December 5, 2011 — Jad Rahme
Since the release of the first full length Disney movie in 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the studio released a lot of other classical movies much appreciated not only by children but also by teens and adults. Disney, which is often associated with fun, dream and happiness in people’s mind, is not that innocent and this is due to the fact of an important presence of stereotypes in their movies. Some may argue that movies are not responsible for stereotypes building in children’s mind but a research made at the Appalachian State University say that if they don’t build them they reinforce them (Newswise, 2011). This paper analyzes stereotypes in Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire (Trousdale & Wise, 2001): With a main focus on characters’ stereotypes, the issue of religion and the adaptation of the original story made by Disney are also studied.
Atlantis The Lost Empire tells the story of a young researcher, Milo Thatch, who has always dreamt of discovering the underwater city: Atlantis. The whole adventure starts in 1914 when Preston Whitmore, his grandfather’s friend, decided to make Thatch dream come true by getting him onboard of a huge and sophisticated submarine with a team of explorers. What is very interesting is that this team is formed of people from different gender, ethnicities and backgrounds and Disney created them in a caricatural way pushing attributes to the extreme.
First, Milo Thatch the young researcher is represented as a “Nerdy” scientific with his big round glasses that he is also wearing in his childhood pictures. The character is thin and don’t have a lot of self-confidence and has always a lack of authority comparing to other team members. Milo is always victim of ridicule behavior, the team always makes fun of him and no one takes him seriously. And all this is true at least for the first part of the movie. Is this a good image to give to kids watching this movie? Of course not, children should be encouraged to do research and at least have a positive image about research and science. If a kid has a pre-built image in his brain associating researchers and scientists with a nerdy, ridicule person lacking of authority and confidence they will never want to go into this field. However, we can omit that in the last part of the movie Milo becomes a character with a strong personality, high authority and great intelligence and those traits will allow him to become a Hero. This is a great lesson: It’s not all about the physical appearance, mental characteristics are very important and after all the scientists are not that weak and intimidated.
Second, Helga Sinclair is a tall and sexy woman making her first appearance in Milo’s apartment in the dark. She is very bossy and has high authority especially over Thatch who loses control because of her appearance and her arrogance when speaking. The good part in this is that it is far from the cliché always showing men as being dominant but in the mean time it may create a stereotype showing that women use physical appearance and voice ton to control men.
Third, Gaetan Moliere also known as “Mole” is a dirty Frenchmen obsessed with dirt and digging. This is a very bad stereotype that may be considered as racism or maybe an attack to the French people: How would a French person feel if he is portrayed as being a dirty and filthy person? Now, a kid who have watched this movie would easily associate French people with dirt specially that a lot of people make up jokes about French being dirty people.
Fourth, Dr. Joshua Sweet is an African-American doctor that is portrayed as being a person with high medical understanding and a nice character. This is great to avoid and remove any possible bad stereotype concerning African-American people. The only attribute here that may be arguable is the fact that he is really big and all the tools he uses are bigger than what they usually are but is it true that all the African-American people are big and was it a must for this character to be portrayed like this? Most probably not. However, we should underline the fact that Dr. Sweet is the only animated black man in any Disney movie of the new millennium (Macedo & Steinberg, 2007) so maybe Disney should do some efforts concerning this.
Fifth, Wilhelmina Packard is an old and grumpy communication officer. She is always smoking and has a messy office in which she spends her time talking on the phone and she is never distracted with what’s going on even if it is an attack in addition to her pessimistic attitude. The only other elderly character in this movie is Whitmore the millionaire who made the adventure possible and he is also shown as a slightly weird person. There is no doubt that there is a negative stereotyping for seniors in this movie and that also is bad for the kids’ minds. The fact also that Packard is always smoking may affect children maybe they could have find something else to characterize her.
Sixth, Audrey Ramirez is an aggressive Latina teen specialized in mechanics. This character has more masculinity than feminity and she is also portrayed as a thieve since she says at some time in the movie: “I used to steal their lunch money”. This stereotype of Hispanic in Disney movies affects very badly kids especially in the US where it is a very sensitive issue and where there are a lot of problems due to this racism against this community. Instead of helping children being more tolerant, Disney is making them more “racist”.
Seventh, Vincenzo Santorini is an Italian explosive expert who spent some time in prison in Turkey. Here again the stereotype of the Italian “Mafioso” is attributed to this character and it will help kids have a wrong image of Italian people. But, we should admit that this makes the character funny and interesting.
Eighth, Lyle Rourke is a tall army commander who seems very kind in the first part of the story and then it appears that he had bad intentions and that all what motivated him in this expedition was money. This trait of character is important because it shows that we should not rely on appearances and that we should always be careful. Also, the fact that Rourke dies at the end let children understand that this was a bad guy and that they should not act as he did. Concerning his soldiers and marines they were really bad stereotyped: People who can’t think they only receive orders, they never talk and they are always the scarified ones. Why this is bad for kids? Because they should not be discouraged to be part of the army or the marines or any entity who is serving its society.
A part studying the stereotypes in characters it is interesting to study religion in Atlantis: The Lost Empire. The Atlanteeans are portrayed as being part of a movement like the New Age one. The New Age is a spiritual movement focusing on energy, spirituality and environment and it is often associated with indigenous culture (UWA, n.d.). This movement and the Atlanteeans spirituality focuses a lot on multiple gods and on mythology and this arise a dilemma. Some people argue that children should know that there are different religions and different beliefs but in the mean time some others argue that children should not be invited to believe in mythology and multiple gods and belief in energy and environment. In those cases the solution would be to have parents talking about those issues with their kids.
Finally, Plato is at the origin of Atlantis’ story and he described it as a powerful rich empire that used to let people work as slaves (atlantisinireland.com, n.d.). When Disney adapted the story they created Atlantis as a paradisiacal empire where everybody lives happy and slavery is never evoked. This is a smart move to avoid having kids taking slavery as a model or viewing as something good noting that it is against the universal human rights.
To conclude, Disney did great by creating a team of explorers from different ages, cultures and ethnicity working together but the stereotypes they attributed to each character by itself affect negatively the image that kids may have of French, Italian, Hispanic or African-American person as long as elderly people. However, when talking about gender creating a team of men and women specially that the story is taking place in 1914 is a good move to avoid gender differences at the exception of the character of Helga Sinclair who may create some bad image about women. We should admit also that pushing the traits of those characters to the extreme makes them more funny and attractive. But, this is not the only dilemma, another one occurs when talking about the fact that Atlanteeans are described as being part of a religious movement not far from the New Age movement worshiping energy, environment and mythology that will let you think whether kids should be exposed to that or not. As proposed earlier, the solution for those two dilemmas is to have parents talk with their children about different ethnic, age, religious and racial groups to make sure they are not building stereotypes in their head that would be reinforced by those movies. Finally the adaptation Disney did for the original story of Plato was good because it took out everything concerned with slavery which is against the universal human rights.
Newswise. (2011, January 13). A level psychology. Retrieved from: http://alevelpsychology.co.uk/news/interesting/beauty-and-the-beast-do-stereotypes-in-children-s-films-affect-friend-choice.html
Trousdale, G. (Director), & Wise, K. (Director) (2001). Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Walt Disney [DVD].
Macedo, D., & Steinberg, S. (2007). Media literacy: A reader.
University of Western Australia. (n.d.). WA Snapshots. Retrieved from: http://www.hewa.uwa.edu.au/wa_snapshots
Atlantisinireland (n.d.). Atlantis and Paleogeography. Retrieved from: http://atlantisinireland.com/atlantismyth.php