Portrayal of Gender Roles in Disney Films

8 August 2016

Gender roles are present in every Western society and culture today. One’s portrayal of gender roles begins at a young age, not only at home through parents, but also through the media. The media is one of the largest influential factors of gender role portrayal. There has been concern about the accuracy of the portrayals of men and women in media, which may not be proper depictions (England, Descartes and Collier-Meek 2011: 556). It is through these reinforced meanings of masculinity and femininity that children’s gender-role socialization is being distorted.

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Such distortion begins at quite a young age and this kind of exposure may be problematic (England et al. 2011: 557). A more specific medium of the media that is a powerful socializing agent in the lives of children is movies, and particularly movies by Disney. Disney is the worlds second largest media firm, and is one of the first factors that affect a child’s gender role portrayal (Martz, Bazzini, Curtin, Joslin, Regan 2010: 353). Even though children may be unaware that these views are being formed, the prince and princess characters in many Disney movies portray traditional masculine and feminine characteristics.

These later on build the stereotypical gender images that are related to these traditional characteristics (Ross 2004: 55). Children start to associate certain attributes to men and women and this is how their portrayal is shaped. In many of the fairy-tale Disney movies, male and female characters are overrepresented and having such portrayals of gender roles may weaken children’s beliefs, expectations and aspirations because they cannot aspire to do something other than what is presented in the Disney films (England et al. 2011: 557). Gender role portrayals in Disney movies influence children’s beliefs and ideas about gender and sexuality, social behaviors and norms in society. Gender roles begin to shape children’s beliefs and values from a young age. A large part of children’s lives in the 21st century is the media, and it is through this medium that children begin to develop specific gender roles for men and women. Disney is a huge part of most children’s lives while growing up. Although Disney movies are a source of entertainment, there are many hidden messages that do affect children, even unconsciously (England et al. 2011: 560). Gender and sexuality go hand in hand in movies and are one of the most important factors that differentiate men and women.

Disney movies portray the ideal appearances of both sexes and also overemphasize the value of beauty for women. These depictions in movies shape children’s images of what they should strive to look like as it is understood that if they look a certain way they will have a “happy ending. ” The appearance of men and women in Disney movies, but also in the media itself, is a very large part of our Western culture. The introduction of such appearances and roles through movies at a young age leads children to have stronger beliefs about gender role portrayals and stereotypes about appearances (England et al. 2011: 566). There are typical images portrayed of both men and women in numerous Disney films and most fall under quite similar categories. In the movies the handsome, strong men are usually associated as “good guys”, while the rather unattractive and mean men are the “bad guys” (Bazinni et al. 2010: 2697). The prince or the hero in Disney movies is always handsome and able to vanquish the antagonist while also successfully attaining the beautiful girl. The desirable girl in Disney movies is always beautiful and caring, and wishes to find her prince charming.

In films, the attractiveness of a character has to do more then with just how the characters look, but it also correlates with how morally good the character portrayed is. This is what some call the “what-is-beautiful-is-good” stereotype, which is highly prevalent in Disney films. (Bazinni et al. 2010: 2690). The media’s depictions of gender in movies are not balanced and exposure to such distorted images may be causing detrimental effects on youth’s gender role socialization. The appearance of men and women is also sexualized so much and gives children the idea that there is a positive and ideal way to look and act.

Sexuality is a part of the appearance of men and women that has an enormous responsibility on the representation of gender roles. Women especially, are sexualized and taught to use their bodies to their advantage. In many Disney movies, women and even young girls are shown as very seductive which presents a notion that this is what femininity is about (Sun. 2011). It doesn’t necessarily reflect who women are, but constructs the concept that it’s the regular way to behave. In the movie Aladdin, for example, Jasmine needs to protect Aladdin and distract the “bad guys”.

To do this, she seduces the men and uses her body and actions to do so (Sun. 2011). This is just one of the examples of the many instances that women’s bodies and actions are used to allow them to get what they want. Through the flutter of their eyelashes, and smile on their face, female characters achieve much more then they would if they didn’t look the way they do. This whole perfect image of women isn’t only seen in movies; Disney’s market goes way beyond that. Through selling their products, Disney allows girls to be the beautiful characters that they see in movies, and this starts at such a young age.

