Unlearning the Myths that Bind Us

Students Examine Stereotypes in Children’s Stories and Films

By Linda Christensen

I was nourished on the milk of American culture: I cleaned the dwarfs’ house and waited for Prince Charming to bring me life, I played Minnie Mouse to Mickey’s flower-bearing adoration, and, later, I swooned in Rhett Butler’s arms — my waist as narrow and my bosom every bit as heaving as Scarlet’s. But my daddy didn’t own a plantation; he owned a rough and tumble bar frequented by loggers and fishermen. My waist didn’t dip into an hourglass; in fact, according to the novels I read, my thick ankles doomed me to be cast as the peasant woman reaping hay while the heroine swept by with her handsome man in hot pursuit.

Our students suckle the same pap. They learn that women are passive, men are strong, and people of color are either absent or evil. Our society’s culture industry colonizes their minds, teaches them how to act, live, and dream. The “secret education,” as Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman dubs it, delivered by children’s books and movies instructs students to accept the world as portrayed in these social blueprints. (Dorfman, 1983, p. ix)

And often that world depicts the domination of one sex, one race, one class, one country over a weaker counterpart. My student Omar wrote, “When we read children’s books, we aren’t just reading cute little stories, we are discovering the tools with which a young society is manipulated.”

More than social primers, these tales, peopled with ducks and mice and elephants in green suits, inhibit the ability of older students to question and argue with the texts they read. Children’s literature is perhaps the most influential genre read. As my colleague Bill Bigelow wrote in notes on his class, young people, unprotected by any intellectual armor, hear these stories again and again, often, from the warmth of their mother’s or father’s lap. The messages, or “secret education,” linked with the security of their parents’ arms underscores the power these texts deliver. The stereotypes and world view embedded in these stories become accepted knowledge.

Too often my high school students read novels, history texts, and the daily paper as if they were watching a baseball game — they keep track of who’s up, who’s out, and the final score. They are consumers. Many students don’t know how to read. I don’t mean they are illiterate. They can read the words. They can answer multiple choice questions about who said “to be or not to be” and who wore a scarlet letter under his vest. But they just “walk on the words,” as Paulo Freire says, instead of wrestling with the words and ideas presented. (Shor, Freire, 1987, p.10)

My goal is to give students the tools to critique every idea that encourages or legitimates social inequality — every idea that teaches them they are incapable of imagining and building a fundamentally equal and just society. Children shouldn’t be taught that domination is normal or nice or funny. That’s why we watch The Little Mermaid and read The Ugly Duckling in my high school English classes.

Exposing the Myths: How to Read Cartoons

We begin by reading the preface and first chapter of Ariel Dorfman’s book The Empire’s Old Clothes, subtitled, “What The Lone Ranger, Babar, and other innocent heroes do to our minds.” I ask students to read Dorfman and keep track of their responses in a dialogue journal which consists of a paper folded in half from the top to the bottom. They quote or paraphrase Dorfman on the left side of the paper and argue, agree, or question him on the right. Dorfman asserts:

Industrially produced fiction has become one of the primary shapers of our emotions and our intellect in the twentieth century. Although these stories are supposed to merely entertain us, they constantly give us a secret education. We are not only taught certain styles of violence, the latest fashions, and sex roles by TV, movies, magazines, and comic strips; we are also taught how to succeed, how to love, how to buy, how to conquer, how to forget the past and suppress the future. We are taught more than anything else, how not to rebel (Dorfman, 1983, p. ix).

Thus, according to Dorfman, children’s and popular literature function to maintain existing power relations in society and to undercut the possibility of greater democracy and equality.

I ask students if they agree with Dorfman’s notion that children receive a “secret education.” Do they remember any incidents from their own childhood that support his allegations? This is difficult for some students. The dialogue journal spurs them to argue, to talk back, to create a conversation with the writer. Dorfman is controversial. He gets under their skin. Many of them don’t want to believe that they have been manipulated by children’s books or advertising. As he writes:

[T]here has also been a tendency to avoid scrutinizing these mass media products too closely, to avoid asking the sort of hard questions that can yield disquieting answers. It is not strange that this should be so. The industry itself has declared time and again with great forcefulness that it is innocent, that no hidden motives or implications are lurking behind the cheerful faces it generates (Dorfman, 1983, p. ix).

