Big man’s not afraid of anything

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“Big man’s not afraid of anything”: A Content Analysis of Gender Roles in Children’s Films

Nicole Jasperson


Dr. Lee Vigilant

SC 352-W

Children’s films have been popular since the beginning in order to entertain children and the family. Over the years children’s films have become more visually entertaining and more realistic. Certain films have been criticized for the amount of gender stereotypes they portray, but children’s films, other than Disney, have not come under fire. This study will examine the top thirty children’s films, rated G and PG from 2010-2012, to determine the gender portrayal of each character. By using a content analysis, this study identified the ratio of female and male characters and certain gender roles. The findings suggest the perpetuation of gender roles leading to the further normalization of patriarchal society.


Children’s films have been produced since the early 20th century starting with silent films and turning to full length animated films. Currently audiences think of the Disney franchise when they think of children’s films, and the first full length animated children’s film was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made in 1937. There have been about 30 films produced each year aimed at family and children. Not only are there animated Disney films being produced, but also non-animated films by Fox, DreamWorks, and Warner Brothers. Along with films, gender roles have also been examined in mass media; video games, movies, and television shows are critiqued by academia when a woman or man is represented stereotypically. The ongoing research is to determine if and how children’s films are contributing to early gender socialization.

It is important to recognize the role children’s films plays in today’s society. These films are being shown to children from the age of 3 and older. Parents also purchase matching merchandise from their children’s popular films, and they buy the movies so their children can watch it repeatedly. Smith states, “Exposure to [gender role] trends…may have the strongest effect on children, who may learn something about gender roles from repeatedly viewing motion picture content on DVDs” (p. 1). Children’s films are important to study because the content socializes children at a young age. Children are malleable and learn from various agents of socialization how to think, feel, and act about gender and culturally approved gender roles.

The purpose of this study is to investigate the various gender roles depicted in children’s films. This research also examines how males and females are represented numerically in each film. A content analysis will analyze the sex of each main character, the social roles they play, and the appearances portrayed. In particular, the study will determine how children’s films currently are socializing children.


Gender Stereotypes in Media

Constant themes seem to emerge regarding women in various media outlets. A current study completed by Rebecca L. Collins (2011) regarding a content analysis of gender roles in media found common themes. She found women to be under-represented in media and often portrayed in negative ways (p.290). Collins states: “…they are shown in traditionally feminine roles. Women are portrayed as nonprofessionals, homemakers, wives or parents, and sexual gatekeepers” (p.290). This study concludes women are still being depicted in a level lower than men.

Females are under-represented compared to the population in the United States and also their gender roles are perpetuated though out media. Welsh states “Research does in fact suggest that media depictions of female victims tend to emphasize and reinforce schemas of traditional gender roles, such as female vulnerability or the “damsel in distress” (p. 762). Research states these portrayals of women may influence gender role expectation negatively (Dietz 1998; Madriz 1997). As girls and women are constantly portrayed as vulnerable or in need of saving they may take in those roles and portray them in everyday life.

Not only are women represented stereotypically, but also men as well in media. Men are constantly portrayed as having masculine characteristics, such as strength, violent tendencies, and domination. Cara Wallis (2011) conducted a content analysis of gender display in music videos and found gender being performed by men and women. Wallis partially confirmed her hypothesis of males displaying more aggressive behavior than females (p.168). Said Wallis: “…males employed significantly more aggressive playing of instruments than females and engaged in significantly more flinging of fingers/hands” (p.168). Males and females are performing gender roles in music videos and this further perpetuates stereotypical social roles.

Social Roles in Media

Early content analysis of films revealed stereotypical gender roles, particularly as these pertained to women only in domesticated settings, for example, Disney films. Wallis (2011) explains that although certain films have been praised for promoting positive messages, such as images of female empowerment, most have been labeled as still perpetuating female stereotypes and over representing men. There has been continued scholarly interest in this topic (Desmond and Danilewicz 2010; Welsh 2010; May 2011). Scholars have found media to be a format that still warrants investigation into the socialization process. Films are especially widely available now with internet access and expanding technology.

