices. It’s long past time to start amplifying the voices of young girls, teaching them that their thoughts and opinions matter, and offering them platforms to safely express themselves, and I’m really hoping Disney—entertainment giant and cultural influencer that it is—will realize that. I recently saw a commercial that they released with real-life girls juxtaposed with princesses set to The Script’s “Hall of Fame” to encourage girls that they can be anything, which I think is a great message and a great step in the right direction. But it’s equally important to let the girls speak for themselves, and give them female role models who do as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for stopping by and leaving such a thoughtful comment.

      I think the most likely explanation for the researchers’ finding is that the decrease in female dialogue is an effect of larger casts. As the Washington Post article discusses, Disney casts have gotten bigger in recent decades but tend to feature more male voices.

      I think your point about Disney being a cultural influencer is wise. They clearly have huge power, and it’s hugely important for issues of gender, race and ethnicity (including how they portray world cultures) to be sensitively treated.

      Liked by 1 person

  38. Fabulous! We are evolving, more girls today are educated than ever before. Change will happen but it is slow and we need to encourage it. There are a lot of empowering films for girls to watch but it comes down to choice and parents remembering to use it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’re certainly going in the right direction. But I agree with you that we should encourage change, especially in cultures where girls’ voices are often silenced.

      It reminds me of this quote from Jane Austen’s wonderful novel Persuasion: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands”.

      Thanks for stopping by.🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  39. Friday evening family night always included a Disney movie when my children were young, they watched them over and over again. As a recent first time grandma, I’ve been thinking about all the things I want to share with Clara; watching “children’s” movies is on the list. This is a very thought provoking article. Cynthia, thank you the read which has nudged me to listen/view messaging/influences more closely, especially when they come from a sly wolf in sheep’s clothing.

    Like

  40. The problem as I see it is too much viewing and not enough role playing. My book of reference on this topic is The Uses of Enchantment. As adults we watch and discuss although, that said, I still engage in role playing in dance and improvisation. Reading to children leads to more engagement. Disney has always been limited by stereotypes in film.

    Like

  41. Very interesting analysis. This is a battle I have been fighting since before I studied psychology. Advertisers spend a lot of money making films, they wouldn’t work if children were immune to subtle directions about what to like and who to look up to. Kids drink in anything that comes their way from the moment they open their eyes and if we feed them stereotypes in easy form, they will learn them double quick… sorry you have touched a nerve there. I saw Fantasia, 101 Dalmations and, I think, Snow White and they all scared me to pieces.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you.

      Yes, I think some people view Disney as this wonderful, magical thing (“the happiest place on Earth” as the theme parks say). But it’s not surprising that they are driven by profit. They want movies that sell, and these movies can be a vehicle for deep-rooted cultural attitudes.

      Liked by 1 person

  42. I’ve always preferred pixar… although they are owned by Disney now aren’t they? And I did love Shrek it was so nice to have a character with a British accent in an American movie who wasn’t the baddie!

    On a more serious note, this is a fascinating article. Really, really interesting stuff. Thanks for posting

    Cheers

    MTM

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think they are owned by Disney, but their movies seem to be better from what I hear.

      British characters do tend to be the baddies in American animated movies, don’t they? Either that, or we’re all frightfully polite and charming.😀

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

  43. Reblogged this on DiversiPro Inc. and commented:
    Some people may say the Disney Problem is a matter of unconscious bias, or even cultural blindness. However, it’s more likely a lack of intercultural competence. The writers and producers of these Disney movies (some of them wonderfully powerful) may not be “bad” people but they may want to reflect on how they are interacting or navigating cultural differences.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for reblogging.

      I agree with you — I wouldn’t say that the Disney writers and producers are “bad”. It’s probably a combination of lack of cultural knowledge, and deep-rooted categorizations in society. And not all Disney movies give other cultures a one-dimensional treatment — while researching this post, I discovered that Lilo & Stitch portrays Hawaiian culture with great sensitivity, resulting from thoughtful research by the writers and co-directors.

      Liked by 1 person

  44. Interesting post Grace! You got so many comments, I hesitate to add anything. But this is something we talk about a lot in our home – in fact, my daughter hates disney movies…most of them anyway…she is very wary of anything that says girls have to behave or look a certain way, and most disney movies do fall in that trap. As for me, I think it’s much more pervasive than disney – gender and race stereotyping is in all of our media…I even hated the Pixar movie Inside Out! It was touted as being a progressive, groundbreaking movie – but it was about emotions and the lead was a girl! Go figure.🙂 I should note that I like old disney better than new disney – Mary Poppins is a gem–features a suffragette and questions capitalism too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks.🙂 Oh, please don’t hesitate! Everyone has a different perspective and point of view.

      I was fortunate that this post was chosen to be featured on WordPress Discover; hence, the amount of comments.

      I agree that we can’t escape these stereotypes — they are very pervasive. Yes, Mary Poppins is a fantastic movie. It’s one of my childhood favourites (when I said I didn’t grow up with Disney, I was referring to the animated movies).

