Despite most parents’ appraisal of Disney animation films who show them to their kids for entertainment and occasionally for educational purposes and favourable public opinion, there are many recent academic studies which have “branded” or written off Disney, or Disney/Pixar films to be precise, as inadequate products for kids. These studies appear to meet the prerequisites of Western intelligentsia which is influenced by gender ideology: Disney films show too much violence, they foster gender role stereotypes, they propose idealised beauty models, they do not condone bad behaviour, etc. To add to this, academic studies state that Disney and Disney/Pixar produce films which negatively influence or do not appear to promote pro-social behaviour.
The School of Family Life at the Brigham Young University (University of Provo, Utah) published a study in a prestigious journal, the Journal of Communication (63 (2), 2013) entitled “Is Disney the Nicest Place on Earth?” in which the findings clearly contrasted these views. According to this study, Disney continues to be an entertainment business for kids of all ages and strongly promotes pro-social behaviour. Laura M. Padilla-Walker, Sarah M. Coyne, Ashley M. Fraser and Laura A. Stockdale conducted their research to analyse the subject and examined the multi-dimensionality of pro-social behaviour in 61 animation films in 2011: A total of 5,128 minutes of film were analysed and a total of 5,530 pro-social acts i.e. one for every minute of film were found.
Unlike past studies, this one offers a broader idea of pro-social behaviour which can be considered as “voluntary behaviour intended to benefit another”. The new definition includes as many material actions of help and cooperation to others as words of praise and encouragement. It is interesting to note that there is an equal percentage given to material types of positive actions to verbal types 51% to 49% respectively. This simple distinction has not been noted or mentioned in other studies but it highlights something quite obvious: one does not “just” say things with words but one does things with them and, as a consequence, “speaking acts” educate or miseducate socially. As Pope Francis reminds us our relationships earn more in humanity and warmth if one habitually asks something with please, says thank you and apologises when he is wrong. Disney animation films seem to move on those lines.
The study, following the criteria of cognitive sociology, breaks down the motivations of pro-social actions into the following categories; “public” i.e. fed by need of recognition and approval of others, “emotional” whose end is to help those who suffer or who are in a state of anxiety (for example, in Tangled when Pascal is comforts Rapunzel who is sad). Thirdly, is when the recipient finds himself in “serious or difficult situations”, like Robin Hood who helps the poor. “Anonymous” motivation is when someone shows an altruistic behaviour and does not seek any personal benefit (in The Lion King when Mufasa encourages Simba.) Finally the “obedient” act is driven by a sense of duty when someone asks for help (like when Mr Incredible saves people who ask for help).
The most common reason was altruism and was present nine times more respect to the emotional, one and a half times more than “serious or difficult situation”. The second most common reason was to help someone in difficulty whereas the least present was an anonymous action.
The variety of positive character’s motivations in the 61 animated films closely examined by this research seems quite encouraging for parents and educators. Disney cartoons contain one pro-social act every minute or rather 60 acts an hour (30 if we consider the material acts alone). This statistic is seven times more respect to the content level in other kids TV programmes.
Besides, assuming the findings of social cognitive theory which state that it is easier to remember situations and characters which have a similitude with real life, the study analyses the characteristics of the protagonists too. For example, if it is the author or recipient of a positive action; if the character of the protagonist (whether human or anthropomorphized like in Wallet )is realistic; if it looks like children regarding sex, age and socio-economic status (SES) and ultimately if it has a pleasant appearance or not. The results of the study show that good actions in animation films by Disney clearly benefit those who are similar in age, have a pleasant appearance and share the same socio-economic status. Such findings support the view that these films reflect real life, men help women, people are more likely to help one’s friends than strangers. Therefore, Disney films, by depicting positive social behaviour, if they have any influence at all in real life, must be a positive one rather than negative.
Finally, Disney/Pixar are not sexist, though 69% of protagonists of pro-social acts are male characters against 31% who are feminine. This proportion corresponds to sex of characters, i.e. there are twice as many males in protagonist roles than females. What is important to note is that there isn’t a significant statistic variance between the number of pro-social actions carried out by either sexes. In other words, both boys and girls are in equal measure in terms of positive characters.
In conclusion, just as the theory of social cognitive suggest, the repeated exposure to a certain conduct increases the possibility of long-lasting assimilation and imitation. From the results of this study, one concludes that Disney films may have a great potential for reinforcing or promoting pro-social behaviour amongst children. Notice that this study did not attempt to establish if there exists in actual fact such influence and what it consists of. It reflects, however, the variance of action motivations according to sex. Even in real life girls tend to be more altruistic than boys, but boys tend to do more pro-social actions in visible public situations.
Note on methodology
We have seen which was the corpus of the study (61 animation films), the period (2011) and the variables of coding on pro-social behaviour –richly detailed than in the previous studies-, as well as the novelty of the inclusion of verbal actions and broadening the concept of pro-social behaviour. All this factors combined enhance the quality of the findings.
The coders have been trained according to the directives of the study and then a reliable test of coding has been performed (Krippendorf’s coefficient of agreement). Furthermore, considering the vast number of pro-social actions (5000) but with a reduced number of films (61), it was decided (rightly) that the Chi-square was not sufficient to measure the dependence/independence of variables. For example, determining if a pro-social action depends on a verbal one or not. For this reason, other statistical instruments were used: The Wald F test statistic , a “t” for every individual comparison of results besides its RR – risk ratio test. In this way, the researchers, for example, can affirm with good evidence that the “altruistic” reason is nine times more frequent than “public”.
It is plausible to have some kind of reservation when stating that Disney/Pixar films have a positive influence on kids’ behaviour. It was not the study’s aim. However, this does not diminish the importance of the study results. In conclusion, further and different kind of research is needed to prove a healthy influence of Disney cartoons on kids. But this one is a welcomed prompter.
Finally, one cautionary remark and that is to say that neither this study nor us seek to “sanctify” Disney. We know that Disney TV channel and Disney films for teenagers leave (at times) a lot to be desired!