Dressing up as the princesses they love, girls start to believe that attractive looks will allow them to achieve anything they want (Sun. 2011). The messages that children receive from this are surely not ones that they should build their values upon. It is through these messages that young boys and girls also create their beliefs of what they should strive to look like and what is considered ideal. In the messages that are sent through movies, children are able to put together the ideal images of both sexes, and strive to be that perfect boy or girl.

Since the ideal representation of men and women is so defined, it narrows children’s views of what beautiful or handsome really is. This does not only form their values and expectations, but can also create problems for males and females as teenagers. More common in girls, mental health issues such as anorexia or bulimia, but also self-confidence issues arise from the expectations that are given for appearances. Since these expectations form at such a young age, it puts both boys and girls in unhealthy situations that may cause more serious problems, as they grow older.

Giving children such small representations is not fair to their outlook on life, as it will narrow how they view themselves and others in their society (Sun. 2011). It will not only narrow representations of gender and sexuality, but also the behaviors attributed to both sexes. The influence of Disney movies affects children’s beliefs of the behaviors that are attributed to both sexes. Gender and the behaviors are closely tied together, as males and females are portrayed with categories of characteristics that connect to each.

Children learn about these behaviors in many ways while growing up. Through observing people at home, in the classroom, and in public areas, children are flooded with many different qualities and characteristics of men and women, and they learn to differentiate what behavior “belongs” to each sex. Disney movies play a large role in this, as well as the representation of women as lacking the ability to achieve anything without the help of a man. Through the characters in these movies, children’s images of how they should act and behave are slowly molded and shaped.

In Western society, there are certain stereotypes given to women and men in the ways that they should behave. Disney movies include a lot of the stereotypical characteristics that they associate with characters of men and women. Men are typically given such characteristics as athletic, brave, competitive, dominant, independent, intelligent, and rebellious (England et al. 2011: 559). Women on the other hand have characteristics such as caring/loving, childlike, dependent, fearful and scared (England et al. 2011: 559). These characteristics reinforce the traditional male and female stereotypes in Western society.

Characteristics given to the male and female roles of characters give children watching these movies the ideas that this is how they should behave, and also how the opposite sex should behave too (Choueiti, Granados, Pieper and Smith. 2010: 786). Disney movies create an environment of images that we grow up and get used to, and after a while those images begin to shape what we know about the societies we live in and the world itself (Sun. 2011). Men and women are not only portrayed with certain stereotypical characteristics, but with behaviors that affect their daily lives.

Many Disney movies depict women as needy and lacking the ability to do anything without a man. This is unfortunately very common in many of the movies. Even the strong and powerful females need to be rescued or helped by a male. Princesses are unable to save their own lives, girls are unable to complete their journeys, and men step in on many occasions to do the saving. A classic example of this is the Sleeping Beauty, a film with the typical Disney princess and prince who comes to save the day. Many Disney movies have a similar plot line and by changing around a few details a new story appears but still teaches the same lesson. Girls grow up believing that boys and men are more capable of being successful then them, and boys grow up believing that they are the greater sex that is able to do anything (Sun. 2011). This creates a gap in the gender portrayals that is very large and does affect people in society. Though now men and women have equal rights and are capable of having the same opportunities and achieving equally as great things, the message that is being sent to children from these movies may alter what they think they can accomplish of in the future (Choueiti et al. 2010: 775). This is not a message that we should be sending to the children of future generations as through this, the images of how they should act and behave are shaped. Learning about the behaviors and characteristics that have been in a way assigned to both genders makes it difficult for a child to grow up with an open mind about these things. From childhood, their values and beliefs are already beginning to be molded. There is also a lack of freedom, or a lack of imagination that limits children to believe only in what is shown to be “right” in the films they watch (England et al. 2011: 557).

Therefore, boys tend to act in ways that the male characters do such as aggressive, competitive, while girls act more passive and expressive (Choueiti et al. 2010: 776). These are just some of the characteristics and behaviors that children tend to take on from the influence of films. Though children are strongly impacted by Disney movies, educators and families need to work together to help children gain the appropriate knowledge so that they don’t grow up in a society with stereotyped social gender expectations. Tied quite closely to gender portrayal and behaviors is gender and social norms.

