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Disney: Straight and Narrow?

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The bludgeoning flip side of Disney's message to kids is: if you don't fit into the heterosexual paradigm, you're not normal and not special.

Brett Berk: I recently read a research study examining the role and prevalence of heterosexual romantic love in Disney's top-grossing G-rated movies from 1990-2005. (Here's a synopsis of the article.) And I have to say, I find this an intriguing area of inquiry. The researchers carefully examine twenty-plus popular children's films (all grossed over $100 million), and find that heterosexual desire and longing are not only very frequently portrayed -- giving lie to the idea that these kids' flicks are devoid of sexual content -- but are presented in a way that is exceptional and transcendent, with the power to break spells, stop war, change laws, or even save Christmas.

Snow White

Big deal, right? Straight people fall in love and it affects them -- and by extension, the world -- all the time. Well, not exactly. One of the points is that by privileging these male/female bonds as imbued with transformative power, the movies not only normalize heterosexuality, but enforce in children a notion of its magical capabilities. It's not just normal; it's special. And the bludgeoning flip side of this message is: if you don't fit into this paradigm, you're not normal and not special. Little gay and lesbian kids hear this message (trust me, I was one) and take it to heart. Now I'm not in any way advocating for the avoidance of depicting love in kids' media, but I do think it's fair to examine what we're saying on the topic. (And I don't think things have changed much since 2005. Think about the love storylines in "Cars" or "Wall•E.")

Beyond this, it was found that the films all avoid dealing with homosexual love in any similarly overt way. I'm guessing that many people wouldn't take issue with this, imagining that this is a topic beyond the comprehension of young kids. But I'd like to point out that HOMOSEXUALITY is no more or less complex a topic than HETEROSEXUALITY, and if we're conspicuously feeding young kids mega-doses of overblown messages on straight loving, why isn't there room for some like "education" on the queer side?

Disney's just now bringing out their first African-American princess, so far be it from me to dictate when they should introduce their first gay or lesbian princess. But the sooner we stop treating homosexuality as an "adult" issue, the sooner we'll be capable of finding ways to discuss it rationally with and depict it to our kids.



next: The Grandchildless Bitch
24 comments so far | Post a comment now
Anonymous July 8, 2009, 12:10 PM

Why dont we make a fat disney princess too?? OH OH or a dwarf disney princess? Because those aren’t the norms either!!
Give me a break. You can’t please everyone.

GET SAVED July 8, 2009, 3:38 PM

GO TO CHURCH AND GET SAVED OR YOU WILL BURN IN HELL FOREVER!!! ITS PEOPLE LIKE YOU WHO MAKE ME NEVER WANT TO BRING A POOR LITTLE KID INTO THIS WORLD,I WOULD NEVER WANT THEM TO BE EXPOSED TO THIS CRAP OR YOUR CRAP.

Anonymous July 8, 2009, 4:55 PM

I’m always amazed by Christians who want other people to save themselves so that everyone can be exactly like them. The fascistic and pompous lack of humility and humanity is pathetic. At my better moments I feel sorry for them.

GPC July 8, 2009, 4:55 PM

Good luck with that….it’s wouldn’t be profitable.

Heidi July 8, 2009, 5:03 PM

Actually fat is the norm, if you look at our nation’s health stats. But that’s another discussion. There’s nothing “normal” about Disney characters. The people are royalty, the animals talk, the dishes sing, etc. But they represent a world of fun and imagination to millions of kids, and it’s way past time to broaden that world to include gay and lesbian characters who are seeking and experiencing loving, respectful relationships in the same way the straight folks appear to be (until the prince disappears for a “hike in the Appalachians” that is…)

Jean Rubinson July 8, 2009, 5:04 PM

For the person threating HELL to those who have a different point of view, I doubt that you will ever believe that God loves us all,not just Christian rightwingers. Seems to me that you are the one that needs saving…from yourself. Sad, narrow minded thinking and deep, abiding fear is what causes wars and hatred. I hope you have the capacity to learn another way to look at life.

ecd July 8, 2009, 7:38 PM

what if the Disney heroine/hero achieved success and happiness in some way other than finding a mate? love may conquer all, but there are many different kinds of love.
that said, a gay character appearing in one of these films would present a positive moment perhaps less forced than reading Heather Has Two Mommies…

Cyndi July 8, 2009, 8:11 PM

Our 3 children see a positive fairy tale every day when they look at how much their 2 mom’s love each other.

Lin Chambers July 8, 2009, 9:23 PM

Call me a huge dork, but I’d love to read the research study.

Disney makes themselves such easy targets for issues like these because they focus too much on a happy ending by setting their heroes/heroines up to appeal as acceptable to most people - the straight, white, skinny, attractive, gender matches sex, completely abled, embracing 99% of what is expected for their respective genders, of their respective setting’s dominant faith, etc. They’re afraid to challenge their audience, too afraid they might offend. Just not afraid to ask for your money.

Maria July 8, 2009, 10:02 PM

Thank you.

The haters in the comments? #suckit

Beth July 8, 2009, 10:20 PM

I never have understood why there needed to be a romance in cars in the first place. That aside, I completely agree that there needs to be better diversity of relationships in children’s films and that it would be so very nice if the female character could achieve a happy ending without finding a romantic relationship (gay or straight).

