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Stereotypes in Animation 1

Influence of Animation: Racial and Gender Stereotypes

McKenzie Bunting
Glen Allen High School

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Snow White and the Seven Drawfs, created by Walt Disney in 1937, was the first ever full
length animated film. Since then, Disney has produced a total of fifty four animated films as of
2014, and the animation field has since drastically spread to other networks (List of Disney,
2015). Like many pieces of literature, animation productions have sub-textual messages that are
being conveyed, some that even promote the idea of racial and gender stereotypes. These
messages could potentially have an impact on childrens social, emotional, and mental
development (Sims, n.d.). Ever since the beginning of cartoons in the 1930s, cartoons have
portrayed minorities in a negative light (Smith, 2002), and women have been outnumbered and
objectified. However, with new waves of feminism sweeping society, some animation
productions have displayed a shift in the morals being conveyed. Old stereotypes can be
expected from films originating in the mid 1900s where these stereotypes were a part of
everyday life, but now that we are in this post-civil rights era animation corporations should not
be setting racial and gender stereotypes, but rather creating productions that have modern
representations of society and build up minorities and gender equality.
Negative Racial Depiction
Whether or not viewers notice the sub-textual messages sent through the characters, voice
actors, or culture depicted, the influence of those messages, which can be offensive and racist,
are still there. For years TV programs have been engraining racist messages into their viewers
from some of the nations most beloved childhood films.
Some circumstances have been censored for the benefit of the audience, in a futile
attempt to hide such atrocities. For example, in the 1992 film Aladdin, the original lyrics to the

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opening song contained the verse, Oh I come from a land from a faraway place where the
caravan camels roam/ Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face / It's barbaric, but
hey, it's home." This lyric only magnifies the stereotypes that were already present in the media,
but spreading them to the young eyes of children across the country. The lyric was then edited to
where its flat and immense and the heat is intense, due to intense criticism, but the racial tone
and the original lyrics were not forgotten by critics upon the release of the film (Giroux, 1995).
Further, the style of the characters in Aladdin contain underlying racism as well. The
antagonists, men working for Jafar, had rather grotesque features: large noses, sinister eyes,
heavy accents, and constantly bearing weapons. Obviously some of these characteristics are
simply that of a villain, but many critics, especially in the Arabian culture, view them as overly
derogatory in comparison to Aladdin and Jasmine, who are illustrated with more westernized
features. Aladdin and Jasmine, the protagonists and star-crossed lovers, were Americanized:
Aladdin had a small nose, no beard or turban, and an American accent, not resembling the strong
ethnic features of the villains (Giroux, 1995). Jasmine also was more physically appealing than
other characters with an American accent, as well as having noticeably lighter skin than the
villains (Caoilainn, 2014). Overall these characteristics made them more appealing to the
audience at the expense of depriving the characters of their true culture, while the more ethnic
characters were vilified and ultimately engrain the idea that Arabian people with similar physical
characteristics are the villains in our world, into the minds of tomorrows leaders.
The Lion King is a classic family favorite movie that has been on countless Broadway
shows and appears to be one of the most well-known Disney films. Despite being the highestgrossing hand-drawn animated film in history, and the 20 th highest-grossing feature film of all
time, the 1994 film received much criticism on its racial depiction and immigration regarding the

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hyenas (The Lion King). The Lion King is believed to have racially coded accents, meaning the
film is not directly displaying racism, but the message of racism is coded beyond the animation
itself and delivered through the characters. Shenzi and Banzai, two of the villainous hyenas, are
voiced by Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin, who take on the nuances of the decidedly
urban, black and Latino youth. The hyenas inhabit the elephant graveyard, which resembles
slums and the outskirts of the desired community, Pride Rock. The royal lion family of Mufasa
speaks with posh accents, signifying superiority over the immigrant characters. The hyenas
are then used sources of labor to help Scar, the true villain, and his evil plans of domination of
Pride Rock. This sort of representation, or lack of, teaches children that cultures that are not of
white or middle class origin are inferior and a threat to be defeated in society (Giroux, 1995).
Similar to Aladdin, the minorities or underprivileged are viewed negatively and become servants
to the villains, ultimately disempowering the minorities to nothing more than a source of labor to
the villains and praising the beautiful, westernized characters as the heroes.
We see a serious lack of positive representation of people of color throughout many other
family-friendly movies as well. For example, in Dumbo (1941), the group of crows that
Dumbo encounters are all voiced by black actors, except for the ring leader who is ironically
named Jim Crow. All except Jim are rather submissive and in shabby clothes, suggesting obvious
racial slurs to the Jim Crow Laws and the notion of white supremacy. In the 1955 film, The Lady
and the Tramp, the two Siamese cats embody racist Asian stereotypes. Physically, the cats have
heavily slanted eyes and thick accents, then are portrayed as manipulative and greedy. Within
minutes of their arrival into Ladys house, they begin to destroy it. Some critics perceive this as a
jab at World War II since the film was released just a decade after Americas fight against the

