Understanding Disney Movies: The Role of Media in Gender Socialization

by Shriya Garg, Genetics and Economics

Abstract: Gender roles have served as a mechanism by which children can learn how to be “proper” or “proficient” members of society. Through gender roles, children can become familiarized with both societal norms and beliefs as well as societal expectations for themselves. While on the one hand, gender roles may help children become successful in their future pursuits due to their ability to conform to society’s rules, gender roles can also serve as a barrier for those to whom conforming to such roles might impede future professional success. Although gender roles exist for all regardless of gender, females experience the negative implications of gender roles to a greater extent, termed the “glass ceiling.” Traditionally, “agents of socialization” were limited to family, peers, and media. However, with the rise of technology in the 21st century, media has become a dominant “agent of socialization” for growing children. Due to the increasing importance of digital media in spreading these gender roles, media producers must become more cognizant of the gender roles they portray. This piece analyzes gender socialization that arises from Disney movies and its contribution to the maintenance of gender roles. Furthermore, this piece complicates this relationship by also analyzing how changes in the ways women characters are portrayed in the last two decades impacts these socialization processes.

media, socialization, gender, glass ceiling, role strain, family socialization

Socialization is the process by which people learn to be proficient members of society by becoming aware of societal norms, expectations, values, and even beliefs. Although socialization is considered a lifelong process, most gender roles are cemented by the time a person turns four or five years old. According to George Herbert Mead’s theory of development, by the time a child is six years old, they have learned to view themselves as others do and have no trouble acting out or imitating the roles they see others performing (Hoiland). Thus, even within the initial few years of life, a child has already learned the gender roles that he or she is to perform for the duration of their life, with extreme difficulty in changing those long-standing beliefs.

This process of learning how to perform these gender roles is relayed through three “agents of socialization:” family, peer groups, and media. One very influential agent in maintaining different expectations based on gender is the family. By exposing children to society’s gender roles from the start, through actions like giving children gender-specific toys, dressing sons and daughters in colors “matching” their gender, and ultimately treating their children differently, the families not only reinforce these gender norms but also influence how their child views themself, according to Charles Cooley’s concept of the “looking glass self.” Just as the family gives children their first glimpse into the gender roles set for them, peer groups serve to reinforce these norms. By using informal sanctions and social control methods, this second “agent of socialization” ensures that children conform to societal norms, since those who do not are usually made fun of, frowned upon, and even no longer included in group activities. Even if a family takes an egalitarian approach to raising their child by refusing to give into the gender socialization other parents are prone to doing, children of a young age learn gender roles from their friends. While family and peer groups are crucial in establishing gender roles, due to the rise of technology in the 21st century, the media has grown into arguably the most important player in this socialization process. By actively showing children the differences in expectations between men and women, the media has allowed these gender roles to permeate all aspects of life—where an inability to conform to these roles might impede future professional success, specifically for females.

With the growing influence of technology on day-to-day life, from smartphones to social media, this third “agent of socialization” has become the most pressing “agent” in my mind due to its expanding effect in reinforcing society’s gender roles. With the understanding that “preschoolers spend an average of nearly 30 hours a week watching television” (Witt), the influence of media cannot be understated. Using the example of Disney princesses, daughters who watch movies such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or Cinderella immediately learn characteristics that are associated with being female. Throughout the films, Cinderella and Snow White are always performing household chores and domestic work, reinforcing the norm of females being homemakers. Similarly, both characters act fearful and submissive, teaching girls watching that they too should act passive. Lastly, just as Cinderella cares for her mice companions or Snow White looks out for the seven dwarves, watchers gather the understanding that being affectionate and caring are natural characteristics for females. In comparison, the males in these movies are always athletic, strong, assertive, and power-holders, and always seem to come to the rescue when the princess is in danger. As a result of movies like this, “female children are less likely to develop autonomy, initiative, and industriousness if they rarely see those traits modeled” (Witt). In addition, children believe that these models that movies serve are the “appropriate” ways to behave; thus, males are expected to hold leadership positions and act aggressively while females are compliant, nurturing, and dependent on males.

