Unlearning the Myths that Bind Us
Critiquing cartoons and society
Our society’s culture industry colonizes our students’ minds and teaches them how to act, live, and dream. This indoctrination hits young children especially hard. The “secret education,” as Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman dubs it, delivered by children’s books and movies, instructs young people to accept the world as it is portrayed in these social blueprints.
And often that world depicts the domination of one sex, one race, one class, or one country over a weaker counterpart. After studying cartoons and children’s literature, 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.”
Beverly Tatum, who wrote Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, helps explain how children develop distorted views of people outside of their racial/cultural group:
The impact of racism begins early. Even in our preschool years, we are exposed to misinformation about people different from ourselves. Many of us grow up in neighborhoods where we had limited opportunities to interact with people different from our own families. . . . Consequently, most of the early information we receive about “others”—people racially, religiously, or socioeconomically different from ourselves—does not come as a result of firsthand experience. The secondhand information we receive has often been distorted, shaped by cultural stereotypes, and left incomplete. . . .
Cartoon images, in particular the Disney movie Peter Pan, were cited by the children [in a research study] as their No. 1 source of information. At the age of 3, these children had a set of stereotypes in place.
Children’s cartoons, movies, and literature are perhaps the most influential genre “read.” Young people, unprotected by intellectual armor, hear or watch these stories again and again, often from the warmth of a parent’s lap. The message of the stories—the “secret education”—is linked with the security of children’s homes, increasing its power. As Tatum’s research suggests, the stereotypes and worldview embedded in the stories become accepted knowledge.
I want students to question this accepted knowledge and the secret education delivered by cartoons as well as by the literary canon. Because children’s movies and literature are short and visual, we can critique them together. We can view many in a brief period of time, so students begin to see patterns in media portrayals of particular groups and learn to decode the underlying assumptions these movies make. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote that, instead of wrestling with words and ideas, too often students “walk on the words.” If I want my students to wrestle with the social text of novels, news, or history books, they need the tools to critique media that encourage or legitimate social inequality. To help students uncover the values planted by Disney and other media—and construct more just ones—I begin this “unlearning the myths” unit with several objectives. First, I want students to critique portrayals of hierarchy, inequality, patriarchy, imperialism, racism, and xenophobia in children’s movies and cartoons. Through this unit, I endeavor to develop a critical framework to take into our study of literature and society. Then I want to enlist them in imagining a better world, characterized by relationships of respect and equality.
How to Read Cartoons
I start by showing students old cartoons because the stereotypes are so blatant. We look at the roles played by women, men, people of color, and poor people. I ask students to watch for who plays the lead. Who plays the buffoon? Who plays the servant? Who are the villains? I encourage them to look at the race, station in life, and body type of each character. Through the unit, we explore a series of questions: What are the characters’ motivations? What do they want out of life? If there are people of color in the film, how are they portrayed? What would children learn about this particular group from this film? What about women? What jobs do you see them doing? What do they talk about? What would young children learn about women’s roles in society if they watched this film and believed it? What about overweight people? What roles do money, possessions, and power play in the film? Who has them? Who wants them? Overall, what do children learn about what’s important in this society? Obviously, I don’t ask these all at once, but these are the questions that I surface as we begin to “read” the cartoons more carefully. More recent cartoons—like Frozen, Brave, and Mulan—are subtler and take more sophistication to see through, but if students warm up on the old ones, they can pierce the surface of the new ones as well.
I start with Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves, which depicts the outlaws with the same “Arab” face, same turban, same body, same clothes. They are all swinging enormous swords. At one point in the cartoon, Popeye clips a dog collar on helpless Olive Oyl and drags her through the desert. Later, the 40 thieves come riding through town stealing everything—food, an old man’s teeth, numbers off a clock, even the stripe off a barber pole, as well as Olive Oyl, who screams for Popeye to save her. At the end of the cartoon, Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Wimpy ride on top of a wagon loaded with riches, pulled by Ali Baba and the 40 thieves, who are in chains.
As they watch this cartoon and those that follow, students fill in a chart answering these questions: Who is the reader supposed to root for? Whose lives “count”? Who is given voice? Who is silenced? Who is marginalized? What assumptions does the scriptwriter make? How does the scriptwriter use language to develop character? What understandings might a child make about gender and sexuality, people of color, and militarism from this cartoon?