Persons believe that as the status of women increases in society, especially in the United States, the result of gender roles will be less stereotyped across popular culture. Emons et al. explains when comparing Dutch programs to American programs: “Compared to Dutch programs, American programs had more adult males, more females involved in childcare, more males involved in a job, and fewer males involved in other activities” (p. 49). Emons et al.’s study reveals that although the United States has progressed closer to equality among men and women there is still a noticeable limitation. Wallis states, “Though humans become “gendered” through multiple complex processes that are both conscious and unconscious, the media representations that are absorbed, reflected upon, and imitated play a key role” (p. 164). Distorted messages aimed towards men and women, especially at a young age can influence what they think they can become regarding future careers and goals.

Gilpatric found violent female action characters (VFACs) to be “most likely submissive in terms of being protected by the male hero when they were romantically linked to him” (p. 739). Gilpatric found VFACs that had no romantic involvement were most likely to be main heroines and least likely to be protected by the male (p. 739). More than half of all VFACs were shown in a submissive role to the male hero of the story. The female that is submissive to a male hero is protected by him rather than assisting him resulting in being romantically involved with him. The author found that even though a VFAC seems to be an indicator of gender equality looking deeper into the research concludes they were more often portrayed in submissive roles and romantically involved with a dominant male hero character. VFACs also often appeared as a damsel-in-distress.

Media Representation of Appearance

In media the physical appearance of men and women is a heated topic. Lauzen et al. (2006) completed an investigation of how the involvement of women behind the scenes in the production of reality and scripted prime-time U.S. television programming relates to female representations and portrayals. They predicted (and found to be true) scripted sitcoms with women in top creative positions would have greater female character representation and a more egalitarian approach to conflict resolution. Feminist film critics also analyze the representations of women in movies and compare them to the inequalities of real-world gender roles (Rosen 1973; Haskell 1974; Mulvey 1975). Mulvey asserted that female images serve as signs of visual pleasure for a “male gaze”, and that “the man’s role is the active one of advancing the story and making things happen” (p.11). This results in females being sexual objects compared to men being a leader.

Females portrayed as attractive legitimate the chance of gaining the attention of a potential attendee; salient, striking, conspicuous, and/or prominent the female is portrayed (Bandura 2002). If making the characters attractive is a necessity this can create the belief that viewers of all ages are more likely to emulate and learn from characters who are perceived as attractive (see Smith et al. 1998 and Bandura 1986). Smith et al. assessed over 15, 000 speaking characters across 400 top-grossing theatrically released G, PG, PG-13, and R-rated films. They found 2.71 males appear for every one female. Said Smith et al. “Females are more likely than males to be young, thin, and shown in tight or revealing attire. This prototype illuminates the hypersexualization of females in film, reinforcing a culture of lookism within the industry” (p. 1).

Other areas of research have explained that sexually-objectifying media may negatively impact various aspects of women’s self-concept, such as body image and self-esteem (Aubrey 2006). Magoulick (2006) analysis of television action heroines found that the heroine is usually involved romantically with a male protagonist. Women are more likely to take on lovers during the course of a show or film. This factor may show women they need a man if they are to be successful. Hether and Murphy state, “Seeing someone similar to oneself overcome obstacles and succeed in the face of adversity enhances individuals’ beliefs in their own abilities-or self-efficacy- with regard to a particular behavior” (p. 812). If girls and women are not seeing these examples in various media they could not believe in their own abilities.

Zhang et al. completed a content analysis on rap music videos examining body images of female characters and thematic content in the videos. They found an overrepresentation of thin women in music videos compared to the real population. Neuendorf et al. (2010) also completed a content analysis on 20 James Bond films examining female characters and their roles. They found a link between sexuality and violent behavior in women. They state, “Very thin, small hipped, and extremely attractive [women] are found in less than 5% of the adult female population” (p. 748). If this body type is overrepresented then women will continue to negatively evaluate their lives against media images. The Bond films had 91 percent of major female characters engaging in some type of sexual activity as well (p. 753).

The literature gathered for this study examines the different aspects of gender construction in society. Previous studies have explained the stereotypical gender roles, but did not examine any recent children’s films excluding Disney princess films. The previous literature has found a mix between more egalitarian portrayals of men and women and the perpetuation of stereotypical gender roles. This research will examine the impacts on gender construction and sexual appearance for the most recent films.

