Klass and Kids’ Films
By Eileen Jones
A good one-panel cartoon recently made the rounds online featuring two medieval peasants standing in a snowstorm. One peasant is raging about how, instead of the normal arrival of spring, they’re having what appears to be another winter: “My children will starve!”
The other peasant explains the cause of this disaster: “Two princesses up north are learning about the meaning of sisterhood.”
That’s a joke based on the plot of the Disney mega-hit Frozen, of course, which involves a princess with magical powers whose repressed emotions, released as rage, cause the realm to turn to ice. Only her sister’s love can save her and thaw out the kingdom, or something like that.
Ask some kid for clarification — they all know Frozen.
Anyway, the cartoon is a nice reminder, if we needed one, of the narrative tendencies produced by the Walt Disney entertainment empire, and how unlikely it is that, shall we say, the peasant point of view will be emphasized in Disney films. This includes the films of Disney’s corporate partner Pixar, with its digital update of Disney’s approach to children’s entertainment. This two-headed Goliath has an appeal to children and their parents measurable in billions of dollars annually.
It’s no surprise to anyone paying attention to the Disney-Pixar feature film output that it doesn’t tend to represent a working-class point of view. It’s been noted by critics, scholars, and journalists in a variety of works including Janet Burns’s “Where Are All the Poor Kids in Disney Movies?”
But it’s handy to have the numbers to back it up. A sociological study focused on Disney-Pixar films entitled “Benign Inequality: Frames of Poverty and Social Class Inequality in Children’s Films,” was released in 2016 to unusual levels of interest in the entertainment-reporting community. It was overseen by Jessi Streib, an assistant professor of sociology at Duke University, whose study became the topic of a series of articles and interviews under edgy headlines suggesting controversy, such as the Daily Mail’s “Disney and Pixar Under Fire for Inequality.”
The study analyzes class representation in G-rated American films that earned more than $100 million starting in 2014, as a means of assessing one source of children’s ideas about class. As Streib notes, these representations have a measurable impact on children, who tend to see at an early age many films created for them. “Parents don’t really like talking to their kids about class,” Streib says, yet:
Little kids have pretty interesting ideas of class. Studies have shown that by the time kids are 12, they have internalized a lot of American ideas about class — like poor people are lazy, and rich people are smart and hardworking.
One could point out the obvious, that bleak physical realities plus ideological representations of class are in plain sight everywhere in American society, and you’d have to be a well-fortified kid not to absorb them. Still, media aimed at children isn’t a bad place to start looking for influences.
In the films studied by Streib’s team, only 4 percent of primary characters are represented as poor, and these few characters are generally shown to be perfectly content living in a sanitized state of poverty and/or servitude.
You may recall that happily singing servants have long been a Disney film staple in films from Snow White to Beauty and the Beast. That includes the notorious example of Disney’s most controversial film, Song of the South, featuring the jovial slave character Uncle Remus singing the hit song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”
According to Streib’s study, only 16 percent of primary characters in these films are clearly working class. Comfortably middle-class families with unspecified sources of income or upper-class characters are represented as the norm, and positive characteristics tend to be associated with affluent characters.
Though Pixar films often focus on work and work-like situations, the emphasis is almost never on ordinary people’s relationship to the economic necessity and wearying effort of wage labor. It’s on work as an activity that allows for the demonstration of elite skill. Work in Pixar films tends to be concerned with who is the best at their job, and what obstacles are interfering with the recognition of the protagonists’ excellence. This starts from their first film, Toy Story, in 1995, in which the “job” of Woody the toy cowboy (Tom Hanks) is to be Andy’s favorite toy, until the flashy space-age astronaut Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) replaces him. Before that crisis point, Woody acts as the “manager” of Andy’s other toys, leading office-style meetings with clipboard agenda in hand.
The factory setting in Monsters, Inc. keeps production up through a competition among monster-workers for “Best Scare-er” of children, whose screams generate the energy that powers the city, until the hero and perpetual winner Scully (John Goodman), runs up against an evil corporate plot. Ratatouille follows the efforts of the rat Remy (Patton Oswalt), who’s a genius at cooking, to make a career as a chef, in spite of the obvious bias of the general public against rats in kitchens, plus the more insular snobbery of the French food industry and the increasing threat of the fast food industry on haute cuisine.
One of the few sequences about the inherent difficulties of work in a Pixar film occurs in The Incredibles, in which superheroes are treated as elite ultra-professionals. When an ungrateful public in collusion with bureaucratic lawmakers makes superpower “work” illegal, it forces Mr Incredible to take a job in an insurance company to support his side-lined superhero family. For the first time, we see work in a Pixar film treated as gray misery for the worker. Terrorized by his boss and desperate for a paycheck, Mr Incredible sits at a small desk half-buried in paperwork, trying to explain to an anguished old lady why her claim is being denied. It’s good stuff, but unfortunately, the strongest contextual meaning of the sequence is that it’s a damn shame an elite being has to do such demeaning work.
