Disney animated films have a large fan club which includes many parents who find them suitable entertainment for their children and occasionally useful for educational purposes. Yet many recent academic studies have branded Disney and Disney/Pixar movies as unhelpful products for kids.

These studies appear to meet the criteria of the Western intelligentsia, which is influenced by gender ideology. They find that Disney films show too much violence, foster gender role stereotypes, propose idealised beauty models and project a narrow view of good behaviour. In addition, these studies state that Disney films negatively influence or appear not to promote pro-social behaviour.

Paying attention to both speech and action

But not all researchers come to the same conclusions. A team from the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University (BYU, Provo, Utah) published a study in the prestigious Journal of Communication last year entitled “Is Disney the Nicest Place on Earth?” whose findings stand in clear contrast to a number of previous studies. According to Laura M. Padilla and colleagues, Disney continues to be an entertainment business suitable for kids of all ages and strongly promotes pro-social behaviour.

The BYU researchers examined various dimensions of pro-social behaviour in 61 animation films produced by 2011. A total of 5,128 minutes of film was analysed and a total of 5,530 pro-social acts, one for every minute of film, was found.

Unlike past studies, this one offers a broader idea of pro-social behaviour as “voluntary behaviour intended to benefit another”. The new definition includes many actions of help and cooperation such as words of praise and encouragement. It is interesting to note that the researchers found as many practical types of positive actions as verbal types – 51 percent and 49 percent respectively. This simple distinction has not been mentioned in other studies but it highlights something quite obvious: one does not just say things with words but one does things with them and, as a consequence, “speaking acts” educate or mis-educate socially. Relationships gain more in humanity and warmth if people habitually ask for something with “please”, say “thank you” and apologise when wrong. Disney animated films seem to move on those lines.

Among motivations, altruism leads

Following the criteria of cognitive sociology, the study breaks down the motivations of pro-social actions into the following categories: “public”, or fed by a need for recognition and approval; “emotional”, aimed at helping those who suffer or who are in a state of anxiety (for example, in Tangled, Pascal comforts Rapunzel, who is sad). A third motive is to rescue the recipient who finds himself in “serious or difficult situations”, as Robin Hood does in helping the poor. “Anonymous” motivation inspires altruistic behaviour without the seeking of any personal benefit (as in The Lion King when Mufasa encourages Simba). Finally, the “obedient” act is driven by a sense of duty when someone asks for help (as when Mr Incredible saves people asking for help).

The most common reason for pro-social actions uncovered in the BYU study was altruism, which was present nine times more than the emotional and one and one-and-a-half times more than the Robin Hood motive of responding to a “serious or difficult situation”.

The second most common reason was to help someone in difficulty, whereas the least influential motive was to do an anonymous good deed.

The variety of positive motivations in the 61 animated films closely examined in this research seems quite encouraging for parents and educators. Disney cartoons contain one pro-social act every minute, or 60 acts an hour (30 if we consider the practical acts alone). This statistic is seven times more than the level in other children’s TV programmes.

Characters are realistic

But what about those class and gender issues that other studies have found problematic in Disney? These are dealt with too.

Assuming the findings of social cognitive theory — which state that it is easier to remember situations and characters which resemble real life — the study also analyses the characteristics of the protagonists themselves. Are they the author or recipient of a positive action? Is the character (whether human or anthropomorphized as in Wallet) is realistic? Do they look like average children regarding sex, age and socio-economic status? Do they have a pleasant appearance or not?

The results of the study show that good actions in animated Disney films clearly benefit those who are similar in age, have a pleasant appearance and share the same socio-economic status. Such findings support the view that these films reflect real life, where men help women and people are more likely to help friends than strangers.

From all this we can conclude that by depicting positive social behaviour, Disney films, if they have any influence at all in real life, must have a positive one rather than negative.

Not sexist

Finally, Disney/Pixar are not sexist. Although 69 percent of protagonists of pro-social acts are male characters as against 31 percent who are female, this proportion corresponds to the sex of characters, since there are twice as many males in protagonist roles as females. What is important to note is that there isn’t a significant statistical difference between the number of pro-social actions carried out by either sexes. In other words, both boys and girls are equal in terms of the proportion of positive characters.

As the theory of cognitive sociology suggests, repeated exposure to a certain conduct increases the possibility of long-lasting assimilation and imitation. From the results of this study, one concludes that Disney films may have a great potential for reinforcing or promoting pro-social behaviour amongst children.

Notice that this study did not attempt to establish whether such influence actually exists and what it consists of. It reflects, however, the variety of motives for different actions, and to what extent they occur in each sex. Even in real life girls tend to be more altruistic than boys, but boys tend to do more pro-social actions in visible public situations.

Note on methodology

The richer concept of pro-social behaviour that marks this study is supported by a rigorous method in which a reliable test of coding of the data (Kippendorf’s co-efficient of agreement) was applied, as those who wish to read the full study will find. This means that there is a sound basis to the researchers’ claims, for example, that altruism is nine times more prevalent than the public motive (arising from the need for approval) among the pro-social actions of movie characters. This is very reassuring for parents and others who have responsibility for children.

However, it is reasonable to reserve judgement on whether, in fact, Disney/Pixar films have a positive influence on children’s behaviour. It was not the aim of the study to establish this. Further research of a different kind is needed to prove whether Disney cartoons have a healthy influence on youngsters, although that does not diminish the importance of the BYU study, which is a welcome prompter.

Neither was it the intention of the study – nor the authors of this article – to seek to “sanctify” Disney. We know that the Disney television channel and Disney films for teenagers at times leave a lot to be desired.

Norberto González Gaitano teaches media studies in Rome. He also runs the Family and Media website which examines how the family is presented in the media and how family associations can communicate effectively. Carolina Canales Carolina Canales has a degree in journalism from Spain and is pursuing post-graduate studies in communications in Italy. The above article is an edited version of an article published by Family and Media.

Carolina Canales received her B.A. degree in Journalism from Cardenal Herrera University in Valencia(Spain). She specialized in International Relations following courses in global issues at Georgetown...