Theoretical Perspectives of Gender Socialization

In order to complete a content analysis on gender roles and stereotypes it is important to understand the impact these factors have on children. The possibility for gendered materials to influence a child’s mind set while shaping their current and future assumptions of men and women is present. Oliver and Green (2001) hypothesized children are aware of the gender classifications in animated media. They found children predicted which cartoons boys or girls would like better due to previously learned stereotypes and gender roles. If gender roles are constantly being shown to children, this will result in the normalization of socially acceptable behavior.

Erving Goffman is one of the main sociologists that have contributed to the study of social interaction and symbolic interaction. Goffman (1976) defines gender roles as the “conventionalized portrayals” of the “culturally established correlates of sex” (pg. 1). These gender displays tend to be seen as natural due to the constant representation in media and interactions. To Goffman, the gendered behaviors of men and women, such as masculinity and femininity, are created by the environment that we consciously and unconsciously interact with in society. As Goffman states, “One might just as well say there is no gender identity. There is only a schedule for the portrayal of gender….What, if anything, characterizes persons as sex-class members is their competence and willingness to sustain an appropriate schedule of displays” (p. 8).

Along with Goffman’s theory of gender roles there are two main theories used for the socialization of gender; cultivation theory and social cognitive theory. Cultivation theory explains how people’s perceptions of social reality are influenced by media images and portrayals, particularly for avid movie watchers and DVD collectors. For example, women under-represented in various media, including film, can influence a typical viewer’s expectations of them in the real world. This process of shaping viewer’s world view is designated as mainstreaming (Gerbner et al. 1980). “Mainstreaming means that heavy television viewing may blur the difference in people’s perspectives which come from individual experiences and influences resulting in the perception that television mirrors the “real world”, states Desmond and Danilewicz 2010. Socially constructed images tend to be one-dimensional and distorted in their portrayal of people.


The content analysis focused on three major areas of research. First, it examined the masculine and feminine gender roles displayed by males and females. Second, it examined the social roles of males and females. Third, it analyzed the appearance of the characters in the films. A content analysis “is a technique for examining information, or content, in written or symbolic material” (Neuman 2007:20). This methodology was chosen in order to determine traditional gender roles among male and female characters in children’s films. Table 1 lists each film analyzed and the year the film was released.


The sample consisted of thirty children’s films. Each film chosen was one out of the ten top grossing children’s film (rated G or PG) of that particular year according to By focusing on the most successful films this research tapped into social codes, norms, and gender stereotypes ingrained in mainstream American popular culture.

. Table 1: Film Sample List

Film Title


Film Title


Film Title


Toy Story 3

Alice in Wonderland

Despicable Me

Shrek Forever After

How to Train a Dragon


Karate Kid

TRON: Legacy


The Last Airbender











Cars 2

Kung Fu Panda 2

Puss in Boots



Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked



Gnomio & Juliet

The Muppets












Madagascar 3

Dr. Seuss Lorax


Ice-Age 4

Hotel Transylvania

Journey 2

Life of Pi

Rise of the Guardians

Parental Guidance












Some of the behaviors used to evaluate the characters were taken from previous studies and research on gendered behavior or characteristics in media (England et al. 2011). Other new themes throughout the films were written down and later defined into specific categories. Masculine and feminine characteristics were coded as well as the biological sex of each character. Social roles were coded as well in order to determine the differences between males and females in a larger context. All characteristics were assessed for all performers in each film, including by standards. The prominence of the character in the film was not relevant for the purposes of coding for stereotypes, social roles, and sexual appearance. If a character in the films was observed by the coders as portraying a gender stereotype, or a typical social role, etc. at any point in the narrative, that character was measured as a behavior.

Operational Definitions of Coding Characteristics

The film’s content was coded for the gendered characteristics of actors throughout the films (masculine and feminine), social roles by the character’s biological sex, and the appearance of performers by body frame and clothing. The operational definitions were established based on past research (Smith et al. 2008) and learned definitions.

Masculine Traits

Strong-lifting of heavy objects, depicted as muscular, or ability to fight…

Brave-courageous, save the other characters, not afraid of anything, or ability to rescue other characters…

Competitive-the urge to win, being a winner, aggressive, combative, or trials of win or lose. There is usually a winner or a loser…

Intelligent-a wealth of knowledge, knowing facts that would have to be studied, or more intelligent than others…

Athletic-ability to run fast, jump high, reach far heights, or participate in any sport…

Feminine Traits

Victim-female character being saved, trapped physically or mentally, abuse or physical harm…

Emotional-crying, caring for others, hyperactivity, or display of affection…

Weak-not being able to lift heavy objects, non-athletic, or not being able to run, jump, or climb...

