Since the merger of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios, Disney has been lauded for creating more progressive content that includes representations of main characters from diverse backgrounds. However, progressive representations of disability (both physical and mental disability) have been slow to emerge in most mediums. The objective of this research is to examine whether portrayals of illness and disability in recent animated feature films produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios or Pixar Animation Studios depict progressive (or multicultural) narratives of disability versus traditional narratives of disability. We analyzed 20 of the most recent (i.e., 2008-2018) animated films from both studios with 9 films from Walt Disney Animation and 11 films from Pixar Animation Studios. Using thematic content analysis, a combination of pre-identified and emergent disability- and illness-related themes are described. Overwhelmingly, disability portrayals were traditional, with disability used to elicit pity or humor from the viewer and to indicate that characters were evil or old. Out of the 20 films, few progressive portrayals of disability were observed. Although Disney has been lauded for being more inclusive in their representations of characters, disability representations continue to perpetuate and reaffirm the stigmatization of disability.
Disney and Pixar studios produce some of the most popular animated films. Pixar was established in 1986, with its first feature-length film, Toy Story, released in 1995 (Pixar, 2019). Disney acquired Pixar in 2006, and films produced by both studios tend to perform strongly, generating hundreds of millions of dollars. With its market value estimated to be around $165 billion in March 2019, the Disney Corporation is considered one of the most valuable media companies (Disney Market Cap, 2019). Although the Disney Corporation creates content that transcends children's media, Disney and Pixar Animation Studios' movies dominate the market including inside theaters and at home (Giroux & Pollock, 2010). Even as Disney acquires more adult content like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Disney continues to carefully craft its image as family-friendly and the maker of childhood dreams and fantasies. Critics of Disney have noted that most animated films reinforce harmful notions about gender norms, race/ethnicity, and sexual orientation (Cheu, 2013; Lugo-Lugo & Bloodsworth-Lugo, 2009; Towbin et al., 2013). More recently, Disney has begun to tell more inclusive stories featuring protagonists that challenge gender stereotypes (e.g., Frozen) and/or feature people of color (e.g., Coco or Moana). Yet, it is unclear if Disney's move toward more inclusive portrayals include disability. This project seeks to fill this gap by examining the portrayals of disability in recent animated feature films produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios or Pixar Animation Studios.
People with disabilities represent the largest minority group within the United States and worldwide (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2017; United Nations, n.d.). Like other marginalized groups, people with disabilities experience stigma and discrimination including higher rates of victimization and lower rates of employment (Green et al., 2005). Children and adolescents with disabilities are often bullied, report worse mental health, and have more absenteeism (Baams, Talmage, & Russell, 2017; Blake et al., 2012; Carter & Spencer, 2006; Lindsay & McPherson, 2012). Moreover, children and adolescents with mental, intellectual, or learning disabilities are at increased risk of victimization including abuse and neglect from guardians (Cappadocia, Weiss, & Pepler, 2012; Mishna, 2003; Reiter & Lapidot-Lefler, 2007; Sullivan, 2009; Turner et al., 2011). Like other axes of inequality, ableism is deeply rooted in American society and represented in popular culture (Campbell, 2008; Green & Barnartt, 2016; Goodley, 2013; Shandra, 2018), yet children's media hold the potential to positively shape children's perceptions and attitudes about people with disabilities.
Children's media are important agents of socialization, through which children's emotional, social, and cognitive development is influenced. Watching films can be an avenue through which people are exposed to experiences different than their own, can explore their feelings regarding a situation, and can broaden their personal perspectives (Tenzek and Nickels, 2017). Other research indicates films can be used to help develop empathy and compassion for others (Walker, 2014). Furthermore, among children and adolescents with disabilities, seeing positive representations of disability can enhance self-esteem and minimize internalized stigma (Dill-Shackleford et al., 2017). Given the opportunity that children's film presents, it is important to consider how disability is presented through this medium. Therefore, the objective of this research is to examine whether portrayals of illness and disability in recent animated feature films produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios or Pixar Animation Studios rely on stereotypical and traditional depictions of disability or more progressive portrayals where characters with disability are well-rounded and disability is ordinary (Clogston, 1994).