This is the only cartoon we watch in its entirety. Since it’s the beginning of the unit, I stop frequently because students, like the rest of us, tend to watch for entertainment unless we turn on our critical lenses.
I stop Popeye during the desert scene when he drags Olive Oyl by a leash and ask students what observations about gender roles they can detect in the first few scenes. Students typically observe: “Men are strong. Women need to be saved. The U.S. military’s job is to go to ‘foreign’ countries and save the people.”
Olivia shouts, “Is he really dragging her by a leash?”
I stop to ask what they notice about Ali Baba’s 40 thieves. “They all look alike. They all wear the same clothes. Even their horses look alike.” I stop again after Popeye, reading a menu, states, “This Chinese is all Greek to me.” The waiter folds the paper until it reads “bacon and eggs.” I ask, “What do we learn about languages from this scene? Which ones count? Which ones don’t?”
Themes and Patterns
Before the end of class, I distribute sentence strips and markers. I ask students to write down emerging themes from this Popeye video. We collect the sentence strips and evidence throughout the unit. This concrete activity gives students an opportunity to pause and capture their thinking, it makes our thought process collective and transparent because the strips and evidence remain on the walls, and it gives students visual reminders to refer back to during our class discussions. “What do you notice about men, women, people of color, language, violence in this cartoon? Someone give me an example.”
Elijah responds, “Less words, less power.” When I ask what that means, Emmanuel says that only Popeye and Ali Baba talk. Olive Oyl, Wimpy, and the other characters have little or no dialogue. Students note other themes: The military will defeat the thieves. White men are meant to be saviors. Female characters are weak. All people of color look the same. As one student puts it, “If you aren’t white, you aren’t right.”
As they’re about to leave, I ask students to look for places in the real world that resemble the lessons we learn from Popeye. From the first day of the unit, I want students to read the world with the same critical eye they bring to Popeye: advertisements, television shows, the news, things that may be happening in their neighborhoods. The next day, Inyla says, “I watched Lion King last night and I saw that Scar, the mean lion, was darker than Mufasa and the cub. So were the hyenas.” Inyla’s comment is a great segue into talking about patterns.
As I set up the cartoon showing for the second day, I say, “If we just see something once, it may be an anomaly. But if we see a pattern over time, we need to examine that pattern because it reflects some aspect of the society we live in. It’s something that is taken for granted in our society, and what is taken for granted can be harmful. As you watch today, think about the specific cartoon, but also start thinking about the patterns you see across the cartoons about men, women, how problems get solved, what people want.”
Over the next week, we watch a series of five- to seven-minute clips, focusing in turn on men, women, and people of color. Of course, every cartoon contains the intersection of all these, but each day of the unit, I isolate segments to frame each of these categories specifically.
Jayme Causey, a fantastic teacher who collaborated with me on the revision of this unit, noticed the hypermasculinity of men in cartoons—from their body types to their penchant for solving all problems with violence. So I start our second day with the fight scene in Sleeping Beauty. As Prince Phillip rides through a dark forest to save Aurora, he fights the evil witch, Maleficent, with the help of the three chubby fairy godmothers. I show several of these climactic savior scenes in a row—Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Lady and the Tramp, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid—so that students can see the man-saving-helpless-woman pattern as well as the portrayal of the villain as dark and evil.
Students fill out their chart for each cartoon segment. Then I ask,
“What did you notice? Did this repeat a pattern you saw in Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves?” Students have lots to say about each clip. They don’t focus just on masculinity because there is so much intersectionality across the cartoons.
Eli notes, “At bad moments, things are darker and in good moments things are light. For instance, in Lady and the Tramp, when the dogs chase Lady, the lighting in the movie gets darker, and when Tramp rescues her, the scene is light again. This gives people the idea that dark things are bad. Another thing that makes people think that dark things are bad is that the villain’s equipment is dark or black, like Gaston’s horse.”
Larry says he learned to fight from watching cartoons. Daily on the playground, he and his friends would re-enact fight scenes. He also notes that he learned that men’s jobs were to save women.
We stop about 20 minutes before the end of class, and I ask students to write a one-page response. “You can just answer the questions on the back or you can write about patterns you noticed that we talked about earlier. For example, Emanuel noticed that violence is used to solve problems across the movies, so he can write about that and give specifics.”
The note-taking charts, the emerging theme sentence strips, and the one-page responses provide students pathways—concrete examples and commentary—into their final essays. They gather evidence and insights daily as we move toward the essay.