Dorfman’s desire “to dissect those dreams, the ones that had nourished my childhood and adolescence, that continued to infect so many of my adult habits” (Dorfman, 1983, p. 4) bothered Justine, a senior in my Contemporary Literature and Society class a few years ago. In her dialogue journal she responded:

Personally, handling the dissection of dreams has been a major cause of depression for me. Not so much dissecting — but how I react to what is found as a result of the operation. It can be overwhelming and discouraging to find out my whole self image has been formed mostly by others or underneath my worries about what I look like is years (17 of them) of being exposed to TV images of girls and their set roles given to them by TV and the media. It’s painful to deal with. The idea of not being completely responsible for how I feel about things today is scary. So why dissect the dreams? Why not stay ignorant about them and happy? The reason for me is that those dreams are not unrelated to my everyday life.

They influence how I behave, think, react to things…My dreams keep me from dealing with an unpleasant reality.

In looking back through this passage and others in Justine’s dialogue with Dorfman, she displayed discomfort with prying apart her ideals, with discovering where she received her ideas, and yet she also grudgingly admitted how necessary this process was if she wanted to move beyond where she was at the time.

Her discomfort might also have arisen from feeling incapable of changing herself or changing the standards by which she is judged in the larger society. In a later section of her journal, she wrote, “True death equals a generation living by rules and attitudes they never questioned and producing more children who do the same.”

Justine’s reaction is typical of many students. She was beginning to peel back the veneer covering some of the injustice in our society. She appreciated the importance of constructing a more liberatory set of possibilities for girls and women, but at the same time was overwhelmed by the hugeness of this task — unsure if she would have anything to hang on to after she began dismantling her old values.

Charting Stereotypes

To help Justine and her classmates both dismantle those old values and reconstruct more just ones, I carry twin objectives with me when we begin this study of children’s culture: first, to critique portrayals of hierarchy and inequality, but also to enlist students in imagining a better world, characterized by relationships of mutual respect and equality. We start by watching cartoons and children’s movies — Bugs Bunny, Popeye, Daffy Duck, and Heckle and Jeckle videos in one class; in my freshman class we also watch Disney’s The Little Mermaid. On first viewing, students sometimes resist critical analysis. Kamaui said, “This is just a dumb little cartoon with some ducks running around in clothes.” Later they notice the absence of female characters in many of the cartoons. When women do appear, they look like Jessica Rabbit or Playboy centerfolds. We keep track of the appearance of people of color in classic children’s movies — Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White. We look at the roles women, men, people of color, and poor people play in the same films. As they view each episode, they fill in a chart. Here is a partial sample from the ninth grade class evaluation of The Little Mermaid. We also cover men’s roles:

Women’s Roles:

Ariel: Pretty, white, shapely, kind. Goal: Marry the prince.
Ursula: Fat, white, mean. Goals: Get back at Triton, power.
Maid: Chubby, confused, nice, white. Goals: Meals on time, clean clothes.
People of Color: None, although Sebastian the crab is Jamaican and the court musician.
Poor People: Servants. No poor people have major roles.

After filling in a couple of charts, collectively and on their own, students write about the generalizations children might take away from these tales. The ninth graders are quick to point out the usual stereotypes on their own, “Look, Ursula the sea witch is ugly and smart. The young, pretty ones only want to hook their man; the old, pretty ones are mean because they are losing their looks.” Kenneth noticed that people of color and poor people are either absent or servants to the rich, white, pretty people. Tyler pointed out that the roles of men are limited as well. Men must be virile and wield power or be old and the object of “good-natured” humor.

