Mental Illness in Disney Animated Films
Andrea Lawson, BA1 Gregory Fouts, PhD2
Objective:To examine the prevalence of verbalizations about mental illness in the
animated feature films of The Walt Disney Company (TWDC). We discuss the results
within the context of children’s repeated exposure to popular animated movies and their
learning of labels and stereotypes associated with mental illness. We recommend further
research on this topic.
Method: We coded 34 animated feature films produced by TWDC for mental illness
references (for example, “crazy” or “nuts”). We developed a coding manual to systematize
the content analysis, to ensure accuracy of the data, and to ascertain intercoder reliability.
Results: Most of the films (that is, 85%) contain verbal references to mental illness, with
an average of 4.6 references per film. The references were mainly used to set apart and
denigrate the characters to whom they referred. Twenty-one percent of the principal
characters were referred to as mentally ill. We discuss the contributions and limitations of
Conclusions: The findings have implications for child viewers in terms of their potentially
learning prejudicial attitudes and distancing behaviours toward individuals perceived as
being mentally ill. To further verify this connection, an assessment of the incidence of
Disney film exposure and attitudes toward people with a mental illness, using a sample of
school-aged children, is needed.
(Can J Psychiatry 2004;49:310–314)
Information on author affiliations appears at the end of the article.
· Mental illness references have high frequency within animated Disney films.
· Exposure to animated Disney films has implications for child viewers who are learning
stereotyped attitudes and stigmatizing terminology.
· More studies are required to determine the causal relation between exposure to Disney films
and children’s attitudes toward people with a mental illness.
· We coded only verbal and written representations of mental illness. Thus, the number of
characters referred to as mentally ill and the frequency of references to mental illness may be
· We coded the frequencies of references rather than the reference duration or the percentage of
time that mental illness was portrayed on screen. The latter may have a greater impact on
children’s perceptions of mental illness.
Key Words: attitudes, mental illness, stereotypes, media, children
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Mental Illness in Disney Animated Films
he effect on adults of the media’s portrayal of mental ill- illness (such as “crazy” or “nutty as a fruitcake”), potentially
T ness and persons with mental illness has been extensively
researched (1–6). The portrayals have been found to be over-
acquiring the negative connotations and stereotypes associ-
ated with such labels (for example, inferiority or dangerous-
whelmingly negative (5,7,8) and have been associated with ness). It has been suggested that adults’ stereotypical beliefs
adults’ possessing negative attitudes and behaviours regard- about mental illness may have originally been acquired
ing mental illness and persons with a mental illness (2,4,5). through media exposure in childhood (6,23,24). Second, early
However, little research has examined such representations in exposure to characters stereotypically depicted as mentally ill
children’s media and the possible effects on children. could cause the vicarious induction of fear and anxiety in
Some studies have examined children’s labels for and stereo- young viewers, resulting in unconscious social distancing
typic attitudes about mental illness and persons with a mental from these individuals (6,11,12). Third, research has consis-
illness (9–12). An important question is how children acquire tently demonstrated negative consequences associated with
these labels and attitudes, especially in the absence of direct adults’ stereotypical beliefs about mental illness and persons
exposure to mental illness in their everyday lives (13,14). One with a mental illness—for example, research showing stigma-
way may be through watching animated feature films in which tization and discrimination against those with a mental illness
characters are portrayed as mentally ill. In this study, we con- (9,11,12) and public policy regarding mental health (25).
duct a content analysis of the animated feature films watched One study assesses the contents of children’s media for its
in large numbers by young children. portrayal of mental illness (6). These researchers examined 46
The animated feature films of The Walt Disney Company different children’s TV programs available in Britain during 1
(TWDC) (for example, Dumbo and Alice in Wonderland) are complete week (60% of these were produced in the US), and
the focus of the study for 4 reasons: First, TWDC is the major they identified occasions wherein mental illness was talked
world producer of full-length animated feature films viewed about and (or) characters were verbally represented as men-
by children (15). Second, the greater length of feature films tally ill (for example, characters were defined as mentally ill
allows for the establishment of characters—something that is when they were consistently referred to by other characters as
not always possible in shorter films or in television (TV) pro- having a mental illness). This study found that over 46% of the
grams. Feature-length movies likely foster a greater sense of programs contained references to mental illness; 80% of these
familiarity and identification with the characters, thereby cre- were in cartoons. The present study uses a similar methodol-
ating a situation wherein the happenings, the emotions, and ogy and extends that of Wilson and colleagues by examining
the potential lessons may have a greater impact on children, another medium of animation (that is, full-length Disney fea-
compared with any other medium. Third, most parents take ture films) for characters portrayed as mentally ill and by
their children to see Disney movies and rent or purchase Dis- focusing only on verbal references. Researchers need to know
ney videos and DVDs. This has resulted in movies such as the contents of movie presentations of mental illness before
Snow White and Cinderella becoming films of choice for con- assessing the effects of such exposures on young children.
