The Psychosocial Implications of Disney Movies


The aim of this research project is to explore the perceptions of year seven girls of the animated films of Disney.

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What do young black girls think of their female bodies in the films?

How does watching these films make them feel about themselves?

After discussing these, some suggestions and implications for further studies will be provided and how these affect my practice as a teacher.These might include changes to the curriculum, extracurricular activities, seating plans, mentoring sessions, teaching styles etc

Context and rationale

As a science teacher and year 7 form teacher (for the past 5 years) my research will be carried out in an outer London English Roman Catholic mixed secondary school which has 1257 students of which 35% are girls.It has been granted Specialist Science, ICT and Maths specialist status.

About 40% of the school population are students from different black backgrounds of which 25% are black Africans. Hence because of this high number of black African students in our school, I believe this study will be important for my school because the school assessment data has shown an increase in the percentage of black girls who are underachieving to be about 10%. One of the major problems identified in these girls is truanting, school data shows that there are about 10% black African girls on the truanting register while few others are listed as having behavioural problems which have led to about 10% exclusion of black girls.

My informal observations have led me to conclude that some of these girls show signs of low self esteem. This is evidenced in their interactions with others (lunchtimes, out of school clubs, overnight retreats). They lack confidence, dislike participating and find it difficult to interact with their peers. My hypothesis is that this is partly due to the influence of the media. Ihave come to this conclusion from my own observations of the media and my reading about the topic.

Although there may be other factors affecting their progress (such as unidentified special educational needs, family difficulties and peer pressure for example) this study may lead to developing a strategy for supporting these girls more effectively within the school and outside. This might be linked to the mentoring programme already running in year 7. Also, it may lead to curriculum changes, in terms of a higher profile and truer representation of black African girls.

Wider rationale for the research

The view held by many researchers including Madison in Bell, Haase and Sells (1995), Miller and Rode in Bell, Hass and Sells (1995), Bryne and McQuillan (1999) and Zipes (1987) is that Disney occupies centre stage in endorsing an ideology that is patriarchal, heterosexual and racist, and plays a major role in influencing societal norms and culture. Themes in Disney’s animated films have also been of immense interest to sociologist and academics over the years. One such is Deepa Kumar, visiting professor of Communication at Wake Forest University, USA. Kumar’s view is that Disney is a dominating influence in shaping children’s culture. He argues that there exists a perception in popular culture that Disney stands for everything that’s good and provides wholesome family entertainment. Disney Corporation puts forth an image linked with words like innocence, magic, fantasy and pleasure. Behind the veneer of innocence is a corporation whose primary goal is to make profit, (Kumar, cited in Oettinger, 2003).

There are grounds for Kumar’s view, especially in light of Disney CEO, Michael Fisher’s remarks in 2000 when he said, “We have no obligation to make history, we have no obligation to make art …… to make money is our obligation.” However, Fisher’s remarks reflect Disney’s ability to separate its corporate goals from entertainment.

Disney’s status as a producer and distributor of the genre of animated fantasy and children’s films is due to his ability to “make a spectacle of innocence” (Brocklebank cited in Marvels and Tales 2000). But ignoring Disney’s resonant popular impact only strengthens its position as a purveyor of social pedagogy and ideology. Thus Disney’s critics, among them Zipes (1979), demand the “breaking of Disney spell” and the “interrogation” of the magic. As polemical as Zipes and other Disney critics might be, one needs to critically examine if this attitude of Disney – making a spectacle of innocence- “results in audience members placing its products in a safe niche above cultural reproach or interrogation”(Sun:2001). This line of argument would entail, among other areas worthy of discussion, a critical analysis of Disney’s representation of black woman and girl and people from other cultures.

Female body images presented in popular culture have been one of the focIin academic discourses of several societies since the late twentieth century. In these discussions, the relationship between media images and social perceptions of the female body has particularly been criticized by numerous scholars (e.g, Orbach 1984; Butler 1999; Gimlin 2002; Popenoe 2004). According to these scholars, media images of the female body have reflected specific socio-cultural assumptions and regulations that portray females’ bodies and sexuality more frequently and continually than those of males, especially in connection with the social standards considered to exemplify beauty in society. As these media representations can cultivate a misunderstanding that impacts the social – cultural conceptions of what it means to be female, some scholars (e.g Bowlby 1985; Wine 1985; FaludI1991; Davis 1997; Gremillion 2003) have been argued that women’s body images and sexuality are not determined by their own beliefs or self-conceptions. In this regard, popular culture can be seen as a means of expressing socio-cultural values, beliefs and constraints in a given society by providing the images and symbols of the concepts of being females that form a common or normal culture in that society. For example, women are sometimes seen as objects of violence and rape rather than seeing it as societal problem. The problem is not with the women but with those who involve themselves in such horrible acts. (e.g Adorno and Horkheimer 1969; Gerbner and Gross 1976; Hall 1993; Giroux 2000).

As such images of the female body are presented in the media; they have influenced not only the female adults, but also many pre and adolescent girls by leading them to be concerned about their body image.

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This phenomenon has even been identified as the potential cause of these girls having very low self esteem (including developing eating disorders), as listed by several studies ( e.g Field et al. 1999; Harrison 2000; Sands and Wardle 2003; Tiggermann 2003; Vaughan and Fouts 2003). In Australia (2006) a study was carried out by Dohnt and Tiggermann on young girls between the ages of 5 to 8 (a large scale study covering quite an age range) on how media exposure has affected these girl’s self conceptions and body image. The report of the study indicates that media exposure has affected these girls negatively.

Though there have been a lot of studies on cultural effect on young girls, but most of these studies have failed to include the views and opinions of these girls used in their studies rather their judgement is merely based on speculations on what they think or believe the psychological effects of these images portrayed by the media might have on these girls.

However the perceptions of various young girls views on media representations of the female body in the UK has hardly been researched. From personal observations as a teacher it seems most girls from various ethnic backgrounds learn more about British society and its cultural norms from their peers, society, school, and families.

In conducting researches, it is vital to listen to people’s views and opinions. Therefore in this research I will explore young black African girl’s perspectives on female body images as depicted in Disney movies by conducting a small scale qualitative study. In the cause of families migrating/ emigrating children are most likely to be raised in different cultures and as a result of these they tend to have adopted various cultures. A lot of black African children in the UK have been raised in more than one culture and as such they must adapt to both African and British socio cultural norms. Africans are considered as minority, but have received little social attention in the United Kingdom. Evidence is seen in some researcher carried out in the UK such as study carried out by Gillian Elam (2000), a health survey of black African population living in the UK and minority ethnic pupils experiences of schools in UK and Scotland (March 2005). Very little research has been done on the education of black African girls education in the UK and due to the increasing number of black Africans in the British society, they will make a good group for my study.

In doing this research with black African girls, Disney animated films have

been used because of their popularity amongst young children from different background (though they are American). There is a great deal of British children’s products such as literature, animated films etc they are not as popular as Disney films. Due to the above mentioned participants used in this research (mainly immigrants) are more familiar with Disney films than British animated films. Secondly, Disney has been criticised for its mispresentation of female body and sexuality (e.g. Bell, Hass, and Sells, 1995; Zipes1995; Giroux 2000; KasturI2002). According to scholars such Field et al. (1999) most Disney heroines are portrayed as beautiful, skinny or thin and arousing sexual desire or interest. In this research I have selected few Disney animated films as an instrument to see how young black African girls understand the female body images within the British culture.