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Japanese. Other racist messages can be seen in Peter Pan, The Jungle Book, and Pocahontas
(Caoilainn, 2014).
Representation of proper minority groups in society is essential for the development of
young children, especially for children within those minorities. The repetition of stereotypical
characterizations can influence how a child interprets their and others roles in society.
Researchers have found that African Americans are more likely to play roles of unemployed or
impoverished characters. Seeing more relatable figures in lower socioeconomic levels is
obviously not helpful to the self-confidence and self-esteem of young black children, who are
able to better relate to such characters. Overall, animated programs appear to be teaching
children that white people are the most important people in society (Smith, 2002). Television is a
part of the socialization process, that is the process by which one learnssocial roles, selfconcepts, and behaviors that are generally accepted into society (Stroman, 1984). When
animation lacks in proper representation of minorities in these means, it is easy to see how
children of a minority can have disfigured views of themselves in society. They begin to
internalize the idea that they are not equal or as worthy as their white counterparts.
Positive Racial Representation
While animation programs appear to have a destructive history of racial representation,
there appears to be a shift among popular productions. Princess Tiana in the 2009 Disney film,
The Princess and the Frog portrayed Disneys very first black princess. However, this
groundbreaking movie comes with an overwhelming amount of criticism. To begin, she was
originally supposed to be a maid, a rather stereotypical and historically correct profession. She
was also initially to be called Maddy (short for Madeleine) but this too received complaints of
being too similar to Mammy and therefore racist. Most of all, the very first black princess

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spent most of her time onscreen as a frog. While these criticisms remain, many are just happy to
have Disney displaying some more diversity among their films. An African-American and
former Disney animator, Floyd Norman, said Overly sensitive people see racial or ethnic slights
in every imagetheyve taken all the fun out of cartoon making, (Barnes, 2009). This movie
still carries immense amounts of positivity to young black girls seeking role models, and
encourages the idea of strong women who persevere to their goal.
The 2015 DreamWorks film, Home has also made history: it is their first 3D animated
film starring a black protagonist (Tuck, 2015). It seems silly to be celebrating such and
accomplishment when something like this should not even be a big deal, let alone be making
history in 2015. However, it is true. The lead character, Tip, is voiced by Rihanna, a famous
singer. The image below was posted on the social media through Instagram by Rihanna herself,
captioning it with Why we do this.

Rihanna shares the value she sees in the representation of young black girls, potentially
making a sensible impression on all of her 18.5 million followers (Tuck, 2015). Unlike other
movies with mainly white characters, a large part of society is now able to identify and feel
welcomed into the culture of animation. Rihanna claims that the reason she took the role was

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because she saw a lot of herself in Tip, and said The way she dresses and how she wears her
hair is not perfect and I feel like little girls should feel comfortable being that way, being
strong and being themselves. Proper representation in animation is crucial to children
because they idolize cartoons to a greater extent than other media outlets because they
consume it on a greater scale (Tuck, 2015)
There is an obvious need for greater representation of black culture and representation of
minorities throughout the animation field, but with two recent movies portraying black
protagonist is a small step in the right direction. Companies need to realize that seeing someone
like yourself on television and on the big screen does wonders for youth, and exposes children to
gender roles that shape their thought processes as they grow older. Confining minorities to
certain stereotypes on screen inhibit their ability to rise above and be viewed in a sense of
equality in a country that has oppressed minorities for years.
Negative Reflection of Gender Stereotypes
It is no secret that Disney has a history of disempowering women, and characterizing
them as damsels in distress. However, before anything is said as far as gender stereotypes are
concerned, let it be noted there are very few mothers, or strong female role models, other than
the evil step mother role. This could even alter how children view step-mothers in their own
lives. Women fail to be characterized as successful career women as well. Already the young
girls and princesses that become the protagonists have little positive female influences which can
be fundamental in the development of young children. (Coailainn, 2014). The need for a tragic
back story or orphan character is so strong, that it is apparently worth sacrificing nearly all of the
possible female role models.

