Media

Where Are All the Poor Kids in Disney Movies?

Disney either ignores poor characters wholesale or treats poverty as punishment.

For almost 80 years. Walt Disney Studios’ output has been a pop cultural touchstone that, in the words of cultural critic Henry A. Giroux, “powerfully influence[s] the way America’s cultural landscape is imagined." In the past few decades, the studio has taken steps to diversify that landscape by putting characters of various ethnicities and cultures—not to mention somewhat tougher princesses—onscreen, thus giving kids who don’t share Snow White’s skin tone and life goals new figures to relate to, and showing that the Disney universe is home to Mulan, Tiana and Merida, too.

However, one type of person still remains mostly off-camera in Disney flicks: the type who worries about money; specifically, not having enough of it. We virtually never see Disney characters barely making ends meet, having to choose between luxuries, or struggling to cover rent on modest apartments, even in the studio’s most recent animated features. As a result, there’s little for kids from lower-income families to relate to when it comes to everyday living, and few signs that Disney considers them a part of its loving universe. 

And yet, as we know, restrictively low incomes are not uncommon in the U.S. The 2013 Census notes that, between 2009 to 2011, “approximately 31.6 percent of the population had at least one spell of poverty lasting two or more months,” while “war on poverty” estimates suggest that approximately 12 to 15% of American families have been living at or below the poverty line since around 1967. But among Disney’s 54 theatrical animated releases to date, fewer than 20 depict characters with lower-income lifestyles, far fewer give these characters names or agency, and only a handful put them in the spotlight. 

By looking at the handful of Disney movies that do depict financial hardship, it’s clear that most attempt to “correct” the lives of under-privileged characters in the same way: by plucking attractive, good-hearted urchins from squalor and performing a rags-to-riches transformation, often with the kind of help you can only get by wishing on a star. These kinds of stories teach kids that they’ll need to work toward their own class transformations in order to fit into the hierarchy of the magical world they adore.

Why That’s a Problem

Disney princess films and paraphernalia continue to be popular with kids today, and even includes a Rags to Riches set of doll outfit combos. Looking back at Disney’s early images of poor lifestyles, few characters more readily come to mind (or better fit the bill of rags-to-riches princess) than Cinderella. The 1950 film’s title character bears the markings of a less-than-privileged life: simple clothing, days filled with hard work and few luxuries. Like Snow White before her, though, the high-born heroine is actually driven into hardship not by a low income but by her evil stepfamily, and as a form of abuse. Following in Snow White’s dainty footsteps, Cinderella effectively regains her class status by marrying her prince.

Cinderella isn’t without positive character traits, but she doesn’t do much that relates to, much less offers solutions for, the kinds of struggles lower-income families might have experienced in 1950. Rather, Cinderella exhibits “patience and forbearance.” Assisted by some industrious animals, she “waits for a better life instead of pursuing her desires” and “[dreams] about happiness instead of searching for it,” says film historian Susan Ohmer: not exactly effective strategies for kids of any income demographic. Overall, like fellow princesses Snow White, Aurora and Belle, she mostly embodies Disney’s princess method of getting ahead: wait for the news to come that you are, in fact, better than your surroundings, deep down. A Prince Charming will generally be the bearer of this good news.

The studio’s been known for its animal casts since its early films, and has “saved” several non-human characters from destitution along the way. The handsome leading mutt in Lady and the Tramp, like the orphaned kitten Oliver in Oliver & Company (based very loosely on Dickens’ Oliver Twist) and the attractive tomcat in The Aristocats, spends much of the film showing the purebred Lady that love and joy can indeed happen in streets filled with garbage, and that charm and good looks can triumph over them. In all three films, the under-privileged characters finally claim their rightful places in Disney’s hierarchy thanks to their appearances, their soot-concealed goodness, and the benevolence of upper-class friends. The hardship of their pasts ultimately fades away against the bright plenty of their future, and seems to have amounted to no more than a test of character. 

