It’s cool to be poor.
That’s the implied message in some of the most popular children’s movies of all time, including classics such as "Snow White" and modern hits such as "Aladdin," "A Bug's Life" and "Ratatouille," according to a new study from Duke University researchers. The study examined the socioeconomic status of characters in 32 G-rated films and found a kind of Lake Woebegone effect: The wealthy were overrepresented, poverty was glamorized and upward mobility seemed effortless.
“Inequality in these movies is downplayed, sanitized and even erased,” Duke sociology professor Jessi Streib, lead author of the study, tells me in the video above. “Poor characters don’t suffer any hardships, working class characters love being working class, and upper-class characters look out for the working class and the poor, so there’s no reason to be upwardly mobile.”
To the cynical among you: Okay, go and ahead and groan. They’re just movies. Kids don’t need to learn about economic hardship from entertainment. That’s what parents and schools are supposed to do. And if Disney (DIS) and Pixar started working economic education into their films, they’d undoubtedly get pilloried for teaching a version of capitalism somebody or other disagreed with.
Yet rising income inequality is clearly a dominant issue of our time—and besides, some of the messages in popular films are kind of weird. In "Beauty and the Beast"—which IMDB ranks as the second-best Disney movie of all time—the prince’s servants dance happily while singing, “Life is so unnerving, for a servant who’s not serving. He’s not whole without a soul to wait upon.” Not exactly a nursery rhyme most parents want their children to memorize.
In "Ratatouille," which was released in 2007, Remi the rat and his family are poor, living in the sewers, yet the main references to poverty involve not hardship, but poor taste in food among the lower class. Cheerfulness amid squalor seems to be an enduring theme of children’s movies, in fact. In the original "Snow White," released in 1938, the dwarves extoll the virtues of working in a diamond mine, which in the real world evokes images of a dusty, dangerous and miserable workplace. “To dig dig dig dig dig dig dig is what we really like to do,” the dwarves sing. Pass the breathing mask.
The Duke study found, in the 32 films analyzed, that 31% of the main characters were upper class, while 4.5% were poor. There’s no consensus on what exactly constitutes rich and poor in the real world, but there are obviously far more poor people and far fewer rich than depicted in the movies.
The study also found a “false parallel” between the travails of the rich and the poor. In "Aladdin," for example, the title character is a street urchin who has to steal food to survive, while his newfound friend, Jasmine, is a princess bored with the trappings of wealth. While Aladdin describes his hardscrabble life dodging the authorities, Jasmine complains that she’s not free to make her own choices. Their laments converge when they both utter the word “trapped” simultaneously, as if the plight of a poor hustler equals the challenges faced by a self-absorbed 1 percenter.
Does it matter if kids’ films gloss over economic hardship? “These are the first messages kids receive about social class and inequality,” says Streib. “They’re very powerful. We should show that poverty is really a tough experience. A lot of people don’t go from rags to riches the way these movies portray.” That, of course, is one reason people go to the movies in the first place.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.