If you think that cartoons are for kids, you couldn’t be more wrong, because behind all the princesses and talking animals there are important social issues that are hidden. It’s not always in the most obvious way, but creators do show things that they can’t keep silent about. A children’s cartoon can become so deep, you can get lost.
Here at Bright Side we explain several social issues Disney showed us in its movies, most of which we didn’t even notice. You’re welcome to scroll through what we have prepared, but be careful — from this moment on, you’ll probably forever see these movies from a different perspective.
1. Sexual harassment -The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
The movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame probably tells the darkest story Disney ever told. A lot of social issues are mentioned there including religion, genocide, and sexual harassment.
A young gypsy girl, Esmeralda, is represented as the sexual object of all the protagonists, but it’s especially obvious with Frollo. The way he behaves with Esmeralda (he constantly touches her, and even smells her hair and her scarf) clearly shows he is sexually attracted to her and Esmeralda knows it. He doesn’t even deny his desire: he clearly suggests that either she should choose to be with him or he’ll burn her alive.
Esmeralda’s example teaches us to be brave, stand up for ourselves, and only let worthy people into our lives.
2. Depression and mental health — Inside Out (2015)
If you haven’t thought about it, Inside Out is a movie about depression and how it progresses. When Riley moves to San Francisco, her depression starts to develop since she doesn’t want to disappoint her parents and suppresses her real feelings of sadness. We can also see it in her head: it’s exactly the moment when Sadness starts to become really active, touching everything around her. Joy restricts Sadness from doing anything and tries to lock her in a circle.
When Joy and Sadness disappear, Riley can’t be happy and also can’t be sad and open up about her feelings, slipping into a deep depression. The whole movie shows how it progresses and destroys everything that used to be the definition of her. At first she only feels Disgust, Anger, and Fear, and then she doesn’t feel anything at all.
The movie shows that it is okay to not feel happy all the time and it’s important to accept all the emotions we have. It also calls us on to talk about our feelings and mental health.
3. Child custody and loss — Lilo & Stitch (2002)
Beyond aliens and stuff, this story is also about how 2 orphaned sisters try to overcome the loss of their parents and continue being a family. The loss hit little Lilo very hard and she doesn’t behave very well, making it harder for her older sister, Nani, who now has to work and take care of her in order to keep custody of her.
The situation gets even more difficult because of social services, who keep a close an eye on the sisters, threatening to take Lilo away. The struggles of child custody and a broken family are shown in the movie. It shows how hard it is for a child to overcome a loss, what it takes for a broken family to overcome all the difficulties, and how much they need all the love and support they can get.
Lilo & Stitch teaches us to be kind and confide in others, and, of course, teaches us that “Ohana means family, and family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.”
4. Mental impairment — Finding Dory (2016)
Dory is a blue fish that has problems with her short term-memory. As a young fish, Dory learns how to survive with her illness and explain it to others. When she got swept away and lost her parents, she was swimming around totally lost, not knowing who she was — and this is the reality people with amnesia disorders face.
Short-term memory loss isn’t the only disorder shown in the movie. A lot of characters Dory meets represent a certain mental illness (for example, Hank the octopus represents depression and the whale named Bailey represents anxiety).
The movie teaches acceptance to children in regards to those with mental disorders and encourages them to overcome their problems to be able to reach their dreams and goals. As for the others, it shows the reality and struggles of those who have the disorders and inspires us to help and support them so they can overcome everything with their loved ones by their side.
5. Social minorities — Frozen (2013)
In Frozen, Elsa has had to hide her personality and her powers since she was a child. Even her parents never helped her to learn to be herself and to not be afraid of them, preferring to shut her out and trying to make her fit in. The gloves they give her represent their attempt to hide her uniqueness and make her “normal.” Elsa wore the gloves for her whole life and tried to be “normal,” until she escaped, accepted who she was, and threw them away.
On her coronation day, when everyone discovered she had magic powers, people called her a monster. She never hurt anyone and did nothing wrong, but people didn’t want to accept her because she was different in a way that was considered negative and unacceptable in their society. And this is what happens in our world too.
The movie shows how people, who are different, are threatened in society, and it’s not just about magic: any kind of social minorities that exist in our own society can relate to this situation. Frozen teaches us that it’s okay to be different and everyone has a place in this world, no matter who they are.
6. Dictatorship — Toy Story 3 (2010)
In the movie, a grown-up Andy donates his toys to a daycare center that is ruled by a teddy bear named Lotso. He presents the center as a paradise, however, the place turns out to be a dictatorship with an elite ruling class that is led by the despot teddy bear.
This movie illustrates the many aspects of dictatorship: a charismatic leader, the existence of social classes (the elite who lives in a room where nice children play and who are very caring of their toys; and the rest of the toys are in a different room, where no one takes good care of them), brainwashing (what happened to Buzz Lightyear), forced labor, and certain ideology.
Presented as a paradise and a place of freedom, Sunnyside is actually a dictatorship with military-like discipline. What the creator wanted to show and teach us is actually said in the movie by the Barbie Doll: “Authority should derive from the consent of the governed, not from the threat of force!”
7. Bullying — Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
In Wreck-It Ralph, Vanellope wasn’t like other girls in her game. The fact that it was glitching made her an object of bullying: not only was she not allowed in the group of her peers, she was constantly humiliated and mocked by them. Nevertheless, Vanellope always stayed friendly to them, forgetting all their offenses, even when they broke the cart she made herself.
Bullying is widespread in our world, and many kids can relate to how Vanellope was treated. By creating such a strong and charismatic character, Disney supports the victims of bullying, showing them that their weirdness and quirks are what makes them unique, and that there are people in the world who will like them for who they are and treat them well. Beyond that, Vanellope is an example for bullied kids and teaches us how important it is to stay friendly no matter what.
8. Parental abuse — Tangled (2010)
Whatever Mother Gothel says to Rapunzel, she is mostly trying to destroy her self-esteem by mocking her physical appearance, questioning the possibility that anyone could like her, laughing at her dreams, and making Rapunzel feel guilty for them. Moreover, she constantly tells her that she is naive and couldn’t possibly stand up for herself, trying to make her emotionally dependent. Gothel also doesn’t let her leave the tower and have any free will — and although it’s because she’s simply hiding Rapunzel, that doesn’t usually happen in real life. It is a great illustration of overprotective and toxic parents.
Emotional abuse isn’t as clearly seen as physical abuse, though it can be as traumatizing. People don’t widely discuss it and Disney reveals this problem, showing kids that people can be abusive, and even if you’re close, you should escape because there are people in this world who will love you for who you are and support even your craziest ideas.
We have already written that Mother Gothel only expresses her love toward Rapunzel’s hair, and not directly to her, which shows that she doesn’t really love her. But not only does she not love Rapunzel, she constantly manipulates her, which is a clear illustration of an emotionally abusive parent.
What other social issues do you think should also be exposed? Have you noticed any other hidden social issues in Disney movies? Let’s discuss all of your ideas in the comments.
Preview photo credit The Hunchback of Notre Dame / Walt Disney Animation Studios