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For example, Ariel in The Little Mermaid has only a father of whom she rebels against in
the name of love and curiosity. While children enjoy her teenage rebelliousness, they are
subconsciously being taught that desirability, choice, and empowerments are all linked to finding
a handsome prince. Romance becomes the driving force in her decisions and sacrifices for a boy
she had never even spoken to. Ariel then becomes a metaphor for the traditional housewife-inthe-making as she is silenced and belittled to nothing more than a prop for the men (Giroux,
1995). Ursula, the main influence and encouragement of Ariel giving up her mermaid life, tells
Ariel she will be fine without her voice because men dont like women who talk and
continuing with objective phrases such as, Youll have your looks! Your pretty face! And dont
underestimate the importance of body language! as Ursula violently shakes her hips and breasts.
The message here is the ultimate praise of the silencing of young girls, and the objectification of
their bodies in order to get a mans attention. This idea of looks being more important than
personality or intelligence is then reinforced as Eric attempts to kiss Ariel without having had a
proper conversation (Giroux 1995).
The gender stereotypes and feminist view point becomes slightly more complicated in
Beauty and the Beast. While she is labeled as a Disney feminist, there is criticism regarding
the truth of this title. Belle is portrayed as an independent woman in eighteenth century France
who rejects the typical macho man, Gaston, surprising the whole town due to the predicted
pattern of the princess falling in love with the most charming and attractive man (Giroux, 1995).
In this sense she is a great advocate for feminism, as she rejects the man in order to pursue her
own interests, and is not subjected to the typical Disney standard. However, she is criticized by
the entire town for being an avid reader, then plays the role of a housewife who is a prop for
humbling male vanity and solving the Beasts problems. She teaches him proper etiquette of

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eating, controlling his temper, and dancing, and turning the aggressive beast into a sensitive and
caring man. Despite being depicted as independent, she is ultimately a figure to civilize a man
(Giroux 1995).
Historically, Disney has kept women in the roles of damsels in distress, hardly being their
own heroines. Furthermore, the all have Barbie-doll like bodies which spread unrealistic
expectations for womens body images, which only feed into societys belief for what a pretty
girl may look like. This can be detrimental for a young girl growing up who struggles with body
image. As noted prior, it is crucial for young children to see people like themselves on screen,
whether it be color, shape, or gender. Despite having a past of subjecting women to decades of
belittlement, there appears to be a growing shift in the ideals of feminism and women
empowerment on screen for young girls growing up.
Reflections of Feminism
Since the start of animation, seventy eight years ago, there have been changes in the way
women and men participate in society. Women have entered the workforce, several waves of
feminism, and abortion and birth control rights have become forces in society that were not
always present (Sims, 2011). Some of these ideas have been expressed in recent films within the
last few decades. The theory of prosocial behavior can be defined as actions that foster
nonviolent social interactions, and can be easily displayed throughout television and animation.
Prosocial behaviors often include gender equality and cooperation, which are core subjects in
society, and influence the audiences to do the same (Smith, 2004).
Mulan, a 1998 Disney film, is arguable one of Disneys greatest feminist movies as it
portrays a girl breaking gender roles and saving all of China. The beginning and ending scenes

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parallel nicely as they start and end with Mulan in her honorable feminine clothesalong with
some of the other male soldiers dressed in drag as well. However, the message here is that young
girls and boys are being taught that conventionally feminine skills are not only just as valid as
brute strength, but even more useful in entering the locked castle. Mulan further breaks gender
roles as Honor to Us All mocks Disneys typical feminine construct in order to get the
handsome prince. Then, A Girl Worth Fighting For plays off of the absurdity of mens
expectations for women, and is immediately deromanticized with the scene of the burned
While being a childrens movie, Mulan is able to transverse ideas between masculinity
and femininity freely, depending on the situation. It celebrates skill and intelligence over
everything else, and the main center of this movie is not romance, but intelligence. Two major
scenes of the movie are when Mulan climbs the post with the weights around her wrists, and
when she stops the Huns army in the avalanche: both achieved through brains (The Popcorn
Scoop, 2012). The small amount of romance is well earned and not achieved solely through
beauty or love at first sight that is seen in countless Disney films, but it is achieved through
mutual admiration. Another interesting aspect of Mulan is that she has a father, a mother, and a
grandmother. Mulan fails to fit the orphan mold that Disney so often adores. Instead of acting
in spite of her parents, like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, or acting like they do not exist, Mulan
reacts in order to protect her family above all else (The Popcorn Scoop, 2012).
Most young girls and boys fail to acknowledge such complex themes in a movie, but
regardless, they are being exposed to them which can influence their perceptions of things later
in life. Through animation and television as whole, prosocial behaviors such as gender equality
and cooperation are taught and hopefully internalized.