In general, just like in Disney films, workers in Pixar films live and labor in clean, spacious, comfortable settings that suggest middle-to-upper-class living. Disney-Pixar has so thoroughly established the norm of affluence in animated films, it’s interesting to recall where Disney started and whether children’s most respected film entertainment was always this way. Walt Disney’s primary source material for his early film adaptations tended to operate from the peasant/working-class point of view. Disney often adapted stories from classic children’s literature sources such as the Brothers Grimm, though he thoroughly white-washed the harsher elements.
If you’ve read the Brothers Grimm, you can appreciate the appropriateness of their name. Grimm stories, which were the brothers’ rewrites of European, mainly German, folklore, often begin by describing the harrowing lives of the impoverished and desperate. The Grimms’ “Hansel and Gretel” for example, starts with a poor woodcutter and his wife abandoning their two children in the woods because they can no longer feed them, a fraught beginning that the Disney short-film version definitely omits. The abandoned children run afoul of a wicked witch who lures them into a house made of desserts in order to fatten them up, so she can cook and eat them.
We can tell by the manifest food obsession that such stories originated among the real old-world precariat.
Selecting from these classic tales, Disney favored the Grimms’ “princess” narratives for his feature films, such as “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” and “Sleeping Beauty,” in which the unjust punishment visited on beautiful aristocratic girls is being “dressed in rags” and made to work like poor people until they get rescued by princes. Yet it’s noteworthy that Disney was a working-class kid himself: from a young age, on top of his schooling he held down an adult’s job, specifically his ailing father’s city-wide paper route. He had nightmares about doing that job for the rest of his life.
But in his films, Disney “elevated” class representation to make sure they functioned from a stable basis of middle-to-upper-class comfort, whether they were fantasy princess tales or contemporary stories featuring semi-realistic humans backing up animal protagonists, such as Lady and the Tramp or 101 Dalmatians. In doing so, Disney was conforming to a broad trend in the American film industry. Starting in the 1920s, there was a concerted effort to create content that would better suit the splendid new “picture palace” movie theaters designed to draw the middle-to-upper classes to cinema.
Disney films are so impossibly clean, even nature seems to have no dirt in it.
In seeking a “better class of people” than the often immigrant working classes who had flocked to movies up to that time, studios created more films focused on upper-class characters instead of the struggling characters that flourished up through the 1910s, exemplified by Charlie Chaplin’s tough, canny, homeless Little Tramp. You can see Buster Keaton satirize this change in his celebrated 1924 film Sherlock Jr., in which he plays a working-class movie theater projectionist who dreams he’s trying to enter the film world onscreen. He’s blocked from doing so until he adopts the upper-class attributes and attire of the other characters.
But Disney’s immense influence on children has always made his films the object of special scrutiny, even before his studio’s explosive growth. Critics of Disney films tend to focus on their tendency to excessively simplify and conservatively moralize the world. Disney films are so impossibly clean, even nature seems to have no dirt in it. Like his theme parks — designed to be fanatically sanitary, stringently policed, and sealed off from the messy urban world of immigrants and laborers who frequented affordable and highly accessible amusement parks such as Coney Island — Disney films were and are triumphs of bourgeois values.
If left-wing parents today are less worried about the Disney influence than they once were, it makes sense given the way things have changed in terms of new digital-media forms and children’s viewing habits. In the mass of available kids’ entertainment, even the Disney-Pixar media leviathan can’t hope to wield the influence that classic Disney once did. The parents I asked estimated that they can fully control their children’s viewing habits only up to about the age of six.
Still, those early years are hugely formative of basic values, and the Disney headlock is most dominant then. Disney merging with Pixar in 2006 seems to have muted the once strident critique of Disney’s influence on children’s values, and indeed the whole issue of trying to inculcate morals and values in children through media currently seems to be a nonissue on the political left, perhaps because it’s long been a dominant issue on the Right.
You can find online one or two guides to “progressive” films, but it’s no surprise that they tend to involve checking off a few mild content categories: yay girl power (Matilda, Mulan, Frozen, Moana), yay environmentalism (Ferngully, The Lorax, Princess Mononoke, Happy Feet), nay war (Iron Giant), nay racism (Zootopia), nay corporate evil (Happy Feet, Wall-E). Class is not addressed as one of the important categories.
Parents seeking a working-class sensibility in children’s films might consider giving Laika a try. Though it’s run by CEO Travis Knight, son of uberwealthy Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike who funds the company, somehow the Portland-based Laika’s output tends to focus insightfully on struggling proles. You might not have heard of Laika, because thirteen years and many Academy Awards and nominations after its 2005 founding, it’s still a comparatively small underdog overshadowed by Disney-Pixar.
