Sociologists find children's films present inequality as benign or virtuous

March 8, 2016 by Eric Ferreri, Duke University
Sociologists find children's films present inequality as benign or virtuous
Off they go to a hard day in the mines, whistling and smiling. (Except for Grumpy, of course.)

Snow White's seven dwarfs head off to the mines each day with a spring in their step and a song on their lips.

In Cars, an anthropomorphic Porsche named Sally finds her job as a lawyer to stressful so she moves to a working-class town where she finds an easier life.

These and other wildly popular that enchant children with magical tales of love, royalty, riches and happiness portray inequality in potentially harmful ways, a new Duke University study finds.

Sociologist Jessi Streib and two undergraduate students, Miryea Ayala and Colleen Wixted, watched all 36 G-rated movies that have grossed more than $100 million as of January 1, 2014, studying the characters in each to see what social class they represent and whether they scale the social ladder or fall off it. Many were Disney or Pixar movies from the last decade or so, while a few, like Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, are considered generational classics.

The study found that the movies presented a less-than-nuanced view of social class, often focusing on up-from-the-bootstraps characters who reap huge social and economic rewards largely from hard work, moral fortitude, and playing by the rules.

Sociologists find children's films present inequality as benign or virtuous
Sally chucked it all, but she’s still got a Porsche.
"The big theme is that inequality is benign," said Streib, an assistant professor of sociology. "Being poor isn't a big deal. Being working class makes you happy. Anyone who wants to get ahead, and is ambitious and is a good person, can do so. And the rich happily provide for everyone else. Obviously, that's not exactly how the world works."

The study was published last month in the Journal of Poverty.

The study found a series of children's characters who were economically top heavy. Of 67 main characters, 38 would be considered upper- or upper-middle class. Just 11 would be considered working class, and just three primary characters – or 4 percent of the total, would be considered poor by contemporary standards.

To compare, roughly 25 percent of American children live in poverty. And in real life, less than one-tenth of people in the lowest economic bracket rise to the top.

"In Disney movies, of course," Streib noted, "They all do."

The study also found that movies often minimize economic hardships. One example noted is Aladdin, the story of a young, homeless boy who befriends a princess named Jasmine. The two trade 'horror' stories, suggesting that Aladdin's life on the streets is roughly equivalent to Jasmine's struggles because servants tell her "where to go and how to dress."

Streib's paper excerpted this bit of Aladdin dialogue:

Aladdin: "The palace looks pretty amazing, huh?"

Jasmine, (disappointed, responding about the palace where she lives): "It's wonderful."

Aladdin: "I wonder what it'd be like to live there, and have servants and valets."

Jasmine: "Oh, sure. People who tell you where to go and how to dress."

Aladdin: "That's better than here. You're always scraping for food and ducking the guards."

Jasmine: "You're not free to make your own choices."

Aladdin: "Sometimes you feel so …"

Jasmine: "You're just …"

Aladdin and Jasmine, simultaneously: "Trapped."

Though these movies are fictional, their popularity does raise concerns about perpetuating myths related to inequality and the struggles lower-class people have climbing the ladder, Streib said.

"But would people really want to watch an honest movie?" she concedes? "Probably not."

Explore further: Class in session: Upper middle class preschoolers silence less fortunate peers

More information: Jessi Streib et al. Benign Inequality: Frames of Poverty and Social Class Inequality in Children's Movies, Journal of Poverty (2016). DOI: 10.1080/10875549.2015.1112870

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4 / 5 (2) Mar 08, 2016
Like any good researcher they then went out and found that children after looking at such films were affected by them--just as research finds that children watching films with talking dogs believe that dogs in fact talk.
2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 08, 2016
For crying out loud! As stated, these are children's films. Children don't need to have the realities of modern life shoved in their faces. They'll figure it out on their own, and way too soon as it is. This is supposed to be entertainment, not the facts of life. Give it a break! Why do some people go out the their way to be offended, even when no offense is intended?
5 / 5 (1) Mar 08, 2016
Aren't people be different in their abilities, work ethic, physical capabilities, etc.? Inequality is normal. As liberals would say, we should celebrate our "diversity."

Making an issue about inequality is all about government control and power over us. What should be equal, is how government treats us, in their job of protecting our lives, our property, our liberty and our pursuit of happiness from those that would harm us, especially from those that want more government power to take more from us, and harm us as a result.
5 / 5 (3) Mar 09, 2016
I have far more of a problem with stories that treat royalty as a natural right of the royal. Its like if you are king or you are born to be king its your birth right and anyone that tries to stop it is EVIL. IMO being king is just a prettied up word for dictator.
Manfred Particleboard
3 / 5 (2) Mar 09, 2016
'King are you... I didn't vote for you' -Python
Ok...there is a point to be made about how childrens' media presents the realities of social dynamics... but really- outrage?
Stuff the kids, they can watch tracts of re-enacted dialogue from the Hague, presenting legal cases for human rights abuses in third world nations.

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