Gender stereotypes and the role of popular culture in portraying attitudes

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Should Snow White be analysed for portrayal of gender stereotypes?

The Victorian State Government has come under fire for the “Resilience, Rights and Respectful Relationships” has come under fire again for allegedly encouraging children as young as three to see if fairy tales are sexist. According to news.com.au writer and Mamamia Editor in Chief, Jamila Rizvi, the Andrews Government is not banning fairy tales, but is encouraging children to look at fairy tales critically and see whether they enforce gender stereotypes.

If Rizvi is right, that’s not a bad idea for older children, not three, four or five. Children this age should be able to read fairy tales or other stories for recreation, without having to think too much about sociological issues.

Hearing and reading about this debate has got me thinking about fairy tales, especially Disney’s adaptations and their impact on society. I grew up watching “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Cinderella”. I always wanted the videos like one of my cousins did (I did end up getting them). How did it affect me growing up? Apart from wishing magic wands and magic carpets (i.e. from Aladdin) were real, it never really had an impact on me.

 

In terms of attitudes about gender, we have to realise that the times in which they originally came out. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in February 1938, while Disney’s adaptation of Cinderella came out in 1950. Apart from women starting to work due to the Second World War, gender roles would have been traditional… or at least that’s what was expected. These films were made before the Civil Rights era in the U.S, so even having a mixed – racial marriage would in film would’ve caused a backlash. What I’m saying is I think before we condemn fairy tales for being “sexist” or even “hetero-normative”, it’s useful to keep in mind the period and, quite frankly, the pressure Walt Disney and other writers, cartoonists, etc at the time would have been under to tow a line to be deemed appropriate.

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Disney’s Cinderella. Released in 1950

Disney tales and the 21st Century

Having said all that, growing up with Disney, I’ve also realised that the 1990’s and 2000’s have seen an expansion in story lines created by Disney cartoonists. Not all follow the prince/ princess narrative or portray gender stereotypes. The two I can think of immediately are Mulan (1998) and the four Toy Story movies (1995, 1999, 2010 and scheduled for 2019), and Frozen (2013).

For those who don’t know, Mulan is about a young Chinese woman who takes her father’s place in fighting the Hun army and save China. To do this,she dresses and pretends to be a man, (although, sometimes unconvincing, I must say). She fights with the men, along with sidekick dragon, Mushu, and becomes a hero, even after she is exposed for who she really is. She does fall in love with the captain, Shang, but only after she fights the Hun army and saves Shang’s life after he is wounded in battle.

Disney/ Pixar Toy Story series (which I’ve seen one and two), is largely about family, friendship and belonging. Apart from Bo – Peeps massive crush on Woody the cowboy doll, the first and second films are more based on the friendships between Woody, Buzz Light-year the spaceman figure and Jessie the cowgirl (in Toy Story 2). Toy Story Two deals with issues such as belonging, fears of abandonment and friendship – all issues that would be appropriate for educators, parents and teachers to talk about to their children.

While I haven’t seen it, I heard creator Chris Buck talk to One Plus One host Jane Hutcheon about the intent and the focus of the hit film. He said that the main focus of the film was about the relationship and love between the protagonist, Princess Elsa and her sister, Princess Anna and their reconciliation.

I can’t see why children couldn’t be exposed to both the traditional Disney fairy tales and the modern ones that break the fairy tale mould. At least it’ll give them more than one perspective if that’s what you’re worried about. Most importantly, let kids be kids. If a child expresses troubling behaviour, then address it, get Department of Community Services (DCS) involved if they are showing signs of abuse. Fairy tales are not to blame for that. And children’s entertainment shouldn’t be treated with such scrutiny from adults.

What are your thoughts? Did you grow up reading and watching Disney movies? What were your favourites? 

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