Both the freshmen and the seniors write critiques of the cartoons, targeting parents or teachers as an audience. Mira, a senior two years ago, attacked the racism in these Saturday morning rituals. Because of her familiarity with the Native American culture, her analysis was more developed:

Indians in Looney Tunes are also depicted as inferior human beings. These characters are stereotypical to the greatest degree, carrying tomahawks, painting their faces, and sending smoke signals as their only means of communication. They live in tipis and their language reminds the viewer of Neanderthals. We begin to imagine Indians as savages with bows and arrows and long black braids.There’s no room in our minds for knowledge of the differences between tribes, like the Cherokee alphabet or Celilo salmon fishing.

A Black Cinderella?

Kenya, a freshman, scolded parents in her essay “A Black Cinderella? Give Me A Break.” “Have you ever seen a Black person, an Asian, a Hispanic in a cartoon?

Did they have a leading role or were they a servant? What do you think this is doing to your child’s mind?” She ended her piece, “Women who aren’t White begin to feel left out and ugly because they never get to play the princess.” Kenya’s piece bristled with anger at a society that rarely acknowledges the wit or beauty of women of her race. But she wasn’t alone in her feelings. Sabrina W. wrote, “I’m not taking my kids to see any Walt Disney movies until they have a Black woman playing the leading role.” They wanted the race of the actors changed, but they didn’t challenge the class or underlying gender inequities that also accompany the lives of Cinderella, Ariel, and Snow White.

Kenya’s and Sabrina’s anger is justified. There should be more women of color who play the leads in these white-on-white wedding cake tales. But I want them to understand that if the race of the main character is the only thing changing, injustice will remain. We read Mary Carter Smith’s delightful retelling of Cinderella, “Cindy Ellie, A Modern Fairy Tale” which reads like laughter — bubbly, warm, spilling over with infectious good humor and playful language (Smith, 1989, p. 396-402). In Smith’s version, Cindy Ellie, who lives in East Baltimore, was “one purty young black sister, her skin like black velvet.” Her father, “like so many good men, was weak for a pretty face and big legs and big hips.” Her step-mother “had a heart as hard as a rock. The milk of human kindness had curdled in her breast. But she did have a pretty face, big legs, and great big hips…Well, that fool man fell right into that woman’s trap.” Cindy Ellie’s step-sisters were “two big-footed, ugly gals” who made Cindy Ellie wait on them hand and foot. When the “good white folks, the good Asian folks, and the good black folks all turned out and voted for a good black brother, running for mayor” there was cause

for celebration, and a chance for Cindy Ellie to meet her Prince Charming, the mayor’s son. With the help of her godma’s High John the Conqueror Root, Cindy Ellie looked like an “African Princess.” “Her rags turned into a dazzling dress of pink African laces! Her hair was braided into a hundred shining braids, and on the end of each braid were beads of pure gold!…Golden bracelets covered her arms clean up to her elbows!

On each ear hung five small diamond earrings. On her tiny feet were dainty golden sandals encrusted with dazzling jewels! Cindy Ellie was laid back!”

The students and I love the story. It is well told and incorporates rich details that do exactly what Sabrina, Kenya, and their classmates wanted — it celebrates the beauty, culture, and language of African-Americans. It also puts forth the possibility of cross-race alliance for social change.

But, like the original tale, Cindy Ellie’s main goal in life is not working to end the plight of the homeless or teaching kids to read. Her goal, like Cinderella the First’s, is to get her man. Both young women are transformed and made beautiful through new clothes, new jewels, new hairstyles. Both have chauffeurs who deliver them to their men. Cindy Ellie and Cinderella are nicer and kinder than their step-sisters, but the Prince and Toussant, the mayor’s son, don’t know that. Both of the C-girls compete for their men against their sisters and the rest of the single women in their cities. They “win” because of their beauty and their fashionable attire. Both of these tales leave African-American and White women with two myths: happiness means getting a man, and transformation from wretched conditions can be achieved through new clothes and a new hairstyle.

I am uncomfortable with those messages.