Children's Media as an Agent of Socialization
Children's animated media is an important agent of socialization, and Disney films in particular carry a high level of popularity, with many children watching Disney animated films repeatedly. Disney's role as an agent of socialization is so pervasive that some suggest they have at least as much power as schools and families in role socialization and passing on values and ideals (de Leeuw & van der Laan, 2018). Although Disney is often criticized for portrayals of gender norms, beauty standards, and love narratives (among others), there is also the potential for these films to have a positive impact on child development. For instance, scholars have suggested that Disney films could foster honesty and openness, promote multiculturalism, and impact prosocial behaviors such as cooperatively completing a task (de Leeuw & van der Laan, 2018).
A great deal is learned about others and about complex life events through film. Dill-Shackleford et al. (2017) discuss how youth learn about themselves and others through media content. Through media, we come to learn associations that are prevalent based on group membership – what others expect, what they believe, and what assumptions are made based on group status. For this reason, it becomes important to pay close attention to how social groups are portrayed; marginalization and stereotypical presentations become quite problematic because these representations are often routine and then further normalized. Because "stereotypical differences are differences that matter and are also deemed by others to be undesirable," stereotypical representations of disability perpetuate disability stigma and contribute to discrimination toward people with disabilities (Green et al, 2005, p. 197). Media portrayals can impact attitudes, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors (Dill-Shackleford et al., 2017), influencing both oneself as a member of a marginalized group and also in an outward manner.
Although the focus tends to be on critique and stereotype reinforcement, scholars are also suggesting that media portrayals can be an important site of positive learning, as films can help raise awareness and challenge and expand personal viewpoints. Watching movies is commonly experienced as a leisure activity, which allows for the opportunity to experience something perhaps differently than one does in real life, without responsibilities or consequences, while also maintaining emotional connection (Tenzek & Nickels, 2017). For example, Tenzek and Nickels (2017) suggest that films offer the opportunity to broach taboo subjects such as death in a positive manner, due to the fact that challenging events can be encountered with lower rates of anxiety or distress. Furthermore, Dill-Shackleford et al. (2017) suggest that the inclusion of counter stereotypes could help reduce prejudice, limit the impact of stereotype threats, and increase self-esteem.
While several studies have explored portrayals of race, gender, and age in Disney films, less consideration has been given to portrayals of disability. Notable exceptions have examined disability representations in specific films that call attention to a heavy reliance on negative stereotypes in animated Disney films. For example, Norden (2013) examined disability representations in Hunchback of Notre Dame and notes that the portrayal of Quasi is "rooted in an exceptionally long-standing disability-related stereotype: the 'Sweet Innocent,' a figure that embodies the deep-seated belief that [people with disabilities] must rely on mainstream society for everything" (p. 169). Similarly, Schwartz et al. (2013) explored depictions of intellectual disability in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, and Beauty and the Beast. Focusing on the characters of Dopey, Gus, and Le Fou, Schwartz et al. (2013) found strikingly consistent negative portrayals, where characters with intellectual disabilities were laughed at and othered. These previous investigations into disability representations in Disney films highlight the predominance of stereotypical portrayals of characters with disabilities; however, there have been glimpses of more progressive portrayals of disability such as Pixar's Finding Nemo (Millet, 2004). Given that disability in Disney animated films has been historically problematic with an emphasis on characters with disabilities being othered or jeered, it is our objective to systematically examine whether contemporary representations continue to rely on stereotypical portrayals of people with disabilities.
Cultural and Media Representations of Disability
According to Garland-Thomson (2002), "disability is a broad term within which cluster ideological categories as varied as sick, deformed, crazy, ugly, old, maimed, afflicted, mad, abnormal, or debilitated—all of which disadvantaged people by devaluing bodies that do not conform to cultural standards" (p. 5). Garland-Thomson (2002) describes this as the disability/ability system, which privileges certain bodily traits over others. Deviations from culturally produced norms regarding bodily form and function are stigmatized, and those with disabilities are punished. As part of the disability/ability system, cultural representations of disability serve to legitimate "unequal distribution of resources, status, and power within a biased social and architectural environment" (Garland-Thomson, 2002, p. 5).
