What are some of the first ideas about social class that children are exposed to? For many children, movies provide early ideas about class inequality. About one third of young children watch a movie every day and many watch the same movies repeatedly. Children tend to grow up in neighborhoods, schools, and families that are all of one class, so movies offer children a key glimpse into a social class that is not their own. In a recent article in the Journal of Poverty, Jessi Streib, Miryea Ayala and Colleen Wixted present findings from their analysis how class is portrayed in children’s movies. As Jessi discusses in this guest blog post, their analysis illustrates that children’s movies provide a consistent and worrying message: that social class inequality is benign.
For our research, we conducted a systematic and inductive content analysis of how social class is portrayed in every G-rated movies (films classified as suitable for general audience and considered children’s movies) that grossed over $100 million at the US box office as of January 1, 2014. These included classic texts such as ‘Aladdin’, ‘Marry Poppins’, and ‘Toy Story’.
In doing so, we discovered the following:
- The movies downplay social class inequality. Over 30% characters are portrayed as upper-class, but only 4% are portrayed as poor (see figure 1).
- The problems associated with poverty are sanitized. For example, Aladdin describes himself as a homeless street rat but finds his problems no worse than those of a princess. Remy in Ratatouille dislikes tastes of the poor, but doesn’t mind poverty itself.
- The working-class are portrayed as preferring their class position to that of the upper-class. The working-class are presented as being part of loving communities and feeling sorry for more isolated upper-class characters. They also love their jobs because they love to serve the rich.
- The upper-class is portrayed as only able to keep their class position if they look out for those below them. They often have to prove that they are capable and benevolent. After doing so, the poor and working-class are happy to have an upper-class character take a position of power above them.
- Every upper-class character that is selfish and doesn’t play by the rules is downwardly mobile. Every poor and working-class character that is hard working, caring, plays by the rules, and wants to be upwardly mobile climbs the class ladder. Class destination is presented as a perfect reflection of character and ambition.
- Love crosses class lines in over a third of the movies. These movies suggest that upper-class characters are open to sharing their lives and their resources with the poor and working-class. Class antagonisms are rare and class differences do not cause any insurmountable divides.
Together, each of the above themes portrays social class inequality as benign. Few people are at the bottom of the class ladder, those who are do not suffer, and those at the top help those at the bottom. Characters from different social classes generally have shared interests, regularly help each other, and even love each other. The class structure is also represented as meritocratic, as all deserving and ambitious characters get ahead and all undeserving characters lose what class privileges they had. In these movies inequality exists, but it has few negative effects for good people.
Ironically, presenting social class inequality as benign isn’t actually so benign. If children internalize these messages, they may see no need to work to lessen poverty or inequality. If the movies are right, we all already live in a time of happily ever after.
Author Biography: Jessi Streib is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Duke University. She is co-author of “Benign Inequality: Frames of Poverty and Inequality in Children’s Movies,” as well as The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages.
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