As CSUF Associate Professor of Marketing Steven Chen watched Disney movies and engaged with princess culture as the father of two young children, he came to notice that many of the animated movies produced by The Walt Disney Company included feminist messaging.
Desiring to learn more about the evolution of such messaging over time, Chen undertook a study of 30 Disney and Pixar animated films produced between 1989 and 2018 that included a female lead or co-lead.
The result: A 2020 study, “Feminism in Youth Media: A Study of Disney-Pixar Animation,” published in Business Horizons journal.
While female leadership in youth animation is limited, Chen and his team discovered that Disney-Pixar had the best record of representation, with 34% of films produced in the past 30 years having a female lead or co-lead. Films by Sony Pictures Animation and the Illumination studio had the lowest rate of representation and never included such women characters.
“A lot of the competitors not only had male lead characters, but their female characters were still the traditional ‘maidens in distress,’” Chen says. “Disney is a little more progressive, but surprisingly, its feminist messaging has not evolved since 1989’s ‘The Little Mermaid.’”
In today’s culture, gender representation is strongly called for in youth media companies. Still, Chen believes that since many large companies are risk-averse, change comes slowly.
Disney’s advantage: historical female lead characters in productions such as Snow White and Cinderella, which set a precedent and make it easier for the company to incorporate more gender diversity.