Cultural images and media representations reflect unequal power and social relations among advantaged and disadvantaged groups (Pescosolido et al., 1997). For example, a hallmark of social oppression is "symbolic annihilation" or the stereotyping, devaluing, and absence of oppressed groups in media (Gerbner & Gross, 1976; Pescosolido et al., 1997). People with disabilities, similar to other marginalized groups, are typically underrepresented in films and television and when present are often negatively stereotyped (Barnes & Mercer, 2001). The consequences of symbolic annihilation can be discerned in the stories of people with disabilities and their reactions to media representations. For example, Phillips (1990) collected oral narratives from Americans with disabilities and revealed that many informants felt that the media presented people with disabilities as "damaged goods" who need to overcome obstacles. More recent work by Zhang and Haller (2013) underscores that people with disabilities feel as though that mass media commonly frames people with disabilities as "supercrips, disadvantaged, or ill victims" (p. 329).
Similarly, previous research has examined media representations of disability and key patterns have emerged in how disability is framed. Early work by Clogston (1994) categorized media portrayals of disability as traditional (e.g., people with disabilities are abnormal or malfunctioning) and progressive (e.g., people with disabilities are limited by societal factors such as attitudes and inaccessible environments). Under the umbrella of traditional portrayals, Clogston (1994) identified three models of disability: (1) medical model; (2) supercrip model; (3) social pathology model. The medical model emphasizes that disability is the result of disease or injury. Under this model, those with disabilities are expected to seek out medical interventions to cure themselves of their disability (Gilson & Depoy, 2000). An underlying assumption in the medical model is that people with disabilities—particularly those who cannot be cured—are deficient and should be pitied. The supercrip model highlights extraordinary abilities, and celebrates people with disabilities who "overcome" their disability and live a normal life despite their disability (Clogston, 1994; Haller, 2000). The social pathology model portrays people with disabilities as being dependent on society or caretakers (Clogston, 1994; Haller, 2000). Traditional representations of disability reinforce cultural binaries related to disability (i.e., disability/ability system), inform idealized bodily standards (i.e., cultural standards of beauty) (Garland-Thomson, 2002; Gray, 2009), and perpetuate stereotypical depictions of characters with disabilities.
According to Barnes and Mercer (2001), the most common cultural stereotypes used to represent people with disability in the media include "pitiable and pathetic, as an object of violence, as sinister and evil, as atmosphere or curio, as 'super-cripple,' as an object of ridicule, as their own worst and only enemy, as a burden" (p. 519). These negative stereotypes are part of traditional representations and reinforce the medical, social pathology, and supercrip models. For example, the medical model assumes that disability is a personal tragedy and that those with disabilities should be pitied because they are deficient or dysfunctional in some way (Barnes & Mercer, 2001; Gilson & Depoy, 2000; Hayes & Black, 2003). Portrayals of disability where the person with disability is subjected to abuse (i.e., object of violence), presented as a "freak" or exotic (i.e., curio), or the butt of a joke (i.e., an object of ridicule) typically use storylines where the person with disability is excluded or isolated (i.e., othered). These may take the form of all three traditional models, but the underlying message is clear: having a disability is deviant and people with disabilities are misfortunate. Yet, other stereotypes do not convey pity, but serve as a warning. In the case of sinister and evil, disability is used as a signal to the audience that a character is not to be trusted. This is particularly true of mental disabilities, where characters with mental disabilities are portrayed as violent or unpredictable (Klin & Lemish, 2008).
Although stereotypical depictions of "supercripples" are often inspirational stories with some positive aspects related to having a disability, scholars have criticized these portrayals and note that the supercripple narrative often creates "false expectations and sets unattainable goals" for people with disabilities (Zhang & Haller, 2013, p. 330). The supercrip model perpetuates disability stigma by reinforcing that disability is deviant and (any) achievement by a person with a disability is rare and heroic (Haller & Zhang, 2014). A widespread example of the supercrip model—particularly in children and young adult media, is superheros. Embedded in these narratives are cultural notions related to disability and deviance (i.e., what we consider ordinary and extraordinary bodies and minds) and the need to overcome deficiencies. For example, Grue (2015) writes that "a mainstay in superhero fiction is the notion of heroism paired with extraordinary ability as a compensation for trauma, injury or even impairment" (p. 215).