By examining and analysing these girls responses or thoughts about Disneys films, they will be compared to already existing literature, in this research not only will Ilisten to these girls but to fill the space between what they study, learn in schools and their own thoughts/opinions.

Literature review

This literature review will concentrate on developing an understanding of the attainment and achievement of Black African girls in compulsory education. Also factors that have impacted on their academic performance will be looked at. Some of these factors include body image, self esteem and confidence, behaviour and stereotyping. It will then focus on the potential role of media in contributing to the situation.

Educational achievement of Black pupils especially the Black Afro Caribbean children in compulsory education in England has been a major concern over the past years. As a result of this low academic attainment / achievement, the government have embarked on many academic studies, research and reports to look at black African children’s underachievement and the impact that such attainment has on their future prospects. Such as (DCSF, 2008b, Gillborn, 2008, Cabinet Office, 2007, DfES, 2006a, Richardson, 2005; Christian, 2005; LDA, 2004; Tomlinson, 2003, Ofsted, 2002a, Majors, 2001; Gillborn and Mirza, 2000; Macpherson, 1999; Gillborn and Gipps, 1996; Wright, 1992; Swann, 1985; Troyna, 1984; Rampton, 1981; Bagley, 1979; Coard, 1971). The above documents shows widespread concerns within the Black community (Mamon, 2004; Abbott, 2005) that a large number of Black Afro Caribbean children seem to underperform compared to their White peers. An Ofsted report (1996) pointed out the gaps in the performance of black African pupils compared to their white peers has continued to widen as they move along the key stages. The national data on the DFES website shows evidence that African-Caribbean pupils have not shared equally in the increasing rates of average educational performance at GCSE. OFSTED research on the achievement of ethnic minority pupils from 1995 to 2005 concludes that the relatively lower exam achievement of Afro Caribbean pupils, especially the boys is a cause of concern as evidenced in the reports of their research. Parents, schools and the government have constantly been concerned about the underachievement of black Afro Caribbean and ways to improve their academic achievement in Britain has been paramount in the minds of all concerned. Figures from the DFES in 2005 indicates that about 42 % of Black Afro Caribbean pupils achieved 5 or more A* to Cs at GCSE compared to 55 % for British pupils as a whole. Girls from Black Afro Caribbean’s’ results compared reasonably well with those overall (49 %), the boys’ trailed behind with 33 %. Closing these achievement gaps is vital if people of Afro Caribbean origin, are to participate fully in the knowledge economy of the future.

Indeed an edited collection by Richardson (2005) discusses at length ‘How Our Schools Fail Black Children’. Their low attainment has been such a concern that arguments have been put forward for the introduction of a national role model programme for Black boys (REACH, 2007). This contention is supported by findings such as those by Demie (2005) whose research showed that the performance of Black children improved with the extensive use of teacher role models and learning mentors in schools. Various other initiatives have been introduced in schools to improve Black attainment and success such as (DfES, 2004; Tikly et al., 2005). The continuous underachievement of black children’s within British educational system has reinforced continued calls for the underlying factors that seem to hinder Black children’s performance to be addressed (Pilkington, 1999; Gillborn and Youdell, 2000; Crozier, 2005; Majors, 2001; DfES, 2006a, b; Gillborn, 2008). Identifying the causes of educational inequalities is an essential ingredient in raising Black children’s attainment because research evidence has shown that intervention from local authorities (LAs) and schools can help raise the achievement of Black children but only one the specific cause has been established (Gillborn and Youdell, 2000; Rhamie, 2007).

Although underachievement has been linked with low aspirations and goals (e.g. Demack et al., 2000), ‘underachievement’ appears to be strongly influenced by ethnicity, gender and class (Archer and Francis, 2007). Teachers have increasingly used the term to describe performance of Black Afro Carribean Children ( Jones and Myhill, 2004; Abbott, 2005). Furthermore, it seems that teachers’ perceptions of the social class backgrounds of children and their parents influence their conceptualization of underachievement (Gazeley and Dunne, 2005). For example, the concept of ‘underachievement’ is often used in educational discourses to differentiate educational outcomes among different ethnic groups (Gillborn and Mirza, 2000, p.7).


The difference to some of the findings identified above such as those linking educational underachievement to certain ethnic groups , Sewell (1997) contended that the difficulties Black children (especially Black Afro Caribbean) have in attaining highly relate to their behaviour rather than teacher attitudes / expectations (DCSF research report No 177, pg 12) .One of the major factors influencing the attainment of Black children is the level at which they are excluded from schools and learning opportunities. Black children are most likely to be excluded from school (DfES, 2006a, b) and consistently represent the most excluded group of pupils in terms of ethnicity (Gillborn, 1990; Gillborn and Youdell, 2000; Blair, 2001b; Youdell, 2003; Graham and Robinson, 2004; Parsons et al, 2004; Christian, 2005; Crozier, 2005; DfES, 2006b; Cabinet Office, 2007). It is argued that black pupils are often excluded for challenging what is perceived to be institutional (e.g. teacher racism) and individual racism (e.g. racist verbal bullying) (e.g.Mac an Ghaill, 1988; Sewell, 1997). Evidence suggests that schools perceive and respond to the behaviours of Black children more harshly than to other ethnic groups, and that this treatment is also differentiated by gender especially black Afro Caribbean males and females who are most likely to be excluded (Blair, 2001b; Osler and Vincent, 2003). Majors (2001:2) reported that children of African-Caribbean backgrounds are six times more likely to be excluded than their White counterparts, and in some London local authorities, they were 15 times more likely to be excluded.

As a result of the rise in the representation of African Caribbean pupils amongst those excluded from school has raised concern on what effects these might have on them. Although the attention has predominantly focused on African Caribbean boys we know that black African girls are also more vulnerable to exclusion from school than their white female peers (Osler & Hill, 1999). A report presented by OFSTED in 2001 has raised some important issues regarding the unequal high levels of exclusion of black pupils. Evidences gathered from one HMIreport on ten secondary schools, it observed that the reasons for these high rate of exclusion of black pupils: are not very clear, but many black pupils find themselves prone to disciplinary procedures and as such feel unfairly treated. Analysing the reasons for exclusion in schools sometimes showed a difference by ethnicity. Black pupils were more likely to be excluded from schools as a result of their challenging behaviour. Fixed-term exclusions lengths in schools varied considerably in some schools between pupils from different ethnicities (OFSTED, 2001: para. 86).

A brief look into the history of British Education indicates that there are a few educational policies that still have some elements of racism and needs to be changed. According to Sir Herman Ouseley (Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality) Britain’s education system is “institutionally racist”. (BBC News February 19, 1999). Rigid curriculum and teachers having low expectations of their pupils are some of the factors that have contributed to most of these children developing emotional disturbances which might be argued to have affected the performance of black children in Britain. Most Black parents have little or no knowledge about the education of their children. For the betterment of their children’s education active participation is required from the black parents. From my personal observations during parents evening/progress meetings in a few schools Ihave worked with, there is always low attendance of black parents to these meetings. Other factors which Ithink might affect black afro caribbean girls achievement are: lack of specialist trained behavioural experts, peer relationships, low self-esteem and low aspirations might have led them to make negative judgements about the importance of education and stop attending school. This is evidenced in a research report by Carol Hunte consultant with London Development Agency who pointed out some of the contributing factors to black children’s underachievement to be “culture of low expectations, inadequate level of positive teacher attention and poor behaviour management.”

