Society Is Dependent On The Media Sociology Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

Society is dependent on the media for information and entertainment due to its easy access, as well as its ability to be culturally encoded for all to understand. According to Breslow (2002), the mass media perform three major functions in society, these are: educating, shaping public relations, and advocating a particular point of view across society. The Walt Disney Corporation is an American mass media company which is most famously known for children's films and is the world's largest media conglomerate (Best Communications Degrees, 2013). Due to Disney's large scale popularity, this study aims to examine whether Disney's portrayal of mental illness affects how society perceives mental illness, since the coverage of mental health in the media is a controversial subject and it is deemed as a sensitive topic by some individuals in society.

Audience Research

It is not only the media source itself, but the audience that needs to be considered. Disney films are generally intended for a younger audience. Evidence demonstrates that children are the main viewers of Disney films (Booker, 2012). Children can be easily influenced by media consumption as they easily accept and internalise media messages, this is shown by Bandura's Bobo Doll Study (1963). Bandura divided 48 girls and 48 boys into 3 experimental groups and a control group. The groups were subject to different conditions associated with a Bobo doll. The first group witnessed an adult become aggressive towards a Bobo doll in a live scenario. The second group viewed a film of the adult acting aggressively to a Bobo doll. The third group watched a cartoon animal act aggressively towards a Bobo doll. The children watched the aggressive acts individually, preventing an influence of opinion or distraction off other children in the group and allowing individual differences of opinion to emerge. After observing the models, each of the children from the four groups were individually put in a room with an experimenter where they were exposed to a mildly frustrating situation to elicit aggression. After this, the children were sent to play in a room of toys which included a Bobo doll. Researchers covertly observed the children, noting any interaction with the Bobo doll. Results showed that the children who had been exposed to the aggressive behaviour, exhibited nearly twice as much aggressive behaviour than the control group. The results demonstrate that media can be influential on the behaviour of children, therefore implying that Disney movies may affect a child's behaviour. This study can be criticised due to having a small ethnocentric sample size, so the results cannot be generalised to the wider society. However, it must also be considered that children may associate adults as disciplinary figures, so the children mimic the behaviour shown as if they are trying to conform to adult behaviour. Despite this, this study is appropriate to the research as it demonstrates the influence that media and adult role models have on children. Audiences may also interpret results differently, as Thompson (1995) argues that audiences do not automatically passively accept information but actively select and interpret, resist or even challenge the media, affected through individual differences and experiences.

In contrast, McQuail (2005) suggests that the media can have 'planned' and 'unplanned' effects on the audience, with short and long term effects. McQuail does not generalise the audience to be a mass being, as he finds these factors to be heightened by individual differences. Therefore, there is a fragmentation of the audience, in this example Disney films are primarily associated with a younger audience (Booker, 2012). As a result, there is no single mass audience, people may choose to watch a programme at a later date and media messages may not spread throughout society. Furthermore not everyone in society will view the media, so people will not share the exact same values. Despite this, the audience is widely dispersed and the media is easily able to control the audience and spread messages (McQuail, 2005). Contrasting to this perspective, Disney may be more focused on capitalism than social control, as found by Fiske (1987), Disney's content could be influenced through the structured media market-led environment through the consumer choice of media and globalisation. The media is a business and the audience is the consumer. Public interests are subordinated to private capitalistic interests. It could be further considered that the media has become a form of 'ideological apparatus' (Milner and Browitt, 2002). The media narrative is constructed to encourage the acceptance of social positions, leaving the individual to emotionally invest in the source through identifying similar personal traits. The perspective associates the audience as a passive being, as the media is dominant and 'positions' the audience through an emotional connection.

Ctausse's (1968) Schema of Differential Audience Reach finds that not all members of the audience accept the media values transmitted. Ctausse displays how media messages go through a process of being offered, receivable, received, registered, before being potentially internalised by the audience. This is further examined by British Cultural Studies, who investigate the way audiences decode media messages. They find the decoding of media messages varies on primary definers and individual differences, such as social and linguistic differences (Hall, 1973). Three types of decoding were proposed by Hall (1973). Dominant decoding views that the audience acknowledges media values and easily accepts the media discourse. Negotiated decoding, detects that the audience recognises the media has interpreted the events in a certain way, the audience is not completely passive to media messages. Oppositional decoding, finds that the audience challenges media authority. An example of oppositional decoding would be the feminist approach to a male presented dominated programme. This is significant to the research as it implies that the Disney audience have individual differences and not all will decode the content in the same manner. However, this research is opposed by cultivation theory. Cultivation theory suggests that the more time spent by the individual watching television, the more the viewer will come to view reality through ideologies imposed by the media (Gerbner et al, 2002). This is reinforced by social learning theory, which implies that learning is influenced by people and events presented in the media (Bandura, 1994), finding media to be a large scale influence on how people perceive society. False representation of mental illness reinforced through the media can encourage the audience to conform and accept stereotypes. This may result in the possibility of negative attitudes towards individuals with mental illnesses obtained during childhood persevering into adulthood.