Media critic Lee Artz explains this repeat phenomenon with the point that, in Disney’s universe, “social order indicates a ranking according to worth, ability, authority, or some other attribute, [and] these values are combined with goodness and physical appearance such that in each animated narrative, heroes and heroines are invariably good, attractive, capable, worthy and ultimately powerful.” So, while some of Disney’s classic “poor” characters regain social status through birthright, others seem to find the sort of blue-blooded niches that Disney’s built-in hierarchy had intended for them all along, and to which it had left trails of clues in the form of good looks and pure hearts.

The Disney Renaissance

The 1989 smash hit The Little Mermaid, Disney’s first commercially successful animated feature since Walt Disney’s death in 1966, brought on the critically dubbed Disney Renaissance, with 10 popular films released within a decade at a rate of about one per year. Despite this wave of new blood in Disney’s character canon, which proved the studio “can live with, and even profit from, a non-European female protagonist (witness Pocahontas and Mulan) ...such adjustments [did] little to reduce Disney’s promotion of social inequality,” Artz writes. And still “Disney’s dream world of individual heroes and princesses rests on cultural privilege, social inequality, and human alienation.”

1992’s Aladdin, which most explicitly depicts financial hardship among the Renaissance batch, juxtaposes absolute privilege and its absolute lack through the lens of young love, but not so much as to defeat materialism or class. In the film, its hero climbs from the penniless lifestyle of a casual thief in inner-city Agrabah up into one of absolute riches and social superiority. Before he ditches his impoverished lifestyle, he and his lady love Princess Jasmine show compassion and charity toward the same couple of street kids during the film. But the story proceeds “completely within the Disney world of hierarchy,” as Artz points out: “The hero never questions or challenges the feudal order: Aladdin does not use the magic lamp to feed the children, aid the poor, or disarm the sultan’s army. No, this ‘diamond in the rough’ only strives to win the princess and defeat Jafar, the arch-villain.”

Overall, Artz says, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Mulan, and Tarzan—five of the top six performers during Disney’s Renaissance (The Lion King also being the Walt Disney Company’s 10th-best earner of all time, right behind Guardians of the Galaxy)—all follow the same formula. “[A] stylised, naturalised, and Westernised elite hero combats a privileged anti-social over-sized villain, while cute animal sidekicks and thuggish rebels knock about in front of a shapeless, faceless humanity” who, significantly, “do not act on their own.” Rather, we know the majority of commoners only for aligning themselves with the good guy or bad one, and for basically taking up space while the realm’s higher concerns play themselves out.

Artz adds: “Whether African, Arabian, North American or Chinese, few from the good citizenry or evil troops are individualized; even fewer have articulate voices, appearing but as replicates from two or three stencils, [while] narrative resolution in each film defends and reinforces the status quo [and] nothing is resolved until the preferred social order is in place.”

New Groove for Onscreen Privilege in the 2000s

Post-Renaissance, Disney has released a few films that give today’s generation of kids some food for thought, and some meaningful, relatable imagery, with regard to lives that aren’t always over-budgeted. 

One such film was 2000’s The Emperor’s New Groove, which Roger Ebert praised for “not [being] an animated musical telling an archetypal fable about mermaids, lions or brave young Chinese girls,” but rather the “slapstick” story of spoiled emperor Kuzco, who “spends his days in ill will” displacing hard-working peasants so as to expand his royal playground. After being turned into a llama, he begins a personal journey with the help of the peasant Pacha, who Kuzco recently banished along with his family. This setup is “unusual among Disney pictures because the lead is the jerk and the sidekick is the hero,” Ebert notes. 

Kuzco eventually sees the error of his ways and becomes an emperor of the people, thanks in no small part to the hard work of Pacha, who does the (realistically) impossible, as a man at society’s bottom, by convincing the guy at the top to change the whole system and be decent, already. The cartoon gently shows the consequences of ruling-class greed on working-class families, but David Spade’s llama-fied caricature may ultimately be the film’s most memorable feature.  

2009’s The Princess and the Frog also broke several molds with its struggling working-class characters, Disney’s very first African-American princess, and its suggestion (via the princess’ father) that hard work, not dreaming and magic, will give its heroine Tiana a better life.

