Our Favorite Childhood Movies Taught Us The Wrong Lessons About Equality

Photo: Moviestore Collection/REX Shutterstock.
Could we have been taking in misleading messages every time we watched Beauty and the Beast? A new study found that kids’ movies not only teach them lessons about class structure and social inequality, but the messages that the movies are sending are often totally inaccurate.

The study, published in the Journal of Poverty on February 16, contends that kids' movies aren't just entertainment. Researchers from Duke University examined 32 of the most popular G-rated films released before 2014 — movies like Mulan, The Sound of Music, Cars, and Beauty and the Beast, according to New York Magazine’s breakdown of the study. The researchers found that the way the movies addressed social issues suggested that “children’s media legitimates poverty and social class inequality in a new way — by presenting them as benign.” Social issues were left mostly unaddressed by movies that presented them as unimportant. Moreover, the movies presented the possibility of moving up the social ladder — such as a street rat turning into the prince in Aladdin — as easy.

Aladdin is a strong example addressing both issues. Besides the ease with which the poor boy meets the princess and eventually marries her, the study found that the movie played wealth and poverty as two sides of the same coin. Both Aladdin and Princess Jasmine are unhappy and feel trapped in their lives, one by a lack of money and social respect and the other by too much of both. In real life, the difficulties presented by either extreme wealth or poverty are not just a philosophical issue. As the study notes, the hardships of the lower and working classes “are generally downplayed or erased.”

When the movies did address social class, kids get their own take on what it’s like to be on the lower end of the social spectrum. “Media targeted at adults tends to portray poverty and social-class inequality as the result of individual merit and moral worth,” researchers wrote. But when aimed at kids, the lower-class person is usually portrayed as having something to teach their social betters. In both Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, a cheerful Julie Andrews teaches her employers lessons about love and living life to the fullest, allowing her to be their emotional superior just as they’re her social superiors.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, messages in the media that children consume can have a powerful effect in shaping their understanding of the world. While children might not be taking in messages consciously, movies shape the way that a child learns to think. The organization suggests that children be taught media literacy in order to "successfully understand and decode a variety of different media." So for those of us who are old enough to see through the messages, maybe it's our responsibility to help present a more realistic take; that is something both a fairy tale and small children can always use.
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