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Disney has a skewed gender balance in its films – and it shapes our world

New research shows that just 40 per cent of Disney characters are female – we must use our purchasing power and send a clear message

Ian Hamilton
Monday 28 February 2022 16:29 GMT
Frozen 2 Exclusive Interview With Josh Gad & Jonathan Groff

Girls are not born with a love of pink and boys don’t naturally prefer blue. These preferences are carefully and persistently nurtured during our early years, not least by the media we are exposed to.

Many of us have grown up with Disney animations. For me it was Snow White but for today’s children it is much more likely to be Frozen. Disney offers skilled and engaging animations, but it also depicts core attributes of gender. Male characters are brave, and courageously rescue female characters from precarious situations. Female characters usually have to wait for their knight in shining armour to come to their aid.

All of this may seem obvious. But now, a new research paper has dug deeper into Disney’s influence and gives us a better idea of its impact on shaping our views. The four scientists say their purpose was twofold: to look at how genders were depicted in animated Disney films, and secondly, to analyse this with the people behind these films: producers, directors, and writers. They trawled through eight decades of Disney animations from Snow White released in 1937 to Frozen in 2019 and everything in between.

The authors of the paper found that 60 per cent of Disney animated characters were male, while just 40 per cent were female. That is starkly different from our 50-50 gender split. They also found that little has changed in eight decades of Disney productions – which continue to depict gender differences in attractiveness, occupations and leadership. Citing the example of Elsa from Frozen and her status as an outcast, they suggest this promotes the message that women are less involved and important to society.

The researchers found very few examples of films with female-only direction, or even with a mix of female and male directors. Strikingly, when women were involved in directing films such as Frozen and Brave, the traditional love story plot, well-worn in previous animations, was rejected in favour of a different plot. Overall, where women were involved in senior production roles, there was a more equal and nuanced depiction of male and female characters.

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These films and the characters don’t appear by magic. They are the result of significant work by teams of writers, directors and production staff. Disney is a commercial entity not a social reform movement, their aim is to make money not change society. While their output might not reflect the ambition of gender equality, they must be sufficiently confident in their work to continue in their legacy of promoting gender stereotypes.

But even as a business Disney has a responsibility to reflect the reality for viewers they rely on. Fantasy isn’t compromised by reality, it is enhanced by it, by resonating with people. In that sense Disney needs to go much further. As actor and comedian Josh Gad, the voice of Olaf in Frozen, revealed in a recent interview with The Independent, Disney’s “gay moment” was too tame as it featured a two-second dance with two men. It was a case of “blink and you’ll miss it”.

So far Disney’s report card on equity and representation is a failure that needs immediate attention. We can use our purchasing power and send a clear commercial message by avoiding Disney films and its streaming service. It might just signal how Disney has become out of touch. If enough of us do that, Disney may just embrace contemporary gender and identity ideals much quicker. Well, that’s my fantasy anyway.

Ian Hamilton is a senior lecturer in addiction and mental health at the University of York

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