temporary children, creating a Disney audience that spans
many generations. Multiple exposures to the films (especially Method
in the context of parental involvement, approval, and enjoy- TWDC produced 40 full-length animated feature films
ment) likely increase the impact on children’s knowledge and between 1937 and 2001. These films are defined as having a
attitudes. Fourth, research examining the contents of Disney duration of at least 40 to 45 minutes and as having been
movies (for example, portrayals of sex and [or] race) has released into theatres (26). All such films were included in the
found that such films present and often promote various ste- study, except for those without one consistent story line from
reotypes and legitimize social inequalities (15–18). Disney start to finish (for example, Fantasia, Fantasia 2000, Make
movies have not been analyzed for their presentation of char- Mine Music, and Melody Time), primarily educational films
acters as mentally ill. (for example, Saludos Amigos), and those not available on
video during the coding period (for example, Atlantis). Thus,
Understanding the presentation of mental illness in children’s we analyzed a total of 34 films for content .
movies is important for 3 reasons. First, numerous studies
have shown that children’s exposure to TV and movies influ- Coding Manual
ences attitudes toward a wide range of social groups, that is, We developed a coding manual to systematize the content
the elderly (19), persons with a mental disability (20,21), and analysis. The manual contained the variables coded, the oper-
persons with obesity (22). Therefore, repeated exposure to ational definitions, the criteria for coding, and examples.
depictions of mental illness in movies likely influences chil- During the manual development, we conducted several prac-
dren’s attitudes toward persons with a mental illness. Thus, tice codings of the variables using non-Disney TV cartoons.
children may learn labels referring to those with a mental We did this to ensure clarity of the variable definitions, the
Can J Psychiatry, Vol 49, No 5, May 2004 W 311
The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry—Original Research
examples, and the coding options. Several practice rounds and interpretation of each variable and its criteria for coding. Once
manual refinements were required to attain an acceptable training was complete, the films were charted independently
level of intercoder agreement for each variable. without further discussion.
Below we describe the coding of each film. First, we coded The reliability coder indexed 10 (29%) of the 34 films. We
film and character information, that is, film title, the year pro- determined intercoder reliability by correlating the scores
duced, and the name and sex of principal characters. Principal between both coders in the 10 films. The correlation for the
characters were defined as those around whom the film’s frequency of mental illness words or phrases across all the
action primarily revolved, those whose actions significantly principal characters was r = 0.96 (P < 0.001); for the minor
influenced the plot, or those who were present on-screen for a characters, it was r = 0.99 (P < 0.001). These correlations indi-
significant portion of the film. Second, we coded mental ill- cate high reliability.
ness as portrayed by the principal character, that is, all verbal-
izations about a principal character referring to mental illness, Results and Discussion
including verbalizations about a principal character by others Combining principal and minor characters, a total of 85% of
or self-references by the principal character. An examination Disney animated films contained references to characters
of the research literature (6,23) revealed 64 words referring to with mental illness. More specifically, 21% of all principal
mental illness (for example, “crazy,” “lunatic,” and “nuts”) characters were referred to as mentally ill (for instance,
and 37 phrases (for example, “out of one’s mind” and “not in Maurice of Beauty and the Beast, Jafar of Aladdin, and Mrs
touch with reality”). The words and phrases were cast into a Jumbo of Dumbo); there were no significant (P > 0.10) sex
table with a number assigned to each. A coder recorded the differences. These findings have 2 implications: First, the
number of the word or phrase and the frequency with which it prevalence of verbal references to mental illness in animated
occurred in the film. Third, we coded mental illness as por- films is considerably higher than that found in children’s TV
trayed by minor characters, to obtain a complete coding of all programs available in Britain (46%), including both non-
references to mental illness. We coded minor characters verbal and verbal references (6). Second, prevalence of verbal
(including inanimate objects and groups), using a procedure references to mental illness in animated films is higher than
identical to that used for principal characters. Here, however, the incidence of mental illness worldwide (9.5%) (27).