Laika’s first and finest film was Coraline, closely followed by the excellent ParaNorman, the quite good Boxtrolls, and the weakest link so far, Kubo and the Two Strings. But its approach was established early on and extended beyond the Laika commitment to handcrafted, stop-motion animation minimally augmented by cgi. As defined by Travis Knight, the mission of Laika is:
Films that are bold, distinctive, and enduring. To tell stories that are thematically challenging, aesthetically beautiful, thought-provoking, emotionally resonant, progressive, and a wee bit subversive.
What the “subversion” consists of is left undefined, but I would argue that, in addition to Laika films’ notably dark edge that generally earn their films a pg rating, it’s their unusual tendency to feature working-class people in sometimes amazingly realistic ways that stand out, given the fantastical plots of most of the films. The Boxtrolls, for example, concerns a literal underground community of trash scavengers treated with extermination in a fantastical version of Victorian England. Coraline is about a contemporary thirteen-year-old girl frustrated by her tired parents’ drab lives of overwork and pinched economizing. She desperately wishes for other parents who’ll have time to pay attention and spoil her with elaborate home-cooked meals, dressy clothes, and all her other pricey desires. In twisted dreams she travels through a tunnel in the wall of the tatty “Pink Palace Apartments” to the far spiffier version of her home where Other Mother and Other Father welcome her.
This upscale world of shiny doppelgangers with infinite leisure turns terrifying in the end, requiring from inhabitants a symbolic loss of identify, perception, and will in the substitution of human eyes for buttons sewn into their places. Other Mother has for generations functioned in the gloomy rural community like a vampiric Countess Elizabeth Bathory of the Pacific Northwest, luring in and consuming young “peasant” children who dream of a life of plenty. Coraline has to fight this monster to return to, reconcile with, and even find a way to love her workaday world of ordinary human life with its harried parents, dingy apartments, and hard up, eccentric elderly neighbors.
ParaNorman places a similar emphasis on a rundown American location and its harassed inhabitants. Set in Blythe Hollow, a kind of low-rent Salem relying on its shaky tourist industry based on the town’s shameful Puritan witch-hunting past, the film lingers over the grimly authentic, homely details of houses sagging on their foundations, dead grass, chain-link fences, and discarded hamburger wrappers. Brooding over the town is the tacky tourist industry billboard that doesn’t appear to be drawing many tourists, featuring a grinning cartoon of a witch dangling from a noose and the slogan, “Blythe Hollow: A Great Place to Hang Around.”
The protagonist is a depressed boy named Norman who sees dead people, loves zombie movies, and is shunned by his peers. His parents have none of the fit, trim, energetic qualities of well-to-do Pixar film parents. These are people with beer guts and bags under their eyes, who age early from the effects of too much work, too little exercise, and a steady diet of cheap, processed food.
The telling details about class in a film that never mentions class outright are overwhelming once you pay attention to them. And once again, for all the fantastical elements of witches and ghosts and zombies, there’s no real escape for Norman from the family, the community, or the terrible history that binds them together. He’ll have to find a way to deal with them, and somehow fight against the forces dragging them down. This seems the most class-conscious element of all.
Laika films don’t shy away from anguish or rage or the sense of our bitter multigenerational struggle for a decent life.
Laika has just announced “its fifth and most ambitious feature to date,” called Missing Link, about a large, mysterious, Bigfoot-like creature, the last of his kind, who may be the fabled “missing link” between homo sapiens and the rest of the animal world. An eccentric British peer, voiced by Hugh Jackman, is determined to join Great Britain’s adventuring elite by establishing his reputation as the foremost expert on mythical monsters that might not be so mythical. He intends to hunt down the gentle Link (Zach Galifianakis) in the deep woods of the Pacific Northwest.
On hearing this synopsis, the first reaction of a right-thinking person is to want to see Link and at the same time to hope that poor Link is never found, especially not by some Tory. That reaction makes clear the Laika difference. Laika is also distinguished by the emotional complexity of its films. Laika films don’t shy away from anguish or rage or the sense of our bitter multigenerational struggle for a decent life.
The company is named after Laika the dog, after all — the famous Moscow street dog drafted to orbit the Earth and advance the Soviet space program. Laika’s fame as the “first dog in orbit,” paving the way for human space travel, was made appealing to the Russian public as an inspirational story of sacrifice on behalf of science. Government officials downplayed as much as possible the details of Laika’s terrible death alone in space, the thought of which must strike everlasting pity and terror into any child’s heart. The 1957 spacecraft launch that carried Laika to her doom was meant to commemorate the October Revolution’s fortieth anniversary.
It’s a hell of a thing to call a children’s animated-film company. We finally have a challenge to the bland bourgeois American history of children’s films.
Eileen Jones is a film critic at Jacobin and author of the book Filmsuck, USA. She teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.