Growing up nowadays most children in the US are brought up watching mostly Walt Disney movies. The Millennial generation was raised with the Disney renaissance film era, and the newer Generation Z is also being raised with the classic Disney films and the newer films like Tangled and The Princess and the Frog. As kids grow up, they begin to relate many of the stories and characters that they were so fond of to everyday things, whether it is their toys or Halloween costumes.
Along with this is a clear placed biased view on behalf of the Disney corporation that most of the characters that are physically attractive or appealing to look at are going to be the “good guys”, while the less attractive characters are typically the “bad guys”. With this influence over children, it has led to greater stereotyping, body image problems, an ageism debate, and created greed to want to have Disney related memorabilia. These animated children/family based films have caused more controversy than ever expected.
In the majority of the Disney films with the main exceptions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Beauty and the Beast, there is a clear and definite difference between good and evil within the characters simply by their appearances. In 2010, the University of North Carolina and Appalachian State University carried out a study analyzing twenty-one Disney films made since 1938, and asked the participants to rate 163 characters on a scale of one to ten in terms of “goodness”.
They were asked to also score them on their attractiveness, intelligence, aggressiveness, romantic involvement, and their life outcome aka their “happily ever after” (Leach). In almost every movie, the “good” characters were the more attractive, more intelligent and less aggressive. Some of the characters that exemplified these ideals were Cinderella, Prince Charming, Princess Aurora, and the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio.
This study appeared in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology concluded that, “as ratings of beauty increased, so did ratings of friendliness, goodness, intelligence, favorability of the character’s outcome, and romantic involvement”. (Leach) Using this study as reference, researchers then set out to determine how much the idea of beauty is good and ugly is bad, is based off of a specific film. Forty-two children between the ages of six to twelve were put in a different study and had them watch either Cinderella or The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Those two films have both characters that are beautiful and good natured, and also an unconventional hero that is less attractive to the eye. From that researchers then showed the children photographer of other children and were asked what they thought of that person from their looks, and whether they would want to ever to friends with them (Jacobs). Doris Bazzini, Lisa Curtin, Serena Joslin, Shilpa Regan and Denise Martz were the people behind this extensive project. Bazzini and her colleagues were able to conclude that it didn’t matter which film the child watched, their answers were all pretty consistent to each other.
The researchers were able to pull that the children all had a greater desire to befriend or talk to an attractive peer, rated them as being more desirable to be friends with, less likely to get into any form of trouble, and were seen as being the better person compared to an unattractive peer. These thoughts were not just applied on human characters but also animal ones as well. (Jacobs) Bazzini stated in response to this project, “It may seem heartening to many parents that a single movie viewing did not induce greater use of the beauty is good stereotype.
However, this may be due to the fact that the stereotype [has] inconsistent depictions of the low-beauty bias film are simply not potent enough to unravel a steadily developing propensity to judge attractiveness positively, especially when such stereotypes involve females”. The researchers then decided to suggest to parents that these movies should be used in aiding the parents as they teach them valuable life lessons in their young age rather than just letting them watch those movies with no dialogue about what they just watched. (Bazzini)
Even though these films are animation and not live action, they have created these images of the human body which have led to people striving to look like people who do not exist in real life. The Disney characters are drawn to look and coincide with their roles within the movie; this has led to the Disney Princess Effect. The Walt Disney film corporation has rendered the female leads of their animated motion pictures as archetypes of the perfect female figure. (Travali) This gender/image construction in Disney films is so important because of the messages to sends to the main audience: children.
The messages that these characters give to children are how to act, look, and interact with others. While this can be good, the looks part can lead to high expectations and lower realities. (May) The Disney animators have created the heroines to be perfect in their physique. Almost every Disney heroine has a perfect waistline, a perfectly proportioned face, skin tight or even revealing clothing, and those ever so desirable curves that make them wanted by the male characters, or their Prince Charming.
These images have become a prime factor in teenage eating disorders and depression because just like Barbie dolls, these unrealistic perfect bodies cannot be actually attained in real life. (Travali) Young girls feel such pressure from the media to look like perfect Barbie dolls, and with the media Disney is a large part since the female heroines all have these perfect bodies. According to the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among girls between the ages of 12 to 25.
And even sadder is that the mortality rate associated with anorexia is twelve times higher than the average death rate for young girls for all causes of death. (Growing) Young girls buy outfits to look like their favorite Disney characters, whether it is for Halloween or to wear for fun, and they strive to look just like them. Even young boys feel the need to look like the heroes or Prince Charming, being physically fit and handsome. (Travali) These body image problems start at a young age thanks to the Disney franchise.