I don’t want students to believe that change can be bought at the mall, nor do I want them thinking that the pinnacle of a woman’s life is an “I do” that supposedly leads them to a “happily ever after.” I don’t want my women students to see their “sisters” as competition for that scarce and wonderful commodity — men. As Justine wrote earlier in her dialogue journal, it can be overwhelming and discouraging to find our self images have been formed by others, but if we don’t dissect them, we will continue to be influenced by them.

Writing is a Vehicle for Change

I hoped the essays they wrote critiquing cartoons would force students to look deeper into the issues — to challenge the servant/master relationships or the materialism that makes women appealing to their men. For some students the cartoon unit exposes the wizardry that controls our dreams and desires — our self images — but others shrug their shoulders at this. It’s okay for some people to be rich and others poor; they just want to see more rich people of color or more rich women. Or better yet, be rich themselves.

They accept the inequalities in power and economic relationships. Their acceptance teaches me how deep the roots of these myths are planted and how much some students, in the absence of visions for a different and better world, need to believe in the fairy tale magic that will transform their lives.

Mira and her classmates wrote their most passionate essays of the year on this topic. But venting their frustrations with cartoonsand even sharing it with their class — seemed an important, but limited task. Yes, they could write articulate essays. Yes, they honed their arguments and sought the just-right examples from their viewing. Through critique and the discussions that followed they were helping to transform each other each comment or observation helped expose the engine of our society, and they were both excited and dismayed by their discoveries. But what was I teaching them if the lesson ended there? Ultimately, I was teaching that it was enough to be critical without taking action, that we could quietly rebel in the privacy of the classroom while we were practicing our writing skills, but we didn’t really have to do anything about the problems we uncovered, nor did we need to create anything to take the place of what we’d expelled. And those were not the lessons I intended to teach. I wanted to develop their critical consciousness, but I also hoped to move them to action.

But for some students — especially the seniors — the lesson didn’t end in the classroom. Many who watched cartoons before we started our study say they can no longer enjoy them. Now instead of seeing a bunch of ducks in clothes, they see the racism, sexism, and violence that swims under the surface of the stories. Pam and Nicole swore they would not let their children watch cartoons. David told the class of coming home one day and finding his nephews absorbed in Looney Tunes. “I turned that TV off and took them down to the park to play. They aren’t going to watch that mess while I’m around.” Radiance described how she went to buy Christmas presents for her niece and nephew. “Before, I would have just walked into the toy store and bought them what I knew they wanted Nintendo or Barbie. But this time, I went up the clerk and said, ‘I want a toy that isn’t sexist or racist.’”

Students have also said that what they saw in cartoons, they see in advertising, on prime time TV, on the news, in school.

Turning off the cartoons didn’t stop the sexism and racism. They couldn’t escape, and now that they’d started analyzing cartoons, they couldn’t stop analyzing the rest of the world. And sometimes they wanted to stop. During a class discussion Sabrina S. said, “I realized these problems weren’t just in cartoons. They were in everything — every magazine I picked up, every television show I watched, every billboard I passed by on the street.” As Justine wrote earlier, at times they would like to remain “ignorant and happy.” This year it became more evident than ever that if we stayed with critique and didn’t move to action students might slump into cynicism.

Taking Avtion

To capture the passion and alleviate the pain, Tim Hardin, Jefferson English teacher, and I decided to get the students out of the classroom with their anger — to allow their writing and their learning to become vehicles for change. Instead of writing the same classroom essays students had written the years before, we asked this year’s students to think of an audience for their analysis of cartoons. Most students chose parents. A few chose their peers. Then they decided how they wanted to reach them.

