Impact of Children’s Movies and Literature
Perhaps more disturbing than images in commercials or programs for young adults which may inadvertently affect pre-adolescents are messages engrained in movies and literature made specifically for children. Many of the “classics” contain negative and detrimental body messages. A study by Herbozo, Tantleff-Dunn, Gokee-Larose, and Thompson undertook a content analysis of the top twenty-five children’s films and twenty children’s books. The researchers made an interesting discovery:
In many of the classic videos (60%), a character’s love for another character depends on his or her physical appearance. For example, the prince in Cinderella invites the “beautiful” maiden to a ball so he could select his bride. Also, in Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Beauty and the Beast, a female’s appearance attracts a male who is unaware of her other qualities until after falling in love with her. This suggests that his initial attraction is based on her appearance. (Herbozo, Tantleff-Dunn, Gokee-Larose, and Thompson 2004:27)In fact, in both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, the leading female characters are in a deep sleep (after having been cursed by witches) when the male hero rescues them with a kiss. The men are presumed to have fallen in love with the women for their beauty before they even hear the women’s voices.
Even Beauty and the Beast, a story about a bibliophile who falls in love with her beastly captor after making a deal to keep her at the Beast’s castle to bargain for the life of her father, has the stereotypical happy ending of the Beast, a hideous creature, returning to this handsome state as a wealthy prince. The story has a positive message when Belle looks beyond the Beast’s appearance to see the gentleness within him, but the message is dashed when we realize that the Beast was a handsome fellow who had been cursed by an ugly hag. We pity the man who loses his attractiveness yet condemn the witch who cast a spell to make him as unattractive on the outside as he was on the inside.
In general, beauty was equated with happiness, love, kindness, and other positive characteristics; conversely, ugliness alluded to trickery, malcontent, and negative characteristics. Symbolically, beauty evoked thoughts of positivity while ugliness (anything that did not fit within the narrow definition of beauty as thinness) lead to negativity. Furthermore, while female physical attractiveness and having a slender body creates an image with positive characteristics, obesity is associated with “negative traits in 64% of the children’s videos and 20% of the books” and “obese characters are commonly depicted as evil, unattractive, unfriendly and cruel” (Herbozo, Tantleff-Dunn, Gokee-Larose, and Thompson 2004:27). Another feature of the study revealed that none of the films and only one of the books depicted exercise as a form of losing weight (28-29). Interestingly, it would seem that the media suggest that people are naturally thin as a manifestation of their good qualities, and obese people are cursed to remain overweight due to inherent, bad qualities.
Three movies that did not have as much negative stereotyping were E.T., Indian in the Cupboard, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, three of only six non-animated film from the top twenty-five list (Herbozo, Tantleff-Dunn, Gokee-Larose, and Thompson 2004). Unlike most of the other films, which revolved around beautiful men and women (or female and male animals) falling in love, E.T., Indian in the Cupboard, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory focus their attention on children as opposed to adult relationships. This could suggest that films created specifically for children about children are less likely than the others to perpetuate the negative stereotypes. This would imply that although the symbol of beauty affects young children, it is not meant to affect them necessarily. Children are not expected to conform to the ideals of beauty, yet they must understand the ideals so that they can portray them when they are older.