In 2004 – 2005 ,30 years after it had been highlighted as an issue by Coard, the DCSF released a literature review on a census on students underachievement and highlighted that although black pupils form only 1.1% of the school population they represented 7.3% of those underachieving and were around six times more likely to be excluded than their White peers.

The under-achievement of Black Afro Caribbean pupils is a serious problem and vital to this study because overall many more females than males are excluded (OFSTED 2006), official statistics show the ratio to be 2.3 girls for each excluded boy. In my first year of teaching in an inner London school Iwas shocked at the number of Black African girls that were excluded within one school calendar year. A careful research within the female school population in our school has revealed that girls from Black Afro Caribbean heritage are likely to underachieve and more likely to be excluded: DCSF, 2006 census reveals that they accounted for about 8.8% of those excluded within 2004 – 2005.

Evidence from the above research suggests that both gender and racial stereotypes might be contributing factors why young black men and women are always caught up in the whirl wind of criticism and control (Gillborn & Gipps, 2006, pp. 29 and 58). The increase in the underachievment and exclusion for black families has resulted to educational crisis which needs to be tackled. Aiming High: raising the achievement of Minority Ethnic Pupils (government consultation document, DfES/0183/2003) outlined the qualities of a successful school to be: strong leadership, high expectations, effective teaching and learning, an ethos of respect and parental involvement.

Self esteem, body image and the media

Body image and self esteem are the two themes I will be looking at in this section of my literature review, how it affects the academic performance of black African girls, and how these girls have to deal with media in their daily lives. Critically I will look at how the media can impact a young girl to extent of making her feel self conscious and cause damage by changing the way she views/ perceives herself and thinks about her developing body, which might lead to lowering of self esteem. It is often argued that raising a student’s self-esteem will result not only in greater happiness but also in better academic performance .Studies carried out by RF Baumeister, BJ Bushman, (2000), HW Marsh – Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1996, Wiggins, J.D., Schatz, E.L., & West, R.W. (1994)have examined the relationship between self-esteem and school achievement and have reported significant correlations between the two.

Lots of research has been carried out on the relationship between self-esteem and academic achievement in black African students due to the well documented assumption that self-esteem is highly correlated with academic achievement and identification with academics (Osborne & Walker, 1997). Generally it has been assumed that low self-esteem correlates positively with low academic achievement, and high self esteem correlates positively with high academic achievement (Gaskin-Butler & Tucker, 1995; Osborne, 1997; Hale, 2001). However, there have been many inconsistencies in the literatures that examines whether positive self-esteem enhanced academic achievement, or vice versa, (Gaskin-Butler & Tucker, 1995). It’s been often said that people with high self-esteem claim to be likable and attractive, have better relationships, and make better impressions on others than people with low self esteem. People with high self-esteem show stronger inclination to speak out and challenge the perceptions of others (Byrne, 1984). It has been suggested by Baumeister (2002) that high self esteem people possess effective and efficient defences to sustain negative messages. According to Salazar et al,( 2005) self-esteem has been linked to self-efficacy as well as communication and negotiation skills. Youngsters with high self esteem tend to use problem-solving skills more (Mullis & Chapman, 2000).

It has been argued that academic achievement of minority students is hindered by low self-esteem in a White-dominated society (Bankston & Min, 2002). Steele an American author (1992) concluded that this stigma of inferiority threatens Black African students’ self esteem. According to Steele (1992), Black African students, for fear of corroborating an existing stereotype, disengage or disconnect their self-esteem from the academic arena.

The achievement of black African students has continued to dominate educational discussions. On the basis of evidence that low self esteem may be partly to blame for underachievement (Fitzgerald 2000), I can see the relationship between self esteem, their perceptions of themselves and educational performance of black African girls.

The black girl, feminism and the great ‘fairy tale’ debate.

In dealing with issues of a sociological nature it is easy to compartmentalize the problem without taking into consideration that preceding events would have impacted upon the current situation. For example, slavery in the past served as catalyst for a segregation also in the same vein children literatures such as those written by the Grimm brothers (1785-1863), and Hans Christian Anderson (1805-1875) served as a blueprint for how children’s texts are written today. It might well be argued that these early tales were written to mirror life in predominantly white societies and therefore, justifiably so, centre on supremacy of white heroes and heroines. Therefore, in any attempt to engage in honest discourse as to why the black African woman and girl is not part of the fairy tale genre and why cultural erasure and racism still exist in children’s text in 2006, a holistic, reflective approach needs to be taken. To achieve this level of clarity, Iwill look at some adult’s texts, both visual and written.

Special references are given to texts written by Angelou, Hooks and Morrison. The texts of these black authors, although written for an adult audience, are very much about the inner turmoil of the young black girl, the very kind of representation (the real-life experiences of the black girl revealed in the stories of Angelou, Hooks and Morrison that is missing in children’s texts, especially animated texts like Disney’s.) These adults’ stories are important for the links they establish between the child and adult experiences of people of other cultures. This paper acknowledges that by virtue of the black girl sharing the adult world of black woman, she in turn inherits the socialisation and past experiences of the black adult woman. As a result a sort of social genealogy is inherited and passed on between the two; this might affect her self esteem and motivation which (as discussed in the previous section) turn might affect her academic performance and achievement.

A historical perspective of the social ostracism of the black woman and girl

Angela Davis and Bell Hooks were among the first black women to establish discourse on the social and historic genealogy of the oppression and exclusion of the black woman and girl. They looked at how race, along with gender, oppressed the black woman and girl and the fact that sustained practices of racism distinguished their experiences from their white counterparts. The premise of their argument (Hooks and Davis 1999) was that for black women, already under classed and ostracised, social status and race were of equal significance in their oppression as gender was. Davis (1989) and Hooks (1981) were critiquing 1970s feminism which they felt was the black woman and girl’s last frontier for recognition. Writing on the same issue, Roth (2004), reaffirms this ambivalence in feminism. “….black activist women towards organised white feminism was just that: a hesitancy to work with white women exclusively on gender (and not race, and not class) oppression” (p:99). In retrospect , the Women’s Rights movement did not bring black and white women together but instead exposed the racial divide and brought to the forefront the fact that white women were not willing to relinquish their support of white supremacy to support the interest of all women (hooks: 1981:136).

Davis and Hooks critical approach to the experiences of the black woman and girl was to steer their discourse towards identifying the different forms of oppression experienced by all women and to create awareness that the multi- layering of needs and experiences were both integrated and interrelated. What was meant to be the solution to the suffering and injustice of all women was unable to go beyond the barriers of race. 1970s feminism was criticised by other black writers and activitist including Morrison (1971) who saw white feminism as blind to the material realities of life of black woman and girl (p:100).

