Vasa inania multum strepunt

stereotype /ˈstɛrɪə(ʊ)tʌɪp/ : A widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing (Oxford Dictionary)

Stereotypes are used so often in our ordinary life that we don’t even seem to notice them anymore. We use them unconsciously, in any situation we may find ourselves in. Perhaps when we see someone in the street dressed in a certain way we conclude that he, or she, has determined features and abilities that we assume are characteristic of that group. In this way we simplify our social world, thanks to stereotypes we reduce the amount of data we process at the first impact with someone new. However, oftentimes stereotypes are likely to deliver a negative first impression. “The word ‘stereotype’ is today almost always a term of abuse.” (Dyer, 1993, The Matter of Images, p. 11)

As anything, stereotype has some advantages, like helping us to hastily respond to circumstances which we may be familiar with thanks to previous similar experiences, and some disadvantages, it makes us ignore differences between individuals and generalise about people thinking things about them that might not be true. “Stereotypes are a very simple, striking, easily-grasped form of representation but are none the less capable of condensing a great deal of complex information and a host of connotations.” (Dyer, 1993, The Matter of Images, p. 12)

In a 1933 study about racial stereotypes published by Katz and Braly, it has been postulated that stereotypes were “not based upon animosity toward a member of a proscribed group” because of single attributes, but rather because of attitudes (or ‘stereotypes’) against race names. (Katz and Braly, 1933, Racial stereotypes of one hundred college students, p. 280) The results found showed that students held clear, negative stereotypes — only a small number of them revealed difficulties in attending the questionnaire.

“Most students at that time would have been white Americans and the pictures of other ethnic groups included Jews as shrewd and mercenary, Japanese as shrewd and sly, Negroes as lazy and happy-go-lucky and Americans as industrious and intelligent.” (Rae and Piggot, 2014, Supporting the Well Being of Girls, p. 46)

“Results from this research suggest that in addition to the explicit stereotypes that Katz and Braly measured, people harbour “implicit” biases outside of their awareness — that is, they hold prejudiced attitudes and stereotypic associations about certain groups even without realising it.” (Banaji, Hardin & Rothman, 1993; Fazio, Jackson, Dunton & Williams 1995; Gaertner & McLaughlin, 1983) “Some psychologists argue that it is a “natural” aspect of human behaviour, which can be seen to benefit each group because it helps in the long-run to identify with one’s own ethnic group and so find protection and promote the safety and success of the group.” (Rae and Piggot, 2014, Supporting the Well Being of Girls, p. 46) But it can’t be denied that stereotypes, especially the racial ones, can very often offend people. So, how do we define the line where something becomes offending?

In animation it is very likely to find stereotypes. As Luis Blackaller, Art Department and Visual Effects, says in an interview to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:

“Animation is a lot of work and you always try to simplify. You have to draw at least 24 drawings every second, if your character is complicated and full of details you’re going to have to carry all those complications and details to sometimes already very complicated motions. So you oversimplify. And in that oversimplification it is very easy to tend to stereotype.” (Blackaller, MIT TV)

As he points out stereotypes are used to make the animators’ job easier but often they are used as caricatures in order to make fun of people. “Sometime stereotypes is a way of telling a story. You think ‘I want someone to understand this person is lazy, so I make her fat’.” (Kamentsky, MIT TV)

In animation stereotypes are rarely true, but it doesn’t matter because they do their job. Particularly in this form of media the viewer needs to immediately understand what is happening and simplifying or exaggerating helps tremendously. As said earlier stereotypes take us to hastily respond to circumstances which we may be familiar with thanks to previous similar experiences. In this way we do not have to think about what we are watching because our brain elaborates it automatically.

