Thursday, July 26, 2012

How Dangerous is Disney?

Popping the G-rated Disney film into the DVD player and pressing play has become second nature for hundreds of parents across the country. Disney movies reinforce the common assumption of enchanted innocence and wholesomeness. Disney movies are vital and cherished memories of my childhood. Who doesn’t smile with joy at the thought of Timon and Pumba or Aladdin and Jasmine? However, those innocent and good-natured movies may have more impact on children’s understanding of sexuality than meets the eye. I am a huge Disney fan therefore I did a little research on studies that have been conducted on the movies America fell in love with and came across some very interesting issues. 

Researchers Karin Martin and Emily Kazyak argued in their report published in Gender & Society that, “despite the assumption that children’s media are free of sexual content, our analyses suggest that these media depict a rich and pervasive heterosexual landscape.” Martin and Kazyak studied the portrayal of heterosexual relationships in a variety of the highest-grossing G-rated films between 1990-2005. Their results revealed that heterosexuality was constructed in these films by portraying hetero-romantic love as transformative, exceptional, magical, and powerful. Furthermore, there were also a vast amount of depictions of masculine characters gazing in awe at feminine characters.

Hetero-romance is a major plot line in a majority of Disney films and reinforces the theme of heteronormativity. Martin and Kazyak describe heteronormativity as positioning heterosexuality as, “always assumed, expected, ordinary, and privileged. Its pervasiveness makes it difficult for people to imagine other ways of life.”  But Disney presents heterosexuality as not just ordinary but privileged. Heterosexual relationships are repeatedly presented as special, distinct, exceptional, and different from all others in animated Disney films. The researchers observed that the lead characters are often surrounded by, “music, flowers, candles, magic, fire, balloons, fancy dresses, dim lights, dancing and elaborate dinners.” For example, Aladdin and Jasmine fall in love as they fly on a magic carpet through a star lit sky, and eventually kiss as fireworks go off in the background. Sergin and Nabi's (2002) noted that the idealized portrayals of marriage in the media often lead to unrealistic expectations of what marriage is and should be. The moments of hetero-romantic love often involve characters being engulfed in magical swirls of sparkles or leaves as they stare into each other’s eyes. 

The power of the hetero-sexual relationships is often represented through a kiss. One of the most striking examples is in The Little Mermaid when Ariel must kiss Eric in order to retain her voice and her legs. During The Lion King Nala and Simba kiss and only then does Simba realize he must return to his home to regain the throne and save his family and entire kingdom. At the end of Beauty and the Beast Belle and the Beast kiss and suddenly the entire kingdom is transformed from winter to springtime, flowers begin to bloom and everyone who was enchanted by the spell is restored to their human state. The transforming power of a heterosexual kiss does not apply to homosexual kisses depicted in Disney movies. For instance, in The Lion King Timon and Pumbaa touch lips while sucking on opposite ends of a worm during dinner. They both look at the camera stunned and horrified. The kiss is treated as funny, creating a stark contrast between the power of heterosexual kissing and homosexual kissing. Martin and Kazyak also noted that Villainesses in Disney movies often resemble drag queens, such as Ursula in The Little Mermaid, who was actually modeled after the famous transvestite Divine. By associating drag queens with the villainous characters this sends a powerful message to children that drag queens are bad or evil and should be avoided. Locroix acknowledges that these characters and actions are not just representations of individual people but are encodings of ideologies. The stories and characters represented in these films assist in how children construct their understandings of sexuality and relationship norms. 

Ellen Junn argues in her research of the media portrayals of love and sexuality for child audiences that lead females almost always start as single in the film and are shown in the conclusion as married or attached to a male. She noted that females are depicted significantly more than males striking coy love poses, giggling, combing their hair, and behaving in a sexual manner in Disney films. 

