How Disney films limit women's careers

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Three years ago, the United Nations tallied the most common genders to which a range of occupations were assigned on the silver screen. They found doctors were five times as likely to be portrayed by men; judges were 13 times as likely to be men; and university professors were 16 times as likely to be men. And what has now been revealed is that these gendered stereotypes, which are believed to influence norms across society, infiltrate people's minds quite early in life.

According to research published in the prestigious Organization Studies journal, it's subtle indoctrination that begins in childhood. To test their hypothesis, the researchers analysed 54 of the most popular Disney animations to determine how female jobs are portrayed in children's cinema and to hypothesise on the career decisions girls subsequently make as they enter adulthood.

On the odd occasion when women in Disney films are appointed to powerful positions, the scholars discovered these characterisations are almost always tyrannical, such as Alice in Wonderland's Queen of Hearts.

This is especially pertinent when considering many Disney films, particularly those released in the early years, depict female roles as inferior and subordinate. In Snow White and Cinderella, for instance, feminine labour is represented as forced and arduous, while in Lady and the Tramp and The Jungle Book being a female worker is something that requires low levels of skill and culminates in dissatisfaction. Even though those movies were released decades ago, they're still watched today by millions of girls.

Subtle indoctrination begins in childhood.
Subtle indoctrination begins in childhood.  Photo: Voight Photography

On the odd occasion when women in Disney films are appointed to powerful positions, the scholars discovered these characterisations are almost always tyrannical, such as Alice in Wonderland's Queen of Hearts. Another prominent example is Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians.  

The researchers summarise their findings by writing that girls are "represented on screen as vulnerable subjects who must find work in order to exist [whereas] powerful, strong women are portrayed as wicked, evil and requiring to be overthrown".

Since the late 1990s Disney has made an effort to break away from gendered stereotypes. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Frozen, which includes two princesses who (for once) aren't rescued by a strong and daring prince but are instead doing the rescuing themselves. They're even tasked with leading an entire kingdom of their own. It's an obvious step forward.

The scholars are reticent to claim there's a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the movies kids watch and the careers they eventually choose. But neither do they rule it out. They just make the point that it's difficult to ascertain whether Disney films simply reflect society at the time they're released or whether society itself is moulded by the way these roles are depicted in their films.

Fuelling that second proposition is evidence to suggest Walt Disney was an FBI informant, having made edits to his movies so that the public's perception of law enforcement wasn't unduly negative. Those actions indicate, at least to a certain extent, that he had some political effect on his audience. It therefore isn't a stretch to assume there's an impact, however subliminal or minimal, on young girls as they absorb these gendered characterisations repeatedly throughout childhood.  

The researchers conclude: "[Films] have a capacity to shape and influence the world, albeit often without our conscious awareness, and in complex and subtle ways."

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As that's happening, contradictions persist between the old-time Disney flicks that "may arouse fear and the desire for rescue [while] the more recent may induct young viewers into a sense of their own power and strength". But since traditional movies tend to be watched alongside contemporary ones, "the echoes of the old continue to reverberate through the new" such that there's little escape from the inferior and subordinate female stereotype.

It's an unorthodox hypothesis, one likely to be met with the same debate that surrounds the notion that violent films make kids more aggressive. If the latter is possible, why not the former?

James Adonis is the author of The Motivation Hoax: A smart person's guide to inspirational nonsense

Older Disney films such as <i>Cinderella</i> perpetuate gender stereotypes.
Older Disney films such as Cinderella perpetuate gender stereotypes. Photo: Jonathan Olley

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