Female Stereotypes Portrayed in Disney Movies

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Recently, the Disney princess line has taken criticism for promoting passiveness, and the damsel-in-distress characterization; basically, endorsing female stereotypes (Coyne, Linder, Rasmussen, Nelson, Birbeck, 2016). This is important because if parents were aware of the gender stereotypes that Disney may portray in their films, they could essentially limit the gender stereotype exposure to children at a young age. Research has found that many different stereotypes have continued to be present in Disney films over the years despite a few occurrences of more positive representation (Haddock, Lund, Tanner, Towbin, Zimmerman, 2004). While research has highlighted this fact, not enough research has been done to change the association Disney has with these gender stereotypes (England, Descartes, Collier-Meek).

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Disney has been seen to have an amplified gender world view, where male and female characters show their significant differences (Hoerrner, 1996). The top 20 Disney films according to IMDb that we have rated are as follows: The Lion King (1994), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Zootopia (), Aladdin (1992), Tangled (2010), Big Hero 6 (2014), Mulan (1998), The Little Mermaid (1989), Moana (2016), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938), The Jungle Book (1967), Robin Hood (1973), Frozen (2013), Pinocchio (1940), Alice in Wonderland (1951), The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), Bambi (1942), and Peter Pan (1953). These Disney films are especially important in regard to the information children can learn from watching them. If a child watches enough media throughout the day and multiple times during the week, there may be a possibility that gender stereotypes are being exposed. Previous research shows that engagement with Disney princess media/products, the female gendered stereotypical behavior was much more prevalent than amongst those without it (Coyne., et al, 2016). After taking this previous research into consideration, we can see that these films can play an important role in a child’s learning about gender and can have a negative impact when it comes to the older films and child development.

In our study, we plan to show whether female gender stereotyping has changed over the years throughout the most popular Disney movies. This is extremely important due to the fact that most children in present time gain their knowledge through media, which is having a significant impact on development. In the present study, we specifically have researched the degree to which female main characters conform to gender stereotypes in newer Disney movies more frequently than in older Disney movies. We hypothesized that older movies have shown less female main characters, and these female main characters act more stereotypical in their gender roles as well.


For our content analysis, we chose to use the top twenty Disney films as determined by IMDb ratings. These films ranged from the years of 1937 to 2016. Each researcher in our group reviewed each film. Each of the main female Disney characters were identified by the gender pronouns (she, her, herself, etc.) used in context. After we identified each female main character, we used a Likert-type scale to rate how conforming (or not conforming) they were to our specified gender stereotype characteristics.

There were two dependent variables in this study. The first dependent variable was when each movie was premiered. We reviewed the top 20 Disney films between the years of 1937-2016, in order to get a good range of popular old and new films. The second dependent variable was the ratings that each chosen Disney female main character was given by every one of our researchers independently. Main characters were identified as female when the characters were referred to with female pronouns, or whether they referred to themselves with female pronouns. The ratings we used consisted of assigning a number, 1 through 5, that best fits that character in terms of conforming to female gender stereotypes. Our group has translated the scale as the following: 1 = conforming, 2 = slightly conforming, 3 = neutral, 4 = slightly non-conforming, 5 = non-conforming. We agreed that the characteristics of conforming female gender stereotypes include characteristics such as: damsel in distress, caring, emotional, easily scared, etc. Each researcher then rated each of them with the scale explained above.

Independently, each researcher decided who the female main characters were and rated them according to their roles in the films. The ratings consisted of assigning a number, 1 through 5, that best fits that character in terms of conforming to female gender stereotypes. For example, a character was rated a 1 if they showed signs of being physically weak, submissive, passive, etc. On the other hand, a character was rated a 5 if they showed signs of being physically strong, courageous, independent, etc. A 3 was often assigned for female main characters who were both conforming yet non-conforming at the same time (showing signs of both).


