Cinderella went from scrubbing floors in tattered clothes to marrying her prince in a royal wedding.

Snow White’s seven dwarfs head off to the mines each day with a spring in their step and a song on their lips.

And in Cars, an anthropomorphic Porsche named Sally leaves her stressful job as a lawyer to move to an easier life in a working-class town.

These and other wildly popular movies that enchant children with magical tales of love, royalty, riches, and happiness portray social class inequality in potentially harmful ways, a new study suggests.


Researchers watched all 36 G-rated movies that have grossed more than $100 million as of January 1, 2014, studying the characters in each to see what social class they represent and whether they scale the social ladder or fall off it. Many were Disney or Pixar movies from the last decade or so, while a few, like Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, are considered generational classics.

The movies presented a less-than-nuanced view of social class, often focusing on up-from-the-bootstraps characters who reap huge social and economic rewards largely from hard work, moral fortitude, and playing by the rules.

“The big theme is that inequality is benign,” says Jessi Streib, assistant professor of sociology at Duke University. “Being poor isn’t a big deal. Being working class makes you happy. Anyone who wants to get ahead, and is ambitious and is a good person, can do so. And the rich happily provide for everyone else. Obviously, that’s not exactly how the world works.”

The study, published in the Journal of Poverty, found a series of children’s characters who were economically top heavy. Of 67 main characters, 38 would be considered upper- or upper-middle class. Just 11 would be considered working class, and just three primary characters—or 4 percent of the total, would be considered poor by contemporary standards.

Perpetuating Myths

To compare, roughly 25 percent of American children live in poverty. And in real life, less than one-tenth of people in the lowest economic bracket rise to the top. “In Disney movies, of course, they all do,” Streib says.

The study also found that movies often minimize economic hardships. One example noted is Aladdin, the story of a young, homeless boy who befriends a princess named Jasmine. The two trade “horror” stories, suggesting that Aladdin’s life on the streets is roughly equivalent to Jasmine’s struggles because servants tell her “where to go and how to dress.”

Though these movies are fictional, their popularity does raise concerns about perpetuating myths related to inequality and the struggles lower-class people have climbing the ladder, Streib says.

“But would people really want to watch an honest movie? Probably not.”

This post originally appeared on Futurity.

Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

About The Author

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Eric Ferreri is Senior Writer at Duke University's Office of News & Communications.