I read over their responses and refer to them the following day to fuel our conversation. “Here are a couple of comments from your classmates. Let’s talk about what you think about their take on cartoons so far.” Then I read a few, after checking with students ahead of time for their permission. For example, Emanuel wrote, “All of these cartoons . . . [are] showing kids at a young age that it’s OK to fight to solve problems. Another thing is that every single enemy in every single movie was dark-colored, putting the idea in kids’ minds that dark-colored people are bad and are our enemies.”
Throughout the unit, I pause to give students time to discuss the cartoons and to make connections to the world. I want their ideas to be authentic ponderings, not a repetition of my beliefs. In their post-essay reflections, the majority of students note that our in-class discussions helped them frame their essays and develop their ideas, learning from each other’s insights.
Roles and Hierarchies
During the following days, we watch short bursts of YouTube clips featuring women. Again, we start the section with older cartoons like Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan, and Lady and the Tramp, then move forward through time to see if anything has changed. Although these movies are old, students often sing along; clearly they viewed the films over and over during childhood. And many of them go home and watch them again.
We look at how the definition of woman is constructed. Does it include women of color? Lesbians? Transgender people? Which social class of women is depicted? Which women are humans and which are animals? How are their bodies portrayed? How do they resolve conflict?
For example, we look at the scene of Tinker Bell checking out her hips in the mirror, her burst of jealous fury over Wendy’s and Peter Pan’s friendship, and Wendy’s jealousy of Tiger Lily. We watch a few Snow White segments, which lay down the tracks of women’s friendships, which are typically with birds, animals, and magical creatures, not other women. The scene with the evil queen reflects the idea that women compete with each other over their beauty instead of building friendships or working together.
We move through clips from Sleeping Beauty—a few students shout, “There was no consent!” when the prince kisses Aurora. We watch the scene in Beauty and the Beast when Belle tames the beast—a sure setup for women to believe they can change a man who exhibits violent tendencies. We watch Ariel giving up her voice, so she can be with her man. The curves of Jasmine in Aladdin, Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Ariel in The Little Mermaid, and even Merida in Brave demonstrate that not much has changed in terms of women’s shape. As Karmann writes: “I love Disney. Don’t get me wrong. I just think they give unrealistic expectations for women, like magazines. Belle’s waist was about the size of two of my fists put together. Aurora slept through the entire movie and woke up looking fine as hell. As a kid, I remember asking why my mom didn’t look like that when she woke up.” Estelle adds, “All of these movies show men and women together. None of them show gay relationships.”
We end the women’s day by watching Brave because it demonstrates ways cartoons have changed and not changed. As students point out, Princess Merida challenges her suitors for the right to her own hand through her expertise as an archer, and she saves herself and her mother at the film’s end. On the other hand, she’s still a princess and pretty and petite, and the townspeople are depicted as unattractive buffoons.
After students share their thoughts and add to our emerging theme wall, I say, “Write ‘Cartoons in the World’ on the top of your paper. Now think about the emerging themes you noticed in the cartoons. Where have you seen sexism, violence, racism in the world? Have you noticed any changes or improvements in cartoons or in the world? What hasn’t changed?” I ask a couple of students to give examples before students begin writing. Nicole says she watched Shrek Everlasting and noticed that Shrek saved everyone in the first film, but in the new film, Fiona saves everyone. Mykala says she saw the “white savior” in To Kill a Mockingbird when Atticus saves Tom Robbins, and also that Calpurnia was like the servants in the cartoons, only caring about Atticus’ family, as if she didn’t have a home and family she cared about.
When students share their writing at the end of class, Olivia says: “I watched a new show called Pitch. In the show a girl joins the MLB [Major League Baseball]. In her locker room—she has a separate locker room from the male players—she overhears the men saying she’s only there to sell tickets and that she’ll only last a few games because of this. She feels she needs to prove them wrong because she’s a girl and she’s Black and for all of the little girls who are looking up to her.”
Elijah says, “I’ve noticed that women can’t do anything without a man, and women are supposed to cook, clean, and make the man happy. It happens in the world today. A lot of women are dependent on men to make them happy.” On his emerging theme sentence strip, he writes, “Women only exist for men’s pleasure.” Hakeem says: “I play Madden 17 and the men are playing and women are cheering them on. Women get treated unfairly in the world and get treated as if they are less than men.”
