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Animated Disney Movies' Effects on Children's Perceptions of Gender Norms

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Animated Disney Movies’ Effects On Children’s Perceptions of Gender Norms

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Cierra Levy

Communication Studies 201: Research & Methods

Alexis Lauricella


Animated Disney movies are often watched during young children’s critical formative years. Disney movies garner large and diverse audiences. This includes children from innumerable cultures that probably all have their own distinct gender norms. For almost 80 years, Disney’s full-length animated movies have consistently been a popular form of children’s entertainment all around the world. Movies have been known to be powerful sources of learning. Disney is known to possess a dominant position in children’s media. Therefore, maintaining a critical consciousness of the gender norms conveyed through “the cultural monolith of Disney remains imperative” (Towbin et al. 2004 p. 20). Animated Disney movies have been criticized for their stereotypical gender role portrayals (Gillam & Wooden, 2008). The constructivist approach and cultivation theory posits that gender role portrayals present in the films may influence children’s beliefs, understanding, and ideas about gender norms and  social behaviors affecting gender socialization (England et al., 2011). Children go on to have more gendered expectations and to develop concepts of socially acceptable behavior and believe that gender stereotypes are actually gender norms. Disney movies seem to have potential to influence social trajectory, defining what children believe to be gender normative behavior. Children may grow up thinking that certain behaviors and emotions are inherently male or female with little or no room for mixture or permeation through those stringent and perpetually stereotyped gender role portrayals. In the interests of children today, it is only natural to ask if animated Disney movies affect children’s perceptions of gender norms.

Towbin et al. (2004) conducted a thematic content analysis of 26 feature-length Disney animated movies (See Appendix entry 1). The movies were chosen through purposive sampling. Researchers conducted a qualitative analysis of interactions, statements, song lyrics, and character illustrations of all characters in order to determine what it means to be a boy/man and what it means to be a girl/woman.

In the England et al. study (2011) gender role depictions of the Prince and Princess characters were examined in the Disney Princess movies. Thus, this content analysis, also utilized purposive sampling. Researchers focus on various Princes’ and Princesses’ gendered behavioral characteristics, as well as the climactic outcomes of characters within the Princess movies. The climactic outcomes were whether the character was rescued or performed the rescue, and the romantic resolution between the Prince and Princess. Nine Disney Princess movies were studied and researchers had an opportunity to investigate potential changes in gender role portrayals in these movies over time. This study took a quantitative approach to analyzing elements within the sample. Researchers recorded how often traditional masculine and female behaviors were depicted, and ultimately how each characteristic/behavior connected to the characters’ perceived gender overall (See Appendix entry 3).

Researchers of the Gillam and Wooden study (2008) performed a content analysis of three films, Disney/Pixar’s Cars, Toy Story, and The Incredibles. The movies were chosen through purposive sampling. A qualitative study was conducted, focusing on males and masculinity from Disney/Pixar which has been known to display a more progressive post-princess, postfeminist model of gender. Alpha-male traits (traditionally patriarchal traits), were specifically examined.

These three studies have some similarities and many differences. The studies all seem to be focused on what gendered messages are being conveyed through animated Disney movies and how Disney goes about conveying those messages. In each study, researchers examined the characters’ traditionally masculine and feminine traits. They looked at characteristics such as behavior, temperament, body type, emotional responses, amount and quality of dialogue. They observed what certain characters are allowed to say, and if they have agency or autonomy, or in what situations they possess autonomy. They also looked at whether male characters displayed more feminine traits and females displayed more traditionally male traits, leading to more androgynous gender portrayals.

Only content analyses were performed on Disney movies in all of the studies. These studies used purposive sampling instead of a random sampling or even one that would be a remotely representative sampling of the target population (all animated Disney movies). The elements of the sample population were all chosen strategically. Only the England et al. study was performed quantitatively. In the Towbin et al. study researchers looked specifically for certain criteria when making the selection, such as whether the movies obtained sustained popularity, possessed popularity among children at that time, as well as if they were considered Disney Classics. The fact that some movies were still in theaters at that time or too recent to fit the aforementioned criteria was also taken into account (2004). The Gillam and Wooden study’s sample included only Disney/Pixar productions, on the other hand, none of the other studies included any Pixar movies. This is especially problematic because all of  “the major features released by Disney’s Pixar studios since 1990 have featured masculine protagonists” and the male plots are strikingly similar (Gillam & Wooden, 2008 p. 2). The England et al. study only chose to look at Disney Princess films, which presents a very limited sample. It also provides a group of elements only from a category of movies that is known to have specific and often cliched tropes such as rags to riches and damsel in distress.

All studies focused solely on animated Disney films. However, whether the characters in the film are real or animated may determine how much influence a film will have on the minds of its usually young and susceptible audience. All of the studies are outdated, with the most recent one having been published 5 years ago. This leaves 15 recent animated Disney movies out of the dialogue altogether, with 4 out of 15 movies, Frozen, Zootopia, Big Hero 6, and Inside Out being among the top highest grossing animated Disney films (Wikipedia). Towbin et al. mentions “Gender stereotypes are undoubtedly influenced by the societal influences of the times in which they were made, this study examines the messages shown, without consideration of historical context” (2004 p. 41-42). The studies did not take historical context into account when coding for gendered characteristics and trying to determine whether Disney has changed its gender role portrayals.



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