Dependent-not being able to do things on your own, need a man or companion to complete tasks…

Sexual-dressed in tighter outfits, wearing short dresses or skirts, or make-up…

Man’s Social Roles

Hero-character saves the day, saves the other characters, or saves the community…

Blue Collar Career-any career mostly seen as masculine by society, police, firefighter, doctor, lawyer, race car driver, mechanic, or warrior…

Leader-charismatic, rules over a group of people, or helps people find their way…

Female’s Social Roles

Damsel in Distress-needs to be saved, will not succeed without a companion, weak, or lost...

Pink Collar Career-any career seen as feminine by society, nurse, flight attendant, model, princess, or house-wife…

Follower-goes with the flow, does not speak up or have a voice, or listens to the leader of the group...


Sexually Revealing Clothing-tight clothes, high heels, short skirts and/or dresses, chest showing, or cleavage showing…

Thinness-character appears to be thin, small waist and stomach, not overly muscular, or petite…

Attractiveness- visually beautiful, symmetrical face, other characters view he/she as beautiful.

Tending to Physical Appearance-putting make-up on, brushing hair, looking in the mirror, or changing outfits multiple times.


The thirty films were coded in random order. This was because some of the most recent films produced in 2012 were not available to the researcher until they came out on DVD. In examining gender socialization we have to look at the male to female ratio in the thirty films. As Table 2 presents 68 percent of all characters were male compared to 32 percent of all characters being female. This shows that the films are based heavily on male dominated roles. If women are not getting equal roles in children’s films, this can result in the socialization of girls into feelings of inferiority to males.

Table 2: Biological Sex of Characters, by Film

Top Grossed Films by Year

Males Roles

n %

Females Roles

n %




47 66

24 34



47 67

23 33



82 69

37 31



176 68

84 32


These particular children’s films could be so heavily weighted toward male characters due to the expected audiences. For example, Cars 2 is focused solely on male children due to racing already being socially constructed to include mostly males. However, it was surprising to see only 4 females in the film Brave due to the empowering role the main character plays being a little girl. Toy Story 3 did have about half the number of female characters to male characters making it the most gender neutral of the three movies, and showing that its primary audience was both boys and girls. The main insight that can be observed is the gendered pattern of characters being mostly males in the three films, which in turn supports patriarchal privilege in the wider society.

Along with the ratio of males to females in the children’s films, masculine and feminine characteristics were observed. Results show in Table 3 the high difference between masculine traits and feminine traits among males and females. In total, 19 percent of females portrayed masculine characteristics and 37 percent of males portrayed feminine characteristics. This contributes to early gender socialization of what a boy or girl thinks they can –or have to- be in society.

Table 3: Masculine and Feminine Characteristics Portrayed by Characters in the 30 Films Total



n %


n %



Masculine Traits

  • Strong

  • Brave

  • Competitive

  • Intelligent

  • Athletic

168 88

157 77

87 79

35 81

242 81

22 12

47 23

23 21

8 19

58 19







689 81

158 19


Feminine Traits

  • Victim

  • Emotional

  • Weak

  • Dependent

  • Sexual

35 41

42 52

10 59

14 27

4 7

50 59

39 48

7 41

37 73

42 93







105 37

175 63


Gendered social roles are prominent in all three films. The main results that stood out from the research are the differences between blue collar and pink collar careers in Table 4. In all thirty movies, 16 males were portrayed as working in pink collar careers, such as taking child care or flight attendants. Only a total of 15 females in the movies were portrayed as working blue collar careers. Some examples of blue collar careers are (1) an international spy, (2) a mechanic, and (3) a cowgirl. The gap between blue collar and pink collar careers show children the cultural script of what their future careers should be –and what they should aspire to be.