Counter to traditional representations, progressive representations of disability tend to present disability as a result of societal factors such as ableist policies and attitudes (Clogston, 1994; Gilson & Depoy, 2000). Clogston (1994) identified two progressive frames used by the media including the minority/civil rights model and cultural pluralism model. In the minority/civil rights model, people with disabilities are shown as having "legitimate political grievances…and demanding change" (p. 47). The cultural pluralism model emphasizes that people with disabilities are multifaceted and portrayals tend to be well-rounded and similar to people without disabilities (Gray, 2009; Haller, 2000). Typically, the disability, itself, is not the focus of the plot. Previous research suggests that counter stereotypical portrayals help to reduce prejudice (Kallman, 2017). Although progressive portrayals of disability are increasing over time (Devotta, Wilton, & Yiannakoulias, 2013), popular media outlets such as Hollywood films and television series continue to rely on traditional portrayals (Hayes & Black, 2003). Because children may have infrequent contact with people with disabilities, children's media may be particularly important for combating disability stigma (Matthew & Clow, 2007). The purpose of this research is to examine contemporary portrayals of disability by focusing on depictions of characters with disabilities in Disney and Pixar animated, featured films.
Research Design and Methods
We analyzed 20 of the most recent (i.e., 2008-2018) animated films from both studios, with 9 films from Walt Disney Animation Studios and 11 films from Pixar Animation Studios. We initially watched the same five films, and then discussed key themes and developed a plan for the remaining films. For the remaining fifteen films, two of us watched each film, due to the complicated nature of representations of disability. We focused on visible disabilities and disabilities that were verbally recognized during dialogue between characters. Using thematic content analysis, a combination of pre-identified and emergent disability- and illness-related themes were observed. Key themes included traditional portrayals of disability, which include pitiable representations, supercripple representations, disability as a marker of evil or old age, and characters with disabilities as objects of ridicule. During coding, progressive themes included disability as ordinary or the use of a civil rights framework. The films included, as well as the representations within these themes, can be found in Table 1.
All twenty films included some portrayal of disability. As Table 1 illustrates, most portrayals were traditional, while significantly fewer films included progressive portrayals. More specifically, only three films included representations of disability as ordinary or as positive difference and none depicted disability rights as civil rights. In all twenty films, characters with disabilities were pitiable or supercripple, connected with evilness or old age, or objects of ridicule. Three films, Winnie the Pooh (2011), Brave (2012), and Finding Dory (2016), included representations that fell within both traditional and progressive narratives. The most common type of representation was disability associated with evil or old age, with twelve films including this theme. Themes of pitiable or supercripple were included in eleven films, and objects of ridicule were included in nine films. Overall, characters with disabilities were present in the films, although they were often not main characters with a significant level of screen time or association with the overall plot. Furthermore, the ways in which these characters were portrayed often relied on traditional narratives, with few films including progressive representations.
Traditional Portrayals of Disability
Pitiable and Supercripple Representations
Eleven of the films included pitiable or super-cripple representations of disability. Of all the films, Finding Dory (2016) had the most significant inclusion of a character with a disability being used in a way to elicit pity. Dory has short term memory loss, and the film centers on her efforts to find her family. She is portrayed as a youngster who gets lost, and the response from others leads viewers to feel bad for her. For instance, once she begins repeating herself, indicating her short term memory loss, other characters swim away or say things such as "Oh, how awful."
Throughout the film, viewers are asked to feel bad for Dory because of her short-term memory loss. In one scene, after a daring escape from a giant squid, Marlin snaps at Dory saying "Go wait over there and forget, that's what you do best." Because of Dory's impairment, Nemo and Marlin were placed in harm's way. This scene reinforces cultural beliefs about people with disabilities being burdensome to individuals and society. However, by the end of the film, Dory is the hero who has "overcome" her disability—combining elements of pitiable and supercripple portrayals. To illustrate, Marlin identifies that Dory has special abilities including being able to get out of tough situations and being fearless. As Marlin and Nemo search to find Dory, they start asking themselves "What would Dory do?" When Dory finds her parents, she is told "You remembered in your own amazing Dory way [emphasis added].'' This, again, indicates her special abilities. Dory's special abilities reflect the super-cripple stereotype, where a person with disability has extraordinary qualities that allow them to conquer their impairment and gain the respect of the other characters.