A vast majority of children with body image problems start young with their exposure to Disney princesses and their perfect bodies, then over time as they see more media and media begins to mold their ideals for the perfect body. (B. P) This has negatively impacted the self-confidence of today’s youth. Growing up on Disney films has created a stereotype of attractive ideals that most youth have come to expect from society and it often lowers their own confidence when they cannot look like the animated characters or cannot find their “Prince Charming’s”.
(B. P) The Disney Princess franchise has molded many youth throughout the years and never received criticism about ethnic diversity until recently. And even since The Princess and the Frog was released in 2009, there is still criticism about the lack of diversity or from the other end of the spectrum, the bias that an African American princess is not a true Disney Princess. (May) Tiana is much different from the other princesses as she is more independent and has future job orientated goals, but of course has the Disney wish for a prince charming.
Tiana was the first new princess since the Disney renaissance of the 90s and the first since Mulan was released in 1998. Disney has tried to create Disney princesses that would reach out to a greater racial audience. Creating princesses like Mulan, Pocahontas, and Tiana, has shown how the Disney Corporation has branched out to fill ethnic diversity. (May) But the Disney franchise is never safe from criticism, they have called out for making the ethnic diverse characters carry too many of the stereotypical features that are associated with their races.
From Dumbo’s crows to the ear cutting barbarians in Aladdin to the savages in Pocahontas, Disney combined racial stereotyping into their characters. (Bartyzel) Another cause of controversy within the Disney Princess franchise has been transforming old characters into newer, sexier ones. Figure’s One and Two show the changes that the corporation has implemented. Figure One shows the changes made to characters Mulan and Pocahontas, and Figure Two shows the most controversial change with Merida from the movie Brave.
Merida from the movie Brave was a character specifically designed to challenge the Disney princess stereotype, but instead of sticking with this endured hero and her making the movie the eighth top grossing film of 2012, Disney decided to give her the “princess makeover” and officially coronate her into a Disney Princess. The fiery, rebellious Scottish girl that audiences fell in love with was turned from her wild hair and conservative dress into a hardly recognizable character.
Her hair was tamed, her breasts enlarged, a smaller waist, and a more form fitting and revealing dress was part of her becoming a certified Disney princess (Bartyzel). And from this transformation, Disney then decided to give all the princesses a new sexier makeover. In Figure One there is the original Mulan in the center top frame, and on either side of her is the new version. She has gone from a young Chinese woman to a girl with regular features, the only Asian aspects are that her skin is pale and the animators gave her Asian eyes.
Pocahontas received lighter skin, an elongated face, larger eyes, and more makeup. But these changes did not go unnoticed by the public. In fact especially over Merida, there was a massive public outrage to the point that Disney released a statement that Merida’s makeover was not an official redesign but more of a one-time thing to go with her coronation. Disney was not expecting such a public outcry to these changes and has even lightened Mulan’s transformation having her wearing less makeup and the corporation has made no other references to doing any like that again (Bartyzel).
Disney princesses can positively affect children in terms of mentality. Minus the body image problems, the more attractive characters are most of the time the bravest characters and great role models for children. While there are the negative aspects of these super attractive, unrealistic characters, they usually are the good guys and were actually transformed role models for the youth. (Klein) Princesses like Mulan, Merida, and Pocahontas are the heroes in their stories. Mulan showed young girls that they could have strength and protect their families and not be seen as the weaker sex.
Merida showed girls that they did not have to conform to the princess ideals and instead be a fierce warrior. And Pocahontas showed there should be peace between people of other cultures and to take time to understand other customs that may be unfamiliar. (Bartyzel) The appearance of the characters affects children more so than adults. Studies about the attractiveness/unattractiveness of animated cartoon characters have shown that with a broad audience including children and adults, that the younger audience is more affected by the physical appearance of said characters in relation to their actions.
(Klein) Beautiful people are more superior to those who are not. Psychologists in the early 1970s first thought that, “highly attractive people were smarter, more socially adept and generally superior to the rest of us, and they tend to live happier lives” (Jacobs). This harsh stereotype based on looks learned at an early age, impacts peer interaction. Kids begin to associate good looking people as being the good guys, and less attractive people as being the bad guys. The concept of judging a book by its cover. (Bazzini) Disney movies and the media go hand in hand with the ideals of beauty are good.
While the media does not constantly showcase “beauty is good”, “ugly is bad”, in most advertisements, the idea is that sex sells. (Bazzini) The more attractive characters are happier and more apt to live ‘happily ever after’. This creates an ideal for youth that the more attractive they are, the more likely they are to find romance and have their own fairy tale endings. The more attractive a character is, the more likely they are to be loving. While there is a clear exception with this with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, this is an accurate portrayal of most characters.
