Children’s Movies: Dangerous Tropes and Expectations
BY MEGHAN LAWSON '23
Because of our constantly evolving society, many children’s movies have not stood the test of time. As we become more socially aware, we have come to recognize the disgusting themes and standards placed in early children’s movies. Yet, the film industry still continues to incorporate many unrealistic tropes throughout their movies. This begs the question: how does Hollywood’s imposition of these expectations affect young children?
For many, Disney is a household staple, and I myself am a huge Disney enthusiast. However, Disney's portrayals of romantic relationships raise the question of whether or not we should idolize them as much as we do. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, and countless other movies feature the classic trope of love at first sight and under-developed romance. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel and Eric fall in love and are married after three short days. Hmm, that seems a bit off… In Cinderella and Aladdin, the time frame when the characters meet and fall in love is less than three weeks.
Disney further portrays unrealistic relationships through its use of “true love’s kiss.” I could start giving examples of this trope, but I think the real question is: when is this trope not used? It both reinforces patriarchal stereotypes and suggests that falling in love will solve all of your problems. I mean, I wish love solved all my problems, but let’s be honest, it’s usually the root of my problems. With its more modern movies, Disney has made an effort to avoid falling back on these popular tropes. That being said, this doesn’t change Disney’s past. While it’s clearly unrealistic to the average adult, children still learning about the world around them will assume that this type of romantic relationship is normal. Why is this something that Disney continues to promote? It's simple, the magic of Disney revolves around positivity. Still, Disney leads children to overlook abusive or harmful relationships. Disney needs to ask themselves: are rushed and potentially unhealthy relationships really worth it for the classic “happily ever after”?
Further, Hollywood’s fixation on thin actors and actresses isn’t an unfamiliar topic. This, of course, sends negative messages about body image to children. In these movies, many fail to recognize the inaccurate portrayal of overweight characters. To begin with, the “fat friend” trope needs to be retired immediately. An example of this is “Fat Amy” from Pitch Perfect. Fat Amy? Really? I don’t even know where to begin. First of all, Amy’s real name is Patricia, and she even points out that she calls herself “Fat Amy” because she knows someone else would call her “Fat Pat” if she didn’t first. Many look at the scene as a way of calling out the “fat friend” trope, but she is still addressed as “Fat Amy” throughout the movies. The entire scenario was just another way to slip in a fat joke. Throughout the Pitch Perfect trilogy, Amy constantly makes self-deprecating jokes about her eating, exercise, and weight. Ha. Ha. So funny. Did you notice my sarcasm there? What does this say to younger people? To be blunt, the film industry is saying that it’s okay to make jokes about overweight people since they’re doing it to themselves. Children are incredibly impressionable, and if actors on TV are making fun of someone overweight, kids will do the same thing. Hollywood further promotes poor ideologies of body images by brainwashing children to believe that to be respected, you must be skinny, since people who are overweight are the punchline of jokes.
Many writers and directors in the industry think they overcome the “fat friend” trope by starring overweight characters in movies. However, this is not the case. A prime example of this is the Netflix movie Dumplin’. The majority of the movie is about body positivity and loving who you are; it’s a “coming-of-age” type story based on the book Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy. In the novel, Willowdean continues to address that she’s fat and that her entire pageant movement radiates body positivity and loving yourself. However, Netflix shoved this aside. With the exception of a few scenes littered throughout the movie, the idea that Willowdean is fat seems like this unspoken fact that the writers were too afraid to address and instead cautiously tip-toe around. Many people in the film industry see this as helpful, as they believe they are giving representation for younger children who typically do not see themselves on the big screen. And while this on-screen representation is great, it completely ignores the adversity a character faces, making their struggle seem insignificant. The same can be said for other groups of people who are equally underrepresented or misrepresented on the big screen, such as members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Finding a balance between leaving an underrepresented group unaddressed and making it a character’s only trait is crucial. Hollywood often creates storylines centering on the fact that the main character is a part of an underrepresented group, such as in The Miseducation of Cameron Post. After watching the movie, I thought it was fine. But that was it. Even though many reviews raved about the movie, I found it disappointing. The entire premise of the movie was that Cameron, a lesbian, went to conversion therapy and escaped, overcoming the ideals of her community and staying true to herself. While this is a great message, the only characteristic of Cameron is that she is gay. I mean, she was a bit moody, but who isn’t.
Other coming-of-age movies with “rebelling teens” feature characters with depth; in Ladybird, Christine is very cocky, creative, and a bit awkward with a complex home life, dreams, and aspirations. Unfortunately, we do not get the same depth in Cameron’s life other than the fact she is gay. There’s a huge lack of movies that star characters who happen to be gay, but who also have the same emotional depth and fleshed-out personalities as a character who is straight. Do the writers feel that being gay is a substitute for a personality trait? Hint: it’s not! Being a part of an underrepresented group is not someone’s entire personality, and that becomes hard for younger children to understand if this generalization is all they see.
While we can’t exactly equate all of the unrealistic standards in Hollywood and the film industry to a specific motive, we can improve as a society and hold others responsible for their actions. As the film industry fills with newer directors and producers, we hope to see a newer and more progressive vision take the Hollywood stage. Until then, we must continue to hold directors, producers, and actors accountable for their actions to ensure the generational turnover that the film industry so desperately needs.