A new analysis of top-grossing G-rated children's films made from 1990 to 2005 suggests that such movies send a memorable message to impressionable young viewers. br>
The messages are that heterosexual love is not only the norm, but that it is also exceptional, powerful, transformative and magical. br>
A report published by Gender and Society says that in the world of Disney, falling in heterosexual love can break a spell, save Christmas, change laws, stop wars and even, in the case of The Little Mermaid, cause an individual to give up her personal identity.
The article says that while such dramatic plot twists may keep kids glued to television and movie theater screens, they also elevate heterosexuality to powerful, magical heights.
These findings challenge the notion that such movies are without sexual content.
The determinations could even help to explain why multiple prior ethnographic studies suggest that children understand the normativity of heterosexuality by the time they enter elementary school, relegating homosexuality to the abnormal, unusual and unexpected, necessitating explanation.
Karin Martin and Emily Kazyak, who jointly authored the study, say: "The media are an important avenue of children's sexual socialization because young children are immersed in media-rich worlds."
For their study, the researchers analyzed all G-rated movies released or rereleased between 1990 and 2005, which had grossed more than $100 million in the US.
Three trained research assistants extracted story lines, images, scenes, songs and dialogue that addressed anything about sexuality, including depictions of bodies, kissing, jokes, romance, weddings, dating, love, where babies come from, and pregnancy.
The researchers used a qualitative software program to inductively code the text describing the material.
The analysis found that the films "depict a rich and pervasive heterosexual landscape," despite the assumption that children's media are free of sexual content.
The movies repeatedly mark relationships between opposite sex lead characters as special and magical.
"Characters in love are surrounded by music, flowers, candles, magic, fire, balloons, fancy dresses, dim lights, dancing and elaborate dinners. Fireflies, butterflies, sunsets, wind and the beauty and power of nature often provide the setting for-and a link to the naturalness of-hetero-romantic love," the researchers observed.
According to the researchers, their analysis has also determined that heterosexuality is construed through depictions of overtly feminized women and masculine males, with the male characters spending much of their time longingly gazing at the former. Toys and other products tied to the films later reinforce the images, they add.
They researchers say that such heavily gendered depictions and glorified portrayals of heterosexual relationships appear to maintain old ideals presented in 19th century Brothers Grimm fairy tales, many of which inspired Disney films.
A previous study by Western Illinois University's Lori Baker-Sperry and University of Central Florida's Liz Grauerholz, which explored the extent to which "feminine beauty" is highlighted in fairy tales, showed that attention to female attractiveness had likely become more prevalent over the past century, with beauty in fairy tales most often associated with "being white, economically privileged and virtuous."
"We suggest that this emphasis on a feminine beauty ideal may operate as a normative social control for girls and women," the researchers added.
Taken together, the observations made during the two studies indicate that children are frequently exposed to powerful, influential media messages concerning both attractiveness and sexuality.
Martin and Kazyak conclude: "Both ordinary and exceptional constructions of heterosexuality work to normalize its status because it becomes difficult to imagine anything other than this form of social relationship or anyone outside of these bonds."