As true as oversimplifying take to stereotypes also overemphasising does it. Exaggerating something is overstating the obvious in order to make a point. This is used very often in poetry and literature. In this field of writing exaggeration is called hyperbole and it is used to create emphasis or effect. It does not matter if the actual phrase or concept is real, what matters is that the idea will reach the reader instantaneously. Exactly the same happens with advertising. “Take the basic idea you want to communicate, your concept, then exaggerate it. Take it to extremes. Push it beyond reason, beyond reality.” (Woodall, 2013, Copy of Persuasive Techniques)

The problem with exaggeration is that if you go too far beyond the line it gets risky. “Animation loves caricature. Animation loves exaggeration. And that could be dangerous, because you can caricature something to the point where somebody can get offended.” (Espinosa, MIT TV)

So how and when should exaggeration be used? No one wants his speech, poem, book or film to consists solely in stereotype and excess because audience will easily find out and the concept will fall apart. Imagine a line where 0 is not stereotyped at all and 10 is over stereotyped with a big risk to offend someone. Now, to make sure the exaggeration will not be too much or not enough it has to be between 0 and 10. There is not an ordinary technique to do that and this line could vary from person to person. It is indeed very difficult to stay in the range of stereotype without going too far and offend someone. So, how did big animation companies solve this problem? They did not. With more than 70 years of experience in the animation world, Disney learned where and when to use stereotypes. In fact in the first animated films many more exaggerations were used than in the latest ones.

During WWII and later on in the 50s animation was frequently used for propaganda, stereotyping the opponents as stupid and/or bad people and making fun of them. In the same period this powerful media also had relevance in teaching kids what war was and who were the good guys. “Animated cartoons allowed the government to spread their message in a much more entertaining manner. Bugs Bunny Bond Rally is a classic cartoon depicting Bugs Bunny singing and dancing about war bonds. […] It was during such World War II films that Bugs achieved his popularity and made him a national mascot.” (Wikipedia, World War II and American Animation)

Stereotypes are not only about races but, even more often, about genders. “Gender roles are a perceived set of behavioural norms usually associated with males and females in a given social group or system. They allow individuals to refer to certain attitudes or behaviours that class a person’s stereotypical identity.” (Yerby, Baron and Lee, Gender roles in Disney Animation)

Gender stereotypes are sign of gender inequality. With animation, this idea reaches easily children’s minds making them believe that this is how it is supposed to be in real life.

“Traditionally, the female stereotypic role is to marry and have children. She is also to put her family’s welfare before her own; be loving, compassionate, caring, nurturing, and sympathetic; and find time to be sexy and feel beautiful. The male stereotypic role is to be the financial provider. He is also to be assertive, competitive, independent, courageous, and career‐focused; hold his emotions in check; and always initiate sex. These sorts of stereotypes can prove harmful; they can stifle individual expression and creativity, as well as hinder personal and professional growth.” (Zgourides, 2000, Sociology, p. 117)

Disney’s idea of the female is the cute and nice princess, so every little girl should grow up thinking that being beautiful and fashionable will bring her happiness and a prince who will fall in love with her. On the other hand, young boys are taught that being successful means being strong, muscular, dominant, manipulative and good looking.

But what if a girl wants to play football instead of drinking tea with her dolls. She will be told that it is not a princess’ behaviour and so it is wrong. The same happens with a boy who does not like sports, he will be told that he has to play football and become strong and masculine because this is what men do.

Furthermore is how often and in which way women are portrayed. A study conducted by Thompson, T. and Zerbinos, E. in 1995, as an update of a 20-year older research on gender representation in children’s cartoons, has shown that “females have been under-represented on television programs, in commercials and even in cartoons; that females usually appear in lower status occupations if they are depicted as holding a job; and that female characters appear as less knowledgable than male characters.” (Thompson and Zerbinos, 1995, Gender Roles in Animated Cartoons: Has the Picture Changed in 20 Years?)

When Walter Lippmann came out with the term ‘stereotype’ he had four different ideas of how it could be used: an ordering process, a short cut, a reference and the expression of values. Developing the ‘reference’ idea he “refers to stereotypes as a projection on to the ‘world’.” (Dyer, 1993, The Matter of Images, p. 13) In particular referred to media fictions, stereotypes are a class underneath a much wider category of characters, the type. “The type is any character constructed through the use of a few immediately recognisable and defining traits, which do not change or ‘develop’ through the course of the narrative.” (Dyer, 1993, The Matter of Images, p. 13)

Since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs female characters have been passive, weak and dependent, whereas male ones are strong and dominant. Tall and with big muscles men never show their feelings, in contrast women are considered objects that men can posses and use. They have to work at home and be submissive to men’s desires without even the possibility to dream a different, better life. Princesses are portrayed as souls who need to be rescued by their heroes that will become their lovers. “Besides, heroic roles and instrumental helping are more consistent with the male role than the female role” (Eagly & Crowley, 1986) “and boys prefer superhero roles more than girls do.” (Ruble & Martin, 1998)

There are many animated movies that prove this thesis. In Tarzan there is a boy who is adopted by a tribe of gorillas, the strongest species of mammals on the planet, and he is grown to be strong and agile; his body is muscled and defined. On the other hand, Jane, the female character of the film, is weak, romantic, sensitive, scared when in difficulty and in many occasions she is in need of help and she is saved by her hero, Tarzan.