Stuart Hall's Reception Theory finds the media to have a polysemic structure, the producers of the media encode a message for the audience to decode (Kitzinger, 2004), implying that the audience are in control. This is further developed by Hall's (1973) Encoding and Decoding model which considers the media as a process whereby messages are sent and received with certain effects that alter how the audience perceives things. As a result, media messages can be interpreted differently by audiences and may not be understood in the way desired by producers (Hall, 1973). It can be argued that this process encourages maximum potential of audience involvement, as the media acts as a socialising force, in the case of Disney it allows the development of marketing off the characters' personas to society. In support of this, Fiske examined the notion of semiotic negotiation and resistance; the audience has the ability to shape media meaning to the self. This means that the audience can subvert conformity, they are not a slave to the media, and therefore Disney films do not necessarily affect how an individual views mental illness (Fiske, 1987). In contrast, Lazarsfeld and Merton (1948) perceive the media to be a form of entertainment, which allows the audience to escape the hardship of reality and simultaneously integrates society. However, it must be considered that this is only a theoretical perspective, it is formed of hypothesise and not first-hand research. Challenges to this theory include the Marxist perspective, which was further developed by the Neo-Marxist perspective as the media was not far developed in Karl Marx's lifetime. As we have seen earlier, it can be considered that Disney has a capitalistic nature and linguistic intentions may not be to harm the audience, but rather captivate them.

The media, according to Baudrillard (1989), has created a new form of reality 'hyper reality' where an image is produced by the media that is more real to the individual than the item is initially supposed to represent. This theory is further supported by Giroux (2002) who classifies Disney films as "teaching machines" (p. 100), enabled through marketing and globalisation. Overall, the media should be used to teach awareness of mental illness and not reinforce negative stereotypes (Stuart, 2006).

Media Coverage of Mental Illness

It must be considered that the media is used as a form of entertainment. The Uses and Gratification Model finds that the audience is an active force, who use the media for their own pleasure (Fiske, 1987). The media and its producers do not have power over the audience, it merely provides the audience with entertainment and diversion from reality. This is challenged by the Frankfurt School, who find the audience to be passive to media effects. They produced the 'hypodermic syringe' model, which metaphorically analyses the audience as accepting an injection of information from a media source; the audience accepts the norms and values prescribed by the media. The model believes that there is a direct correlation between violent behaviour in the media and violent behaviour in reality, which could be applied to violent Disney villains (Haney, 2005).

The Shift Media Survey of 2005 assessed the media coverage of mental health issues. The Shift Media Survey of 2005 conducted primary research, included the use of focus groups, interviews and using a range of media samples. It found only one example which concentrated on the negative stigma experienced by people with mental health problems, with the rest of the articles more focused on the issue of violence. This research can be applied to Disney movies, as villains are generally classed as being violent and acting deviant of social norms. The results of the focus group found that most individuals took the media at face value, highlighting the mass effect of the media and its ability to reinforce prejudices in society. This suggests that the negative stigma attached to mental illness by society is not based on any real knowledge, but on what society have been informed of via the mass media. However, the data of this research cannot be generalised to everyone due to its small specific sample, and correlational data does not imply causation. However, the problem with focus groups is that some participants may either hold back due to the lack of anonymity and confidentiality due to being in a group with other participants, or participants may attempt to answer the moderator's questions with answers they presume the moderator wants to hear. Furthermore, the interpretation of focus group data may also vary between researchers. Though this research does no directly apply to Disney media production, it's results can be assessed to understand whether the media has an impact on public opinion. Overall, the research finds that media generally portrays mental illness through a negative stereotype, used mainly to reinforce and sell stories associated with criminal or deviant behaviour. These negative stereotypes can also be used in children's films to differentiate between good and evil characters, as shown by Robinson et al (2007) who discovers that a large percentage of older Disney characters are associated with these negative stereotypes surrounding mental illness. This is further researched by Sadler (2005) through the notion of cultural sanctioning, the media reinforces cultural ideals, which at the same time maintains viewership through familiarity.

Beveridge (1996) focused on the portrayal of mental illness in four classic Disney films: Dumbo, Alice in Wonderland, Mary Poppins, and Beauty and the Beast. Beveridge examined that sane characters that reacted strongly to a situation were negatively labelled as being mad. This is demonstrated in Dumbo through Dumbo's mother defending her son against bullying, she is judged to be mad after her outrage and is subsequently locked away from society, implying that mental illness should be kept from society. McKie (2003) further argues that the negative perception of madness in children's films is providing children with false impressions of mental illness. This article may not be an academic source, but it is an example of mass media implying that children's films have an effect on the perception of mental illness, nevertheless it is supported by Mind (2011). Research completed by Mind (2011) suggests that the media is failing to give mental health enough consideration, as demonstrated by 45% of the people questioned couldn't recall seeing any reports about mental health in any media over the past twelve months. Only 33% of the participants could remember observing a newspaper report associated with mental illness, 25% could recall seeing a documentary broadcast directly based on the subject, and 22% viewed mental illness being addressed in television dramas. This data may not directly apply to Disney films, but it demonstrates how the media has a large scale impact on the public's recall and opinions. It can be criticised that these statistics are based on the memory and recall ability of participants, therefore the results may not be entirely accurate as some individuals may have forgotten about seeing some mental illness related reports, and this can affect the reliability of the data.

