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In Disney Films, Beauty Is Far From Beastly

Disney’s animated films perpetuate the stereotype that beautiful people are smart, superior and successful, according to new research.
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Highly attractive people are smarter, more socially adept and generally superior to the rest of us, and they tend to live happier lives. At least, that’s a widely shared stereotype that psychologists first identified in the early 1970s and recent research suggests is somewhat self-perpetuating. (Having been fawned over from an early age, good-looking people tend to have higher levels of self-esteem, which is an important ingredient in positive life outcomes.)

But how exactly does the good-is-beautiful belief get passed down from one generation to the next? Newly published research identifies one colorful culprit: Disney cartoons.

A research team led by Appalachian State University psychologist Doris Bazzini examined the content of 21 full-length animated Disney features, with an eye toward detecting pro-beauty bias. Only films with at least three characters who had human facial characteristics were included, meaning all-animal features such as Bambi were excluded.

The researchers rated all of the 163 characters who were identified by name in the films. The animated men and women (and occasional nonhuman creatures such as Ariel in The Little Mermaid) were scored on attractiveness (on an 11-point scale), aggressiveness (defined by physical or verbal abuse of others), goodness and intelligence.

“Across the animated movies, attractive characters displayed higher intelligence, lower aggressiveness and greater moral virtue,” Bazzini and her colleagues write. “Moreover, physically attractive characters were more likely to achieve positive life outcomes at the film’s end, and were more likely to be romantically involved.”

“Thus the animated films of Disney seem to maintain and promote the belief that attractive people attain more overall positivity in their lives.”

The researchers then set out to determine whether the good-is-beautiful idea would be either enhanced or deflated by viewing a specific film. They took a group of 42 children between the ages of 6 and 12 and had them watch either Cinderella (in which goodness and beauty are strongly correlated) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (in which the hero is not physically attractive).

Afterwards, all the kids looked at photographs of other children and answered such questions as “How nice would you say this person is?” and “How much would you like to be friends with this person?”

The kids “reported an overall greater desire to befriend an attractive peer, rate the child as more likely to be desired as a friend by other children, less likely to get into trouble, and as nicer relative to an unattractive peer,” the researchers report. This outcome was consistent no matter which film they had just watched.

“It may seem heartening to many parents that a single movie viewing did not induce greater use of the [beauty is good] stereotype,” Bazzini and her colleagues write. “However, this may be due to the fact that the stereotype-inconsistent depictions of the low-beauty-bias film are simply not potent enough to unravel a steadily developing propensity to judge attractiveness positively, especially when such stereotypes involve females.”

So rather than mindlessly utilizing Disney films as baby-sitters, the researchers suggest parents should use these movies to begin “a dialogue with their children about stereotypes.” The wise but not particularly comely Jiminy Cricket would surely agree.