(Klein) Research with kids has shown that they will lean more towards an attractive person. Consistent outcomes have shown that kids have “an overall greater desire to befriend an attractive peer, rate the child as more likely to be desired as a friend by other children, less likely to get into trouble and as nicer relative to an unattractive peer” (Jacobs). The beauty is good, ugly is bad stereotype is not only limited to the human animations. Studies show that kids even will view the cute, good animal like Flounder in Little Mermaid as the good guy rather than the big, bulky, mean Gantu in Lilo & Stich.
(Bazzini) The good is beauty and evil is ugly debate also brings ageism into light. In many Disney movies the older characters are portrayed as being more dependent on others or they are not present whatsoever in some films. (Jamieson) The media does not always support the less attractive characters, even if they are the good guys. Disney’s Pixar’s film Up, was turned down by investors and toy manufacturers because the main character was a grumpy 78 year old man, who by media standards was not commercially attractive.
(Jamieson) Disney portrays characters in a one dimensional manner, and leaving out older characters affects children. In a 2007 study at Brigham Young University at Provo, found that animations could be a leading cause to ageism. The persistent portrayal of elders could lead to children forming the wrong impression of their seniors. (Leach) From the study at Brigham Young University, it looked at 93 characters that appeared to be by definition elderly in 43 Disney films going from Snow White to The Lion King.
While the majority of these characters were actually good guys in the movies, the more memorable characters were the bad guys. Characters like the Wicked Queen and Cruella de Vil have been accused of creating a negative image for older people as in numerous films they are the villains. Cruella de Vil is seen as one of Disney’s most evil character. She is ominous with an unhealthy and frightening interest in the puppies, and has an obsession with their fur in 101 Dalmatians. (Womack) While the movies have good stories of triumph and moral battles, it creates greed.
Part of the Disney franchise is to make sure their merchandise sells, and mostly their film merchandise, the need for movie novelties creates greed with young kids. To need to have more and more. (Wynne-Jones) A clear example of this is Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique at the Disneyland resorts, where girls can be transformed into princesses and boys into princes/knights. This shows the need to look like the film characters and the extremes that the parents will allow their children to go through by paying vast amounts of money to become “pretty”.
Parents anywhere up to almost two hundred dollars for their daughter to be turned a Disney princess. These princess packages include anything from simple makeup to an elaborate, fully detailed princess outfit and getting to meet a Disney princess. (Disneyland) The need for Disney related propaganda has sparked discussion of whether Disney is “exploiting spirituality” to sell its products according to Christopher Jamison, the Abbot of Worth in West Sussex. He brings the point that while the stories in the movies do have a moral message to take away from; it has in turn created an even more materialistic culture.
Fr Jamison believes that stories have messages showing good triumphing over evil; he reasons that it is a ruse to convince people that they should buy Disney related products to be like those stories and characters in the films. Films like Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians have strong moral struggles, and they are also popular in terms of merchandise (Wynne-Jones). Fr Jamison strongly criticizes the Walt Disney Company for their selling tactics of their movie and character products to the public, “The message behind every movie and book, behind every theme park and T-shirt is that our children’s work needs Disney”.
The Walt Disney Company was founded in 1923 and has grown into one of the world’s biggest entertainment companies. To date it owns eleven theme parks around the world, and several television networks. They own networks like ABC, ABC Family, ESPN, ESPN2, and the numerous Disney channels. In addition they have their Hollywood studios that have produced more than two hundred feature films, and have recently purchased Lucasfilm. (Wynne-Jones) While they are entertainment powerhouses, they are now seen as faces of many everyday household items.
Disney related items include children foodstuffs like cereal or fruit snacks, to the ever popular Disney related clothing. Almost anything related to infant merchandise has some sort of Disney character on it whether it is clothing to diapers to pacifiers. The public is completely surrounded by the Disney franchise without even realizing it and it has become an engrained part of culture. People will say that these films are a major part of culture and that people are simply reading too far into these films.
While this makes sense that it is just people simply overanalyzing these family oriented family films, but these films have truly affected the public in many different ways. The Disney films offer an escape from reality and open the door for imagination for the viewers. But even then the films carry such strong messages that can be taken too literally like to be a princess, one must have their Prince Charming otherwise they won’t be happy in life. This has led to children having these unrealistic expectations of how their life is going to play out like a fairytale.
The Walt Disney Company started out so small in 1923 and has since turned into a multi-billion dollar global franchise. Who would have ever thought that a man making simple animation would turn into a global faucet? The Disney movies and franchise need to be careful and start taking into consideration the criticism about their role in media, society and the lives of the growing generations. They are the future, and they are filled with racial stereotyping, unrealistic body images, ageism, and the firm grip on society of a powerful, global corporation.