Feminism: the last frontier

In 1970, Alison Lurie sparked a heated debate that lent, in more ways than one, fodder to the fire of the great feminist debate of the 1970s, with her articles “Fairy Tale Liberation.” In support of the importance of fairy tales in the lives of women and girls, Lurie argued that fairy tales were good for women and girls because within their multilayered textuality women were empowered in a way the “ordinary Dick and Jane stories could not.” Harries (cited in Hasse:2000), supports Lurie’s argument by recommending that parents buy at least one set of fairy tales for their daughters. Bernheimer, (1998) also believes that fairy tales are good for women and girls because a vast number of them are authored by women,(p:xxv).

I feel these views are conservative and are strongly opposed by more radical feminist like Cixous (1975) who believe the fairy tale helps to create women incapable of valuing themselves. For others like Roth (2004), the question had more to do with what women really want. Roth argues that these tales “glorify passivity, dependency and self sacrifice, as heroines’ cardinal virtues suggests that culture’s very survival depends upon a woman’s acceptance of roles which relegate her to mother hood and domesticity”(p:237). Oates (cited in Hasse 2002) also subscribes to the belief that the fairy tale actually subverts the development of the independent woman:

In a crucial sense, fairy tales work to subvert romantic wishes, for they repeatedly confirm ‘order’ and redress dislocation of privileged birth while leaving wholly unchallenged the hierarchical basis for such privileges (p250-251).

Lurie’s position on the positive impact the fairy tale has on womanhood might have had less significance in the political forum of the black woman and girl except for the fact that Lurie’s capricious use of the term “woman” and “daughters” once again encompasses all women and infers the inclusion of the Black woman and girl. The irony is that, like feminism, the black girl’s experience with fairy tales as part of the genre of children’s text remains negative and non-representative in its presentation of women and girls from other cultures and races and this might have affected their perception of them selves, there making them feel isolated. It is clear that Lurie’s use of the word “woman” is in reference to women of the white dominant society since fairy tales are paradigmatic representations of their life and not that of the black girl.( An example critique is Escape from Wonderland: Disney and the Female Imagination D Ross – Marvels & Tales, 2004).

Watching the film Pretty Woman (1990) whose “inefficiencies” are magnified by having to move from animated make-believe and childhood magic to the real, adult world since the same fairy tale plot is now packaged with real people like Edward and Vivian. Pretty Woman, (Disney: 1990) is a good paradigmatic yardstick for the cross-over between children, young people and adult text in more ways than one. It clearly delineates the connection between fairy tales for children and fairy tales for adults and also adheres to the continued practice of the erasure of black feminity. The film is also important to this research because some of the central themes found in Disney’s primary texts (hair and female beauty) as prescribed by the dominant culture, are central in Pretty Woman’s plot and characters. The film is also significant for this research because it demonstrates the inescapability of the black woman and girl viewing themselves in a positive light in mainstream literature. Films like Pretty Woman (1990) and Disney’s animated children’s stories over the years have replaced the traditional oral form of the older woman passing on vital moral and cultural information to younger generations of women-to-be in the tales they tell. As a result, these films are influential and impact both positively and negatively- which might be reflected in whose academic performance / achievement. As will be seen, it can be argued that Disney films can be critiqued in terms of their representation of women. This raises key critical discussion points which may or may not engage in when watching.

Pretty Woman: a synopsis

Central to the plot of Pretty Woman, (1990) is the female character Vivian (Julia Roberts) who is a prostitute. Like Cinderella and Sleeping beauty, Vivian is a modern day princess in temporary distress waiting for her prince to arrive to restore the equilibrium of her life. Already endowed with the attributes of Cinderella, Vivian is white, tall, slim, and very pretty. She also speaks proper English and has long silky hair. From her personal grooming habits (flossing strawberry seeds from her teeth) the viewer can deduce that she most probably, once upon a time, lived in a castle, which in Vivian’s case would be a house in the suburbs with parents who are inheritors of old money, Hattie McDaniel’s (Gone with the wind, 1993) in the kitchen, an Ivy League education and a dog. Complementing the true prototype for happy endings is Edward (Richard Gere) her ‘prince,’ who embodies all the traits of dashing hero. He is tall, all American, rich and handsome and like Fitzgerald’s hero in the Great Gatsby (1926), enjoys the fruits of the American dream: a high powered job, friends from the right social class, belongs to the right country club and has his own financial adviser.

Many themes found in children’s texts are present in this film. However, only the themes central to the focus of this dissertation – black womanhood and the status of women of other cultures will be explored in this critique.

The black woman and girl and the lens of transcendence

Madison divides her critique of Pretty Woman (1990) into three parts. This is one – lens of Transcendence. In looking through the lens of Transcendence (going beyond the usual limits), Madison argues, the black woman and girl are forced to “temporarily suspended or displace their awareness of racial difference for a universal consciousness of sorts in order to at least have the experience” (p: 226). Madison’s point is that for this group to enjoy the story, they have to first disassociate themselves from their own cultural and racial identity and imagine themselves to be Vivian, reincarnating the experiences of the black girl when she watched Snow White and Belle from infancy.

They may consciously or unconsciously aspire to live the prince and princess myth, (while) even in their fantasies, they are only too conscious that they do not fit the description (p: 227).

Dr. Dierdre Almeida, (Native American Educator, USA), reinforces this point. She argues that this ‘cultural suspension’ is further reinforced with the mass marketing of toy replicas of animated film characters which are placed in the (black) girl’s hands. “When you (the child) play, you pretend you are in the movie and you are the character and so (the child) embodies the character” (Sun: 2001). The availability of children’s text through this medium makes it possible to deliver messages to the child, first in the passive role as spectator and then by putting the characters with clearly established personalities into the hands of the child to intimately fashion and explore, even to add his or her own ingredients through already taught schemas of communication. “Children think about one frame at a time. They don’t say ‘Idon’t know anyone who looks like this in real life’ (Levin, cited in Sun; 2001). In making the case for how these texts impact on children, Levin argues that the picture shapes images and creates a typical example for the child in terms of who they want to look or be. By framing the discourse of the disparity between what is socially and culturally acceptable, and since the master plot does not represent every group, it would follow that those women who do not fit these norms are automatically marginalised.

The ostracism of this group takes on a sense of irreversible permanence. Take the case of Vivian for example. She has the ability to move quite easily from one social class to the next. Her fluid transference from “hooker” skirts and thigh- high boots into ball gown complete with pearls, golden slipper and black chauffeur-driven limousine occurs without a ripple.

The black woman and girl do not have this versatility since, in actuality all Vivian does is change her clothes. For the black woman and girl, much more than a change of clothes is needed, for, in addition to a change of clothes, they also need to overcome barriers of both race and class prejudice.

Oates, cited in (Haases: 2002), writes that fairy tales “repeatedly confirm ‘order’ and redress relocations of privileged birth while leaving wholly unchanged the hierarchical basis for such privileges.” For Vivian, class discrimination is turned to wonder by merely changing her style and fashion” (p:228). Disney’s fairy tale heroines (Snow White, Belle and Cinderella) need only to experience a change in fortune that negates a resolution which in turn restores them to their original status. In other words, Cinderella did not become a princess, she was already one and so were Snow White and Belle and many others. The same applies to Vivian, who by virtue of being white and middle class, was predistened to have her dreams come true. It becomes evident that love, romance and the dashing prince coming along some day is a fate only designated to certain groups.