Rigid adherence to stereotypical gender roles can have negative consequences in childhood and beyond, as these stereotypes can limit children’s educational and occupational aspirations, perceived academic competency, emotional expression, and social development (Halpern 2). From the beginning, women are taught to be “calm and collected” from movies like Cinderella or Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and are expected to uphold these characteristics no matter the setting. However, in the professional world, these characteristics of passiveness and compliance may not lead to the desired outcomes. On one hand, women in the professional world have to act in a way that is acceptable and expected of females, but on the other hand, they have to act in a “male” way that will further their careers. Double standards such as the one in which acting aggressively is unacceptable for females but acceptable for males, help us understand that such gender roles are a barrier to female success in the male-dominated workforce. Imbalances in the composition of professions such as those within politics, military, law enforcement, and healthcare, are largely the result of gender roles impacting the ability of
females especially to succeed in professional roles. Gender seems to serve as the master status for professional working women, where lack of conformity to gender roles can lead to frustration for professional working women trying to establish themselves. Thus, gender socialization and gender roles have placed a “glass ceiling” on women’s success in professional roles and limit women in their ability to achieve without contradicting society’s norms.

As an older sister and older cousin, it is interesting to see the change in digital media to combat the development of these gender roles. In comparison to the media that I used to watch when I was younger, much of which was centered along the lines of the media explained earlier like Cinderella or Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, recognition of the growing influence that media has in spreading gender stereotypes has led to the development of new shows that limit the teaching of these roles. Take new Disney movies like Brave or Mulan, for example. In these movies, the main female characters are portrayed as strong and dominant, having both control over the trajectory of their lives and a say in decisions about their situations. Both characters, Merida and Mulan, actively decide to go against the gender roles their communities set for them. For Merida, she does this due to her rebellious nature, her love for archery (a male-dominated sport), and her lack of desire to get married at such a young age. For Mulan, she fights against the stereotype that women should be wives and homemakers when she pretends to be a man and goes off to war to save her father’s life. Later when it is revealed she is a woman, she proves to the audience that women, too, can be brave, bold, intelligent, and even capable of war tactics. Movies and media like this are steps in the right direction to breaking down the gender norms that socialization has caused.

Even within the last few months, recently produced movies show the importance that media has in addressing gender norms. Even though new movies like Barbie were not produced for children, movies like Barbie show the growing trend in breaking down traditional, informal gender roles through media. The movie shows viewers a female-dominated world where women serve as doctors, CEOs, lawyers, and more. However, throughout the movie, anybody watching slowly learns that this is not the current reality. Rather, this movie helps draw this distinction that men predominantly seem to hold high-ranking positions in the “real” world. By addressing this expectation versus reality, Barbie inherently calls to action a change in the current barriers that promote men over women in professional settings. In addition, due to the widespread reach that Barbie had, earning over 1.4 billion dollars in box office revenue worldwide, the impact of the lesson about the urgency of change in gender roles may spur action in the coming years (Finnighan). By producing films like Barbie, producers hope that the lessons about gender are applied to real-world scenarios.

Thus, the impact that these “agents of socialization,” most specifically digital media, have in establishing hurdles like gender roles that limit women’s professional success should not go unnoticed. Given that young children are at their most malleable and receptive, media that emphasizes traditional gender roles seems to stick throughout the remainder of these children’s lives. As a result, women in professional roles experience role strain as they are confronted with a myriad of conflicting and impossible-to-achieve expectations such as acting compliant yet assertive or caring yet ambitious. However, the possibility of change exists as the trend in the media to have a different outlook on these gender norms may begin to even out the playing field for professional working women.

Works Cited

Finnighan, Lucy-Jo. “Barbie Box Office: How Much Has It Made?” Dexerto, 18 September 2023,
Accessed 9 October 2023.

Hoiland, Sarah. “Gender and Socialization | Introduction to Sociology.” Lumen Learning, https://courses.lumenlearning.com/wm-introductiontosociology/chapter/gender-and-
. Accessed 23 September 2023.

Paul Halpern, Hillary, and Maureen Perry-Jenkins. “Parents’ Gender Ideology and Gendered
Behavior as Predictors of Children’s Gender-Role Attitudes: A Longitudinal
Exploration.” Sex Roles, vol. 74, no. 11, 2016, pp. 527-542. doi:10.1007/s11199-015-

Witt, Susan D. “The Influence of Television on Children’s Gender Role Socialization.” Childhood
, vol. 76, no. 5, 2000. http://www2.lewisu.edu/~gazianjo/influence_of_television_on_child.htm.

Citation Style: MLA