Madness is the implication of an individual being in an idiosyncratic state, where people do not immediately understand or make sense of an individual's behaviour (Pilgrim, 2009). This can result in the implication of alienation, as demonstrated by Madhouses in Victorian society, which fuelled negative stereotypes of mental illness in society. Negative stereotypes may put people at risk of social exclusion and can lead to people feeling stigmatised by society. As a consequence, the individual may develop what Goffman (1963) calls a 'spoiled identity' and demonstrate further abnormal behaviour in society. Goffman (1961) primarily writes about patients being institutionalised and the implications of psychiatric hospitals, but the writing can be applied to the treatment of Disney characters. For example, it can be related to a scene in Beauty and the Beast, where Maurice is locked away from society by the townsfolk as society doesn't accept his behaviour or opinions, this will be analysed further in the discussion section of the dissertation.

Lawson and Fouts (2004) found 85% of 34 animated films produced by Disney between 1937 and 2001, contained references to characters with mental illness. There was an average of 4.6 references per film alienating characters, furthermore 21% of principal characters were being judged to have a mental illness. The research concludes that the use of terms such as "crazy" "mad" and "nut" allows a segregation of characters, separating them from what is classed as normal. This can provoke alienation and associate fear with characters deemed as being mentally ill. However, this study does not consider the appearance of characters, which could further affect the audiences' perception of a character. This research may be dated due to more Disney films being released, it displays how frequently Disney refers to mental illness. It must also be considered that there is a time limit in the media when divulging a story, therefore the use of stereotypes to portray characters allows easier association with the viewers' daily life (Signorielli, 2001).

In contrast to the research discussed, Booker (2010) finds that Disney encourages individualism that people do not need to change who they are to be accepted in society. Characters appear to suffer negative treatment by society until they learn to accept who they are. For example, this is shown through Dumbo learning to embrace his differences and proving himself to society. This could suggest that mental illness is related to moral failures.

Medicine has adapted Disney characters to mental disorders, implying that science finds the Disney characters to be associated with mental illness. The psychological and personality disorders named after Disney characters, include: Peter Pan Syndrome, Sleeping Beauty Syndrome, Rapunzel Syndrome, and Cinderella Complex. These conditions imply that Disney characters have had a direct impact on mental illness. Peter Pan Syndrome, according to Kiley (1983), demonstrates the alienation of men failing to confront the emotional realities of society through their narcissistic nature, women are found accountable of accepting immature behaviour. The psychological condition finds that some members of society, like the fictional character, remain in a childish state, failing to accept appropriate adult roles in society. The work primarily focuses on men and shows how women mature faster. This is similar to the Disney film which shows Wendy to grow up and teach the other children how to behave. Sleeping Beauty Syndrome is a disorder that involves people uncontrollably sleeping for days at a time. Rapunzel Syndrome often affects those with mental illness, as the Rapunzel character is implied to be suffering severe depression, it involves people eating their hair (Singla et al, 1999). Cinderella Complex finds women conform and lower expectations in order to fit into society, young girls have no aspirations, conforming to a stereotypical housewife lifestyle (Kerr, 1985). The research may be dated, but it supports the thesis of Disney affecting society's perception of mental illness.

The medical model defines mental illness through classification schemes. There are several weaknesses of this model including the validity and reliability of diagnostic criteria (Sadler, 2005). The model ignores individual differences and classifies people into categories in which they might not belong. In opposition to this, Szasz (1961) puts forward the Myth of Mental Illness which contemplates whether mental illness actually exists, due to the overuse of the notion associated with 'problems of living'. However, the existence of mental illness has been around for a long time and in a variety of cultures, implying that mental illness is not socially constructed, but that society can manipulate how mental illness is perceived. Szasz (1961) further examines that the label of mental illness allows the power of social control to discipline and manage those who won't conform. This includes state legislation, such as the Mental Health Act 2007 (CPS, 2013).


Whilst conducting the literature review, it has been understood that Walt Disney himself was associated with mental illness. His mother died when he was young, coincidently he was obsessed with the concept of "family". This could have impacted the structure of Disney productions, as most Disney movies begin with the mother dying or already dead. However, this may not account for movies created after his death that contain references to mental illness, unless Disney are intending to stick to storylines that Walt Disney would find acceptable.