Another theme found in Pretty Woman (1990) and also prevalent in Disney’s children’s texts is the erasure of race. Vivian’s dilemma is not centred on her race but rather her social standing; however, by implication, the notion that being of the right race makes it easier to integrate is evident. Cinderella was able to go to the ball unrecognised because she fitted in and belonged there in the first place. Other heroines like The Swan Princess and Donkey Skin were able to come out of their disguises and live fully assimilated lives.

Through the lens of transcendence, the black woman and girl realize they are insignificant and inconspicuous and with this realisation come their desires to be like the rest. However, since this goal is unattainable, they are forever viewing the world and images of themselves through the lens of transcendence.

The unavoidable lens of metacriticism

Even when suspending the lens of transcendence and meaning-makers found in films like Pretty Woman (1990) and Disney’s animated texts, there is continous analysis of meaning, schemas and symbolism from the the positions of race and class. The black woman and girl it is argued are always searching for something that acknowledges or recognises their presence within the images presented. Madison (cited in Bell et all 1995: 228) analyses this experience as “assumption made by the insider perspective” (p: 228). In other words, it is a two edged sword for the black spectatorship for although they may be quite willing to buy into the story and find a place within the plot where it just “might be me” it is quite difficult not to be aware of the erasure of their history and culture through clear demarcations of class and race.

Even with the notion that dreams come true, as a critic, the black woman cannot deny the ever-present reality that historically and socially Vivian’s realities, like the fairy tale princesses are far removed from her own. Understandably enough, the black woman and girl incorporate elements of cynicism into their viewing. They are forever aware that even if their social status improves their colour will always be an impediment to their integration and pitted against the continued negative stereotype place reserved for them. Although forced to oscillate from identification and indifference to interpretation of symbolic meaning –makers and deep symbolic representations, the black spectator accepts that her prince would probably come in the guise of unemployed infantalised males, immigrants, murderers, gang members, drug pushers and car thieves as portrayed in Dumbo (1941), Lady and the Tramp, (1955), Oliver and Company (1998), The Aristocrats (1970), Aladdin (1992), Lion King (1994) and Timon and Pumba (1995).

The writings of Angelou (1969) vividly describe her experiences in racially segregated America, where she was made to feel ugly and an outcast, both as a young black girl and later as an adult woman. At no time, she recalls, did she feel anything but longing to be like the little white girl in the pages of the fairy tales and then like the beautiful sexualised white woman on the glossy pages of the magazines.

Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, (1970), the young black and poor character, Pecola, is told from infancy by everyone how ugly she is. In her developing years she attributes the sense of insecurity she acquires to her ugliness. Her child-self interprets the world beyond her safety net as where “the real terror of life is” (p: 11), while her womanhood rationalises her survival as conformity to the dominant culture. In reliving what it was like to be young, black and under-represented, Pecola says she learnt to worship the white image, who in her case was Shirley Temple (the little white movie star with blonde ringlets falling around her head and painted at the bottom of her cup). Pecola understands the futility of her position as a young black girl because she claims she knows full well that even doing so would not better her position in life. She refers to the experience as “an adjustment without improvement” (p:16). These reflective adult texts, pinpoint the continued cultural and racial erasure of the black woman and girl in every aspect of her femaleness through the norms of institutionalised racist practices that seem bent on wiping away her existence and leaving her forever inferior as a woman of another culture. It can be argued today whether girls today watching Disney movies as another type of media, feel similarly.

The oppositional lens of black spectatorship

Through the oppositional lens some black spectator looks at Pretty Woman(1990) and recognises how patriarchy and race operate against her but work for the white spectator. Vivian, like the young fairy tale heroines, is endowed with two good assets; affiliation with the right race and the European class standard of beauty. Hooks unapologetically states, “mainstream feminist film criticism in no way acknowledges black female spectatorship. It does not even consider the possibility that (the black woman and girl) can construct an oppositional gaze via an understanding and awareness of the politics of race and racism” (cited in Madison: 1995). Hooks stance is indicative of the unresolved conflicts of feminism.

On this, Madison rationalises that the existence of black women and girls within white supremacist culture “problematises and makes more complex the overall issues of female identity, representation and spectatorship….” (Madison, cited in Bell et al, 1995:231).

Subverting old stereotypes

Black like Johnson (1993) Tonning the Sweep, and Heaven (1998), Williams-Garcia (1998) Blue Tights and Like Sisters on the Homefront (1995) and Woodson (1991) The Dear one and IHadn’t Meant To Tell You This (1994) are all children’s text targeting a young, black, adult audience. These stories subvert the stereotypes of how black girls are presented in children’s texts and give them a voice to tell their unique experiences. In actuality, the authors empower their heroines to deal with their cultural differences and their blackness in a positive way. For example, Williams-Garcia’s heroine, Joyce, in Blue Tights (1998) is black, underclass and attends a school with the upper class students. Joyce’s constant ribbing in the school yard is not so much about her economic status as it is about her “big butt” and non-white body contours. Joyce’s white teacher, Miss Sobol, objectifies her constantly calling attention to her butt. She even pushes Joyce’s butt down in Dance rehearsals and demands that she tucks it inside. “Tuck that butt under” (William- Garcia, 1998 p: 29). Miss Sobol and the other students focus on Joyce’s body, so much that she begins to feel inferior about herself and refuses to expose her nudity when in the shower with the other girls. Yet as opposed to Morrison’s tragic heroine, Pecola (Morrison 1970), Joyce looks at the way the dominant white society views her and questions the sanity of the society as opposed to her own. “What’s wrong with white people anywayDon’t they know that this is just how black folks are made?” (ibid: 29).

Hence having read through all the various literatures/ articles on how Disney films portray female body and how these might affect girls, I decided to do this research using young black African girls in year 7 as my focus group to see if my findings will conform or differ from what has been done in the past. My research questions are: (a) What do young black girls think of the female bodies in the films?

(b) How does watching these films make them feel about themselves?

Research methodology

This study has been designed using a qualitative research methodology. Qualitative research is considered appropriate for obtaining a “holistic impression” or “more complete picture” of an issue (Fraenkel and Wallen, 2000, p. 501). This methodology guides the selection of participants and the collection and analysis of data. Furthermore, the methodology of the study was guided by previous research on children’s responses to folktales (Trousdale, 1987), which also made use of a qualitative research approach.

Discussion of Paradigms


Positivism can be defined as an epistemological method which is aimed at finding the process by which events occur. Levin (1988) believes that reality is stable and can be observed and described from an objective viewpoint without interfering or changing the phenomena being studied. For positivists, knowledge about the social world can be obtained objectively; in order words positivists try to be objective and as neutral as possible (G Thomas 2009 p 74).


The main point about interpretivists is that they are interested in people and the way that they inter relate what they think and how they form ideas about the world. They look closely at what people are doing by using our own selvesin the research contexts in which we are interested (G Thomas p74).

What Is a Case Study?

