A new study suggests youths are being spoon-fed a slanted take on social inequality through popular kids’ movies. Uncommon Journalism speaks with Duke University sociology professor Dr. Jessi Streib about the classist content of children’s cinema, and its potential influence on the youngest of filmgoers.
Who can forget the scene in 1992’s Aladdin when Jasmine – the archetypal Disney Princess figure – shows off her palatial digs to the titular street urchin?
“I wonder what it’d be like to live there, and have servants and valets?” the pauper states. It’s certainly a preferred existence to the one he’s used to, where he’s “always scraping for food and ducking the guards.”
Alas, the privileged heiress disagrees. Her servants are always telling her how to dress and her father is always telling her where she has to go. “You’re not free to make your own choices,” she laments. “You’re just … trapped.”
The princess’ somewhat bemusing antipathy of her own entitlement represents a typical glimpse of class consciousness in children’s cinema. Duke University assistant professor of sociology Dr. Jessi Streib knows quite a bit about how social stratification in films of the sort are presented; the 32-year-old researcher recently screened the 36 highest-grossing G-rated movies of all-time to examine if – and how – kids’ flicks address the subject of classism.
Her study Benign Inequality: Frames of Poverty and Social Class Inequality in Children’s Movies, coauthored alongside Duke students Miryea Avala and Colleen Wixted, was published in the Journal of Poverty in Feb. 2016.
Streib said the idea for the project stemmed from observing preschoolers, who before even starting kindergarten, appeared to have at least an inkling of an awareness of class constructs. “I noticed that upper-middle-class and working-class 4-year-olds had different approaches to how they interacted with each other and with teachers, and this had consequences for who got ahead in school,” she told Uncommon Journalism. “When I was looking at other research on young children and class I read about how young children already believe that the poor are lazy and unintelligent while the rich are hardworking and smart.”
Suspecting Hollywood might play a key role in how young children are introduced to social stratification and classism, Streib and her coauthors reviewed three dozen children’s film classics, running the gamut from 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves all the way up to 2010’s Toy Story 3.
Strieb’s big takeaway? While G-rated opuses do indeed touch upon the issue of social inequality, the films tend to paint classism as not only justified, but on the whole, harmless.
“Few characters are poor, poverty and working-class characters experience few hardships, the working-class enjoy serving the rich and the rich look out for the poor and the working-class,” she said. “The class system is also open, so anyone who works hard, is morally upright and ambitious can get ahead, while everyone who lacks these traits falls down the ladder.”
The portrait of lower-class existence is quite different from how the poor and working class are depicted in adult-oriented films. Whereas films for older moviegoers tend to negatively portray the prole as oversexed, unambitious and oafish stereotypes, Streib said kids’ fare generally paints the lower classes in a more admirable light. The problem, she said, is that such depictions sugarcoat the harshness of real-life poverty.
In fact, she said many children’s movies romantically depict life in the lower class strata as easier and more fun than in the middle and upper classes.
Case in point? Walt Disney’s 1964 Best Picture winner Mary Poppins.
“In it the working-class nanny, Mary Poppins, and chimney sweep, Bert, have the jobs portrayed as the best,” Streib said. “They have fun at work, enter and leave jobs at their own discretion and even have control over their upper-middle class bosses.”
Streib points out a particularly interesting line in the film, in which Bert pities the children of a banker. “The one my heart goes out to is your father,” he says, “ There he is in that cold, heartless bank day after day, hemmed in by mounds of cold, heartless money. I don’t like to see anything living thing caged up.”
It’s a nice anti-materialism message, to be sure, but Streib said the equation isn’t balanced out with a depiction of the drawbacks of working-class life – which in turn, leaves impressionable young viewers with the notion that social conditions for the laboring class and the impoverished are A-OK.
“Mary Poppins then presents inequality as benign as though there are working-class and upper-middle-class jobs, it’s really the former that have all the benefits,” she said. “There’s no need to improve working class jobs.”
The problem, she said, isn’t just misrepresentation of the lower classes, it’s also getting them represented in children’s films at all. Evaluating 67 protagonists, Benign Inequality finds that 38 would be considered upper or upper-middle class characters. Less than a dozen, however, could be considered working class, while only three could be deemed impoverished. The vast underrepresentation in G-rated films is especially concerning considering an estimated 22 percent of all U.S. children live below the federal poverty line, with as many as one-in-30 experiencing homelessness every year.
Despite children’s films having a propensity for extolling the virtues of the working class, Streib said the films have the opposite influence on viewers, instead encouraging them to identify with and idolize the wealthy while disregarding the plight of the penniless.
“Just think of the princess phenomena – there are lots of American girls taken with princesses, the upper-class life,” she said. “I also think they possibly help children ignore inequality since the movies make it seem like it has few consequences.”
While kids’ cinema is becoming more socially cognizant – Disney’s unexpected hit Zootopia, for example, has been described by several critics as a metaphorical condemnation of racial profiling – only time will tell whether children’s movies will begin to take a more nuanced glimpse at the social order.
Still, Streib said she hopes Hollywood homes in on more realistic depictions of socioeconomic disparities in films targeting its youngest fans.
“I’d like to see movies portray a more accurate view of social class inequality – that growing up in poverty is hard, that hard work sometimes pays off but sometimes doesn’t and that the rich sometimes are helpful to those below them but sometimes aren’t,” she said. “I’d also like movies to portray that inequality has negative effects – that it constrains the life chances of those at the bottom and eases the lives of those at the top.”
Uncommon Journalism, 2016.