This week’s reading, “Unlearning the Myths the Bind Us” by Linda Christensen got me really interested – on the mention of “Disney” I was instantly hooked. Being a huge fan of animated Disney movies, I could go on for pages and pages about the animation, songs, musical scores…ok, getting back to focus here:
Christensen focuses her article on children’s movies and entertainment, and the messages about society that they send to young children. She argues that the messages subtly portrayed in children’s movies surrounding race, ethnicity, gender, body type, and social class have a huge influence over how children perceive society. For example, when a child watches something like Cinderella, they are sent false messages about female gender roles, marriage, and beauty. As Christensen states:
“these tales leave young women with two myths: Happiness means getting a man, and transformation from wretched conditions can be achieved through consumption - in their case, through new clothes and a new hairstyle. I am uncomfortable with those messages. I don't want students to believe that change can be bought at the mall, nor do I want them thinking that the pinnacle of a woman's life is an "I do" that supposedly leads them to a "happily ever after." I don't want my female students to see their “sisters” as competition for that scarce and wonderful commodity – men” (133).
As much as I love Disney fairy tale movies, I have to agree with Christensen in her argument. Through watching them, I’ve noticed that far too many of the stories display and emphasize unrealistic representations of different people and cultures. We shouldn’t teach our children through media that all women have to be a size zero, and have perfectly flowing hair, waiting around for a fairy godmother to show up and bring her a man to marry within the week and immediately make her life perfect. This only reinforces the gender stereotypes of girls, and now they feel like they have to change themselves because they feel pressured to be skinny, pretty, and feminine. They also fail to accurately represent human sexuality because these movies have only ever portrayed “true love” as an attraction between a handsome, muscular man and an unreasonably attractive, hyper-feminine girl. Nowhere does it portray love as a romantic attraction between two people of the same sex. It also associates youthfulness with beauty and kindness, since the protagonists are always very young, usually under the age of 20. The older characters tend to be portrayed as stereotypically ugly and evil.
I’ve noticed that cultures are also portrayed falsely in cartoons. While it’s true that most cartoon characters are white, some cartoons and movies are set in locations/eras of different cultures and feature people of color. But often times, these attempts at representing these cultures use false assumptions about these cultures that are ingrained in the perceptions of white Americans. For example, as Christensen states, the cartoon Pop-eye portrays most Arabs as peasants or thieves with turbins and swords. The same could be argued in Disney’s Aladdin, where the Arab stereotype is associated with evil.
I’ve noticed many similar cultural stereotypes while watching films like Peter Pan and Pocahontas, Native Americans are portrayed as the stereotypical “red” Indians with feather headdresses. Princess and the Frog, a recent Disney film set in New Orleans, attempts to highlight the culture and African American population in the area, but in doing so, waters down a complex cultural identity and reinforces racial stereotypes.
But while reading this article, I started thinking to myself, “Hold on a second - what about movies like Mulan? It features a woman who challenges the female princess stereotype by fighting in the army, which shows a strength in women, right?”
But unfortunately, while a children’s movie about a woman cross-dressing presents a less feminine side to women, it only focuses attention on gender stereotypes of the men. Most of humor in this movie comes Mulan’s struggle to act masculine; for example, her remark about male habits when she tries to present herself as a man: “You know how it is when you get those…”manly urges”…when you just gotta punch something, fix things…cook outdoors…” While it’s funny and we get a good laugh out of it, it still stereotypes men.
This really opened my eyes to the subliminal messages that I’ve been sent through the movies that I’ve always loved as a little kid and still love now – how has this affected how I see the world? I suppose that when watching these as a child, these movies shaped my views about the world in ways that I didn’t even realize, since the messages in these stories are so ingrained into our dominant ideology that we don’t even recognize them. Of course I can see the flaws now that I know to look for them, but to a 3-year old, as Christensen states, these flaws can have a major impact on how that child perceives gender roles, body image, sexuality, and race/ethnicity.
While generations of children have been fed stereotypes through fairy tales, we may be moving towards a more progressive era of children’s films with more diverse casts of characters. I came across this article the other day about the new Disney film, Frozen, and thoughts from another blogger about the elements that hint at a change in the stereotypes set in place by past films. While its far from diverse, it’s a step in the right direction (especially #5 – “Hey, did you notice the gay character?”) Hopefully we’ll see movies throw away more stereotypes in the future.
P.S. Sorry this post was so long…I tend to ramble about movies. Thanks for taking the time to read it J