Our research group ran a correlational analysis in order to see if there was a significance between the year the movies were released and the rating averages between each of us. The correlation between the year the Disney movies were released, and our rating averages were not significant, r (17) = .291, p = .258. Our analysis mean of all movies and ratings were reported as 3.1, and the standard deviation was 1.34. To put in other words, on average, the female main characters in the Disney films were about neutral (not conforming, yet not nonconforming) in terms of conforming to stereotypes.

What this means is that there was no significant relationship between the year of the movie and how stereotypical the main Disney female characters portrayed their gender roles over time. In other words, since the correlation wasn’t significant, we could get results that look like this at random too frequently for our liking. Also, when going through the list of Disney films and deciding which female main character we would rate, we had to take out the films that had no female main characters at all. This way we would only be analyzing just the females and not the males.

It is worth mentioning that we, as a group of researchers, had great interrater reliability between all of our scores. The results of the Cronbach’s Alpha were .929, which means that we all tended to agree with each other on how stereotypical each female character was. Gender messages in Disney movies have become less obviously prescriptive (Haddock., et al, 2004). Although gender messages have become less obviously prescriptive, they still remain, as we have seen in our results.


The goal of this study was to identify how the female characters are portrayed in regard to gendered stereotypes in selected Disney movies over time. We predicted that older movies portrayed female characters more stereotypically and had fewer female main characters than in newer Disney movies. Contrary to our hypothesis, the rest of our results did not support our hypothesis. There was no significance difference between the year the Disney films were released and each female main character rating. Therefore, we concluded that Disney female main characters are not portrayed as less gender stereotypical over the years. In a different study based on princess stereotype roles, the results suggest that the princesscharacters do not all show traditional female gender stereotypes, and these stereotypes are not consistent (England., et al, 2011). These researchers of this different study show that after doing their content coding analysis, they found that all of the Disney movies show some sort of gender stereotypes one way or another (England., et al, 2011). Unlike the results from this similar study, in which all female main character’s gender roles being slightly less conforming as time progresses, our results have shown that these female main character gender roles were not more or less conforming over time.

We believe that the reasons for our results not matching our hypothesis has to do with our limitations. For example, one limitation on our study would be the sample size. We have such a small sample of Disney movies, and maybe our results would have been significant if we had a larger selection of Disney movies to rate. Another limitation would be flipping a coin to choose which female main character we were going to rate. If the coin would have landed on, for instance, a princess instead of a witch, we may have been able to achieve more significant results as well due to different ratings. Also, some of the moviesthat had to be taken out due to no female main characters could have affected our results, leaving us with an even smaller sample size. We also could have taken into account these certain films, and how they may play a part in our hypothesis, instead of just taking them out of the ratings completely. The last limitation would be the way each one of us individuals saw a certain character separately. If we all used the same scale to rate these characters, but saw the characters in different ways, this would have made our analysis biased.

Some future directions our research group could possibly look into would be looking at not just the female main characters, but the male main characters and gender stereotypes as well. Choosing and rating the male main characters in Disney movies might have allowed us to compare the females to in regard to stereotypes, perhaps supporting our hypothesis. We wish that we could have looked into a bigger sample for Disney films, so we could have way more characters to rate across many different years. Future researchers should be more objective and more deliberate on which Disney movies are selected. Some of the more popular Disney movies in more recent years may be the ones which have less conforming gender-stereotype characters, whereas popular Disney movies in earlier years may have more conforming gender-stereotype characters.

In conclusion, our results demonstrate that there is no evidence of Disney becoming more or less stereotypical in their female main characters. It appears as if Disney was not progressive in its stereotypical portrayal over the years of 1937-2016. Therefore, it is still not clear if Disney is willing to change their representations of female gender stereotypes from damsels-in-distress to more outgoing, adventurous, and courageous women.

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Female Stereotypes Portrayed In Disney Movies. (2019, Apr 12). Retrieved November 26, 2022 , from

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