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24 July 2017

Only a Fairytale? Disney Movies Portray Older Adults in a Marginal and Negative Way

Keywords: characters, kids, movies, content analysis, media, television,

A study in Journal of Children and Media shows that in recent Disney movies older adults are often portrayed in a marginal and negative way. The researchers compared recent Disney movies (2004-2016) with older Disney movies (1937-2004) and found that although there were more older characters in recent movies, they more often got a background role. Moreover, almost half of the characters are portrayed in a negative way. As millions of kids watch these movies, a negative portrayal of older people could potentially result into negative stereotypes toward older people.

Take aways

  • In both recent and less recent Disney movies older characters are often portrayed in a negative way.
  • Recent Disney movies portray a higher number of older characters than previous Disney movies. However, they are more in the background now, as the number of minor roles increased and the number of major roles decreased. 
  • Almost half of older characters are portrayed in a negative way.
  • For parents, practitioners and educators it is important to be aware of the fact that aging is negatively represented in these movies, as this could potentially create negative stereotypes toward older people.

Study information

  • The question?

    How and how often are older adults portrayed in more recent Disney animated films?

  • Who?

    42 Disney animated feature films that were released between 2004 and 2016

  • How?

    In all 42 movies, two coders checked whether they portrayed any older characters. If so, they coded the number of older characters, their gender, race, primary role, personality traits and physical characteristics. Finally, the coders also assessed overall portrayal of these older characters (positive or negative). In addition, the researchers compared their results with the outcomes of an earlier study that analysed 34 Disney movies from 1937 to 2004.

Facts and findings

  • Most movies (41 out of 42) did contain older characters. The mean number of older characters per movie was 3.15. In total, 131 older characters were identified, of which 63% were human and 37% non-human, such as an animal. 
  • Compared to previous Disney movies, older characters were portrayed more often (93 vs. 131), however at the same time the researchers identified an increase in the number of minor roles (61% vs. 71%) and a decrease in the number of major roles (39% vs. 29%) for older characters. 
  • In both recent and previous Disney movies, almost half of the older characters are portrayed in a negative way (44%). 
  • Looking more closely to the recent Disney movies the researchers identified some typical roles, personality traits and physical appearance of older characters:
  • Typical roles. The primary roles that older people had in movies were the role of townsperson (23%), villain (14%), worker (13%), and friend (12%).
  • Personality traits. Older characters could be identified by certain personality traits such as being loving/caring (37%), angry/grumpy (33%), happy/content (32%), intelligent/wise (30%), senile/crazy (15%) and helpless (8%).
  • Physical appearance. Most of the older characters were portrayed as active (57%) and only 32% as inactive. Also, 23% looked ugly and 76% looked normal. Finally, in most of the movies the characters had limited wrinkles (31%) to full wrinkles (23%) and 25% had no wrinkles. 46% had gray/white hair, 12% partial gray/white hair and 24% was bald. Overall, the older characters had a good health (77%) and an average body weight (38%).