Disney, Pixar Misrepresent Class Struggle in Children's Films, Study Finds

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Still - H 2015
Walt Disney Pictures/Photofest

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Still - H 2015

Four percent of the total number of primary characters in the 100 children's movies surveyed can be classified as "poor." In comparison, roughly 25 percent of American children live in poverty.

The latest fare from Walt Disney Animation Studios, Zootopia, has been lauded for its nuanced portrayal of the harmful effects that "otherizing" certain cultural groups can have on an entire society. It's a complex moral conundrum for a children's movie that has a running time of 108 minutes and centers on a rabbit police officer.

A study out of Duke University, titled "Benign Inequality: Frames of Poverty and Social Class Inequality in Children’s Movies," makes the case for adding more narrative complexity to children's movies in order to better represent socioeconomic class.

"Little kids have pretty interesting ideas of class," says Jessi Streib, the Duke sociology professor who spearheaded the study. "Studies have shown that by the time kids are 12, they have internalized a lot of American ideas about class — like poor people are lazy, and rich people are smart and hardworking."

She continues, "Parents don't really like talking to their kids about class, so I thought that the movies these kids are watching are how they get their ideas on class."

Streib looked at 100 G-rated children's movies in which the class of the characters was prevalent. (Meaning that Bambi, although a classic, was omitted because the socioeconomic structure of the woodland creatures is not fully addressed.) The films, which largely were made up of Disney and Pixar releases, ranged from Snow White to The Polar Express to The Rugrats Movie to Ratatouille.

The largest bulk of primary characters in the G-rated kids movies hailed from the upper and upper-middle classes. Thirty percent of primary characters in the films analyzed were from upper-class families, like Princess Jasmine in Aladdin, and approximately one-fourth were in the upper-middle class.

The biggest disparity revealed in the study was the representation of primary characters who would be considered poor by contemporary standards. Four percent of the total number of primary characters, meaning three main players in the 100 children's movies surveyed, could be classified as "poor." In comparison, roughly 25 percent of American children live in poverty.

Streib was most surprised by the prevalence of the "American dream" narrative in children's films, saying, "I think that upward mobility and rags-to-riches are so easy to map onto stories about good and evil that adding the class system is an easy way to tell stories. You see the good characters being rewarded for their hard work and for being a nice person, and they become rich through that."

Working hard and being rewarded is a positive moral that has persisted in American popular culture, but in real life, less than one-tenth of people in the lowest economic bracket rise to the top.

"Every single character in all of the movies we watched was upwardly mobile because they were ambitious and hardworking, while every single villain is downwardly mobile," says Streib.

Another narrative anomaly noticed in the study was the portrayal of working-class characters, like all seven of the coal-mining dwarves in Snow White or the anthropomorphic kitchenware in Beauty and the Beast, as always appearing pleased with their situation. Only one of the working-class characters, which made up 16 percent of primary characters, vocally worried about money.

Streib comments, "I didn't expect the working class to be treated in such a jolly way. In some ways, this is great, but in other ways, it is saying that we don't have to worry about inequality because the working class is happy with where they are."

"If you showed these poor characters as trying really hard and still not being able to get ahead, then parents would see that as hard work doesn't pay off, which may be a troubling idea for little kids," contests Streib. It is difficult to incorporate complex, adult themes into an animated film geared toward kids, who still are developing how they internalize and analyze class.

But the release and subsequent box-office success of Zootopia, which outwardly deals with complex themes of prejudice and preconception, could mean a change in children's films.

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