Particularly striking in this category was the frequency in which mental disabilities were used to evoke pity. Finding Dory (2016) was discussed above, but other representations include Inside Out (2015) and Winnie the Pooh (2011). In Inside Out (2015), Sadness is depicted as being overly emotional. At one point after continually touching memories, Sadness states "Oh, I know. I'm sorry. Something's wrong with me. I… it's like I'm having a breakdown." Sadness is shown as causing problems, which she internalizes. Near the climax of the film, Sadness is seen crying saying "I only make everything worse." By the end of the film, Sadness is shown to be integral to the functioning of Riley's emotional health. Similarly, Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh (2011), is a character that evokes pity through his gloominess and resignation.
Other pitiable representations concentrated on "broken" characters such as Mittens the declawed cat from Bolt (2008), Tow Mater the rusted and dented tow truck from Cars 2 (2011), or Lightning McQueen the aging racecar who experiences an accident in Cars 3 (2017). These scenes are brief in nature—relying on cultural stereotypes about disability to quickly communicate that these characters should be pitied. In Wreck it Ralph (2012), disability is more central. Vanellope, one of the main characters, is a "glitch" and cannot leave her video game. Because of her glitch, Vanellope is bullied and prevented from pursuing her dream of being a racer with one character stating "You'll never be a racer because you're a glitch and that's all you'll ever be." The verbal abuse that Vanellope endures is reminiscent of portrayals of disability as an object of violence. Additionally, Vanellope's extraordinary racing abilities that come from her glitchiness reflect the super-cripple stereotype, where Vanellope gains control over her abilities to become the "greatest racer ever."
Other pitiable portrayals reflected the idea that some bodies or minds prevented characters from doing what they were meant to do or dreamed of doing. This was observed in Monsters University (2013) and The Good Dinosaur (2015), where the main characters (i.e., Mike and Arlo, respectively) were initially restricted from fulfilling their dreams because of their small size or excessive fear. Mike was too small and cute to be a scarer, whereas, Arlo was too small and afraid to make his mark (i.e., provide for his family). Again, we see elements of the super-cripple stereotype, where both characters overcome their bodily deficiencies through heightened traits such as Mike's fearlessness or Arlo's bravery after the trauma of losing his father.
More conventional suppercripple portrayals can be seen in films that include characters with super "powers" like Big Hero 6 (2014) and Frozen (2013). Both films combine pity and supercripple portrayals. For example, in Big Hero 6 (2014), the main character, Hiro, experiences a traumatic event (i.e., the death of his brother) and uses his extraordinary abilities (i.e., genius) to stop the evil villain who also has special abilities. Similarly, in Frozen (2013), the main character, Elsa, is tormented and socially isolated due to her magical ice powers. Other superhero representations do not rely on pity, but still reinforce the disability/ability system by underscoring that different minds and bodies are deviant (even if it is a positive deviance in the case of superheroes) such as the case of the superhero family in Incredibles 2 (2018).
Disability as a Marker of Evil or Old Age
Disability was used as a marker of evil or old age in twelve of the films analyzed. In these portrayals, disability symbolizes some other trait and the disability, itself, is not the central focus. Disability is used as a shorthand to the audience that this person has some other undesirable trait. Sometimes, these were minor characters displayed only briefly, as is the case with the old woman with a walker that Dash moves out of harm's way in the beginning of Incredibles 2 (2018). Although this was a very brief scene, it was an example of a person with disability being included, and in this case, the portrayal connects disability, age, and the need for help. Old age was associated with disability primarily through the inclusion of canes, walkers, and wheelchairs, as is the case with Carl in Up (2009), Mama Coco in Coco (2017), and Mama Odie in The Princess and the Frog (2009).
While Mama Odie (The Princess and the Frog, 2009) is seen as a voodoo queen with special knowledge, fulfilling the blind seer archetype, her blindness is also used for humor and again connects disability and old age. One reading of Carl and Mama Coco is that they present fairly realistic portrayals of disability in older ages, including physical and mental declines. However, it is also important to consider what their characters symbolically represent. Carl's disposition seems connected to his disability, thus stereotypically connecting grumpiness, age, and ability. After he develops a friendship with Russell, he no longer uses assistance with walking. Regarding Mama Coco, she is silent and confined to a wheelchair for much of the film. At the end of the film, when Miguel sings to her, she remembers the song, sings along, and has the missing piece of the picture that allows Hector to be included on the ofrenda. While this does illustrate the valuable contributions that those with disabilities make, it is also noteworthy that when she is in the Land of the Dead, she is no longer in a wheelchair, implying that disability is something that is undesired and left behind.
