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Physical Stereotypes in Children's Media

The inaccurate yet reiterated correlation between appearance and personality.

By Anna McClean

Photo by Pinterest

I grew up watching Disney and Pixar (which as of 2006 were the same company) movies and cartoons – as I’m sure many of you did as well. The magic and humor of these films and shows were a really meaningful part of my childhood, but they also introduced body image biases during a young and influential period of my life.

I’m not referring to the unrealistic beauty standards that Disney princesses set, because I feel confident we’re all already well aware of that issue by now. What I want to talk about is the consistently drawn equivalence between how a character looks and how their mind works.

The first example that comes to mind is the portrayal of villains (although I called them “bad guys” when I was little). In all my favorite movies, they were depicted as tall and very thin: Cruella de Vil, Dr. Facilier, Jafar, Mother Gothel, Scar and the hyenas, Dr. Calico, Randall Boggs, Queen Narissa, even Dr. Doofenshmirtz, and the list goes on. By the way, why did only evil men get to be doctors? Anyhow, the lesson this pattern teaches is that people who look like this are conniving and not to be trusted, when in reality a person’s capacity for kindness is not a body measurement.

Another misconnection made on screen is with the personality traits of “fat” characters (fat is not a bad word, but I put it in quotations because most of these characters wouldn’t even fit that description outside of Disney’s skewed perception). Heavier set characters, especially when they are short, are often represented as lazy or dumb. I love Winnie the Pooh with my whole heart, and he does spread plenty of body positivity with his crop top and tummy out, but his character also feeds these stereotypes. More examples are Buford, Gus Gus, LeFou, Officer Clawhouser, Sadness, and Captain B. McCrea. This stereotype specifically, comes with the insinuation that they are not meant to be taken very seriously and they are almost never vital to the plot; promoting the idea that people who look like this are not capable of filling any role larger than a side character.

I could spend all day pointing out more of these counterproductive correlations, but I’ll stop with these two, as I think they are the most prominent and repeated. The reason this is important to talk about is because it is in children’s media. Yes, we might be old enough now to recognize that physical appearance has nothing to do with how kind or smart or motivated a person is, but we are not the age group these movies and shows are produced for. When kids watch and internalize these stereotypes, regardless of whether the characters are animals or people, it has an impact on how they perceive and interact with the world around them.

Whether you are a parent, have younger siblings, if you babysit, or you’re on a creative path that might one day lead you to produce children’s media, we must be aware of the messages we’re sending. Kids aren’t kids forever, they will grow up to become independent people and future leaders, so let’s do our best to make sure that these biases and harmful stereotypes don’t grow with them.


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