The happily-ever-after endings of Disney movies may matter more than we thought.
A recent study from Duke University looked at the highest-grossing children’s movies and determined that they sanitize poverty and inequality by making them seem like no big deal.
Think dwarves happy to labor in the mines, cheery chimney sweeps, and a host of other poor and working-class characters who never worry about food, shelter, employment or health care.
Children’s films may also contain a subtext about social mobility, according to the study: virtuous, hardworking characters tend to be upwardly mobile, while evil characters take a fall and end up a couple rungs down the socio-economic ladder by the end of the movie.
How class is represented in children’s movies matters, said Jessi Streib, lead author of the Duke study, because if kids believe that simply working hard ensures success, they could blame themselves or others who don’t achieve certain things in life and assume they are lazy.
“It can end up being a viewpoint that doesn’t allow for a lot of empathy or for understanding how social class actually works,” she said.
Teaching kids about heavy topics like poverty and inequality can be tricky because they are complex and there may be competing values at play. It’s important for parents to be clear about what they want their children to learn, and to get kids involved in service and giving from an early age, said Susan Linn, lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of "The Case for Make-believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World.”
Parents don’t often talk with their children often about class, Streib said, but “pretty young kids know a lot about social class and equality, and they’ve already internalized stereotypes about different classes and ideas about the American Dream by the time they’re about 12.”
A royal affair
“Parents think about how gender is portrayed, particularly in Disney movies,” Streib said. “But I don’t think they pay as much attention to how class is portrayed, and that could be another conversation starter for parents.”
Streib said she knew kings, queens, princes and princesses would be a big part of the movies she watched for the study, but she was surprised at the extent to which upper-class characters were overrepresented.
Most villains began as members of the upper class or upper-middle class, but ended up poor or died, she said, while heroes all had upward mobility.
One of the most striking moments for her was in the movie Aladdin when Aladdin, a “street rat,” and Jasmine, a princess, compare stories about how hard their respective lives are.
“They’re portrayed as equal (struggles) when I think it’s a hard thing to see as an equal struggle in reality,” Streib said.
She doesn’t think the messages are necessarily intentional.
“As a country we don’t do a lot of thinking about class, yet at the same time we have these big ideas like the American dream that almost everybody believes in to some degree. That can very easily unconsciously surface in movies,” she said.
Happily never after
If Streib could write the ideal script for a children’s movie, she would focus on the environment of each of the characters and how it affected the choices available to them, she said.
“I would focus on good characters from each class, people who are working hard, who are moral and trying to do their best, but have that pay off more for characters in some classes than others,” she said.
“It would probably make a bad kids’ movie. It wouldn’t have a happy ending.”
That may be OK, according to Michelle Janning, professor of sociology at Whitman College and chair of the Council on Contemporary Families.
“We damage children by only exposing them to happy endings. That’s not how life works, whether you’re financially stable as an adult or not. Failure is part of everybody’s life experience,” she said.
She noted that many stories for children don’t end well.
“If you look at fairy tales from Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, they have terribly sad endings. That’s just part of childhood (and) growing up.”
Janning also questioned the black-vs.-white, good-vs.-evil framework of many children’s films.
“Why is it that movies are always about overcoming something bad so you can be good? There are lots of (children’s) movies in all sorts of other places around the world where there are no antagonists, there are no bad guys, it’s just a story about exploration and childhood,” she said.
Janning argues that instead of treating children as vulnerable innocents who need to be protected from life’s harsh truths — including how difficult poverty is — adults should trust kids to participate in the conversation.
“Kids can handle it. They can handle a lot of it. They are often very important and sound voices when it comes to complex topics because they see it from (a different perspective) and sometimes they can cut to the chase,” she said.
“Including them helps us understand the issues we think are complex.”
A spoonful of sugar
Children learn values in several ways, including how their parents treat them and others and what they observe happening around them — including in the media they consume, Linn said.
The Duke study noted that a third of children watch a movie every day, and many children watch the same movies repeatedly.
Linn gave some tips for talking to kids about wealth, poverty and inequality.
1. Know your own values. “(It’s) important for parents who are concerned about passing on their values to first of all really know what your values are, consciously, and then from a very early age talk with children about your values as you encounter them in life — including in movies,” Linn said.
2. Start young and start with feelings. It’s never too early to start having conversations about what kids are seeing, Linn said. She suggests starting with feelings rather than complex ideas, using phrases like “It’s sad” or “It makes me angry that people don’t have enough food.”
3. Look for the helpers. It’s OK if kids are a little upset, Linn said. What’s important is to acknowledge their feelings and point out people who are trying to do something about the problem. She mentioned story told by the famous children’s actor Fred Rogers of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
“He came in one day and saw his grandson watching some horrible disaster on TV, and he told him to look for the helpers,” she said. “That was brilliant — a way of helping kids feel not helpless, and also a model that there are people doing things about it.”
4. Ask questions. Parents can also keep things age-appropriate by asking questions to gauge where kids are.
“If a child asks you about something that you feel is dicey or uncomfortable, ask them what they know already about it. ‘I wonder why you’re asking me;’ ‘I’m going to talk with you about this, but it would help me to know what you already know about it,’” she said.
5. Use regular dinnertime conversations to bring up tricky topics. Family meals are a good time for talking because “children overhear adult conversations, (and you can) engage your children in the conversation. What you really want is to establish a relationship from the beginning where they can ask you about anything,” Linn said.
6. Involve kids early in life in charitable giving. Talking about poverty is only part of teaching about it, Linn said. She suggested visiting food pantries or homeless shelters with children to serve a meal. She established a tradition with her own family of shopping and donating a Thanksgiving meal each year.
7. Expose children to different kinds of people. Linn said it’s important to take kids out into the world — whatever your world is — and talk about what you see.
“If you’re anywhere in a city, take the bus with them, or a train or the trolley, because you’ll encounter all kinds of people in all kinds of different situations,” she said. “Little kids like doing that, they like changing trains and going on a bus, and you can make it an adventure.”
8. Use books to start conversations. Linn suggested “Pretty Old” by Eleanor Estes for a compassionate look at poverty through the eyes of children who have a classmate who doesn’t dress well, as well as a series called “All of a Kind Family” about a family growing up in New York without much money.
9. Recognize competing values. When it comes to the American Dream, Linn said different parents may prioritize teaching different things.
A 2014 New York Times poll found that 64 percent of Americans percent believe in the American dream — that anyone can work hard and become rich.
Other data show reality can be much different. People born into lower-income families are far less likely to make it to the top, even those who are smart and hardworking, according to Richard Reeves at the Brookings Institution.
Linn said she would talk to her own kids about fairness, and about how life sometimes isn’t fair. “That’s a conversation that gets more complicated over time,” she said.