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Brave is another modern film with exemplary evidence of breaking gender stereotypes.
A Disney-Pixar film, this breaks drastically from the hit machine of the typical movies
(Watson 2012). It is because this movie is such a big budget film, a feel-good family hit, that
makes this movie and its messages so valuable. Millions of boys and girls will repeatedly absorb
the ethics of Brave as a feminist document, whether or not they realize it. Merida is the first
animated princess in major American film history who does not fall in love, nor act on the basis
of romantic motivation; instead, her sense of free will is at the center of her plotline (Watson,
Some critics have noted the similarities of Braves soft power themes with a Hillary
Clintonesque ideal, due to the conflict between sheer physical force and the force of a leader
with ethical high ground. Hanna Rosin explains in Watsons article why Brave may make some
viewers uncomfortable in the same way female presidential candidates do:
When the Queen explains to Merida why she cant be rebellious she lists not just generic
duties to the kingdom but personality traits which a proper princess should have:
compassion, patience, caution, cleanliness, a yearning for perfection. This could very
well describe the average ambitious college girl. People often ask why there arent more
women in power. The real answer is that even though women are more successful than
ever these days, we hold on to a cultural ambivalence about women with real power.
Women can be competent, perfect, compassionate, but not quite dominant.
Brave is breaking the association that dominance equals physical force through the
characterization of a red-headed princess from a land long ago (Watson, 2012). This hopefully
will encourage young girls to be more determined to gain positions of power and not be deterred
by the low expectations set for women by society.

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There is no doubt that, like everything we are exposed to, animation influences how
children interpret society (Smith, 2002). Instead of portraying a mostly true societal make up,
animation creates an illusion. Most studies of research on this issue do not focus specifically on
cartoons, but conclusions can be drawn from the television research industry in general and be
applied to cartoons. Minorities and women, for example, are both underrepresented in television
programs. Women have been outnumbered three to one, and black characters were confined to
mostly situational comedies or comic buffoons (Smith, 2002). Essentially, neither women nor
black people have been positively portrayed.
In a study done by Baker-Sperry, a woman read stories from Disneys Cinderella
Storybook to girls around the age of six. It was found that they are very away of the values of
beauty and marriage for women, and even related Cinderella and the step-sisters to themselves
multiple times and compared their own actions and looks to the characters (Sims, n.d.). This
displays how truly impactful animation is to young children, and especially how impressionable
the characters can be. Disney is one of the worlds largest media corporations, and having so
much access to young people could be a dangerous thing if they are spreading damaging
Media in the 21st century has an immense amount of power through its ability to
effectively spread messages and serve as a communication outlet. However, there are theories of
the impact it has on the views such as the magic bullet theory and the limited effects theory. The
magic bullet theory states that the media is a monopolizing power that sends messages into the
bloodstream of the public. The public is seen as a passive audience where the viewers are
expected to react the same to a given subject. The limited effects theory states that the media is

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less influential in molding the beliefs of its audience. The basis of this theory has been formed on
psychological studies and suggests that people respond to messages in various degrees. These are
just theories and cannot be given direct authority, but they open doors for the cultural analysis of
the medias power on their audiences (Armet, 2007).
Media has become such a central part of society, and it speaks volumes of what is
important in society. Instead of brainwashing children into believing some of the bad influences,
we as a society have created, we should instead be pushing towards improving upon our past
mistakes and providing representation to minorities and empowering women in a way many
movies fail to grasp. Some Disney movies reinforce derogatory racial stereotypes such as the
implication of segregation and a savage nature of non-white ethnicities; others promote a
submissive nature of females in order to obtain the desired, handsome prince. However, more
and more productions are breaking the stereotypes and extending the boundaries to be more
relatable and empowering to their audiences. Already, there has been a progressive movement to
add diversity into the field of animation, and allow women to be more than the props they were
once perceived to be. Life is more than sitting by a wishing well waiting for your handsome
prince at the age of 14, and young girls need to see that and be encouraged to strive for new

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