      Liked by 1 person

  45. Pingback: Silent Princesses, Lazy Crows: On Disney’s Language Problem – mitzyonherlaptop

  46. I agree with what you’ve said. Another thing I’ve noticed in recent movies is that the protagonist and so called ‘good characters’ often use torture techniques to get information out of ‘bad’ characters, as if that is the right thing to do and they get away with it because they did it for a good cause. Whereas in older movies the protagonist would only get into a fight as a last defence or when all else fails. In animation movies these days it seems that the protagonist instigates the violence rather than flees from it. I am particularly referring here to ‘The Secret life of Pets’ where the small white dog hits one of the other characters in the face to get information from them.

    Liked by 1 person

  47. This is such an interesting read. I recently wrote a university essay about the musical depiction of gender and sexuality in Disney movies, focussing on Snow White and Mulan. I came to the conclusion that even though there is about 60 years between the two films (and you would therefore assume that they would have different attitudes towards these kind of issues), they generally have the same stereotypical attitudes towards gender and the characters conform to their given gender roles.
    I personally am a big fan of Disney (the older films at least) but I will not hesitate to admit that they do have their problems, especially when it comes to language, race and gender. Thanks fo writing such an interesting post!🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you! Your essay topic sounds really interesting, especially the fact that the movies are so similar even though they were 60 years apart.

      I appreciate that a lot of people love Disney; I think we’re often attached to things that we fondly remember from our childhoods. For me, it’s Harry Potter — I grew up waiting for each book to be released and watching the movies. So I can understand that many people feel the same way about Disney.🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  48. So… now Disney isn’t politically correct. Look, I understand all the stats and credible interpretations on the true social shortcomings of Disney animations… especially the “princess” films, in regards to accents, assigning character traits that are one gender over another, and all the other diabolical stereotypes we can accuse Disney of fomenting onto our children… um, female children. Then I ask you, who then decides content? Disney is a money-making corporation that happens to earn profits within the entertainment field. Their success is brought about by catering to current social mores that appeal. If they did not do that then they’ed not make money for the investors.. who are generally people like (some of) us who buy insurance or dabble with stocks on-line. I rather doubt there is a coven of male figures who reside deep within the bowls of Cinderella’s Castle dictating the theme and plots of the next Disney animation in such a way as to assure the perpetuity of social male domination.

    But the interesting thing that makes my point here is when you read the various comments. Most, if not all think highly of what was written. In fact, I do too and it was an interesting take on how Disney is not as socially “pure” as many might think. But then in here one has stated they felt the same with the Potter movies, Grimm’s, and Hans Christian Anderson. Everyone has a different concept of what is correct or incorrect… or what might have an undue influence on our young innocents. But, we all know since we are all highly educated here (?) that pretty much all the story classics by any of the great authors depict the times and social attitudes.. and dare I say, stereotypes, of their day. Although when we read those classics there is no audio to convey those nasty stereotypical accents.

    Here’s my take… everyone one of us commenting here has somehow defied the odds of being stunted in intellectual growth, or in personal gender identity, or socially crippled and stigmatized outcasts from reading Alice In Wonderland or watching a Disney animation… or having suffered the incurable heartbreak of overdosing on Minnie Mouse. Yeah, yeah, I’m a man. Personally I preferred Davy Crockett. Ooops… I better not say the type of hat he wore… I might be called a racist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for taking the time to write a long and thoughtful comment. It’s true — most of the responses I received on this post have been positive. And I agree with you — I don’t think there’s a group of people who are plotting to perpetuate gender and/or racial stereotypes in highly commercialized, money-making cartoons. It’s just interesting how deeply embedded these stereotypes are, and I think they can be equally problematic for female *and* male children. E.g. women and girls are often portrayed and viewed as being caring and compassionate while the macho boys have to be tough and aren’t allowed to show any sign of ‘feminine’ emotion (crying, for instance). That’s going beyond Disney, of course, but I’m of the mindset that equality isn’t all about women — it’s good for everyone.

      Your point about those attitudes reflecting the social attitudes of the time when these stories were first written is also interesting. Thanks for stopping by!🙂

      Like

      • Perhaps it’s important to point out that nature itself never guaranteed any sort of equality between the genders. The physical differences (beyond the sexual) have evolved over time to be the basis for any social development; I’m sure you recall the nurturing/childbearing roles and the hunter/gatherer roles that define our species’ physical attributes and evolutionary survival. Women want equal pay for equal work.. makes sense to me completely as it pertains to our current society. But nature made man woman’s protector because nature made woman physically different from man in order to perpetuate the species. As a society we spend an awful lot of time trying to fight these differences and assign them as some sort of reason for gender inequality and social bias.

        Racial differences… well, again blame nature. Part of the human defense system is quickly differentiating real world threats toward family… to protect women and offspring. The first time a black man met a white man the likely reaction was… why is he different and do I need to defend myself from him.

        I guess my whole point here is in a perfect world everyone is equal, but we don’t live in a perfect world, thanks to Nature. Accept who we are, morally adapt to each other’s differences in order to survive together.

        Just an odd side note… when I was an early child in the 1950’s there was a TV show called Howdy Doody. You older Boomers will remember it. My mother restricted my watching of that show “because it was too silly!”. Yet she allowed me to watch The Three Stooges voraciously. Made no sense to me… and still doesn’t. Obviously mother had something picking inside her brain. 🙂

        Like

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