Faherty, V.  (2001)  'Is the mouse sensitive? A study of race, gender, and social vulnerability in Disney animated films', in Studies in Media and Information Literacy Education, 1 (3). Also on line at http://www.utpjournals.com/simile

[This article contains a very useful review of the extensive literature criticizing Disney films. It then proposes to offer a nice simple content analysis, ostensibly to try to settle some of these claims with evidence. Great idea, and long overdue, but this is probably far too simple and positivist to take us very far. Ground breaking, though.]

 There are lots of claims about the impact of Disney animated films, especially in terms of notions of gender, race and ideology. This one focuses on how children, or metaphors for them, are represented in Disney animated films, especially how they cope with various social problems.

 A large amount of critical material is briefly reviewed and categorized in terms of whether it is positive, hostile or neutral. Most of this uses qualitative research, combined with various ideological positions both left and right.

 This study attempts to analyze the gender, race and  'social vulnerability' of the major and minor characters in a representative sample of Disney films  (the '19 most successful and most recent' -- no page numbers in this electronic version). The analysis then attempted to assess how typical these characters were and how close they got to  'real life representations of the major problems and issues facing children and families today'. Having coded the films, relationships between them were explored statistically.

 334 distinct characters were characterized  [some were characterized as ambiguous or non detectable in terms of gender and race. Ethnicity was 'measured by a close analysis of each character's body features, clothing, name and any vocal accent if present'. Actual categories included European, European American, Asian, Arabic and American Indian. Social vulnerability was found overtly in 135 examples and covered matters such as having 'a missing or deceased parent  (29.6 per cent)... physical disability  (15.6 per cent)... low intelligence  (14.8 per cent)... [being]... overweight  (14.1 per cent)... [being]... killed or taken prisoner... (8.1 per cent and 6.7 per cent respectively).

 Faherty accepts that this is limited probing and that he should have accomplish some  'inter- rater reliability' exercises. Nevertheless, he thinks it a good idea that Disney films do raise awareness of social vulnerability:  'Disney should be applauded for presenting in human terms what it is like to be an orphan were foster child; to have lost a parent to death; to have a step mother and be a member of the blended family; to cope with the physical or emotional disability; to be poor; to be discriminated against; or, to be simply different'. Overall, Disney films are quite positive and encouraging on these matters. Not even female characters seem to be disadvantaged -- indeed, they are likely to  'be placed less often in villainous roles'.

 However, Disney characters are largely white and European or European American. Hispanic characters never appear, despite the animated films that Disney produced after World War 2  [health education for Mexicans, I recall]. Even the films based in Africa to not include any characters of African descent. Male characters are over-represented, although some other female ones are clearly strong characters  (especially Pocahontas and Mulan). Male characters are also over-represented in villainous roles, which could have a impact on children try to form relationships with  'caring male adults'. There is a lot of coverage of single parent families, and mothers are particularly unrepresented. The  'unfortunate stereotype of the stupid sidekick' is also common, and  'characters appearing overweight were often awkward and inept in social situations'.

 Enough is contained here to warrant further research, especially of the quantitative nature. There was a general criticism of narrow textual analysis, where actual audiences are ignored. Faherty wants to support Giroux in one respect at least, in calling for much more critical analysis of Disney films, shared by all public intellectuals.

 [An appendix contains the actual workings of the research, the categories used, and the chi square tests of significance for relations between them. The data is then interpreted briefly in each case. Thus it seems that:

male and female characters are equally socially vulnerable. Villains are much more male than female. Villains express some social vulnerability much more than heroes or heroines. Female characters are adolescents and young adults more than expected. Villains and their supporters are adult more than expected. Adolescents and young adults played a major role more than expected.

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