Not all texts address mental illness in association to Disney films, as shown by Deconstructing Disney (Byrne and McQuillan, 2000) and Mouse Morality: The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film (Ward, 2002). These books cover themes such as sexuality, race and gender, but fail to consider the implications Disney films have on mental health. The disregard implies that it is acceptable for Disney to stigmatise those who are mentally ill.

The research discussed suggests that there has been little social change in regards to how the media portrays mental illness, there is a negative stereotype and this is presented in the selection of Disney films studied. However, I feel that there is only a limited number of studies and this is an area that needs to be examined in more detail. Each source analysed highlights a negative connotation attached to mental illness which has produced a stigma in society, reinforced by the media discourse. Wahl et al (2003) reach a concerning conclusion that future generations will be continually exposed to negative images and views of mental illness unless children are introduced to "destigmatising" programs. Instead of labelling someone as insane and producing a negative stigma, the media and society should focus on the specific problems and behaviours of the individual, fixing the negative stereotypes attached to mental illness (Jorm, 2000). While none of the above theories offer a solution to the negative association of mental illness, they do demonstrate awareness. There is no perspective that can be absolute when analysing social actions.


This section will reflect how evidence will be collected to support the arguments of my research question. As discussed in the Literature Review, the majority of the previous work in this area has concentrated on stereotypes and the audience.

In order to find out whether the public's perception of mental health is affected by Disney films, I need to establish initially how the public perceive mental health in order to reach a context specific definition of mental illness. The NHS is the largest publicly funded health service in existence, therefore I feel that they have a high enough influence to be regarded in this research in order to gain an understanding of mental health. I will use a publically available NHS document, in order to gain an understanding of what the British health system classifies mental illness as:

"Mental well-being crucially affects healthy functioning of individuals, families, communities and societies. It fundamentally affects behaviour, social cohesion, social inclusion and economic prosperity. Underlying social, economic and environmental dimensions that can affect a person's well-being relate to factors such as employment status, education, health and household/neighbourhood characteristics." (NHS Confederation, 2012).

To find out whether the public's perception of mental health is affected by Disney films, I will conduct a content analysis to identify what terms related to mental illness are used in Disney films, I will then consider the contextual intentions of Disney. I will use theory to further analyse my results to gain a well-rounded view of the subject. I will also examine behavioural responses to Disney through the use of secondary research such as The Shift Media Survey of 2005 to examine my data. There is a mixed methods approach to the research, it is not specifically focused on quantitative or qualitative methods, allowing a continuum of the two.

Selecting the Sample

In order to examine whether Disney's portrayal of mental illness affects how society perceives mental illness, I have decided to base my research sample on the most popular Disney feature length films. I examined the success rate of films from each of them based on their profit, which combined with the availability of films, the following films were included: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953), The Jungle Book (1967), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Toy Story (1995), Hercules (1997), Tarzan (1999), The Emperor's New Groove (2000), The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), Alice in Wonderland (2010). In total my sample consisted of sixteen Walt Disney Pictures, with only two films not being of an animated nature.


To begin with, I viewed my selected films and took general notes which allowed me to create a basic coding scheme. I then re-watched the films to ensure reliability, I also re-recorded the occurrence of the selected terms associated with mental illness across a range of Disney films. The coding scheme included references to behaviour and the physical description of characters, such as "mad" "insane" and "strange". I will also note the contextual circumstances of which the references were made. The coding scheme will initially exclude character names, but these will be noted for later consideration, e.g. The Mad Hatter. The context of code will be considered before recording to make sure the term is being used an appropriate sense. Once the coding was complete I noted the main themes that had emerged in order to aid my future analysis. Visual representations are also important to consider when studying mental illness in the media to examine how characters conform to stereotypes, as I found through my literature review that there was a lack of regard to character appearances.


A content analysis describes what is there, but does not provide underlying reasoning, so I will be combining my research with a theoretical analysis. This will consist of selecting and discussing theoretical material and a detailed comparison of applicable theories. This will aid us in understanding whether certain theories help us to comprehend particular patterns of social behaviour. This approach will allow me to assess contrasting sources, allowing a more critical attitude. However, a content analysis describes what is there, but does not provide underlying reasoning. Data collected from a variety of sources, such as published statistics, allows a better understanding of the subject area through different perspectives. Combining secondary sources of theory and research with my observations will allow me to investigate my research question from more than one perspective, thus helping to expand my knowledge and understanding through a broader research experience. I find this technique prevents an over-reliance on secondary sources. Where appropriate, because of the research process, I have decided to adopt a first-person narrative voice. Secondary analysis of data is less time consuming and cheaper than gathering primary data. Despite this, secondary data is not always applicable to the nature of the research being conducted, primary data is specific to the research you are conducting. Furthermore, gathering data myself allows me to trust the reliability and validity of the data, you cannot truly know secondary data is obtained. I must be wary of generalisation in my research, since it must be considered that individual differences exist in society.

