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Op-Ed : Disney Stereotyping | BATAVICK

 Frank J. Batavick | CNBNewsnet


When I was teaching a Mass Communications course at McDaniel, I covered many topics that should have been incendiary— Internet privacy, violent video games, media bias, censorship—but was barely able to get a rise out of the students. No incensed comments. No outrage. It wasn’t until I showed a video from the Media Education Foundation that things got tense. Titled Mickey Mouse Monopoly, the documentary tackled sexual and racial stereotyping in Disney’s animated features.

Though the film had some heavy-hitter psychologists and media scholars and under-girded its arguments with supportive clips, the students weren’t buying any of it. My lecture was toward the end of the semester, and this was the angriest I’d seen them. They had grown up with these films, and the characters and plots had become part of their cherished childhood memories. How dare I, or this documentary, attack the Disney legacy embedded in their psyches! Interestingly, when I shared this classroom episode with some of the other faculty, they said, “Oh yea. We should have warned you about that video. It really drives the kids nuts.”

Decoding Disney animated films is not difficult. They feature beautiful and highly sexualized princesses with wasp-thin waists and generous breasts who invariably become damsels in distress, often in pursuit of a man. In contrast, the male hero is handsome, square-jawed, built like Rambo, and always just a little bit smarter than the princess who he is called upon to rescue. Psychologists believe that these gender roles create societal norms for young children. When they enter their teens, the stereotypes put undue pressure on both boys and girls if they don’t think they fit the ideal, creating feelings of inadequacy and even contributing to dieting disorders, like anorexia and bulimia.

Disney’s racial stereotyping is also an easy target. The Arabs in Aladdin are wily and calculating and not to be trusted; Asians are often portrayed as Siamese cats, and Mexicans as Chihuahua dogs; and there’s an absence of blacks. In fact, 1999’s Tarzan has no Africans in it at all, just apes and monkeys. These images mean something, and contribute to a world view that is not conducive to embracing diversity. It should be noted that Disney did attempt to address some of these concerns in 2011’s The Princess and the Frog. But though it featured a princess with African features, the producers wouldn’t concede the same status to her racially ambiguous love interest.

I know what you’re probably thinking out there. It undoubtedly mirrors what my students thought— political correctness gone amok, and an attack on our treasured pop culture. But there’s more.

This past January linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer released some preliminary research about the dialogue in Disney movies from 1989 to 1999. “We don't believe that little girls naturally play a certain way or speak a certain way,” says Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College. “They’re not born liking a pink dress. At some point we teach them. So a big question is where girls get their ideas about being girls.”

The researchers counted how often Disney characters delivered lines. They discovered that men spoke 68 % of the time in The Little Mermaid; 71 % of the time in Beauty and the Beast; 90 % of the time in Aladdin; 76 % of the time in Pocahontas; and 77 % of the time in Mulan. Ironically, these films came after the considerable advances won by the women’s rights movement. In the classic princess movies of earlier years when women were considered oppressed, they had more lines. In 1937’s Snow White, it was split 50-50; in 1950’s Cinderella it was 60-40; and in 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, women enjoyed an impressive 71% of the dialogue.

A contributing issue is that as the casts for the newer movies grew to the size of a Broadway musical, most of the added roles were male. Women were few and far between.

Intriguingly, the same week the Disney research was released, Mattel announced that the Barbie doll will now come in three new body types (tall, petite and curvy), and have a variety of skin tones and hairstyles. Mattel’s goal is to have the dolls represent more realistic physiques and reflect the diversity of the little girls who play with them around the world. Disney, Inc., take note.

Frank Batavick is a graduate of Gloucester Catholic (‘63) and La Salle University ('67) with over 40 years of experience as a television writer/producer/director for public TV and media companies in IN and NJ.  He has also served as adjunct faculty and visiting professor in Communications at colleges and universities in NY and MD. Frank now lives in MD with his wife Dori (GCHS, ‘63), where he is the vice chair of the Historical Society of Carroll County’s board of trustees, editor of the Carroll History Journal, and a weekly columnist and occasional feature writer for the Carroll County Times.