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Social Reflections of Children’s Films
Perhaps one of the most defining factors of American popular culture is the film industry: a multi-billion dollar business that has seen tremendous development since the early twentieth century. Hollywood has significantly shaped and impacted American culture, so much so that “regardless of where we are watching, seven in ten Americans are viewing movies at least once a week…”(Sutherland, 3). Films have been reflecting societal and cultural changes for decades now, targeting specific audiences with different themes. One demographic in particular has been especially popular for the film industry for years: children. Children’s films have become “particularly important because they are often viewed again and again…becoming integral parts of children’s worlds”(Booker, xxii). Additionally, these films are laden with societal dimensions reflecting many stereotypes and problems seen in America today. The Walt Disney Studios has become one of the leading icons associated with children’s film, specifically animations (Sutherland, Feltey). Children’s films influence their target audience through animations depicting common issues like gender inequality, racial stereotypes, and environmental problems.
In order to communicate the aforementioned issues in an organized manner, it is best and easiest to start with the less complex of the three. “Going green” has become one of the trendiest movements in society today. Not unusually, the media has found multiple outlets for capitalizing on the ever-expanding environmental issues. An example of this is Pixar’s 2008 release of WALL-E, an environmentally conscious film about a robot living in a post-apocalyptic world. CNBC calls it “the all-too-rare example of a children’s movie with adult themes that manages to captivate both audiences” (Bukszpan). WALL-E is set hundreds of years in the future in a world polluted with trash and waste leftover from the human race. Essentially, it reveals the message that human kind’s greed results in dire consequences, such as the depletion of life and destruction of the earth.
Alongside WALL-E is Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, the original Avatar if you will. Distributed by Fox Studios and released in 1992, Ferngully shares the same ideas as that of WALL-E and other environmentally conscious films. The central idea in Ferngully is that the destruction of the rainforest is a corruption of nature (Booker, 122). Although it takes place in a supernatural world inhabited by talking animals and fairies, the movie offers up some very realistic arguments against rainforest depletion and overall preservation of natural life. Ian Wojcik-Andrews from the University of Connecticut calls Ferngully a “disturbing film…the words and images it uses to discuss the destruction of the environment do not actually critique the ideological systems causing the environmental destruction” (Booker, 124). Here the argument being made is aimed at the perpetrators of ecological destruction. Both WALL-E and Ferngully are social commentaries on preserving our planet, and, furthermore, the consequences if we fail to do so.
Throughout media history, gender equality has been the subject for many debates amongst feminists, critics, and the average moviegoer and couch potato. Specifically, children’s films portray the lack of equality shown to female characters. Heroines seem to be dependent on the male protagonist in one-way or another; Disney productions prove this best. The 1937 release of the Disney classic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a huge commercial success. The protagonist, Snow White, is poisoned by her evil stepmother, and can only be rescued by the kiss of a prince. This presents a common theme in Disney movies; “Young women are naturally happy homemakers; they wait (like Snow White in her coma) until a man comes along to give them life”(Maio). Ultimately, Snow White revolves around the idea that sexualization of women is necessary to establish their place in society. Of course, during the time in which Snow White was released, a woman’s job description was “home-maker”, and they were concerned with domestic needs. After Snow White, Disney went on to produce other fairy tale movies, including Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. In 1966 Disney passed away and it was not until nearly two decades later that the studios were able to produce their next successful film (Maio).
The Little Mermaid was released in 1989, re-instating the famous “Disney fairy-tale princess formula” (Booker, 53). Based on one of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories, The Little Mermaid tells the story of a mermaid named Ariel who becomes human to marry her prince, leaving her underwater family and life behind (Booker, 53). The movie version stays very true to the story except for one small detail: in Andersen’s version, Ariel does not end up with her prince charming. This would mean no happily-ever-after for Disney, so, of course, things had to be changed and Ariel fell in love and married her prince. The success of The Little Mermaid prompted Disney into releasing their next princess film. Only two years later Beauty and the Beast came to theaters, demanding worldwide acclaim and attention, as it was the first animated movie to be nominated for an Oscar (Booker, 54). Not surprisingly, it too followed the fairy-tale guidelines, introducing a new and innocent princess for little girls to fall in love with. Belle is young, beautiful, and sweet natured, all the qualities that seem to really matter in Disney’s princess films. She becomes a captive of a horrible beast who keeps her locked in his castle, only to discover that he is a troubled monster with a good heart. One might ask: what kind of message does this send to all the girls watching? Well, according to Kathy Maoi, it tells girls that if they are caring and sweet they can turn an abusive man into a good soul. In other words, they are liable if their man decides to beat them up (1). Probably not the best message to send, but Disney does it anyways.
Masculinity is usually characterized by attributes such as violence and dominance, while femininity is associated with passivity and submission (Maasik and Solomon). Why are females so often depicted as cooperative, weak, and dependent on others (namely, a male hero) for rescuing? According to Dafna Lemish, author of Screening Gender on Children’s Television, “Female characters in most media texts for children are there to be saved and protected by the males and provide the background for the adventure.”(2). This leads to another problem with the women of Disney’s movies; a good majority of the villains are female, providing for much of the reason that there is any adventure at all. Some examples include the evil queens in Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, the evil stepmother and stepsisters in Cinderella, and Ursulla in The Little Mermaid. Isn’t it curious that the only characters with a stable and positive portrayal are male? Women are either vulnerable or evil, and often times it is the evil witch coaxing the vulnerable maiden into doing some dirty chores.