With regard to the use of disability as a marker of evil, this too was sometimes only portrayed through minor characters or was conveyed through the use of means of physical assistance. For example, one of the ruffians in Tangled (2010) is missing a hand and has a hook in its place. Lotso, the bear in Toy Story 3 (2010), uses a cane and is also the villain in that film's plot. The opening scene from Toy Story 3 (2010) includes all the main characters playing make-believe, and the ones who are pretending to be the villains (i.e., pirates) all wear eye-patches. The eye-patches are used to quickly signal who is or is not the "bad guy." Similarly, in Bolt (2008), the main villain is the green-eyed man or Dr. Calico who has a scar. In Zootopia (2016), when the predator animals "go savage," their dress and bodily movements change, and they are considered less civilized and unable to control their impulses. The changes in their bodily functioning instill fear. King Candy, in Wreck-it Ralph (2012), is depicted as having a mental disability and being unstable. It is revealed at the end of the film that King Candy is actually Turbo, the race car driver who tried to take over games. Throughout the film, "going Turbo" is a euphemism for "going crazy." In all these cases, disability is used to convey information about the trustworthiness of the character—giving the audience insider knowledge, but this knowledge is predicated on a shared cultural understanding that disability is undesirable and an indicator of a person's moral character.
Disability Characters as Objects of Ridicule
Nine of the twenty films included characters with disabilities that were objects of ridicule. Characters with disabilities were often minor characters used for comic relief. Surprisingly, these characters frequently had unspecified differences that were used for humor. For example, even in human-centric stories, these characters were often animals, and they seemed to have abnormal functioning, were often illustrated with large eyes with pupils that pointed in different directions, had an ungroomed appearance, and were assumed to have low intelligence. Examples include Dante in Coco (2017), Hei Hei in Moana (2016), and Gerald and Becky in Finding Dory (2016). Other examples included representations of misshapen bodies such as Mr. Potato Head's tortilla body from Toy Story 3 (2010), where Mr. Potato Head uses a temporary, malformed body that makes him clumsy and at risk of being eaten by a bird.
Progressive Portrayals of Disability
We identified three films (i.e., Winnie the Pooh (2001), Brave (2012), and Finding Dory (2016)) that represented progressive portrayals of disability in which characters with disabilities were multifaceted. In Brave (2012), with King Fergus's loss of his lower leg in a fight with the bear Mor'du, the loss of his leg is used as a hero's tale, and it is portrayed as just a part of his character. His disability is not central to the main plot, nor is there dialogue about any difficulties it poses. Although it is used for humor in a scene when the triplets tie his leg to the table, overall his disability is just there. Interestingly, the same could be said for Nemo in Finding Dory (2016) and Eeyore and Piglet in Winnie the Pooh (2011). Although Nemo's lucky fin is a prominent part of Finding Nemo (2003), it is not a significant part of Finding Dory (2016). Nemo remains a prominent character, but his lucky fin is portrayed as just a part of who he is. Likewise, Eeyore loses his tail, but his own response and the response of others is that it is a rather ordinary occurrence. Although Eeyore (depression and missing tail) and Piglet (anxiety) both seem to have impairments, they are also well supported by their friends who continue to include them and offer their support.
Given the overwhelmingly stereotypical portrayals of people with disabilities in the media, showing characters with disabilities as complex and disability as ordinary is arguably counterstereotypical. Moreover, King Fergus is a powerful leader, which runs directly counter to the stereotype that people with disabilities are disadvantaged and economically dependent. Although we were able to identify specific instances of progressive portrayals of disability, each of the films had at least one traditional portrayal of disability—highlighting the scarcity of progressive portrayals of disability in Disney and Pixar films.