In Toy Story 2 a large group of almost entirely white Barbies are shown dancing and singing at a swimming party. The male characters who initially pass the party reverse the car they are riding in and gaze mesmerized by the scene in front of them. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame the Gypsy Esmerelda dresses seductively and dances provocatively while a large crowd of men stare wide-eyed, screaming and cheering as they toss money on stage to her. These scenes portray a message that women use their bodies for men and have an effect of normalizing men’s objectification of women’s bodies and the heterosexual desire it signifies. 

I apologize for people who aren't huge Disney fans and may not have understood all of the references I made,but I hope you could at least understand the gist of what I'm trying to address. Although the Walt Disney Company and traditions are beloved and cherished by thousands of people around the world (including myself) and symbolize the epitome of wholesome family entertainment, the power of these films to create, produce, and disseminate ideological constructions of sexuality should not be underestimated. Of course I am not trying to suggest that there is only one definitive reading of these films, however the dominant messages should be acknowledged. The potential for Disney films to influence children’s attitudes and understanding of sexuality is incredible powerful due to the enormous popularity of Disney advertising as well as the ample availability of the films. I do not suggest banning Disney films by any means, I just suggest adopting a more critical and perhaps apprehensive view of the films that are marketed as innocent and wholesome.

Works Cited

Junn, E. N. (1997). Media Portrayals of Love, Marriage & Sexuality for Child
Audiences: A Select Content Analysis of Walt Disney Animated Family Films. [S.l.]: Distributed by ERIC Clearinghouse.

Kazyak, E., & Martin, K. (2009). Hetero-Romantic Love and Heterosexiness in
Children’s G-Rated Films. Gender & Society, 23 (3).

Lacroix, C. (2004). Images of animated others: The Orientalization of Disney’s cartoon
heroines from The Little Mermaid to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Popular Communication, 2 (4).
 Segrin, C., & Nabi, R. L. (2002). Does television viewing cultivate unrealistic expectations about marriage? Journal of Communication, 52(2).


  1. I found your thoughts regarding the subtle presence of themes of a sexual nature was insightful. I considered addressing similar topics in a past blog post but was unable to formulate my thoughts as eloquently as you have. Undoubtedly, these instances characterizing sexuality and romantic interactions of characters, are not the ultimate messages intended to be conveyed by these films. A few questions arise in my mind. Most notedly, In films geared predominantly towards young children what motivates those responsible for production, to incorporate these sometimes rather insignificant instances? Are they that relevant to the story structure? Or are they more likely incorporated simply to round out the more universal story elements shared across all works of cinema? In reality the most likely factor motivating these inclusions rests with appealing to the majority of any broad audience that views the film. They appease the kids, but they have to throw in something to make it mildly interesting or stimulating for the adults that have to accompany their children to the theater.

  2. Brittany, I found this post to be extremely interesting. I have thought a lot about sexism in Disney (or children's movies in general) and I have noticed many of the same patterns as you have. The idealization of marriage is one of the biggest themes that comes to mind, as well as enforced gender norms like the fact that women need to be attractive and rely on a man's love to be fulfilled. Something else that this post made me think about was Ward's (1995) study analyzing the frequency of relational, recreational and relational sex. Although we all know Disney couldn't get away with putting explicit sex scenes in G-rated movies, I have actually found that some of the same messages that Ward (1995) uses to code for determining what actions fall under each category are implicitly applied to the movies. For example, many Disney movies (especially the princess themed ones) emphasize a woman's beauty as determining her worth to a man, men are the aggressors, women value men who are strong, rich, and powerful, and women are seen as prizes or trophies. These all tend to follow the same scripts that Ward (1995) found were most frequent in television sit-coms and dramas. What I also found interesting was that, just like Ward (1995) found, procreational ideals are barely ever mentioned in Disney movies. The only actual movie I can think of that shows a woman that's actually pregnant is "Tangled," which was recently released. Whether or not this is because of some sort of censorship on the industry's part, I just thought it was interesting how closely even children's movies follow the same scripts we see in the television we watch.