Reflections On . . . What Disney is Teaching Our Children

By Sinéad Matson

Updated / Friday, 17 December 2021 11:38

Over the Christmas break, it is very likely that you will eventually find yourself snuggled on the sofa, watching a Disney movie.  Like it or not, Disney is a force to be reckoned with on a global scale, especially in terms of how it influences children’s lives. Luckily, it is an inclusive, family-friendly, global brand… or is it? A lot of scholars have delved into the Disney Empire to see what messages it may be teaching children. They have found that, in typical colonial fashion, this empire prompts children to construct and understand their worlds – and the people within it – in ways that uphold white supremacist, heteronormative, patriarchal, and ableist values that favour only a select few.

In the ninety eight years since Disney’s inception, children have learned that straight, white men are heroic and that women need to be saved by them. They have learned that a white prince will save our heroines from a life of poverty (think Belle, Cinderella, and Tiana) and secure them a life of luxury, or nobility, through marriage. Children have learned to associate characters of dark colour, or non-whiteness, disability, and Asian eye-shape with evil (Scar from The Lion King, Ursula from The Little Mermaid, Jaffar from Aladdin, Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, and Dr. Facilier from The Princess and the Frog). It is noteworthy that Disney’s first Black princess, Tiana, spends 75% of her time on screen as a frog! Children have also learned that lighter skinned women with big round eyes of blue or green are innocent, and in need of rescuing from domestic work, servitude, and other external dark forces – sometimes even from themselves.

The absence of any explicitly queer or non-binary character in any of Disney’s movies is noticeable. There are instances of implicit queerness, or “queer coding,” of characters, such as Queen Elsa from Frozen and Merida from Brave. However, it is also noticeable that many of these queer-coded characters are cast as villains, such as Ursula from The Little Mermaid, Hades from Hercules, Scar from The Lion King, and Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. These stereotypical repetitions encourage children to associate certain character traits and skin tones with wickedness and deceitfulness.

Queerness is typically presented as a threat, and gender nonconformity as something that is not to be trusted. Ken from Toy Story 3 is a prime example of a character that threatens traditional masculinity. At the same time, however, Ken cannot be neatly categorised as traditionally gay. It hardly seems a coincidence that he moves fluidly between being a good and a bad character, which creates the impression that he is untrustworthy because we never know what he might do next. Perhaps Ken is, in fact, bi-sexual, fluidly moving between his sexuality and not conforming to societal expectations, whether they are heterosexual or homosexual expectations?

Disney does not like fluidity; it much prefers its comfortable binaries. Is this why we never quite know where we stand with Ken? Many fans consider Ken to be a closeted gay man. They argue that Disney even goes so far as to make an actual closet with many outfits his favourite place in the world! It is only when Ken moves away from the closet and his love of clothes that he begins to take on more traditionally masculine traits, such as saving Barbie and her friends. It is striking that this is ultimately what renders Ken more worthy of our trust.

Elsa and Merida, while both queer coded, are initially presented as a threat to traditional Christian values. Both of these characters engage with the occult – as do many other queer-coded Disney villains, such as Dr. Facilier from The Princess and the Frog, Jaffar from Aladdin, Hades from Hercules, Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty (whose name literally means: causing harm or destruction by supernatural means), and Ursula from The Little Mermaid. However, both Elsa and Merida are welcomed (albeit hesitantly) back into the fold because they overpower their black magic curses. By the end of the movie, they have conformed to societal norms and values. In effect, this eliminates the threat that Disney movies routinely associate with queerness and gender nonconformity.

Even the characters that Disney holds up as the answer to the tired old “gendered Princess” trope (think Rapunzel, Princess Anna from Frozen, and Moana) are at the same time recognised as threats to patriarchal norms. To combat this, Disney ensures that their success is dependent on their willingness to work in partnership with men, who ultimately help them to achieve their dreams. This, along with valuing family and tradition, is invariably the cornerstone of their success. While these characters are presented to children as strong, modern, independent women, children are also being taught that in order to become a strong and successful woman they eventually need to fall in line. This means becoming kind, matriarchal figures that promote Christian norms and family values and bring stability back to their kingdoms. In the Disney Empire, this is the only outcome that passes for “happy ever after.”

Like many of you, I am very much looking forward to Disney time on the sofa this Christmas. But it is important that we take note of the messaging that is smuggled into our children’s content as they continue to figure out how the world works. More often than not, these messages are not as clear cut or inclusive as it may first appear!

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of the Museum of Childhood Ireland.

Dr Sinéad Matson has worked in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) for over twenty years. Trained in Montessori teaching, she has worked as a Montessori educator, manager, principal of a Montessori primary school, and as a tutor, lecturer, academic consultant, and project manager in ECEC. After completing a Master of Education Degree in 2013, Sinéad pursued a PhD in Education. Her thesis focuses on how to ethically research with children in ECEC settings and in the Majority World. She is primarily interested in troubling the dominant discourses surrounding ECEC and Childhood Studies and disrupting the social hierarchies that these discourses perpetuate.

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