It is important to note that oftentimes the presentation of a character is nuanced, and can be a composite of traditional and progressive portrayals at the same time. For example, Dory (Finding Dory, 2016) has short term memory loss. During the film, she remembers some things about her parents, goes on a quest to find them, and uses strategies taught to her to meet her goal. Throughout that process, parts of dialogue illustrate that her mind might have a different way of thinking and remembering, but that there could actually be some benefits of that. For instance, when Marlin and Nemo say "What would Dory do?" that might not be a derogatory statement; rather, they could be recognizing that thinking like Dory could help them in that particular situation. As mentioned previously, Dory was often socially excluded and used as the brunt of many jokes throughout the film. For example, Marlin and Mr. Ray seemed to have collaborated to try to keep Dory from going on the field trip, because "Mr. Ray doesn't have time to worry about fish who wander." Additionally, her life seems devalued during the incident with the migrating rays, when she appeared lifeless after getting drawn into their current. One of the younger fish asked if she was dead, to which Mr. Ray responded no. There was then a collective sigh, as though they were disappointed that she was not dead. Here, although there was the opportunity to see neurological differences as offering positive contributions, this is situated within a character who experiences social marginalization and devaluation.
Another example is found in Vannelope (Wreck-It-Ralph, 2012). At the end of the film, Vannelope's glitch is presented as a positive attribute and she is included socially. Her glitch allows her to skip over the mutant bugs so that she can get to her car and save Ralph. Furthermore, she decides to keep her glitch, saying "The code may say I'm a princess, but I'm a racer with the greatest superpower ever." Later she says, "I was here, I was there, I was glitching through the walls… I'm not giving that up." Socially, she is included, as evidenced through another racer holding her hand, Ralph's comment that he's got the coolest friend in the world, and the narration at the end that says, "Players love her, glitch and all." While she did choose to retain her glitch, and while she did become socially included, which are notably positive portrayals of disability, her narrative also mirrors the supercrip model.
In summary, although children's films provide an opportunity for broadening perspectives related to disability, this analysis indicates that children's films are not fully integrating characters with disabilities in progressive ways. Rather, characters with disabilities continue to be included in ways that position them as old or evil, or as an object of ridicule, supercrips, or pitiable. Particularly striking was the connection between mental disabilities and pitiable portrayals. Our findings underscore that little to no progress has been made in disability representations by Disney/Pixar; similar to historical films, contemporary films overwhelmingly rely on traditional portrayals of disability and provide children with stereotypical depictions of disability. As a whole, these films reaffirm the disability/ability system and further contribute to the symbolic annihilation of people with disabilities in children's media.
Additionally, we were surprised by the frequency of minor characters whose different bodies and/or minds were used to elicit humor. These characters reinforced stereotypical images of people with disabilities as "fools" or "idiots" who serve as "a source of amusement for non-disabled people" (Barnes, 1992, p. 13). Similar to Schwartz and colleagues' (2013) analysis of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Beauty and the Beast (1991), characters with intellectual disability were included as objects of ridicule. The humor came at the expense of these characters, which conveys the message (to children and adults) that people with differences should be laughed at. Overwhelmingly, disability portrayals in contemporary Disney and Pixar animated films were traditional and perpetuated disability stigma. Considering the high prevalence of disability, the representation of disability in children's films remains a disconcerting issue.
Many of these stereotypical depictions mapped onto Clogston's (1994) original traditional media frames (i.e., the medical model, social pathology model, and supercrip model). In particular, the supercrip model was featured in multiple films where the characters with disabilities had to overcome their deficits. This is unsurprising for children's media, where the expectation of the audience is to "feel good" after viewing. Even though pity was often central to the supercrip model, the character with disability was presented as inspirational. However, these portrayals can be just as problematic as other traditional frames by creating unrealistic expectations for people with disabilities (Grue, 2015).
The medical model was prominent in Zootopia (2016), when the "savage" predators are cured of their mental illness. The medical model was also present in depictions of old age and evilness, where disability was presented as dysfunctional bodies and minds. The social pathology model was also employed, where the character with a disability was viewed as a burden. This was apparent in the beginning of Finding Dory (2016), where Dory is treated as an inconvenience and is asked to not go on a field trip because she may wander away. Other examples include the beginning of Up (2009), where Carl's refusal to sell his home is preventing construction and Arlo from The Good Dinosaur (2015) who is unable to complete the chores he is assigned by his father.