Andrew July 8, 2009, 10:25 PM

That’s an interesting and insightful article, it made me stop and think about the issue and examine my own thoughts.

Keep up the good work!

Angel Smith July 8, 2009, 10:32 PM

It’s a touchy issue. I get that. Mainly because of the faith-based perspective, which..well, to be truthful, has made me edge away from Christianity when I believe in many of its other principles. I will never, ever understand how people who say they are Christians can spew such hate into the world. Jesus never treated a.n.y.b.o.d.y like that-not the non-believers, not the whores, not Judas who betrayed him, not even the people who killed him.

Anyway, getting back on topic, this is somewhat of a feminist issue I’ve read, as well. Why does the princess have to be rescued by the prince? Why does finding a man complete her? I never really thought about the implications as far as the LGBT community goes, but it’s certainly something I am interested in exploring.

My daughter was six, I think, when she asked me what gay was. I kind of bungled the convo and she was convinced she was gay simply because she loved her best girlfriends, which led to a probably even more deep conversation about the different kinds of love and knowing the difference between them, and being comfortable with whatever sexuality she decided she was whenever she figured it out, no matter what other people said or thought about it….which led to having to explain that some people feel the way some of the previous posters here feel. For me, explaining that some people think gay people deserve to be treated differently, (read as: badly), was a lot more difficult than explaining that some people are gay, or bisexual. I explained the “pregnant man” without batting an eye compared to trying to explain bigotry to her. Which really drove the point home that children are innocent. They soak up the attitudes of those around them. Because I embrace differences-in my friends, in my family, in nature, in strangers…she is not uncomfortable with diversity. That is one of my greatest achievements as a parent, IMO.

I am not really sure how to wrap my little rant up, heh. I guess, I can understand how having LGBT issues arise in childrens’ media could make even an open-minded parent feel a little pressured about having that dialogue with their children, maybe before they are ready. But we as parents need to face the fact that if we wait until *we* are ready to have these tough discussions, other influences will have replaced the influence we meant to have on them. They need to happen when *our children* are ready to understand, not when we are comfortable.

Anonymous July 8, 2009, 11:11 PM

I’m glad you brought up WALL-E. A great and thoughtful movie in many respects… except the central relationship which was totally regressive - a Biblical essentialist heterosexual love, a relationship that wasn’t about anything so much as the fact that he was the only boy and she was the only girl. Her name was literally Eve!! Don’t get me wrong - I fell for it. But frankly, I was much more invested in that strange friendship with the cockroach (which didn’t have a stated gender, but seemed to me to fit into a nervous-nelly C-3PO sidekick tradition).

I would love some same-sex romance in kids’ movies. But more than that, I feel like the relationship that kids’ movies need to get better at is FRIENDSHIP. FINDING NEMO was great in this respect, but it was exceptional. Isn’t friendship, especially friendship between two very different kinds of creatures (i.e. a robot and a roach) a more age-appropriate kind of relationship for young kids to identify with and get better at, than some phony magic romance?

michelle July 9, 2009, 1:51 AM

Have you lost your everloving Mind? They don’t have to “normalize hetorosexuality” IT IS NORMAL!

mac July 9, 2009, 2:10 AM

i know that there are Christians out there who are hateful, they are supposed to “Love the person, hate the sin” but GOD will judge them for that. You should be upset at the way they handle it, But not at christians in general. There are other religions in the world that believe way worse things than that two men should not be together, and they do not get nearly the cruching blows you give to christians. If you BELIEVED that everyone who wore yellow on thursdays would have their heads chopped off wouldn’t you do what you could to stop those who were? Some prople would calmly tell others while some would get angry because the yellow wearers wouldn’t iisten, people handle things differently. The point is if you BELIEVE the Bible you will not just sit back and let people do things that you believe is leading them down “a path to get their heads cut off” at least not if you have a carring bone in your body. Yes, some prople’s caring bones are more compassionate than others. But that is true for ALL people.

Anonymous July 9, 2009, 2:33 AM

Dear “GET SAVED,”

It’s called the New Testament. You should try reading it sometime.

P.S. Typing in all caps makes you look like a moron (not that you need the help).

RachelAZ July 9, 2009, 3:52 AM

AMEN! Homosexual, heterosexual, God loves you for WHO YOU ARE! To “Get Saved”, I would take my own advice if I were you. God doesn’t like it when people try to take his place and do the judging for him!!!! If people really read the bible better, they wou realize that God loves homosexuals. He is NOT a hateful God. Give it a rest already!

Theresa July 9, 2009, 9:12 AM

Great article. “Sexuality” is everywhere; we just don’t notice it as such when it’s a prince and princess.

As a gay mom, of course I would love the mass media to reflect my reality instead of treating it like swine flu. But a more general point is that pushing the “happily ever after” in every single movie will brainwash kids that someone else will come along to complete them and make them happy forever.

Romance, gay or straight, is not the only way to be happy or to drive a narrative. I don’t think kids would care about it if we didn’t coach them so much.

tobin July 11, 2009, 9:11 PM

Why anyone would want Disney to model romantic behavior for them is beyond me. Disney f*cks up little girls big time with the romance schtick.

However, if you insist, you’ll have to go with the big eyes and big hair. Be careful. That’s enough to break your neck if you’re not balanced properly at all times.


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