This is a research methodology which is very common in social sciences and simply put it is the study of a person, group, situation, or a specific case. In order words you do not study a particular case just for the sake of studying it. There have to be particular circumstances surrounding the case that makes it of special interest. Case study can include a range of as many different methods and procedures as necessary for understanding what is going on in a particular situation. It’s like an umbrella covering a whole range of inquiry activity. This case study will involve a small group of year 7 Black African girls. Case studies may be descriptive or explanatory. This case study is descriptive, which involves me observing and describing the behaviour of the participants without influencing it in any way. Using case studies as a research tool has its advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of using case study as a research tool.Disadvantages of using case study as a research tool.
Good source of ideas about behaviour

Hard to draw definite cause-effect conclusions
Opportunity for innovation

Hard to generalize from a single case
Method to study rare phenomena

Possible biases in data collection and interpretation (since single person gathers and analyzes the information)
Method to challenge theoretical assumptions and alternative or complement to the group focus of psychology.Summarised from Coles A and J McGrath (2010)

Summarised from Coles A and J McGrath (2010).

Why is case study appropriate to use in this study?

The key to ensuring that research questions are answered is to select an appropriate research strategy. This ensures that research questions are addressed and value is added to the overall topic. Using case study as my research tool will enable me to achieve my desired results. This is because it is a good source of ideas about behaviour and perceptions .Cohen. L, Marion and U Morrison (2000).


In order to select participants, Ifirst contacted 20 black African year 7 girls out of the 45 in the year group. Letters were sent home to their parents seeking their consent (see appendix). This resulted in 15 participants because the other children had various situations occurring in which their parents who did not want to allow their children to participate in the study (see appendix a). All of the girls parents were Africans who were born and raised in Africa before they came to the UK and had some experience in African schools. A look at these pupils attainment shows that 10 of them are achieving below their predicted levels.

Data collection

As several researchers (e.g, Hill, Laybourn, and Borland 1996; Mauthner 1997; Graue and Walsh 1998) have noted, using a focus group is one of the most effective methods of conducting a study with children because it helps them feel more free and outspoken. Therefore, the interviews with five pair groups were organised. Ichoose to have small groups for interview for several reasons such as- manageability, time, have a welcoming atmosphere and respecting their privacy. The primary method of collecting data for the study was the focus group interview. However, additional information and documents were gathered from personal meetings and informal talks with children (field notes).

Focus Group Method

Focus groups recently have become much more popular especially in social science and health research. The purpose of focus group is to focus discussion on a particular issue. They can be structured (formal interviews) or unstructured interviews. The intention is that participants interact with each other, perhaps to reach a consensus about some topics or disagree and to give a good airing to the issues which seem to be interesting or important to them. Here the researcher becomes more of a facilitator and less of an interviewer (J. Bell 2005). There various reasons for using focus group as a research tool such as (a) people are a valuable source of information and can report on and about themselves, it is easy for them to voice out their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours (b) interview can help people retrieve forgotten information (c )interviewing a group is better than interviewing an individual. Summarised from Lederman (1989).

Researchers intending to use focus group as a research tool must ensure they have a clear objective, there is homogeneity within the group, the atmosphere is conducive and relaxed, the interviewer is prepared and free-flowing Dialogue. (summarised from S Vaughn, JS Schumm 1996)

A successful focus group is one in which a variety of responses are generated which are vital to the topic of study. All participants feel free to express opinions and thoughts regarding the topic(s) at hand.

Advantages of using Focus Group as a research method.

Secondly focus groups are valuable when in-depth information is needed about how people think about an issue (Laws 2003:299). Of high importance is the issue of flexibility which is another key advantage of using focus group than individual interview (Wells, 1984). The interviewer will have questions aimed at probing, exploring, framing ideas(p. 134). A focus group is amenable to exploring linkages which go untouched in a statistical survey (Wells, 1984, p. 134). Moreover, it is possible to explore avenues of importance which may arise other than those listed on a questionnaire. Using focus group is more time saving than interviewing the same number individually. However in most cases data gathered usually contain a wide range of responses (Kover, 1982, the interviewer finds it a lot easier interpreting data gathered from interviews. When very little is known about the topic, information gathered from focus group might help in drafting the research question or hypothesis.

Disadvantages of using Focus Group as a research method

Groups have to be carefully balanced with regards to age, sex and ethnic backgrounds.

People of strong personality might influence and take over the discussion, thereby making it difficult for less outspoken people to speak. (Denscombe 1998).

Film selection

I chose 4 Disney films for my study. The films selected are Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas and Snow White. My choice of films was based on already existing analysis/ critiques on Disney’s portrayal of female body. The films were also selected by taking into account the degree of familiarity with the films that the young black African girls would possess (Lewis, 1991).

Focus group interviews

The girls watched these films in the science lab where I teach, followed by the interview which lasted about for about 30 minutes. It was organised such that each group viewed one film before having an interview. Due to time factor, some groups could not finish watching their films in one session; they were allowed to finish it off the next session. The whole process of watching the films and the interviews lasted about 2 – 3 months. The venue for the interview was quiet ,comfortable and not far away from the head of department’s office, so that she can always pop in to see how things are going. The interview was recorded and replayed back to participants to listen as they need to be sure that I have recorded exactly what they said. After watching the films I began the interview by asking the girls what they think about the films, was it more interesting than the one we watched earlier on. The aim of these questions is to open the conversation so that their discussion could move in the potential directions in which it is geared to. (Morgan, 1988). The girls (participants) cooperated very well, building and expanding on each others views and opinions. Initially they chatted about the film (to make them feel more relaxed), then I asked them questions about the films they watched. The questions are:

(a)What do you think of a female main character in the filmHow does she look?

(b)Did you find anyone attractive in this film?

(c)Would you want to look like any heroine in Disney films?

(d)Has the images in Disney films affected your self esteem and body image in any way?

Ethical issues

Within every stage in a research is a potential ethical problem. (Cohen,, 2000). Several ethical issues arose while doing my research, such as: access and acceptance, informed consent, privacy and confidentiality, misinterpretation and misrepresenting of data.

Gaining access to personal records of the participants who were involved in the research wasn’t difficult, though I sought permission from my head of department. (Cohen,, 2000, p.53) ,(Anderson & Arsenault, 1998, p.21). Letters were sent home to their parents (participants) explaining the aim, nature and procedure of the research. Also I obtained permission from my head of department. (Cohen,, 2000 p22.) Because of the harm that might be caused during research involving people, an important concept when considering the ethics of research is that of consent. Consent is about the agreement of people to take part in the study.G Thomas (2009 p149). Participant were given a consent form to fill, detailing the nature of the research, information about confidentiality , option to opt out at anytime, benefits of the research and how the results of the study will be used. (Anderson & Arsenault, 1998, p.18).

My research requires participants views and opinions and in order to meet the ethical requirement for this each was given a list of interview questions. Also included is information about time and venue.

In order to ensure confidentiality and privacy, ( Goffee & Jones, 2000 as cited in Kakabadse, Kakabadse, & Kouzmin, 2002, p.122), I changed my participants name and institution were the research was conducted. The information will not be published or used for any other purposes from this research.

Validity, reliability and generalisability

Triangulation is used in social science research and is defined as the mixing of data or methods so that diverse viewpoints or standpoints cast light upon a topic. This mixing of data helps in validating claims which might have arisen from a pilot study done. (Wendy Olsen 2004).