The behaviors of male and females tend to connect and impact the social norms that are present in society. Just as Disney impacts children’s view and belief of sexuality and behaviors, it also shapes their ideas about social norms and how they should live. As discussed in the previous paragraph, men are usually portrayed as strong and successful and women more as caring and passive. A great deal of this connect to social norms, as through these characteristics it is determined how men and women should live and what occupations they should have, for example.

Disney movies portray the ideal lives of men and women, they often show the “happily ever after” ending, and they shape children’s images of what is expected of them, as they grow older. There is such a large focus on the personal lives of characters in Disney movies. The ideal man and women are represented with ideal jobs and lives. It is very common for the girls or women to be shown in a position of a princess or a homemaker.

This is the case in all of the Disney princess movies. Snow White lives in a home with seven male dwarfs, cooks, cleans and takes care of all of them, and is happy whilst doing all of this (England et al. 2011: 563). As feminist discourses seek into every day life, this is no longer the “typical” job of a woman and girls should not base their understanding of social norms off of this. It seems that in many of these films women are basically treated as objects that go from the possession of their father to a beautiful prince that they hardly know. It is also common for female characters to be portrayed as submissive to the male characters, which very often display forceful behaviors. In the movie Beauty and the Beast, the Beast abuses Belle, as he not only rips her family apart, but also abuses her (England et al. 2011: 562). The whole big part of this story is that she returns to him even in spite of his rage and abuse. She reinterprets his rage as vulnerability and temper and falls in love with him. This is not a message that should be sent to children. These movies basically tell children to overlook the violence and abuse because being loved matters much more (Sun. 2011). These are just a few examples of the typical portrayals of the social norms in movies, but another example of something that Disney movies all end with is the “happily ever after”.

No matter what these characters go through or what obstacles are presented, Disney movies all seem to end in one particular way. And that is with a “happily ever after” ending. This is something that all girls look forward to from a young age. These movies represent it to be a social norm but in reality, that is not the case (Ross. 2004: 60). All the Disney princess movies end with the princess and the prince, or the hero, running off together happily. The female characters in the movies risk so much just to be with their “Prince Charming”.

In The Little Mermaid, Ariel gives up her beautiful voice to be able to walk on land, and after that she still needs to impress the man she loves. Ariel uses her body to do this so the Prince will fall in love with her (Sun. 2011). Another example is Cinderella, one of the most popular Disney princesses, who is transformed and relies on her beauty to win her prince over, just so she can be loved (Sperry. 2007: 718). All the princesses just want to live happily with their princes.

These movies are teaching young girls that they have to rely on men to be happy and they are also teaching young boys that they should be the powerful ones that girls look up to, to live cheerful lives. Through Disney movies, children’s images of who and what they should strive to be when they are older are shaped. Even such messages as a happy ending give off the idea of perfection to be the norm in children’s lives. It is common for boys to want to grow up being successful and making a lot of lot of money while also finding the perfect girl to marry (Choueiti et al. 2010: 775).

It is common for girls to want to be caretakers of both children and their husbands and have that ideal family. Social norms are a large part of the societies we live in, and to have them shaped and molded into something so narrow like what is shown in Disney movies does not allow children to create their own dreams and aspirations to the fullest potential. It hinds their capabilities to strive for something else other then what is described as perfection, or what their gender is portrayed as. The gender roles that are portrayed in Disney movies are really important as our youth is heavily affected by what is shown in the media.

The persuasiveness of the films sends very stereotypical messages to children about gender role portrayals that influence children’s beliefs about gender and sexuality, behavior and social norms. Viewing Disney films can have an impact on developing such attitudes and beliefs about gender as they portray the ideal appearance, characteristics and social norms associated with males and females. They also include messages that are unrealistic but still believable to young children, so that they continue to strive to achieve what these messages tell them.

As well as representing the ideal male and female and sending negative messages, Disney movies shape children’s images of who they should strive to be. Though Disney films are entertaining and do instill some good values, many of the messages that children receive can do them more harm then good in the long run. The full impact of these skewed portrayals and representations in Disney movies is not known, but it is certain that these gender stereotypes may have serious consequences for children’s understanding of gender role portrayals in the societies they live in (Choueiti et al. 2010: 774).

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