How movies instill stereotypical ideas in the younger generations

Jasmine Lee and Claire Yang

Peter Pan. Dumbo. Snow White. Tom and Jerry. We’ve grown up watching these films — cheering on as Peter Pan and his cohort of Lost Boys battled Captain Hook, and sighing in defeat when Snow White bit into the poison apple. These movies and TV shows have accompanied us throughout our childhood, inspiring us and teaching us valuable life lessons. Yet these same films have discreetly instilled stereotypes and prejudices into our young, impressionable minds.

America’s history of racial tensions and gender barriers has greatly influenced many old movies, whether it be productions by Walt Disney or Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., as many of these movies premiered in the 20th Century.

According to Brigham Young University’s family life professor Sarah M. Coyne, 98% of the girls and 87% of the boys in their study have viewed Disney Princess movies. Coyne also found that while 61% of the girls were reported to have played with princess toys, only 4% of the boys have done the same. She believes this reveals the influence of gender stereotypes within Disney Princess films. This becomes problematic when young girls believe that they are limited to only the feminine toys, or, in the future, certain opportunities because of their gender. 

Coyne further highlights the princesses’ physical appearances and how that manifests the ideal woman figure in young girls’ minds. She believes that children are exposed to the ideal, thin body types at the age of three and four when they watch Disney Princess movies. 

For example, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937), which has a lifetime gross income of $418 billion worldwide, was written by Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm. However, according to the Economist, the Brothers Grimm’s story contributed to the gender stereotypes back then, when women were expected to remain submissive and feminine. In the movie’s opening, we saw Queen Grimhilde enraged by Snow White’s beauty as she sang softly with the birds and cleaned the stairs. For girls who looked up to Snow White, they were taught to strive for domesticity and femininity. The movie was even filmed and directed by a team of seven white men, which further silenced any female input towards Snow White’s characterization.

Even the iconic slapstick cartoon show, “Tom and Jerry,” has included racial stereotypes targeting African Americans. Mammy, a well-known racial caricature of African American women, was continuously featured in the show for 12 years. The character had a deep Southern accent, improper grammar and usually wore an apron, which portrays black women as uneducated and only capable of working as a house servant.

While these movies perpetuate stereotypes and negatively impact how the younger generation perceives diversity within their society, that isn’t to say there aren’t other well-directed, well-filmed productions that highlight racial injustice and the need to break gender barriers.

“Mulan”, released in 1998, was the first Disney princess film centered around an Asian character, and at the same time, created a strong, independent main female character. Mulan disguises herself as a man and enlists in a war in place of her father, using her wit to defeat legions of enemy soldiers. Unlike other princesses, Mulan was not looking for her knight in shining armor to save her from her issues — she tackled her conflicts with stride and intelligence. Similarly, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a film based on Harper Lee’s novel of the same name, challenged racial stereotypes with a story about a black man who is wrongly accused of raping a white woman.

While films like “Mulan” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” point out the social construct established by earlier movies, we still need to be aware of stereotypes in our future film-viewing experiences. Disney is a role model for doing so as they admitted the mistake and placed a disclaimer stating that certain movies “may contain outdated cultural depictions” in their upcoming Disney Plus television network. 

Even though our society is actively raising awareness of racism and sexism in our childhood films, we should continue to view other movies with filters to ensure that outdated values are not reflected within our community. And that moving forward, movie creators should create films that are more reflective of the progress that so many people have fought to accomplish.