Innocent Entertainment Or A Negative Introduction To Work? The Portrayal Of Working Life In Disney Films

How very dark and pessimistic the overall picture generally is

How much could Disney’s portrayals of work be impacting your children’s perspectives and future choices?

From Pinocchio and Cinderella to today’s Frozen and Moana, Disney films are familiar to us all. Children welcome characters into their minds and lives from a very young age, soaking up the characters’ experiences. Working life appears often in a large proportion of scenes in Disney films, and can significantly influence and shape many children’s early ideas of working life.

TV and film play a central role in shaping children’s attitudes and behaviours, and many children are being exposed to film at ever younger ages, due to the rise of tablets and smart-phones. Though Disney animations are not the sole, or even main influence on children, they are not simply passively absorbed by children either. They are strong and visual representations of thought and connect with children’s understanding of the world, forming their early perceptions.

In a study I recently conducted, with fellow researchers Martyn Griffin and Nick Piper from the University of Leeds, we explored depictions of work within Disney’s 56 ‘Classic’ films (from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 to Moana in 2016). Whilst we cannot conclude that there is a direct cause and effect, Disney’s regular and consistent portrayals of working life are likely to embed into young minds to some degree and influence how they make sense of what working life means for them.

We found five broad portrayals of working life in Disney: dangerous, dirty or unfulfilling work; manipulation and deception by managers; emphasising the positives in working life; being rescued to return to a non-working life and leaving work to have a renewed identity.

One of the most striking things about Disney’s portrayal of managers, employment relations and the everyday experience of work, is how very dark and pessimistic the overall picture generally is.

In a lot of the earlier Disney films, there is a pattern of domination and misery associated with work. Take Cinderella, where the lead character is forced into hard labour, and Dumbo, in which at a young age, the baby elephant is plunged into a working life that he is not ready for. Another theme is that it is quite rare to encounter a manager or member of authority who is not in some way domineering and devious. A more recent example is Judy in Zootopia (2016), a young, female bunny rabbit police officer, who is regularly abused and manipulated by her chief.

However, there is a category that could be, at first glance, seen as a positive portrayal of work. This is ‘emphasising the positives in the working role’, which Pinocchio represents very clearly. Throughout his dire working circumstances, he remains positive all the way through the animation. This presents the idea that the best way through, is believing that everything will resolve itself in time. A less pleasant side to this is the suggestion commonly made by Disney animations, that rather than actively resisting oppressors, joining a union or otherwise standing up for oneself, we should smile and get on with things because they will work out in the end.

With these insights in mind, it is important to consider how they can help us in the future. These findings will hopefully enable us to understand more thoroughly the forces shaping children’s early perceptions of work and the impact of these on their beliefs about how they should act in their future jobs. The paper provides stimulation for thought, so that when we settle down for our next dose of animation, we see it as family entertainment, of course, but also consider the assumptions around work, and around organisational life that the animations are making.


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