However, this philosophy doesn’t carry through to the film’s finale; in a review for the New York Times, film critic Manohla Dargis reflects:

“Hard work is a recurrent theme in ‘Princess,’ [but] it also displaces race, which the film, given the commercial stakes, cannot engage. Hard work [...] drives Tiana, feeding her savings and dreams [...but] also makes the adult Tiana something of a drudge and a bore [...and the] prince, disappointingly if not surprisingly, becomes not only Tiana’s salvation but also that of the movie.” 

In all, she notes, the film—which loaded up one family of characters with representing both lower-income and African-American life in Disney to date—amounts to a “fairy tale about a black heroine, a character whose shoulders and story prove far too slight for all the hopes already weighing her down.”

A Good Example: “Ohana Means Family,” Not Wealth

One film that both thrilled audiences and carried substantial weight toward addressing working-class issues was 2002’s Lilo & Stitch, which Ebert called a “truly inspired animated feature” and “a jewel.”

Lilo’s main crew includes two orphaned sisters—the socially challenged but charming Lilo and her big sister Nani, left to support and wrangle the family alone—and the irreverent, also parent-less Stitch. While Lilo and Stitch struggle to learn to communicate with each other and the outside world, Nani also struggles to raise her sister in their parents’ absence, keep money coming in (made difficult when Stitch’s antics get her fired), and keep an unhappy social worker at bay. All of which are very realistic challenges for plenty of kids in the U.S. and around the world, and were previously ignored in the Disney realm.

And while there’s technically an alien in the mix, the characters’ interactions and work to resolve their troubles are very human. As Ebert noted, Lilo and Nani are learning “how to be a family and take care of each other” through the course of the film, and ending up putting together a very happy, if irregularly shaped and under-privileged family.

Animator Jeff Hong, who worked on the Disney films Hercules, Mulan, Tarzan, and The Emperor's New Groove among others, explored some real-life challenges that Disney characters might encounter in today’s world with his 2014 project Unhappily Ever After. Via email, Hong explained to me that his Lilo & Stitch illustration “definitely [pushes] the boundaries of what may be seen as poverty in Disney films [by] showing Nani, Lilo and Stitch homeless.”

He pointed out, however, that he was working with themes and possible “ever-afters” already contained within the game-changing film. “[It’s] not a stretch to see that these characters were on the verge of that outcome had the movie had an unhappy ending,” he said.

A Happy Ending for Disney’s Poor?

It will take a long while to determine how Walt Disney Studios’ portrayals of under-privileged and low-income characters, or the lack thereof, are affecting today’s generation of kids. In the meantime, various scholars are seeking to pinpoint which sorts of lessons the studio’s films, as a group, are teaching young viewers about how the world works.

In 2013, Brigham Young University researchers published the results of a study of the kinds of prosocial behaviors demonstrated for kids in Disney’s animated films produced by 2011. Among other things, the team found the following patterns among the ways and scenarios in which Disney characters help one another in those films:

  • characters tended to offer help to other characters of the same level of attractiveness, age, and socio-economic class as themselves
  • attractive characters were more likely to receive help than unattractive ones were (the latter don’t offer much help, either)
  • characters were more likely to come to the aid of friends than strangers
  • male characters were more likely to help out female characters than vice versa
  • male characters were also more likely to be motivated by public approval than female characters
  • most prosocial behaviors were acts of goodwill that didn’t cost much 

Overall, the study found that Disney’s animated films “contain at least three times more prosocial behavior than regular children’s programming” but that “the context surrounding the prosocial acts and the characteristics of characters were not particularly praiseworthy, and reflect patterns seen in prime time television shows.” So, while Disney films may be encouraging kids to be “good,” they may not be pushing kids from middle- and higher-income families to look beyond their own socio-economic classes and communities for ways to do good, or even for finding it in others.

With movies like The Princess and the Frog and Lilo & Stitch among its recent accomplishments, Walt Disney Studios has certainly taken steps toward giving kids who lack kingdoms, fairy godmothers and helper animals some level of emotional support for the day-to-day challenges they might endure, and to acknowledging that these challenges are normal. The studio still has a ways to go, however, if it wants to better serve the imaginations of fans and families of all income levels by bringing its screen fantasies a bit closer to reality. 

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Janet Burns is a writer in Brooklyn, NY. Her website is warmlyjanetburns.com.