Disney is prepping young girls for work life, one film at a time


The representation of female characters in Disney’s new-age animated movies like Moana is doing more than entertaining young audiences: It is shaping the expectations of young girls about careers and preparing them for adult experiences of working life, claims a new study.

From a bunny rabbit police officer in Zootopia to a princess fighting for her people in Moana, Disney’s animated films have portrayed many memorable female characters in the workplace during the past 80 years.

Researchers from the University of Leeds and University of Bradford in the UK watched and analysed 54 classic animations made by Disney since 1937.

They noted the trends in the nature of the work undertaken by these female characters and how they perceive the workplace.

While early animations such as Cinderella typically portray girls as weak and seeking to avoid work, later ones such as Zootopia and Frozen present strong, positive females in or preparing for work.

As a result, young women often receive mixed messages about work from watching a combination of older and more recent films, researchers said.

These mixed messages, alongside other similar social and cultural influences, could partly help to explain why many women have different expectations about work compared to men, and have tended not to progress as quickly in the workplace.

Martyn Griffin from Leeds University suggested that over time, the portrayal of more empowered female characters in more contemporary Disney films could even help influence a generation of young women who will not be willing to be passive and weak in the workplace.

“Our study highlights the importance of the themes of “work” and “organisation” within these films and suggests that through repeated viewing within cinemas, and through DVD, Blu-ray and streaming services they are very likely to contribute towards the development of expectations about working life,” he said.

“In this study we have used Disney as a lens to develop the idea of ‘organisational readiness’ — that is, children’s expectations about work which are shaped by social and cultural forces that indirectly prepare them for experiences of their future organisational life,” said Mark Learmonth, from Durham University in the UK.

“We have argued that Disney can be considered a contributory factor in this process — along with other films, books, computer games, comics, toys and other influences — adding towards a social reality in which children develop an understanding of the world of work,” said Learmonth.

The study appears in the journal Organisation Studies.