Bunny doesn’t share in class, but she writes a piece to read the following day: “I’ve noticed that in a lot of Disney movies the only independent and strong women are labeled as villains and bad guys, like in The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and many more. In some cases, this is reflected in real life.”
Students also discuss the role of servants as we traveled through our cartoon journey. After watching scenes from Beauty and the Beast, Fayth says, “All of the servants are tools or equipment. Like the candlestick and the broom.” Another student writes “All servants get no credit” on the theme wall. Nicole loves Mushu, the red dragon played by Eddie Murphy in Mulan, but is quick to point out that the servants are typically animals, while the major characters are people, usually royalty.
By the time we look specifically at the role of people of color in cartoons, students have already identified that the majority of their roles are as villains, but they also bemoan the continued absence of diversity in cartoons. We start the day by remembering Popeye. Then I show a few clips from Peter Pan, focusing on the depiction of Native Americans in this early Disney film. Dominic notices that the Native Americans, like the Arabs in Popeye, mostly look alike. Estelle points out that their language, like the language of the Arabs in Popeye, makes them look ignorant. “In Popeye, Ali Baba says, ‘You make fool from me.’ In Peter Pan, the female Native American says, ‘Squaw no dance. Squaw get firewood.'” A few years ago, a student noted that the Indians play with the children as if they are children themselves.
Before we watch the hyena scene from The Lion King, I remind them of Inyla’s “aha” from the first day about the hyenas and Scar being darker and ask them what they notice. Mykala says, “They sound Black, too.”
Emmanuel interrupts her. “Right, because Whoopi Goldberg plays the part of the hyena.”
Watching The Little Mermaid, students observe that Ursula becomes darker the more evil she gets. They see similar patterns with Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty and the dogs in Lady and the Tramp. One student writes on his emerging theme for the day, “People of color are evil, mean, dangerous, and the enemy.”
As we discuss this last batch of clips, I ask students to make connections to other works. Larry says, “Even in some video games I play, it’s the man who does everything and is the hero. I don’t see many women in the games and them being the hero. Also, a lot of video games have violence. And the darker-skinned people are the bad guys.” Dai adds: “In the first game of the Super Smash Brothers there were no female characters, but over the 18 years this game’s been out, the character roster has become more and more diverse.” Others disagree, saying that women are still not represented in video games except as cheerleaders, but they agree that there are more diverse characters.
I have taught this unit for more than three decades to both freshmen and seniors. In earlier years, I started with Ariel Dorfman’s preface to The Empire’s Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds, first published in 1983. Dorfman wrote:
Industrially produced fiction has become one of the primary shapers of our emotions and our intellect in the 20th 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.
Now I start with the question “What do cartoons teach children about the world, men, women, people of color, etc.?” Opening with the question instead of an “expert” statement has led to more student willingness to engage instead of resist, as some did in previous years. I end the unit by asking students to respond to Dorfman’s words. As one recent student writes:
Before we watched these cartoons in class, I wasn’t even aware that so much racism and sexism took place in these cartoons. I never watched much Disney as a child, but even if I did, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed that it was influencing my opinion on men, women, whites, and people of color. . . . The fact that I wasn’t even aware of the racism and sexism shows how effective it was to watch these cartoons as a class and discuss them.
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.
My goal of honing their ability to read literature and the world through the lens of justice had been accomplished, at least in part. Students end the unit with strong essays that tackle sexism, racism, and U.S. imperialism. This year, because I asked them to relate our cartoon themes to what they see in the world throughout the study, students made more connections between cartoons and other “texts”—elections, ads, video games, and contemporary movies.
As a teacher, I want to use my classroom space to critique the mass media machine that continues to promote a vision of society fueled by the worship of wealth and whiteness, the standardization of beauty, and the glorification of those at the top at the expense of everyday people. One unit, no matter how well constructed, cannot make this happen, but by developing students’ ability to critique and giving them language and tools to examine and deconstruct their “secret education,” they can begin to move from mindless consumption to awareness. And because these commercial values do not serve the interests of the majority of our students, that awareness can lead to rebellion—in all the best senses of the word.
Student essays are available in the upcoming Christensen, Linda. April 2017. Reading, Writing, and Rising Up, second edition. Rethinking Schools.
Linda Christensen (Contact Me) is director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. This article was revised for the upcoming second edition of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up. Linda is also the author of Teaching for Joy and Justice; co-editor of Rethinking Elementary Education, Rhythm and Resistance, and The New Teacher Book; and an editor of Rethinking Schools.