1 of 2
Copyright Disney, All Rights Reserved
Many Disney cartoon characters are elderly. Disney villain Cruella De Vil, center, is flanked by positive characters King Triton, upper left, and Rafiki, right.

Cruella De Vil.

Cruella De Vil.

If she doesn't scare you,

No evil thing will.

What's scarier than a mean old lady trying to skin Dalmatian puppies for profit?

And what's nastier than an old stepmother locking a sweet girl in her room to keep her from the prince who would make her a princess?

A rotten villain is a great part of many beloved stories, but researchers at Brigham Young University want to know why so many cartoon villains are old people and why so many older cartoon characters are depicted negatively.

Dozens of older Disney animated characters may have helped form or reinforce the negative impressions young children have of older people, according to a new BYU study published by the Journal of Ageing Studies.

Nearly half of all older characters in 34 Disney animated movies are represented negatively, BYU communications professor Tom Robinson said.

"The thing that astounds me the most is that if females or a minority group were portrayed this negatively, we'd be aghast," Robinson said. "There would be riots, boycotts. But 42 percent of older characters are portrayed negatively, and I'm not sure people are shocked or even upset by it, which I think is kind of sad."

Disney representatives did not immediately respond to a phone message and e-mail.

Robinson did not condemn Disney, pointing out that most older Disney characters — 58 percent — were presented positively.

The observational study, he said, confirmed conclusions in a study he published last year that showed 62 percent of older characters in TV cartoons are portrayed positively.

But he remained worried about the high negatives in both studies. In contract, another study he did found older characters portrayed positively 97.5 percent of the time in national magazines targeting seniors.

Why a media company would portray older people positively to older consumers is obvious, Robinson said. What isn't obvious to him is why portrayals of older people are more negative when children are the consumers.

Robinson has made a career out of studying representations of older people in the media. He was particularly disturbed by a 1986 academic study that showed that by the time children arrive in kindergarten, they already have developed negative stereotypes of older people.

"I couldn't understand how that was possible," he said. "I was shocked by that, and I've looked to see why it is."

He began studying portrayals of older people in TV and magazine advertising and TV sitcoms and dramas. When he read another study that showed ageism exists in a lot of classic literature, Robinson decided to look at cartoons because of their socializing function.

For the Disney study, Robinson and fellow researcher Mark Callister had BYU graduate students Dawn Magoffin and Jennifer Moore independently watch 34 animated Disney movies. The students found 93 characters they determined were 55 or older.

One positive finding was that, beginning in the 1990s, animated Disney films have included more and more older characters, including positive ones like Rafiki in "The Lion King," King Triton in "The Little Mermaid" and Mother Willow in "Pocahontas."

Those positive role models helped balance negative ones like Cruella De Vil, the buffoonish Smee in "Peter Pan" and Madam Mim in "Sword in the Stone."

Researchers also generally praised Disney animators for the physical characteristics of the older characters. The BYU team decided that gray or white hair, baldness and wrinkles, while common, were neutral characteristics.

But the students found that 27 percent of older characters were presented as toothless or missing teeth. They said they noticed a number of older background characters were depicted with cracking voices, as hunched over or with "saggy breasts."

Other findings:

• 22 percent of older characters in major roles were villains.

"Villains are extremely negative characters and, arguably, more memorable to young children, perhaps contributing to their prejudices toward older people," Robinson wrote in the study.

• Just 17 percent of older characters were minorities and half of those — six — were in a single movie, "Mulan." The other six were in four other films — "Brother Bear," "Lilo and Stitch," "Pocahontas" and "Home on the Range."

Robinson now has a team using the same process to study Disney live-action movies.

E-mail: twalch@desnews.com