Progressive Representation in Disney’s Television Programs // Abigail Walsh


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Disney is among the top media companies in the world. As such, the gender and heteronormative representations in Disney films and television shows have the potential to influence children all over the world. The portrayal of gender in children’s media can influence stereotyping or validate the social identities that children may be forming at this important time (Bussey & Bandura, 1999; Signorielli, 2012). We have seen a shift in recent years in many of Disney’s princess films. Traditional Disney princesses were often portrayed in gender stereotyped ways: doing domestic activities, taking care of others, and ending up in situations in which they are in desperate need of rescuing (England, DesCartes, Collier-Meek, 2011), usually by a handsome prince with whom they can live out a heteronormative happily-ever-after. Contemporary Disney princesses, on the other hand, are portrayed as assertive female characters who are not interested in heteronormative love stories.

Although there has been much discussion of progress in Disney films like Frozen and Moana, less attention has been paid to the representations in Disney’s television shows. Disney has recent a history of segregating its networks. The Disney Channel hosts a number of family sitcom shows, which tend to focus on female characters’ stories. Disney XD (short for Extreme Disney) hosts shows about physical ability (e.g., skateboarding, martial arts), and other traditionally male interests (e.g., video games). By segregating the content on these two networks, Disney is in essence telling boys and girls that their stories only belong on one of these channels, and those stories are extremely different and do not intertwine (Walsh, 2016).

Perhaps in recognizing that these two channels portray girls and boys in gender-stereotyped ways, telling their stories very separately, Disney has started providing new representations of gender and ideas of love and marriage. Some of these gender non-conforming and non-heteronormative shifts are subtle, while some are explicit.

Disney has recently been representing homosexual characters and same-sex partners on their television programs. In 2014, Disney displayed the first notable change by bringing a lesbian couple onto the show Good Luck Charlie, which airs on Disney Channel. In this episode, there was the youngest daughter, Charlie, has a playdate who is dropped off by her two moms. This moment was straightforward and nonchalant, making it appear as if this interaction was completely normal. In 2016, Disney reproduced this on their animated show, Gravity Falls, which airs on Disney XD. In its series finale, it was revealed that two police officer characters were in fact an interracial gay couple the whole time (Duffy, 2016). And most recently, Disney’s show Andi Mack, which airs on Disney Channel, features a main character in his teens who is openly gay (Evans, 2017). This is the first time a main character on a Disney show has been openly gay.

Additionally, Disney is showing more representations of characters who are comfortable and interested in counter-stereotypical behavior and activities. It is of particular interest and importance, since we tend to associate gender non-conforming behavior with homosexual characters (think of the butch lesbian or the feminine gay man), that the characters who are being portrayed in gender non-conforming ways are also being portrayed as heterosexual. In 2017, Disney introduced a new show, Andi Mack, which confronts a number of real-life issues, like teen pregnancy and family secrets. Both Andi and her sister Bex (actually her birth mom) have an affinity for motorcycles. In fact, both Andi and Bex get to ride in as mysterious powerful characters in a way that is usually reserved for male characters on motorcycles (CAAM, 2017).  In 2017, Princess Marco was introduced on Star vs. the Forces of Evil, which airs on Disney XD. In this episode Marco, a male character dons a dress, which he verbally affirms liking in the show. Later his princess status is challenged by an adult character in the show. In response he and the other princess declare that boys can be princesses, too (Romano, 2017)!

Disney is proving to be a champion of all kinds of children and families. They are bringing different kinds of stories to the forefront of children’s television. Instead of falling into the traditional concerns about children being too young to understand things, Disney is proclaiming that children live these things. And those children and their families deserve to have their stories told. When children’s television begins to look more like children’s real lives, we validate their experiences and show them that they too should be represented.

Written by Abigail Walsh

Reference
Bussey, K., & Bandura, A. (1999). Social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation. Psychological Review, 106, 676-713. doi:10.1037//0033-295x.106.4.676

CAAM. (2017, March 10). A Family Mystery In Disney's New Show "Andi Mack". Retrieved from https://caamedia.org/blog/2017/03/10/family-mystery-in-disneys-new-show-andi-mack/

Duffy, N. (2016, February 18). Disney cartoon Gravity Falls confirms gay romance. Retrieved from https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2016/02/18/disney-cartoon-gravity-falls-confirms-gay-romance/

England, D. E., Descartes, L., & Collier-Meek, M. A. (2011). Gender Role Portrayal and the Disney Princesses. Sex Roles, 64(7-8), 555-567. doi:10.1007/s11199-011-9930-7

Evans, G. (2017, October 25). 'Andi Mack' Character to Come Out As Gay: A Disney Channel First. Retrieved from http://deadline.com/2017/10/disney-channel-andi-mack-character-come-out-gay-1202194584/

Romano, N. (2017, November 22). Disney XD gets a male princess in 'Star vs. the Forces of Evil'. Retrieved from http://ew.com/tv/2017/11/22/disney-xd-male-princess-star-vs-the-forces-of-evil/
Signorielli, N. (2012). Tel

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