Backgrounds/fields: Jen is a research librarian and medical humanities instructor specialising in narrative medicine. Nikki is a school therapist and social worker.

Current research: Analysis of 11 Disney films for how they depict poverty and mental illness and what solutions they portray to these problems.

Measures, methods, and findings: The main quantitative measure was the adverse childhood experiences (ACE) score (a measure of abuse and neglect) applied to the film characters. In 10 out of 11 movies, ACE scores were strongly correlated with both poverty and mental illness – a surprising form of realism in these ‘fantasy’ worlds. (The exception was Wreck It Ralph, where the protagonist Vanellope embraces her mental illness rather than trying to eliminate it.) Qualitative analysis revealed that relationship-based solutions are near-ubiquitous, specifically a single person who rescues you single-handed. In particular these films tend to promote 1) the ‘Horatio Alger myth’ of the self-made man (but often also make a cute wealthy spouse a crucial part of the resolution) and 2) the concept of the virtuous poor (the poor being held to the same moral standards as the wealthy; superhuman moral qualities required to invest someone poor with personhood). A longitudinal perspective over the eight decades of Disney’s movie production (from 1937 to 2016) suggests that poverty gradually becomes less salient relative to mental illness.

Making the case: These films reinforce the idea that if I’m not getting better, it must be because people don’t love me enough. The emphasis on one person as saviour rather than a community network as support also places undue weight on the person being asked for help. These tropes help limit access to care: the lack of pop-culture examples of help being sought for mental health problems reinforces wider resistance to taking these problems seriously. These characters become part of our personal life journeys, so we need to overcome the academic snobbery about pop culture.

What’s next? The sample size for this study could be increased by removing the poverty factor and focusing on just mental illness. Future work would investigate the sociological aspects of Disney’s model of romantic relationships (happy-ever-after monogamy), and how to convert these forms of findings into policy changes.

My own musings: I’d be keen to see this study developed into a viewer-response study to test the hypothesis that people who watch Disney films are less likely to seek appropriate help for mental health problems, more likely to have unrealistic expectations for relationships, etc. Also, whenever I listen to the radio I realise how ubiquitous the ‘if you really love me you’ll save me’ / ‘I love you so much I know you’ll save me’ model is in pop music…

Find out more:


And thanks to Aussens@iter for the intro/outro music: 

Between Worlds (Instrumental) by Aussens@iter (c) copyright 2017.
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. Ft: (Smiling Cynic)