In her book on children’s media, Dafna Lemish provides interviews of TV viewers from around the world to establish their view on the matter of gender in children’s media. Matt from the United States says, “…Disney has long been associated with girls, and without girls the
Disney Empire is not an empire” (118). This brings up the closing point that women have become an integral part of the children’s film industry. In various Disney films the female protagonists have been made to seem inferior through their societal position and subordinate behavior towards men. Often times Disney offers up an ultimatum for these princesses: give up everything they have for their “prince charming”, or continue working for the evil antagonist and remain in a substandard class. This relates to research conducted by Ya-Lun Tsao from Pennsylvania State University. She found that, “…males predominated in situations with active mastery themes, such as cleverness and adventure, while females predominated in situations with “second –sex” themes, such as passivity and victimization” (Children and the Entertainment Industry). This reinstates points made earlier regarding the role of both genders in children’s films, and how often times in Disney princess movies the females helplessly sit back as the males engage in adventure and heroism.
The last and probably most controversial issue in society is racism. Time and time again children’s films have been the target of racial stereotyping and negative portrayals of certain cultures. The films that best show this are Disney’s The Jungle Book, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Pocahontas. In 1967 Disney released what Keith Booker called “…the height (or depth) of Disneyfied racist Orientalism” (28). The Jungle Book, based on an actual book by Rudyard Kipling, tells the story of a young boy named Mowgli who lives in the jungles of India. Mowgli lives among several animals, adopting the status of a “man-cub” himself (The Jungle Book). The criticism falls heavily on the monkeys in the jungle, who are voiced by African and African American actors. It is suggested that the monkeys are “grotesquely African American…perhaps the most racist images in any Disney film outside of Song of the South”(Booker, 31). In sum, Disney does a poor, if not shameful job of exploiting the racist notion that African Americans are “subhuman simian creatures simply seeking to pass themselves off as human” (30).
Although films like Aladdin attempted to introduce the concept of multiculturalism in children’s films, they also managed to stir up controversy concerning the predominantly white American perspective of Disney films (Booker, 58). The American-Arab-Anti-Discrimination Committee says,
“The film’s light-skinned lead characters, Aladdin and Jasmine, have Anglicized features
and Anglo-American accents. This is in contrast to the other characters who are dark-
skinned, swarthy and villainous-cruel palace guards or greedy merchants with Arabic
accents and grotesque facial features.” (Wingfield, Marvin, and Bushra Karaman)
Simply put, Aladdin poorly represents the Arab culture by making the protagonists’ voices and skin tones more Anglicized than Arab, and emphasizing the heavy Arabic accent and facial features of the villains, assuming that this is an accurate portrayal of a stereotypical Arab. Furthermore, the ADC attacked Disney for the lyrics of the opening song in the movie, which say, “Oh I come from a land…where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home” (Wingfield, Marvin, and Bushra Karaman). These lyrics further offend the Arab culture by stereotyping it as cruel and subhuman in some way. Eventually, the committee was able to convince Disney into changing the lyrics, omitting a good part of it but still not entirely fixing the problem of referring to the Arab culture as “barbaric”.
A similar argument about negative cultural portrayal can be made against Disney’s The Lion King, released in the summer of 1994 (Booker, 58). One argument against The Lion King is that the animals’ voices (and the actors who played them) portray racist stereotypes (Maio). For instance, Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin play the villainous characters in the film, namely the hyenas. These actors are African-American and Mexican-American, respectively, while white actors voicing the protagonists speak with aristocratic English accents (Giroux). Despite the fact that The Lion King received much criticism regarding its racial undertones, the film was and continues to be a huge success, prompting a sequel and Broadway rendition of the movie.
In yet another attempt at multiculturalism, Disney introduced Pocahontas the year following the release of The Lion King. This time, Disney used actual historical facts and figures to base its story off of. Pocahontas is the story of a young Powhatan girl who falls in love with a colonist, John Smith, during the settlement in Jamestown (Booker, 60). Essentially, Pocahontas explores the contributions of the Native Americans in the development of American culture (Maasik and Solomon). Unlike with Aladdin, Disney portrayed the colonists as the greedy villains and the Native Americans as noble and kind, ultimately reversing the trend of racism seen between the villains and protagonists in Aladdin.
In all, children’s films do not solely revolve around racial stereotypes and commentaries on the environment. It is significant to note, however, that many societal problems are reflected in the children’s film industry, and the interpretation that society takes away from them can leave many people wondering the actual intention of big name studios like Disney. Children’s animation films have marvelously incorporated important messages about “going green” and keeping our earth clean and sustainable. Unfortunately, they have also managed to insert notions of gender and racial stereotyping, which never escape the attention of critics and the public. Children’s films successfully capture and portray what a lot of society chooses to ignore, which is what makes them so relevant and important in American popular culture.