This approach was appropriate due to time and resource constraints, and the literature reviewed indicated that this project would provide better answers to the research question. If there had been more time, a larger range of films would have been used in the sample in order to gain a more rounded view of how Disney uses references to mental illness in films. I could have also compared Disney to other media companies, allowing a comparison of media presentations of mental illness.

To support my studies, I will use Bryman (2012) to ensure I am following correct ethical procedures and that accurate methodological practice is followed. I will also be consulting NRES guidelines to ensure that my research is ethically appropriate.


In exploring the research, two main themes were identified when exploring whether Disney's portrayal of mental illness affects how society perceives mental illness. The first theme finds it is up to the audience as to how terminology in the media is accepted. The second theme finds a negative stigma attached to mental illness through the linguistics used in the media.

The findings suggest that the audience control how media messages are accepted and interpreted. People are not entirely passive beings and may choose what media messages they accept, regardless of how the producers intended the media to be understood (Hall, 1973), although Bandura's (1963) research implies that children are easily impressionable and will imitate what they see. Through the research discussed, I find that children will accept what they are taught by the media unless they experience negative reinforcement and are taught to accept different values by an authoritative figure, such as a teacher or parent.

Most everyone's mad here

Stereotypes of mental illness are formed through an individual's personal experiences combined with the influence of external sources. Negative stereotypes can lead to the process of stigmatising and isolating members of society. I have found musical numbers to contain references of mental illness and fragment characters from what is considered the norm. A prime example is 'Beauty and the Beast - Belle'. The main character, Belle, is mocked by the townsfolk as being "peculiar", "strange" and "rather odd" due to her aspirations of aiming for more than what the repetitive local life provides. These lyrics suggest to the audience that you should not deviate from the norm, or as a consequence you will be rejected by society, further implying that a unique personality is associated with mental illness. This example also demonstrates that the mental illness label is not soulfully applied to Disney villains, but those who aim to escape the routine life. In the Victorian era, woman who deviated from the stereotypical gender roles were classed as being hysterical. The medicalising of mental illness can be applied to Belle's situation regarding how the townsfolk judge her. Beauty and the Beast also could be related to Stockholm Syndrome, through Belle staying and being kindly towards the beast. The film implies that if you're pleasant to someone who's abusing you, they'll gradually transform into the prince that you desire. This is shown through the lyrics Belle sings "There's something sweet, and almost kind. But he was mean, and he was coarse and unrefined. And now he's dear, and so unsure, I wonder why I didn't see it there before?" (Beauty and the Beast, 1991), as Belle had allowed the Beast to be abusive in the hope that he would change, something that could be a potentially damaging influence to the audience in a real life situation. It can be argued that music has a stronger impact and influence on the audience, as Booker (2010) finds strategically positioned music can help attain the attention of the audience. In fact, there is only approximately 5 minutes of Beauty and the Beast in total that does not contain music. The music is also widely available to purchase and is covered by mainstream artists, allowing a greater connection of the audience to the film.

It must be considered that if someone was to communicate with inanimate objects in modern society, as Belle does in Beauty and the Beast, they would be perceived as being mentally ill. The exaggerated notion of magic in Disney films can lead to the introduction of "negative social roles", people in similar situations would be "othered" by society. This is further shown by Peter Pan which is set in another world, a false reality known as 'Neverland'. If someone was to claim this had happened to them and they were adamant that they were not dreaming, they would be considered mentally ill. Subsequently, there is a condition associated with the immaturity of men known as 'Peter Pan Syndrome' which implies that men are not growing up and are mentally living in Neverland, whilst women are overtaking them in society and taking a similar maturing attitude to Wendy's behaviour in Peter Pan (Kiley, 1983).

Princess Jasmine is described as "a little crazy" when Aladdin is trying to excuse her of thieving. Her behaviour becomes erratic to reinforce a mental label in order to fool the guards and escape a prison sentence. Using the term 'crazy' to excuse stealing, can imply to the audience that those who are mentally ill are criminals, since it must be taken into account that a child might struggle to separate reality from fiction. In modern British society, if someone was to claim that the reason for committing a crime was due to mental illness they would be examined under the Mental Health Act 2007, after being considered until the Mental Capacity Act 2005, legislation that makes decisions on the behalf of adults who have been classed as lacking the capacity to make serious decisions for themselves. The Mental Health Act 2007 defines mental illness as "any disorder or disability of the mind" (CPS, 2013) and those considered mentally ill would be convicted under different conditions to the norm. In reality, a criminal act would not be ignored if the individual displayed erratic behaviour and treatment to prevent the deviant behaviour would be enforced. By contrast, it could be considered that the terms associated with mental illness are used for comedic affect and are not meant to cause harm. This is exemplified by Booker (2010), who finds that Disney encourages individualism that people do not need to change who they are to be accepted in society. As shown by Dumbo, as the character learns to embrace his differences and prove himself to society through making light of his situation. This situation shows that by defeating his negative stigma, assigned by society, he prevents a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Mental illness was used in a negative manner in all of the Disney films that I viewed, for example "senior psychopath", which is said by the Genie from Aladdin insults the villain Jafar (figure 4). The Oxford Dictionary defines psychopath as "a person suffering from chronic mental disorder with abnormal or violent social behaviour" (Oxford Dictionaries, 2012). This reinforces how Disney have purposely used mental illness in a negative manner. Whilst there are no verbal references to mental illness in Cinderella, there are many character behaviours associated with mental illness, as demonstrated by the wicked step mum who suffers delusional outbursts in Cinderella. However there are exceptions to this scenario. The Emperor's New Groove shows how the main character, Kuzco, is initially associated with having an evil persona, but then is reformed into what is considered a good character. This transformation is due to a new friendship formed with what is perceived as another good character and the lessons taught through this friendship. These examples imply that moral failures are defined by semantics related to mental illness.