Another good example is The Lion King. When Mufasa is killed by Scar, his son, Simba, runs away and Scar takes his place as king. All the lionesses in the pride are weak and scared of him and do not even try to do anything, they just wait Simba to return and save them. It is shown here how dependent the female characters are, they need Simba to have back their freedom and to save their future because they can do nothing against the male. “Heroes in jeopardy do something about it; heroines don’t.” (Dyer, 1993, The Matter of Images, p. 96)

Towbin, Haddock, Zimmerman, Lund and Tanner conducted a thematic analysis of 26 feature-length disney films that revealed the following themes about what it means to be a boy/man or girl/woman:

“Men primarily use physical means to express their emotions or show no emotions; men are not in control of their sexuality; men are naturally strong and heroic; men have non domestic jobs; and overweight men have negative characteristics.
A woman’s appearance is valued more than her intellect, women are helpless and in need of protection, women are domestic and likely to marry, and overweight women are ugly, unpleasant, and unmarried. (Towbin, Haddock, Zimmerman, Lund and Tanner, 2003, Images of Gender, Race, Age, and Sexual Orientation in Disney Feature-Length AnimatedFilms, p. 28–30)”

However, in the latest decades there is been a change. Women have now good jobs, they do not rely on anyone, not men for sure, and they are smart. It is particular noticeable in films like Brave, in which the king’s daughter does not want to be the ordinary princess but instead she wants to follow her destiny going alone for adventures defeating dangers and hunting. Surely not the old Disney formula of a princess.

Another good example is Shrek. In this story the princess should have been saved by the typical blue prince but instead she finds out that her brave rescuer is a terrifying green ogre. For the first time we do not have the stereotyped cute and nice princess like Snow White or Cinderella; she is in fact the opposite, a scary and ugly green ogre, fat and short. Furthermore, in the last chapter of the saga she is a rebel who fights and scares men with a group of only female characters.

How not to mention Mulan, a young lady who wants to join the army and fight for her nation. At first she has to hide herself because no women were allowed to be soldiers but after she shows her abilities she can finally fight and become a warrior.

One last example is Tangled, in which the princess is kidnapped by a witch when she was just a child and she is locked in a very high tower with no doors. She wants to escape and go out to see and live the world. She has dreams, ambitions, fears and courage. Moreover, she not only does not need a man who saves her but she is the one who saves him, more than once.

Anyway, in both Mulan and Tangled, at the very end there is still a stereotyped vision of the female character. In fact, when Mulan is asked to be part of the kingdom’s army she replies that she has to go back to her village and live to serve her father and her husband, being dependent and becoming a mother. In Tangled the princess saves the prince using her miraculous hair but only after he gave his life to save hers. So it is the male character who is acting as a hero.

Male characters have changed as well. They slowly became more feminist and less strong and they started to use their brain more than their muscles. It is very important to notice that they also started to pay attention to their aspect, strong example is the male character in Tangled, Flynn, who is always complaining about his nose. They express their feelings, they often feel vulnerable and try to feel empathy and connection with other people.

Stereotype is not only in how characters’ personalities and outlooks are, but also in how many male characters and female ones are present in the movie. Due to a study conducted on six Disney animated films the number of male characters is more than three times the number of female ones. It is evident indeed how imbalanced these films are.

Furthermore, it is very interesting to compare the finale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty with Beauty and the Beast and Princess and the Frog. In the first two animation films, respectively from 1937 and 1959, it is the prince that, kissing the princess, saves her. In the last two ones, respectively from 1991 and 2009, the situation is mirrored, it is in fact the princess who kisses the prince and saves him.

This is a pure but simple example of how Disney has changed during the years.

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