minor characters were coded in total, rather than individually. Therefore, children who watch animated films of TWDC are
For example, if a teacup character was referred to as “loony” exposed to a greater incidence of mental illness than is typi-
and another minor character as “crazy,” we recorded 2 cally seen on TV and are exposed to a greather incidence of
instances of mental illness. mental illness than they may experience in their everyday
lives. Consequentially, young children may acquire an unreal-
To ensure accuracy and interpretability of the data, we did not
istic and stereotypic view of individuals with a mental illness
code comments about a particular situation (such as a “crazy”
in society, which could be exacerbated by their failure to dis-
situation) and negations of a word or phrase (for example,
tinguish between fiction and reality (28). It is unknown, how-
“You’re not crazy”). Included in coding were comments
ever, whether this conclusion applies equally to British and
about a character’s thoughts, ideas, actions, or clothing (such
North American children.
as “What’s with the crazy get up?”), as well as written words
(for example, “Looney Bin” appearing on a building). We The average number of mental illness references per film was
included thoughts, ideas, actions, and clothing because these 4.6, with the 3 most prevalent words being (in descending
refer directly to a character’s state of mind. Other characters, order) “crazy,” “mad” or “madness,” and “nut” or “nutty.”
or the characters themselves, viewed these traits as irrational, These references were commonly employed to segregate,
illogical, inferior, unpredictable, and (or) lacking control. alienate, and denote the inferior status of the character(s) to
This coding is consistent with the use of mental illness words which they referred—a finding consistent with the over-
to refer to negative and potentially frightening characteristics whelmingly negative portrayal of mental illness found in adult
of people. media (6–8). For example, in Beauty and the Beast, the towns-
people frequently refer to the intellectuals Belle and her
Coder Training and Reliability father, Maurice as mentally ill. Mental illness words are used
One researcher was the primary coder and coded all 34 films. to set apart and denigrate these characters, implying that to be
To determine intercoder reliability, a second coder was mentally ill is to be different in a negative and inferior way. As
trained. Training consisted of the reliability coder studying the film progresses, the frequency of these words aimed at
the manual, practising with the researcher, and practising with Maurice increases, climaxing in a scene where he will be
independent coding, using a sample of non-Disney TV car- chained and hauled off in a “lunacy wagon.” The children
toons. Training continued until both coders agreed on the watching could associate mental illness labels with people
W Can J Psychiatry, Vol 49, No 5, May 2004
Mental Illness in Disney Animated Films
who are so frightening and dangerous that they must be emotional responses in young viewers. Third, we suggest the
chained and locked away from the rest of society. This emo- relation between media exposure and children’s attitudes and
tional association may result in increased fear of persons with behaviours be assessed. Finally, we suggest that the relative
a mental illness, increased worries of possible harm, and an contributions of various media (that is, movies, television,
increase in distancing and avoidance of contact. This is con- comic books, and video games) to children’s attitudes and
sistent with research indicating that children fear and distrust behaviours regarding mental illness and persons with a mental
persons with mental illness and try to maintain their social dis- illness be addressed.
tance from them (11,12).
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Résumé : La maladie mentale dans les films d’animation de Disney
Objectif : Examiner la prévalence des expressions verbales sur la maladie mentale dans les longs
métrages d’animation de la compagnie Walt Disney (CWD). Nous présentons les résultats dans le
contexte de l’exposition répétée des enfants à des films d’animation populaires et de leur
apprentissage d’étiquettes et de stéréotypes associés à la maladie mentale. Nous proposons des
recommandations pour de futures études.
Méthode : Nous avons codé 34 longs métrages d’animation produits par la CWD en ce qui concerne
les mentions de la maladie mentale (par exemple, « fou » ou « dingue »). Nous avons élaboré un
manuel de codage pour systématiser l’analyse de contenu, assurer l’exactitude des données et
confirmer la fiabilité des intercodeurs.
Résultats : La plupart des films (soit 85 %) contiennent des mentions verbales de la maladie mentale,
la moyenne étant de 4,6 mentions par film. Les mentions étaient principalement utilisées pour isoler et
dénigrer les personnages qu’elles concernaient. Vingt et un pour cent des personnages principaux
étaient désignés de malades mentaux. Nous présentons les contributions et les limites de l’étude.
Conclusions : Les résultats ont des implications pour les enfants spectateurs en ce qui concerne leur
apprentissage éventuel de préjugés et de mises à distance émotionnelle à l’endroit de personnes
perçues comme étant malades mentales. Pour mieux vérifier ce lien, il faut une évaluation de
l’incidence de l’exposition aux films de Disney et des attitudes envers les personnes souffrant de
maladie mentale à l’aide d’un échantillon d’enfants d’âge scolaire.
W Can J Psychiatry, Vol 49, No 5, May 2004