Disney films imply that image is a key item to acceptance in society, as shabby characters appear to be associated with poor mental health, further reinforcing a negative stereotype of mental illness. For example, the three hyenas in The Lion King (Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed) are given traits that diverge from the norm, allowing them to be distinguished from the 'good' characters. Ed is given an exaggerated hysterical laugh, which reinforces his abnormal sense of identity. This implies that peculiar behaviour allows the division of characters, just as society would separate those who don't comply with norms into a separate institution of society.

Lexis associated with mental illness is also used in a character's name; The Mad Hatter, from Alice in Wonderland (1951). This has predefined the character as being mentally ill through his name association, which can also be related to the well-known phase "as mad as a hatter". The character is also referred to as being 'mad' by the Cheshire Cat on several occasions when the Cat disapproves of the Hatters antics, further reinforcing a stigma of mental illness. In modern society, through personal experience, I have found that when an individual is given a nickname associated with mental illness it is generally because they stray from a groups social norms. This is theme is continued in the 2010 sequel, demonstrating little social change. Names are also a key influence in Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (figure 1), as each Dwarf name portrays exaggerated personalities, showing the reoccurring effects of a label (Szasz, 1961).

The discourse analysis of mental illness in Disney films can be taken further, as examples of the semantic code were not always spoken. In Aladdin "Crazy Hakim's Discount Fertilizer" is written on a sign clearly visible to the audience. In contrast, Dumbo contains a lack of semantics relating to mental illness, but there is more empirical discrimination. For example, Dumbo's mother is locked away for displaying what is perceived as mental illness by the surrounding characters. This situation is similar to a scene in Beauty and the Beast, Maurice is locked away from the townsfolk as society doesn't accept his erratic behaviour and individual differences (figure 5), not conforming to the everyday repetitive lives of the townsfolk. Isolation appears to be a key theme in containing behaviour associated with mental illness in Disney films, as if social isolation prevents the spread of evil or unwanted social values being transmitted and contaminating society (Goffman, 1961). Through isolating people from society, Goffman (1961) finds institutionalisation socialises the individual into the role of a good patient, therefore someone who is acceptable in society. This suggests that the notion of mental illness does not belong in society. There is also the association of age with mental illness in this particular scene, "Crazy old Maurice" as the character tries to prove the existence of Beast to the townsfolk in Beauty and The Beast, but they refuse to believe him.

It can also be argued that mental illness can be shown in 'good' characters from the beginning of the film. In Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear (figure 3) demonstrates delusions of grandeur and suffers a breakdown after realizing he's only a toy. In addition, this situation demonstrates an association with moral failures. This leads me to assume that actions associated with mental illness are not necessarily demonstrated in a negative manner, and it is verbal insults relating to mental illness that are more damaging to a character's persona. This is further demonstrated through Captain Jack Sparrow, who is implied to be riddled with mental issues as shown through hallucinations and his fluctuating state-of-mind, yet these actions are presented in a comical manner to the audience. This character lacks capacity which is a symptom of mental illness. In society you would be referred for an examination to see if you have a mental illness, whereas in the film it is seen as a comical effect. His deviant behaviour is portrayed in a positive light, he is known as a hero in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. It can also be considered that the actions associated with mental illness are made to be seen as comical. However, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was the first Disney film to be certificated as a '12a' by the BBFC, instead of the usual PG or U age certification, implying that the film was intended for a more mature audience.

Hercules is insulted by townsfolk as being "too dangerous to be around normal people", but what is the definition of normal? Social norms change over time, there is no set definition of normality. This notion can be applied to the age of films, as this will affect how content is perceived, due to possible linguistic meanings changing with time. Therefore, the use of stereotypes to portray characters allows easier association with the viewers' everyday lifestyle (Signorielli, 2001). Media regulations are also stricter in modern society, for example films in Britain are subject to an age certificate, provided by the British Board of Film Classification. This could account for the use of terms associated with mental illness, as these words may replace inappropriate language, such as swear words, which Disney would be unable to market to its targeted audience.

