Class Inequality in Children’s Movies

Disney PrincessA new study, Benign Inequality: Frames of Poverty and Social Class Inequality in Children’s Movies, from Duke University sociologist Jesse Streib reveals that almost universally G-rated movies legitimate poverty and social class inequality in a new way – by presenting them as benign.

Limited Learning about Other Classes

What are some of the first ideas about social class that children are exposed to? For many children, movies provide early ideas about class inequality. About one third of young children watch a movie every day and many watch the same movies repeatedly. Children tend to grow up in neighborhoods, schools and families that are all of one class. Movies offer children a key glimpse into a social class that is not their own. The message that children receive across G-rated movies is the same: Social class inequality is benign.

As part of the study Benign Inequality, we watched every G-rated movie that grossed over $100 million as of January 1, 2014. Doing so, we discovered the following:

  • The movies downplay social class inequality. Over 30% characters are portrayed as upper-class, but only 4% are portrayed as poor.
  • The problems associated with poverty are sanitized. For example, Aladdin describes himself as a homeless street rat but finds his problems no worse than those of a princess. Remy in Ratatouille dislikes tastes of the poor, but doesn’t mind poverty itself.
  • The working-class are portrayed as preferring their class position to that of the upper-class. The working-class are presented as being part of loving communities and feeling sorry for more isolated upper-class characters. They also love their jobs because they love to serve the rich.
  • The upper-class is portrayed as only able to keep their class position if they look out for those below them. They often have to prove that they are capable and benevolent. After doing so, the poor and working-class are happy to have an upper-class character take a position of power above them.
  • Every upper-class character that is selfish and doesn’t play by the rules is downwardly mobile. Every poor and working-class character that is hard working, caring, plays by the rules, and wants to be upwardly mobile climbs the class ladder. Class destination is presented as a perfect reflection of character and ambition.
  • Love crosses class lines in over a third of the movies. These movies suggest that upper-class characters are open to sharing their lives and their resources with the poor and working-class. Class antagonisms are rare and class differences do not cause any insurmountable divides.

graph showing the percent of movie characters in children's movies by class

Happily Never After

Together, each of the above themes portrays social class inequality as benign. Few people are at the bottom of the class ladder. Those who are do not suffer. And those at the top help those at the bottom. Characters from different social classes generally have shared interests, regularly help each other, and even love each other. Inequality exists, but it has few negative effects.

Ironically, presenting social class inequality as benign isn’t actually so benign. If children internalize these messages, they may see no need to work to lessen poverty or inequality. If the movies are right, we all already live in a time of happily ever after.

*with her students Miryea Ayalaa and Colleen Wixted

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