Do Disney’s Toxic Romances Influence Children?

Disney movies, especially those labeled “classics,” have long been critiqued over their sexist content. Princesses who have men kiss them without consent, one held captive by the man she is depicted to fall in love with, as well as the reinforcement of gender norms, marrying someone you barely know, and doing it all with an incredibly unrealistic body – with music. 

Tabling the harmful racist content for another day, what does this picture of romance, that is meant to represent the ideal in finding love, mean for the children watching?  

The Science of Television 

Unfortunately, there is not much research pertaining to children and how their ideals might be shaped by classic Disney movies. However, there have been a few studies conducted in similar veins.  

Dr. Albert Bandura conducted some studies which eventually provided proof for what he called the social learning theory, which posits that, “people learn behaviors, emotional reactions, and attitudes from role models whom they wish to emulate. 

Using this theory, researchers came up with the “Bobo Doll Studies.” In these Studies, preschool children watched videos in which adults beat up one of the clown dolls that bounce back up after being hit. One-third of the children saw the video end with the adults being rewarded, one-third with the adults being punished, and one-third with the adults seeing no consequences for their actions. After watching the videos, the children were allowed to play in an area with several of the dolls. Most adults reading this can guess what happened with two-thirds of those children. 

With this experiment in mind, television with the goal of reducing the spread of HIV, helping with family planning, promoting literacy, and empowering women came up. These programs were aired around the globe with good characters getting good outcomes from their decisions and bad characters not as much. They also incorporated characters who transition from bad to good. 

The nonprofit group Populations Communications International (PCI) airs similar programs and use controlled studies to measure the change in audience behavior. They found that programs that positively depicted family planning in Mexico and Kenya were followed by 32% and 58% increases in new contraceptive users, respectively. In Mexico, birth rates went from a high of 48 for every 1,000 people in 1950 to 17 births per 1,000 in 2021. In Kenya, the rates went from 51 per 1,000 to 27 per 1,000 in the same timeframe. 

Fitting in Romance 

In 1996, Christine M. Bachen & Eva Illouz published a study where they took a look at the cultural models of romance and love that young people had. They noted that the general outline of what a date looked like to young people was very similar to how it was portrayed by the media.   

For example, if you’ve seen a Bollywood movie, then you’ve likely seen the singing and the extravagant dance numbers where the lead characters belt out their feelings to one another and almost kiss – but only almost. It is a rare thing indeed to see people kiss in a movie based on Indian culture. Much like the Bollywood movies, in Indian culture it is not common to date in the same way Americans would. The “trial and error” approach of dating – including the mental and physical contact that implies – is not acceptable to most Indian people living in either India itself or in communities outside of the country. Dating is about determining if another person will be a good spouse. 

“There are striking parallels between the content and structure of children’s and adolescents’ understanding of romance with the content and form in which media portray romance. As noted earlier, the predominance of visual codes in television and advertising (print and TV) may facilitate the development of visual schemata,” Bachen and Illouz wrote in their study. 

In 2012, Veronica Hefner and Barbara J. Wilson looked at the influence that romantic ideals had in popular movies on what young people believed about relationship. Their study considered romantic expressions from 12 Disney “Princess” movies and the overall presence of ideals and challenges in terms of finding “true love.” They found that ideals were three times more prevalent in movies from 1989 to 1998 than from movies of other eras, and that males were the “dominant pursuers in 9 of the 11 films that featured a romantic relationship.” The study also found that repeated viewing was positively correlated to the idealization of one’s partner. 

Ultimately, there are no clear answers about if and how Disney films affect the children that consume them, but if you want your kids to have more realistic relationships, maybe have them watch Jerry Springer instead. 

By: Hannah Ramsey