Through my own observations, I have discovered that the majority of Disney films contained a reference to mental illness, with disability being an added feature to most characters to distinguish between good and evil. I had a coding scheme which I used to aid me in recording relevant data whilst watching the films. There was a positive correlation of evil characters and the descriptive use of mental illness semantics. I also empirically evaluated that the majority of evil characters also had a physical abnormality or were disabled, further implying these characters were different from society. The terms used may be reduced to casual insults rather than official medical terms, but they still make an impact on how society perceives mental illness.

The lack of sample size in my research may affect the reliability and validity of my research. In addition, I did not witness the secondary research being gathered, so I cannot prove the validity and reliability of the sources. However, there are strict ethical considerations of involving children in primary research and this would be rather time consuming. Furthermore, the scope of my research does not extend to a consideration of other film companies. A comparison of Disney films to other film companies, may not demonstrate same outcome. For example, it could allow a deeper consideration in regards to Walt Disney's upbringing as a possible influence of Disney film content. Time constraints were a key restricting issue for this research.

Evidently, there are several theoretical and empirical works making a valuable contribution to the research demands, but there is not much research available on whether Disney's take on mental illness affects how society perceives it, suggesting that more research needs to be conducted in order to get a clearer understanding. As a result, the lack of research conducted in this area may compromise my research, and the use of secondary data will be heavily relied upon to further analyse my research question.


The aim of this study was to attempt to examine whether Disney's portrayal of mental illness affects how society perceives mental illness. After contemplating the literature, we will now proceed to further the discussion. The results of the research demonstrate that Disney films reinforce a negative stereotype of the mentally ill. The lack of research already conducted in this area may compromise my research. To compensate I will be applying secondary data to my research question and analyse whether it is appropriate.

Social knowledge is obtained from the media through its wide outreach and easily accessible nature to audiences, resulting in memories being dependent on the media, since the media is central to modern life. But, it must be considered that the audience is not necessarily a mass formation, people can be susceptible to either passive or active media affects. Audiences are formed of specific social contexts combined with a response to specific patterns of media provision. It is a segment of society with no structure but a high sense of identity (McQuail, 2005). Audiences are affected by people, place, time and content. Children are the intended Disney audience of the particular films studied, but this factor can be combined with an accumulated audience of parents, which can reinforce stereotypes through generations (Booker, 2012). It can be argued by relating fiction to reality encourages the maximum potential of audience involvement. But it must also be considered that children are the main audience of Disney films, and they are known to have difficulties separating reality from fiction. Unless Disney set up a website or encourage parental guidance to prevent false images, repeated exposure to the films can reinforce negative stereotypes associated with mental illness, therefore a negative stigma is inflicted into society.

Mental illness in Disney Films

The inaccurate portrayal of mental illness in Disney films can result in misconceptions, resulting in negative stereotypes being reinforced in society. Generations watch Disney films from a young age, according to Giroux (2002) Disney has become an accepted norm of society, allowing socialisation of Disney ideology from a young age. This imposes a risk to society's values, as the more time spent by an individual watching Disney, the more the viewer will come to view reality through ideologies imposed (Gerbner et al, 2002).

The familiarity of stereotypes in Disney productions allow the audience to associate with the film better, as it allows the individual to relate characters with real life experiences (Signorielli, 2001). For example, there are more male villains than female villains in Disney films, which reflects the real life statistics of male to female criminals (Haney, 2005). The research shows that Disney villains appear to be the primary victims of insults associated with mental illness. Lawson and Fouts (2004) examined how the terms crazy" "mad" and "nut" were primarily associated with villains. Associating a villain with these terms makes them seem like they are afflicted with mental illness. It must also be considered that these terms may replace inappropriate language, such as swear words, that may not be acceptable in Disney films due to the young audience. The terminology defines the good from the bad, ignoring any social conditions the character experiences. However, it must be considered that most characters in Alice in Wonderland are associated with mental illness, "Most everyone's mad here", the Cheshire Cat in both adaptations of the film appears to judge all characters as mentally ill regardless of their status. The Shift Media Survey (2005) does not statistically support Lawson and Fouts (2004), since the research was conducted for a different purpose, but both demonstrate little evidence available which discusses a positive image of mental illness in the Disney films. The Shift Media Survey (2005) found that none of their participants could think of any positive images of mental illness in the media. The empirical image of Disney characters or surrounding scenery is not considered by the research discussed. Actions and verbal phrases seem to be a major focus, despite the fact that a film is a visual production. This research is further supported by Mind (2011), who found that the media does not consider the effects of discussing mental illness in the media. Through the works of Robinson et al (2007), we can examine how a large percentage of older Disney characters are associated with negative stereotypes associated with mental illness. Labelling someone as being mentally ill does not necessarily mean that the individual is mentally ill (Scheff, 1975). As a consequence, the individual could conform and adapt to the label, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and a form of acceptance. The implication of a Disney film is that everyone lives happily ever after, but in reality stereotypes do not necessarily provide a happy life for anyone, life isn't that easy.

