On a cold winter’s night in Durham what better thing to have than a sprinkle of Disney stardust.

Master sorcerers of the proceedings were Prof Mark Learmonth and Dr Martyn Griffin who deftly worked magic with the findings of their research on the effect Disney may have had on generations of children.

Can you remember your first experience of a Disney film? As they are primarily aimed towards the younger market it probably safe to say that the majority of the population saw their first Disney film at a young age, before they really knew anything about the world of work.

Mark and Martyn took us on a journey through the years of Disney films, from Snow White, Jungle Book, The Rescuers, to Peter Pan, Wreck it Ralph and Frozen.  Their research sampled 55 Disney films looking at the role of female characters and how they are portrayed.

They found that female characters fell in to 4 basic types: Mother, Queen Bee, Seductress, Pet(younger sister).  The story lines had a 5 step sequence with the characters typically experiencing joy, pain, hardship, fighting back and triumph:

  • separation from parents
  • subjection to dangerous, dirty or unfulfilling work
  • manipulation and deception by managers
  • accentuating the positive at work
  • being rescued and returned to a safe environment

Females are seen cooking, cleaning looking after others, being belittled by the usually male characters.  If there is a strong female she is often drawn as a grotesque caricature such a Cruella de Vil of 101 Dalmatians’ fame.

The academics mused that the gender bias stemmed from the core team of Disney’s ‘9 Old Men’ who wrote and produced Disney films from the beginning, written in a time of a male dominated environment.

Is the tide turning?  New films have a slightly more balanced storyline with female characters being stronger or more caring.  There are signs of a more accepting society with characters drawn from a wider range of characteristics from modern society.

Disney films are still following the 5 stage sequence, but with characters becoming more empowered and have more control over their own destiny.

Whichever Disney film is your favourite, it’s always a good thing to remember Disney is a multi-million dollar organisation that is in business to make money.

You can access the full research paper via the Durham University website

Now where did I leave my magic wand….?