Some wanted to create a pamphlet which could be distributed at PTA meetings throughout the city. That night they went home with assignments they’d given each other — Sarah would watch Saturday morning cartoons; Sandy, Brooke, and Carmel would watch after school cartoons; and Kristin and Toby were assigned before school cartoons. They ended up writing a report card for the various programs. They graded each show A-F and wrote a brief summary of their findings:

DUCK TALES: At first glance the precocious ducks are cute, but look closer and see that the whole show is based on money. All their adventures revolve around finding money. Uncle Scrooge and the gang teach children that money is the only important thing in life. C-

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: Pizza eating Ninja Turtles. What’s the point? There isn’t any. The show is based on fighting the “bad guy”, Shredder. Demonstrating no concern for the town people, they battle and fight, but never get hurt. This cartoon teaches a false sense of violence to kids: fight and you don’t get hurt or solve problems through fists and swords instead of words. D

POPEYE: This show oozes with horrible messages from passive Olive Oyl to the hero “man” Popeye. This cartoon portrays ethnic groups as stupid. It is political also — teaching children that Americans are the best and conquer all others. F

On the back of the pamphlet, they listed some tips for parents to guide them in wise cartoon selection.

Most of the other students wrote articles they hoped to publish in various local and national newspapers or magazines. Catkin wrote about the sexual stereotyping and adoration of beauty in children’s movies (see adjacent box). Her article describes how she and other teenage women carry these messages with them still:

Women’s roles in fairy tales distort reality — from Jessica Rabbit’s six-mile strut in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to Tinkerbelle’s obsessive vanity in Peter Pan. These seemingly innocent stories teach us to look for our faults. As Tinkerbelle inspects her tiny body in a mirror only to find that her minute hips are simply too huge, she shows us how to turn the mirror into an enemy…And this scenario is repeated in girls’ locker rooms all over the world….Because we can never look like Cinderella, we begin to hate ourselves. The Barbie syndrome starts as we begin a life-long search for the perfect body. Crash diets, fat phobias, and an obsession with the materialistic become commonplace. The belief that a product will make us rise above our competition, our friends, turns us into addicts. Our fix is that Calvin Klein push-up bra, Guess jeans, Chanel lipstick, and the latest in suede flats. We don’t call it deception, we call it good taste. And soon it feels awkward going to the mailbox without makeup.

Catkin hopes to publish her piece in a magazine for young women so they will begin to question the origin of the standards by which they judge themselves.

Lila, in an essay she wants to publish in our local daily newspaper (see page 16), recalls how cartoons and movies fueled her feelings of inadequacy:

In first grade I adored Bonnie Bondell, a girl in my class. She wasn’t a cartoon character, but she could have been. She had glossy blonde hair and blue eyes. She had a sparkly smile and a sweet voice. She could have been Cinderella’s younger sister or Sleeping Beauty’s long, lost cousin. For those reasons I longed to be just like her. I look at old photos of myself now and have decided that I was pretty cute. I wasn’t a traditional cutie and that’s exactly what bothered me then. My father is African American and my mother is German and Irish. Put the two together and, well, I’m the result. Olive complexion, dark, curly hair, brown and green eyes. All wrong. At least according to the Fairy Tale Book of Standards.

The writing in these articles is tighter and cleaner because it has the potential for a real audience beyond the classroom walls. The very real possibility of publishing their pieces changed the level of students’ intensity for the project. Anne, who turned in hastily written drafts last year, said, “Five drafts and I’m not finished yet!”

But more importantly, students saw themselves as actors in the world; they were fueled by the opportunity to convince some parents of the long-lasting effects cartoons impose on their children or to enlighten their peers about the roots of some of their insecurities. Instead of leaving students full of bile, standing around with their hands on their hips, shaking their heads about how bad the world is, we provided them the opportunity to make a difference.

Works Cited

Anderson, Hans Christian (retold by Lilian Moore). (1987). Ugly Duckling. New York: Scholastic.

Dorfman, Ariel, (1983). The Empire’s Old Clothes. New York: Pantheon.

Shor, Ira and Paulo Freire, (1987). A Pedagogy for Liberation. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey.

Smith, M.C. (1989). “Cindy Ellie, A Modern Fairy Tale.” Talk That Talk. New

York: Simon and Schuster, 396-402.

Linda Christensen teaches English at Jefferson High School in Portland, Oregon and writes frequently for Rethinking Schools.