Whilst Disney may reaffirm stereotypes, they also encourage individualism through characters that defer from social norms (Booker, 2010). These are generally characters that appear to suffer negative treatment by society until they learn to accept who they are. This is shown by Buzz in Toy Story, as Woody refuses to accept Buzz until he believes he is just a toy. However, these characters are generally classed as 'good', implying that there is still an influence of social norms regarding a characters behaviour and their acceptance in society. Evil behaviour is shown to have negative consequences in Disney films, which could be considered as an educational feature in teaching society how they are supposed to behave (Haney, 2005). This may also influence the audiences perception of mental illness in society, by associating characteristics with mental illness, since parental guidance certificates may not always be followed, leaving children vulnerable to media ideology.

Disney films have been identified and attached to medical conditions (Kiley, 1983), implying that the characters must display symptoms associated with mental illness. The Genie from Aladdin could be associated with having multiple personality disorder, as the character's persona changes on a frequent basis. However, it must be considered that these personalities are used in order to provide a comedic effect to the films and keep the audience's attention. Despite Disney's association with medical science, Disney films do not offer reassurance to mentally ill citizens, as it does not provide accurate information regarding the treatment of mental health. The Disney films do not teach people on how to get help if they feel they are mentally unwell, but rather change their persona to fit in with society or be isolated. This could result in a mentally fragile person not seeking help through fear of being isolated by society (Jorm, 2000). However, Disney feature films contain sensitive issues that may help a child adapt to similar situations, such as the death of a parent. The films teach children important life lessons, such as right from wrong behaviour. This is not considered by the research conducted by Mind (2011), not all media messages are obvious and the audience may unconsciously accept the media's content (Bandura, 1994).

Most of Disney's productions are interpretations of archaic fairy tales. Disney modernises and censors classic fairy tales so that they are appropriate for children, contrasting to the darker versions constructed by Grimm. This is demonstrated through Disney's 'The Lion King' which is adapted from Shakespeare's 'Hamlet', tailoring adult fiction to a child audience (Ward, 2002). Through this technique, it could also be argued that Disney's focus of production is capitalism, "only story lines in which pure good triumphs over pure evil leaves audiences comfortably reassured" (Haney, 2005, p.43), thus Disney will only produce material tailored to what the audience will enjoy and not consider the possible implications of any stereotypes demonstrated. Disney films are produced to entertain and need to create characters to which the audience can relate in order to be accepted by society.

The Jungle Books lead character could be related to the case study of Genie (Rymer, 1994). Mowgli is brought up by animals (figure 2), whilst Genie was confined to a room, both had no human contact in their childhood upbringing and both were classed as feral children by the media. This case study can also be related to Tarzan. Professionals tried to teach Genie the 'human' way of life, at the same time we witness Tarzan go through a similar teaching scheme, as Jane attempts to socialise him into human ways. These examples demonstrate how social norms are important regarding acceptance in society. In addition to this, it must be considered that Tarzan demonstrates acceptance. Physical differences are ignored as the gorillas nurture the human into acceptance. The film teaches the audience that internally we the same, defying issues regarding mentality and image, just as Genie was accepted into society after being taught human traits.

There is a key narrative associated with references of mental illness in Disney films; mental illness is seen as something that needs to be overcome by the character in order to be accepted by society. Despite any stereotypes suggested, Disney does stress the importance of individualism (Booker, 2010). Characters are taught to accept who they are despite the hardships they face, as shown by Pinocchio. Pinocchio is the story of a wooden puppet brought to life by a fairy, who tells him he will be transformed into a real boy if he proves himself, to do this he was informed that he would be able to distinguish what was right from wrong by listening to his conscience. Pinocchio is constructed to be a compulsive liar, even though chronic lying is not a mental disorder, it is a symptom. Despite the moral of the story, it is still a bad example to set to the audience. Instead of encouraging acceptance or denial of mental illness, the media should encourage public awareness and education regarding mental illness (Stuart, 2006).


Overall, these findings provide no conclusive evidence that Disney purposefully uses terms associated with mental illness to influence society's perception of mental illness. There does, however, appear to be a negative connotation regarding Disney's use of terms associated with mental illness in Disney films, as the findings demonstrate that they generally are used to degrade a character. There is also a high usage of stereotypes within the films which can provide further alienation to individuals in society. I feel that my research demonstrates that there is a lack of consideration of the media and its regard of mental illness, specifically with children's media. It can be questioned whether objectivity in the media is possible, in my opinion Disney films are created to profit the company, therefore the films are made to appeal to society. Therefore, the true nature of Disney characters in relation to mental illness cannot be proven.