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Disney and Gender Stereotypical Influence

"...classic films we all know and love have continually played a major role in reinforcing 'long-standing gender stereotypes'...'"

By Megan Kern

Disney Princess films have provided great fun and entertainment to children everywhere since the early 1900s. Many gender studies show, however, that the classic films we all know and love have continually played a major role in reinforcing “long-standing gender stereotypes”– for both females and males.[1] Researchers seem to agree that Disney’s portrayal of women can be separated into distinct phases.[2] The first phase is comprised of Princesses like Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora.[3] These princesses are all white, tall, thin, beautiful, and are portrayed as homemakers who are waiting to be rescued by a man.[4] The second phase consists of Princesses like Ariel, Jasmine, and Belle. These women, though still thin and beautiful, are slightly more empowered than their predecessors as they are determined to find a man for themselves.[5] Although they show a little more gusto, Ariel, Jasmine, and Belle are still willing to sacrifice major parts of who they are and where they come from in order to be with the man that they love.[6] Finally, we are in the age of stronger Disney Princesses who embody courage, strength, and independence like Mulan, Pocahontas, Rapunzel. Even these princesses, however, fail to completely rid themselves of past “female” characteristics. For instance, it is well understood that Mulan would not have been as successful if she had not disguised herself as a man, Rapunzel still ends up falling in love with Flynn Rider who is a major part of her “happily ever after,” and Pocahontas serves as a reminder that women can’t be politically powerful and still end up with a man.[7]

Disney’s incessant portrayal of small, beautiful, submissive, and nurturing women is also reflected and emphasized in its portrayal of men. Male character traits include strength, assertiveness, athleticism, heroism, and a strong desire to explore.[8] Overall, male characters are depicted as more outgoing and in control, and studies have found that in all of the Disney Princess films produced between 1989 and 1999, “male characters have three times as much dialogue as female characters.”[9] Moreover, gender stereotypes are not only depicted in character attributes but also their attire. While females are always featured in dresses, with long hair, make-up, and jewelry, male characters are featured with short hair, in boots, pants, and hats.[10]

“...ultimately, children need fun, imagination, and good role models...”

Some may ask, “what is the harm?”, but studies suggest that Disney Princesses and the messages they promote may influence gender-stereotypical behavior for children.[11] What’s more, previous research has shown that children (girls and boys) incorporate movies they watch into “scripts for play,” that eventually turns into an “agent of socialization.”[12] This means that the more children interact with and experience Disney Princesses, the more likely said children will display gender–normative behavior.[13] Academics from Brigham Young University in Utah found that the more girls identified with “princess culture”, the more they exhibited “patterns of behavior that corresponded to female stereotypes suggesting that beauty, sweetness, and obedience are women’s most valuable assets.”[14] Moreover, such exposure also negatively impacts body image and lowers girls’ interest in education.[15] In contrast, for boys, Disney’s portrayal of women and men actually increased their body image and self-esteem and made them more helpful to others.[16]

Recognizing that Disney’s films portray certain gender–normative traits in their characters does not mean that children should not be exposed to cultural products. Disney has shown improvement in its portrayal of males and females since the early days of Snow White and Cinderella.[17] Since 1998, Disney princesses have seen an increase in “male characteristics” like bravery, independence, and strength.[18] While there is plenty of room for improvement, not only for representation of more “masculine” women, but also more “feminine” men, it is still acceptable for a girl to play dress up as a princess as long as she knows she can also play doctor, play in the mud, or play baseball. Likewise, a boy should be able to dress like his favorite superhero just as he is able to play house, pick flowers, or sing songs.[19]Ultimately, all children need fun, imagination, and good role models, and Disney films can still be a source for all three.


[2] Id.














[16] Id.




Megan Kern, JD candidate at Case Western Reserve University, School of Law in Cleveland, Ohio.

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