Disney films influence how girls see world of work, says new study

by L&D07 Dec 2016
Female characters in animated Disney movies can shape expectations about work and working life for young girls, according to a new study.
Researchers at the University of Leeds and the University of Bradford in the UK conducted analysis of 54 animated films made by Disney since 1937. The films depicted women at work from Snow White washing the dishes through to the bunny rabbit police officer in Zootopia.
The study's authors found that the earlier animations, such as Cinderella, generally depicted women as weak and unwilling to work, while more recent films such as Zootopia and Frozen feature females in strong and positive roles in relation to work. As a result of these conflicting portrayals, as girls watch a mixture of older and more recent Disney films, they receive mixed messages about women and work.
These opposing messages, the study suggests, could be a factor in why women have different expectations of the workplace to men and make career progress at a slower rate. However, lead author Martyn Griffin of Leeds University believes the more independent and empowered female characters in contemporary Disney films could help today's generation of girls avoid being "passive and weak in the workplace".
"Our study highlights the importance of the themes of 'work' and 'organisation' within these films and suggests that through repeated viewing within cinemas, and through DVD, Blu-ray and streaming services they are very likely to contribute towards the development of expectations about working life," said Griffin.
Co-author Mark Learmonth of Durham University Business School regards Disney films as an important cultural touchstone for children and one that introduces them to various social concepts, including work.
"In this study we have used Disney as a lens to develop the idea of 'organisational readiness' – that is, children's expectations about work which are shaped by social and cultural forces that indirectly prepare them for experiences of their future organisational life," said Learmonth.

"We have argued that Disney can be considered a contributory factor in this process – along with other films, books, computer games, comics, toys and other influences – adding towards a social reality in which children develop an understanding of the world of work."

The research coincides with the release of the new Disney film Moana, in which a young girl embraces her Polynesian heritage and embarks on an adventure to seek out a lost island.

"It's too early to tell yet whether Moana will offer another empowering representation of a woman 'at work' – although the signs certainly point towards this," said Griffin.

"It seems that Disney, once so famous for offering demure but essentially weak representations of women at work, will add yet again to its steadily growing body of strong female characters."