Editors' Pick: Originally published March 23.
Snow White’s seven dwarfs are immune to the stresses of working daily in a dangerous and filthy mine and instead sing while they endure hard labor.
The happiness exhibited by these characters in children’s movies despite their working class background and lack of upward mobility is increasingly exacerbating income inequality, according to research conducted by Jessi Streib, an assistant professor of sociology Duke University, and two undergraduate students, Miryea Ayala and Colleen Wixted. The researchers watched 32 G-rated movies that had grossed more than $100 million as of January 1, 2014, and the results were published in the Journal of Poverty.
The social class of the characters in movies made by Disney or Pixar along with classics such as Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music were studied. The movies displayed an unrealistic view of being poor, where hardworking characters never bemoaned the lack of money and their struggles were portrayed as very few and in a positive light.
In these movies, 38 of the 67 main characters are in the upper or middle class while only 11 are working class members. Only three primary characters, or 4%, are deemed poor. The reality is that about 25% of children in America live in poverty and becoming rich is not a likely outcome since less than 10% of the population of the people who are born into the lowest economic bracket can rise to the top 1%, Streib said.
“In the highest grossing children’s movies, all hardworking and ambitious characters rise to the top,” she said.
Inequality is never cast in a negative light and viewed as being “benign,” Streib said. The daily struggles of people who are poor are rarely shown, and, instead, working class characters are portrayed as enjoying their jobs that serve the rich, she said.
The struggle to move from poverty to upper class is downplayed frequently and instead, the mindset that becomes embedded is that “inequality is not a big deal and anyone who tries hard can get ahead,” Streib said.
The majority of children’s movies are set in an idealized world where struggles are easy to overcome, said Kati Takacs Haynes, an associate professor of management at the University of Delaware.
“When economic or social inequality is part of the plot or the hero’s journey, they are an obstacle to overcome,” she said. “In most children stories, the protagonists do overcome the obstacles and everyone lives happily ever after.”
The repercussions can be vast.
Effect on Children
While the role of movies is largely to entertain viewers, many of them which are geared for adults also offer a dose of reality such as the struggles of paying for food and rent or not being able to purchase expensive items such as designer clothing and cars. These issues are not addressed in children’s movies since “being poor is presented as not a big deal and remaining in the working class makes the characters happy,” Streib said.
The rich are also portrayed as a class with s no prejudices toward people who are barely making ends meet.
“The rich happily look out and provide for poor people [in movies], and that’s not how the world works,” she said.
Striving to become wealthier or even just middle class is never a real difficulty in the movies, because “anyone who wants to get ahead, is ambitious and is a good person can accomplish it,” Streib said.
The reality is more complicated, because there are only so many high paying jobs and because middle class people can often network easier, she said.
Types of Characters
The prevalent types of characters in these movies are often princes and princesses such as Cinderella who spent her days scrubbing floors in threadbare clothing to transforming easily into a bejeweled, happy person who marries her prince in a royal wedding. All her previous economic issues were resolved easily, Streib said.
Only a small percentage of characters are poor and Aladdin, Remy in Ratatouille and Esmeralda in the Hunchback of Notre Dame are the few examples, distorting reality.
“Aladdin is homeless, yet he is able to find the genie and wished to become a prince,” Streib said. "It didn't work in the end so he had to become a regular person again, work hard, and return to treating people well before he became a prince."
Effect of Unrealistic Plots
The poor and working class are all content and happy with their economic situations. These movies rarely show the struggles of the working class or social movements, because “the characters like the way things are and no change is necessary,” Streib said.
In the movie Cars, Sally, an anthropomorphic Porsche, deems her career as a lawyer too stressful and decides to move to a working class town. Her life becomes easier and she loses a large chunk of her salary, but she still manages to drive a Porsche.
Media portrayals of consumers who are impoverished remain mired in distortion, said Ronald Hill, a marketing and business law professor at the Villanova School of Business.
“The lives of the poor are often seen as full of persistent dangers without any redeeming values outside of the occasional person who through personal grit rises above impossible circumstances,” he said. “The lives of everyone else are typically filled with endless opportunities for shopping and other forms of hedonic enjoyment and their markets for goods and service are so abundant and available that products of all kinds are just a few feet away at all times.”
The disconnect in movies can lead people to focus on spending and instant gratification, because it is glorified and not make saving a priority, said Haynes.
“I hope people are able to disconnect between movies and the reality of everyday life,” she said. “For some, seeing lifestyles portrayed in movies and TV shows might be an inspiration to create such a life for themselves. Others might only see the gap between the life portrayed in movies and TV shows and their own financial situation.”