Films and television shows can help a child learn language. But what children see and hear when they are growing up also has a profound influence on their belief systems and self-image. Because Disney films and the stories they tell are so popular, they have often been analyzed for their potentially negative effects on children.
Many Disney films have been criticized for their alleged racism, including “Lady and the Tramp” for its negative stereotyping of Asians, and “Dumbo,” for its depiction of black crows parroting contemporary stereotypes of black American culture. At the same time, the overwhelming majority of powerful characters, whether they’re heroes, heroines or adversaries, have been white. As Dorothy L. Hurley argued in "The Journal of Negro Education,” for children of color, watching a Disney film has often had the potential to reinforce the idea of white privilege in society.
Female Body Image and Personality
Disney heroines in particular have often been criticized for having unrealistic body types. Other criticism in this vein involves the tendency, particularly among older Disney movies, to teach young women that they should be complacent and demure in order to find happiness. There are also relatively few depictions of camaraderie among female characters. Disney heroines regularly find themselves fighting with other women, often for the affection of a man. The relationship between Cinderella and her stepmother and stepsisters is an often-cited example of this animosity between women.
Often, older Disney films presented young girls with two potential roles in life – either be a princess whose happiness depended on the love and protection of a man, or be an evil old woman. Films like “Snow White,” “Cinderella” and “The Little Mermaid” provide excellent examples of these two options. Perhaps in response to these criticisms, Disney has lately produced films that present more independent and empowered women, such as the heroine in the film “The Princess and the Frog.”
A 2006 study published by scholars at the University of Western Ontario noted that 74 percent of Disney films contained references to the concept of something or someone being “evil.” The authors of the study argue that by teaching children to demonize “bad” behavior when they are young, they are more likely to make the same judgments when they are older, thus restricting their view of others to terms that are strictly black and white, good or bad.
It should be noted that many of Disney’s films are based on fairy and folk tales. Some have argued that the inherent gender and race imbalance can be attributed to those elements being present already in the source material. Still, critics have countered that Disney has the ability to choose better material, or to alter the stories themselves.