The gender division of labor is intractable in these films because of the social

Table 4: Social Roles by Character’s Sex in the Children’s Films

Social Role







Damsel in Distress








Blue Collar Career




Pink Collar Career
















construction of masculinity and femininity. It is easier for a girl to transition into a masculine role, such as Merida’s character in Brave. She is observed as strong, brave, and fearless. However, Merida is also viewed as vulnerable, scared, and beautiful. While Merida can blend into a masculine role, a male character cannot blend into a feminine role. Our society would label a male working in a pink collar job as gay, effeminate, and “girly,” which in turn devalues females while lending implicit support to patriarchy.

Lastly, appearance was examined and the results are shown in Table 5. Sexually revealing clothing, thinness, attractiveness, and tending to physical appearance are usually thought of as female characteristics, but results show these are male characteristics as well. Attractiveness and thinness were about equal for males and females compared to the total number of males and females in each movie. The main difference found in appearance was the sexually revealing clothing compared to male and female characters. Female characters were 86 percent more likely to be wearing sexually revealing clothing compared to males. Attractiveness and tending to physical appearance was also most likely among female characters. These results match up with past research involving the portrayal of females in the media. If females are portrayed as attractive and worrying about the way they look then this can set up an endless cycle of girls and females needing to look perfect and never being happy with themselves.

Table 5: Appearance of Character’s in Children’s Films

Appearance by Character’s Sex







Sexually Revealing Clothing












Tending to Physical Appearance









This content analysis examined children’s films ranking in the top grossed films throughout 2010, 2011, and 2012. I perceived the sample of the 30 highest grossed children’s films to be favorable due to these films being the most recent in our media. Recent studies have focused mainly on the Disney princess franchise and completing an inclusive study on children’s films from many genres would give a better idea of what the children are all watching. Gilpatric explains how it is worth examining the representations of males and females in popular children’s films because of the “potential to influence a young viewing audience and their ideas about gender and social roles” (p. 735). Content coding analyses demonstrate that all of the movies portray some stereotypical representations of gender, including the most progressive film, Brave.

The results of this study indicate that gender stereotypes are prevalent in children’s films in the United States. As compared to men, women are portrayed (1) less frequently as main characters, (2) more frequently as attractive, wearing sexually revealing clothing, and tending to appearance, and (3) less often in roles as a hero and leader. These findings are in line with past research. The films featuring female leads were Tangled (20010) and Brave (2012). A female lead should not depend on a male counterpart and be independent in their journey. This research found the film, Brave, to be the only film with a true female lead not needing a male counterpart. In the movie, Merida, decided not to marry any of the males her parents were going to force her to marry and she helped her mother stay alive with help from another counterpart, unlike Rapunzel in the film Tangled.

This research did find throughout the 30 films domestic life is not idealized, but many of the females are romantically inclined to be with a man. Out of the 30 films there were 15 instances when females were shown falling in love with male characters. In the film, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island the main character, Sean, makes Kailani fall in love with him by the end of their 3 day trip. If children are shown at that young of an age false pretenses about love along with masculine and feminine stereotypes they may mirror the acts later in life. Many of these films can be simultaneously commended and critiqued for the reasons stated above.

Kessen (1997) stated that “the child is essentially and eternally a cultural invention” (p. 4). Childhood is not something that is defined merely by biological factors states Kahlenberg and Hein (2010); it is largely determined by societal influences. Children form their own sense of gender and media becomes a central socialization agent. When examining masculine and feminine gender roles in the films, males were portrayed as brave 77 percent of the time compared to females 23 percent of the time. For example, Hank in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island stated, “Big man’s not afraid of anything” when he was called out by his father-in-law after being trapped on an island. This shows boys at a young age they have to be brave and protect the people around them.


This study does have some limitations due to the fact that multiple researchers were not involved in the coding process for cross-checking. According to Robert Johnson, investigator triangulation is important to be able to observe at different times and compare notes. Methods triangulation, such as incorporating interviews with the consumers of children’s movies, was not used; this study relied on content analysis as the sole method. The study also remained subjective because the films were watched and critiqued by one person. Future researchers could include children and adults watching films and then asking participants about gender role construction using the sample from this study.

The results of this content analysis support the findings of previous research on gender roles in various media. The results show the perpetuation of gender roles in children’s films. Boys and girls are being shown at a young age what our society deems acceptable. Simply stated, boys are socialized to be aggressive, strong, and work in blue collar careers while staying fit; girls are socialized to be caring, dependent, and work in pink collar careers while still being sexually attractive.


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