A study of the class system in Disney and Pixar’s biggest movies reveals poverty is ‘not a big deal’ and the rich are happy to look after everyone else
In the world of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves even Grumpy heads to work with a spring in his step. A new study by sociologists at Duke University suggests that the class stereotypes reinforced by Disney’s biggest films are introducing young viewers to a life of accepting their lot, until their own hard work pulls them out of poverty.
Jessi Straub, an assistant professor of sociology at Duke, and two undergraduates, Miryea Ayala and Colleen Wixted, watched all 36 films by Disney and its subsidiary Pixar that have grossed more than $100m as of 1 January 2014. They categorised the class of each primary character and charted whether the classification changed over the course of the story.
They found that only 4% of the primary characters across the films could be classed as “poor” and that the cartoons depicted diligence and strong spirit as the key indicators of social mobility. Only one of the working class characters, who made up 16% of the primary roles, worried about money.
“The big theme is that inequality is benign,” Streib told the Duke research blog. “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.”
Streib’s study, titled Benign Inequality: Frames of Poverty and Social Class Inequality in Children’s Movies, found that the majority of characters in Disney and Pixar films could be called upper and upper middle class. In the real world, roughly 25% of American children live in poverty. Streib and her team highlighted a section of the 1992 film Aladdin as representative of the film’s attitude to class and poverty. In one scene, the street urchin Aladdin and the wealthy Princess Jasmine compare their lot and find themselves equally miserable. He is poor, she is unhappy because she has “people who tell you where to go and how to dress”.
“Studies have shown that by the time kids are 12, they have internalised a lot of American ideas about class – like poor people are lazy, and rich people are smart and hardworking,” Streib said. “Parents don’t really like talking to their kids about class, so I thought that the movies these kids watch are how they get their ideas on class.”
She accepts that its a tricky line for Disney to walk, as it’s difficult to offer a realistic portrayal of the class system without dissuading kids from working hard.
“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,” Streib told the Hollywood Reporter.
The Duke University study follows work on the representation of women in Disney films that found that Disney princesses typically speak less than male characters, despite being the lead character. The study, by linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer, singled out hits like Frozen, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin as particularly poor in giving their female characters voice.
This article was written by Henry Barnes and agencies, for theguardian.com on Monday 14th March 2016 12.05 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010