Reliability, validity and generalizability are rooted in positivist perspective (J. Bell 2008 ) and are perhaps the most important aspects of a research methodology. Whatever procedure for collecting data is selected, it should always be examined critically to assess to what extent it is likely to be reliable and valid(J. Bell 2008 p 117). Reliability, validity and generalization are all important in my research to ensure that my work is of the highest standard.

Validity and reliability: tells us whether an item or instrument measures or describes what is supposed to measure or describe, but this is rather vague and leaves many questions unanswered. Sapford and Jupp (1996) define validity to mean the design of research to provide credible conclusions; whether the evidence which the research offers can bear the weight of the interpretation that is put on it. Validity in research is determined by asking a series of questions then looking for answers in the responses and research of others (Winter, 2000).

Generalizability in social science refers to the extent to which research findings can be applied in settings other than the setting in which the original research took place. (G Thomas 2009 p 109).

Triangulation refers to using more than one method to collect data (Laws 2003 p281)

Data analysis

Qualitative data analysis is a method of collecting data and arranging or putting them together to make meaning. Qualitative analysis is often used to carry out concept analysis, text analysis and conceptual analysis. In this research the qualitative data analysis method I used is inductive because this appeared to be the most efficient way of analysing the informations gathered. This type of research is based on people’s opinions and can be low in reliability and high in validity (Thomas 2009). In my research the data was gathered from the interviews conducted with the participants. The data I gathered was organised properly otherwise they might become voluminous and difficult to put together. During qualitative data analysis, trends can be seen and these can be represented in the form of charts, graphs and tallies this only applies to small scale research, but in my research I would explore themes using data extracts to support the discussion

During the interview with the participants, certain themes emerged from analysis of my discussions with them. These are self esteem, body image and the media.

Body image and self esteem

Over the past years body image has dominated the media. It can be defined as the way one feels about their physical appearance (L Smolak 2004). It can be argued that poor body image may lead to low self esteem which invariably is more likely to affect their academic achievement (RA Botta – Journal of Communication, 2000.)During the interview with the year 7 girls they each were very eager to air their views on Disney films. One of the main points highlighted was the issue of physical appearance. One of the girls said“In my culture skinny does not signify pretty, if you are skinny rumours will go round that you have a terminal illness, or you are poorly fed, I wonder why in most Disney films they have presented skinny women as princesses, do they all have to be skinny to be a princess?” What is wrong with them using a black princess?

This particular issue was raised by 5 of the participants and this can be related to the issues explored in the literature review. From these girls’ perspectives it seems to me that they are aware that Disney uses a certain body type (skinny) and this does not fit their own cultural understanding of pretty. According to the girls skinny does not mean pretty. This demonstrates that the term pretty can mean different things to different people. Disney’s definition of pretty as depicted in the films is not applicable in real life for these girls. It also demonstrates that the girls are aware that Disney uses white women to represent good characters. Overall the girls have shown a great deal of awareness of that the body image represented is not appropriate or reflective of the population as a whole. Various literatures have shown a correlation between body image and academic achievement such as Judge & Bono, (2001). One of the participants Stephanie said: “Ihave been teased about my appearance as child because Iam fat,too dark , has thick short dark hair with big backside”.

Stephanie has been teased about her body; this might have caused her to develop low self esteem, which is likely to lead to lower academic achievement. The word ‘am fat’ was used and this suggests that it is an issue which is still crucial to her although she talks about being bullied as a child. On a second note she also uses the term ‘too dark’ which suggests she is measuring herself against some kind of externally imposed ‘ideal’ (such as Disney princesses who a skinny and white)

During my interview with the participants, one of the girls in the group Chioma stood up and said; “why are these princesses wearing dresses that expose their cleavagesDo you have to dress half naked for people to know you are prettyIcan never wear such clothes its is a taboo in my culture to show any part of my body, people will call you names and treat you like an outcast.”

In this instance the participant has a strong view about the dresses worn by the princess. According to her she feels some are too revealing going by her cultural belief. This signifies to me that the girls seem very able to recognise and argue against the images. They can make decisions themselves irrespective of what is presented to them by the media / TV.


Each of the participants had similar views about how female bodies were objectified in the movies. Anika said the media is to be blamed. According to her she said“most newspaper/ magazine covers have photos of white slim girls on their Front covers, almost half naked, rarely will you find skinny black girls on covers of these magazine. Take for instance the sun newspaper, OK magazine to mention but a few. Are there no black girls that are beautiful enough to be on the cover of those magazines?”

This signifies to me that the girls are aware that black girls are rarely seen on magazine covers. Now personally Ithink there might reasons for this. For a black girl to be on magazine covers she has to be smart, successful, she has to work twice as hard as women from other ethnic backgrounds. This assumption is likely to affect the way these young girls perceive themselves- low self esteem, loss of confidence, which might invariably affect their academic performance. However the fact that she says rarely will you find skinny black girls on magazine covers suggests that she does see being skinny as a key part of the media portrayal of beauty.

Relating this to my research question -What do young black girls think of the female bodies in the filmsHow does watching these films make them feel about themselves From my discussions with the participants they see the media as portraying the message that you must be white and skinny to be beautiful. However they seem able to argue against the images portrayed in the media. They are able to make decisions for themselves just like Cindy said “Ilove Disney films, Iwatch lots of movies, fashion show- all the models in the runway are extremely skinny. Idon’t care if this is what they see beauty to be. Ilove my body just as it is. Icarry myself well irrespective of what people say – Ijust need to make good grades in my exams.”

Out of curiosity Ithought it wise to speak to 4 black African girls in my year 11 science group, to see if they would have a different opinion about Disney films to the year 7 girls. Iasked them -What do you black girls think of the female bodies in Disney films and media in generalHow does watching these films make them you feel about yourselves This wasn’t planned, but it was interesting to hear what each of them had to say. Ola said: “ Idon’t care about those princesses in Disney films, because Iknow they are fake, they are not real, Iam more conscious of my body now and am not bothered what people say about my body because it is beautiful to me whatever the society says is not an issue for me my academics comes first. I want to make good grades.”Akunna in year 11 said :

“Iappreciate the shape and colour of my body, Imust endeavour to feed well in order to stay healthy and not skinny am not so bothered about my body, beauty has nothing to do with my academic performance.”

The views from these girls suggest that they are very able to criticise media portrayal of the ‘ideal’ female body and stand against it. The trends in their responses signifies that as the girls mature in age they are able to judge what the media portrays and judge it against what they know and believe. As individuals irrespective of what they see or hear, they do not allow this to tamper with how they view themselves and their academic performance.

When Iasked Kadesha in year 11 if her self esteem is based on the way her body looks, she vehemently said “no, Ihave better things to do with my time.” From the above analysis when comparing the responses of year 7 and 11 ( black African girls) Ican deduce that as these girls mature in age their perception / views about female body in films changes, they become more matured and are more able to reflect on what they saw growing up.