Only three films exemplified Clogston's (1994) progressive media frames, and all three films reflected the cultural pluralism model (i.e., people with disabilities are well-rounded and disability is ordinary). These counter stereotypical depictions highlight that disability is unremarkable and part of the human (non-human) experience. However, no film embraced the minority/civil rights model of disability, which underscores Disney/Pixar's unwillingness to take on issues related to Disability Rights. Similar to other axes of inequality like social class, we see producers of children's media preferring to present social inequality as benign and employing storytelling techniques that "erases, downplays, or sanitizes'' inequality (Streib et al., 2017, p. 3).
A few other aspects are worth noting. First, it was interesting to note that there also seems to be a gendered aspect to portrayals of disability in old age. While Carl from Up (2009) provides an exception, it seemed much more common for an older character with a disability to be a woman. Second, the loss of limbs or body parts seems to be somewhat normalized in these films, but often in a way that is humorous or fixable. Lastly, although we did not explicitly focus on this during our coding, the use of ableist language was common in the films. Examples included the use of "crazy," "what's wrong with you?" or similar phrasing, and "going Turbo" (in Wreck-It Ralph (2012)).
A few limitations of our study should be noted. First, disability is difficult to define, and while we examined the films for the presence or absence of disability, it could be beneficial to also consider more of a gradation of ability or functioning. For example, the sloths in Zootopia (2016) speak and move rather slowly, but we did not consider that a portrayal of disability. Likewise, we did not include characters who wore glasses in this analysis; although they seemed to "mark" characters in some ways, such as being "geeky," wearing glasses was evident in many of the films and did not seem to carry much significance for the characters. While this could point to the "ordinariness" of vision impairment, most people who wear glasses do not consider themselves disabled. Similarly, it was difficult to examine disability in some of the films because of the fictional nature of the characters and because of the openness of interpretation. Mental intellectual disabilities were much more difficult to try to classify, partially because they went unspoken and were not associated with the level of explicit visual cues with which physical disabilities were signaled.
There were several areas of study that were beyond the scope of this project that warrant deeper attention. First, future research could look at specific areas associated with disability rights research and activism in more detail. An important, and missing piece of this topic, is how those with disabilities respond to and make sense of characters in these films. Future research should incorporate the voices of those with disabilities. Another possible area of interest might be obesity. While we did not consider obesity a disability for this project, it seems as though characters who are obese are often treated as objects of ridicule. If a goal is more inclusive and positive portrayals of difference, this is one area that warrants more attention. Lastly, a deeper focus on the use of ableist language seems warranted.
In summary, representations of disability that capture the challenges of disability without falling into pity narratives, and that illustrate the benefit of diversity through different abilities without relying on superpower narratives, seem to be missing. Disability has been left out of the recent movement by Disney/Pixar to make more inclusive animated films that challenge traditional gender norms and embrace multiculturalism. Progressive portrayals of disability are not only suspiciously missing from animated children's films, but from most popular media. Too often children and adults with disabilities do not see themselves represented on film or television, and when they do, the portrayals reinforce disability stigma. Given the increased risk of bullying and victimization experienced by children with disabilities, it is prudent to critically analyze the cultural messages about disability presented in widely viewed children's media. There is currently a missed opportunity in these films to tell compelling stories that embrace disability as a positive difference and provide stories that engender self-worth among children with disabilities and empathy among children without disabilities.
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|Movie||Animation Studio, Year||Pitiable or Supercripple||Marker of Evil or Old Age||Object of Ridicule||Ordinary or Positive Difference|
|The Princess and the Frog||Disney, 2009||X||X|
|Toy Story 3||Pixar, 2010||X||X|
|Cars 2||Pixar, 2011||X|
|Winnie the Pooh||Disney, 2011||X||X|
|Wreck-It Ralph||Disney, 2012||X|
|Monsters University||Pixar, 2013||X|
|Big Hero 6||Disney, 2014||X||X|
|Inside Out||Pixar, 2015||X|
|The Good Dinosaur||Pixar, 2015||X||X|
|Finding Dory||Pixar, 2016||X||X||X|
|Cars 3||Pixar, 2017||X||X|
|Incredibles 2||Pixar, 2017||X||X|