Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

Pretty Girls and Emotionally Mute Boys: Disney Heros and Heroines

I’ve written a few posts lately about both Disney Princesses and the danger for children of gender stereotyping. One of the things that I find most disturbing about gender stereotyping is the way that it constricts a child’s vision for themselves. When a girl or boy repeatedly sees males and females displayed in very narrow roles, it is sure to impact their own view of how they should behave, what their dreams should be,  and who they might become.

In a study conducted by Haddock, Schindler Zimmerman, Lund, and Tanner (2003), 26 Disney films were analyzed for portrayals of stereotypes about gender, race, and age. In this study, the authors found that the majority of the films represented some pretty significant stereotyped portrayals of what it means to be a male or female. For example:

1. Males

  • use their physicality rather than their words to express emotions or
  • are not able to express their emotions
  • are not in control of their sexuality and behavior when a beautiful female is around
  • overweight males had negative characteristics such as being stupid or villains.

2.  Females

  • appearance is more highly valued than their intellect
  • are helpless and need protection
  • have the goal of being a homemaker and wife
  • overweight females had negative characteristics, such as being ugly and cruel.

One of the things that makes these stereotypes so insidious is the fact that Disney is considered by many parents a “safe” brand. In light of this, Disney movies are often purchased for the home and are viewed many, many times by children.  The continual viewing of stereotypical representations of both males and females cannot help but have an impact on the way that children develop their own ideas about what it means to be a boy or a girl.

Now, there are some newer Disney films that do depict females and males differently. Mulan is a prime example of a female character who is strong and courageous and rescues men. In the move, Tarzan, while the male character cannot speak English at the beginning of the film, he does display a variety of emotions and, while brave, is also realistically fearful and sad in several instances. The most recent Disney film that has been discussed as having fewer stereotypes is Tangled. I’ve read several reviews of this film, some that agree that it is less stereotypical in the way it represents males and females while others disagree. Certainly, the main male character does seem to be less brave than the female character.

My main point here is that we need to think about what we and our children are watching. Teaching our children to be critical consumers of media means being one ourselves. Allow yourself to look critically at movies, TV shows, products, and ask what are the themes that are promoted by this? If they’re ones that you fill comfortable with, great. If not, talk with your child and your family about them. We have a game in our house where we evaluate the Disney princesses and decide which ones we like best, and it’s all based on the decisions that they make and the character that they display. Pushing your children to really look at these things is a key component of helping them learn to be critical media consumers and world changers.

Haddock, Schindler Zimmerman, Lund, and Tanner (2003). Images of Gender, Race, Age, and Sexual Orientation in Disney Feature-Length Animated Films. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, Vol. 15(4) 2003.

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