When listening to the participant’s conversations on the films watched, Inoticed that they paid more attention to the bodies of female characters than their faces in deciding the character’s physical beauty. Some of them said the characters are too thin to be pretty. This statement contradicts to the message portrayed by the media about models. One of the participants Anika said“ they look very skinny, where Icome from skinny does not signify beauty”

In another discussion Chante and Clarita had similar views about the female characters thin bodies; their comments are similar to those of Anika. They both talked about the pretty faces of the characters. Clarita said “they are so skinny, Idon’t think that’s very pretty” Chante said “my mum will kill herself if Ibecome this skinny” When asked if they wanted to be thin like any of the characters , they laughed loudly , Chante said laughing “NO, not me, Iam happy the way Iam, just want to be me”

Some of the participants had different views about the unusual bodies of the female characters. Jane said ““She is petit and pretty, Ibet you she might look weird if she was a real person, but as a princess in the movie, she’s okay.” And she concluded by saying: “most of the princesses in Disney films are the same. They’re not fat and they are all pretty. Movies are not real, its just a make belief.

This signifies clearly that they are able to differentiate between fiction and real life in relation to body image. Stephanie said “sometimes Iwish Iwas born looking like one of those princesses in Disney films.”

Some went on to say that Disney films are fake, such stories in Disney films does not happen in real life- Nike said “ how can a princess fall into a deep sleep only to be wakened by kiss from a prince” (Disney’s sleeping beauty). Chioma said “my visit to Disney world enlightened my understanding between fiction and reality also that the heroines in Disney films may not be the same in real life” The participants recognised the differences between the ways the princesses in Disney films are represented and their own self. As Sinead rightly pointed out, “Ihave never seen a person like any of these princesses in the UK.”

Most of the participants compared Disney princesses bodies to people’s body shapes in the UK whom they see around as not very thin as depicted in Disney films. Having this disagreement between female bodies in real life and female bodies in Disney films , some of the girls had different opinions / views comparing black African female bodies to those shown in Disney films. When asked if they had ever seen women who were as pretty and slim as those shown in Disney films from any African background, Janelle said: “we do not view beauty/ pretty in that line, you must not be thin/skinny to be pretty, we only see those skinny girls on TV which in most cases are not natural, some would have had series of plastic surgery to be the way they are. Most African women are more prettier than these heroines in Disney films”

This demonstrates that these girls are very secure in relation to their understanding of beauty in relation to their cultural background. It demonstrates that they understand that the media have a different understanding of pretty, but also an acceptance that the media does not portray pretty women from their cultural background.

Valerie one of the participants said: “in Lion King, the villain, Scar, has remarkably darker complexion, also the little mermaid. Ursula in Lion King, is darker than any other creature in the sea and even when she becomes a woman she looks darker with black hair and clothes. When it comes to evil characters, they almost always have darker complexions and hair. This is not only because of Disney films; Ican say that since my childhood, Ihave always been exposed to the notion that black or dark is evil”

This shows that Valerie is able to see past the surface meanings or is it that Disney has done their job so well that she doesn’t see it as a ethnicity issue Different writes such as Davis, (2006), McRobbie, (2000) and Brooks and Hebert (2006) each have different opinions about effect of films/ media on children. However interestingly they have not been able to praise Disney for doing a good job. The issue of racism has been in existence even before Disney came to be, and they have failed to point this out.

As pointed out by Cindy a participant; “ “Disney movies had strong influence on me. Ithink Ilearned what the princess should look like from Disney films. When Iwas a child and Ithought about princess, Ialways associated it with those women who look like the Disneyprincesses: white women with long hair, sexy bodies, and beautiful dresses.”

Here it is interesting to know that these girls are seeing it specifically as a princess thing rather than an ideal woman thing in real life.

Chelsea a participant said “Disney’s princess stories do not only teach girls how the princess look but also How women acquire happiness: meet a man and live with the man. Women cannot have happy lives without men’s help. Many girls dream of these fairy tale kind of life, they go into relationships / marriages with those views in mind”

With these misconceptions in their minds, they might become desperate to get into relationships, and when this doesn’t happen instantly as expected, they feel they are not pretty or attractive. This in return could affect their self esteem, perception of themselves and other things about them including their academic progress. Another implication of this could be teenage pregnancy which might lead them to drop out from school. It might also result in failed relationships because what they encounter in their relationship is not always what they bargained for.

Kelly said “Iremember taking part in one of our school dramas in primary school, we were all dressed to look like princesses, wearing curly long wigs, and Iwondered why we were not allowed to wear our natural African hair”

Surprisingly Kelly did not challenge the fact that she got dressed to look like a white Disney style princess. Her inability to challenge this could have been because she has grown to accept the fact that for a woman to be termed pretty, she must be slim and fair skinned, wearing curly long wigs. Personally Ithink some African mothers should share in the blame, for taking their young daughters to the hair dressers to get their bleached, or have them apply hair relaxer. Another reason for her inability to challenge this could be that she felt too young to raise such topic, she might be seen as a trouble maker for raising race issues, or that no one will listen to her, it maybe as a result of fear. This makes me believe that as educational practioners there are a whole lot of things that go on in schools which are more or less overlooked. The government Green Paper entitled ‘Every Child Matters’ and the subsequent Children Act passed in November 2004, says that “ every child must enjoy and achieve, make positive contribution”. How then are we going to achieve this if these children under our care in schools cannot or do not feel free to voice their opinions. Iam of the opinion that such treatment will in one way or the other affect these young lives, both academically and socially.

She goes on to say that;

“does princesses and princes have to be white women and men: can’t Africans play the roles of them because Africans are far away from the look the princesses and princes have in DisneyIwonder if Disney could be one of the reasons why many African women tend to change their colour to look more like Caucasians.”

This implies to me that she thinks that black Africans cannot take up roles in Disney films because of their skin colour. This as she explains has led to some black Africans bleaching their skins, fixing nails, having plastic surgery, using hair extensions and doing all sorts of things to their body, just because they want to look like the prince and princesses to become actors and actresses and feel accepted in the society. Lives could have been lost in the process. This is supported by a heated BBC debate in 2009 titled “Would you change your skin colour?” Reports from the debate indicate that skin lightening creams are popular with many African/ Caribbean people despite health warnings. Some countries have banned the importation and manufacture of products containing skin lightening agents but local concoctions which may contain chlorine bleach, hair relaxer creams and lime juice are still being used in many instances. (BBC news: have your say 2009). The educational implication of this is that some children feel inferior about their skin colour which might result in bullying in play groups, schools and society. They become disillusioned about education which in turn affects their academic performance.

Chika one of the participants said;

“ Ihave never seen a black Barbie, are black barbies not attractive, what is wrong

with them?”.

It is important to note here that the first black Barbie / doll was launched in 1959. Interestingly these are meant to be black barbies, but funny enough they have silky hair. What happened to our Afro hairWhy can’t we have barbies with natural afro hair?

The assumption in schools is that particularly black barbies might enable our young girls to maintain acceptable self image. But Idon’t think this is achieved when these barbies come with silk hair making these young girls to be more confused about their identity and feeling that their hair is too short and kinky. Deep in the mind of these young girls they may still have a feeling of unacceptability, low self esteem/ negative perception of themselves. This might result to bullying, poor behaviour and poor academic achievement. Children degrade each other on the basis of skin colour, the intended outcome is to make that person ashamed of their physical features.(West & Lerner 1995, pp 82-83). But the more subtle subversion of self image of black girls may be more damaging.

The above comment brings to my mind the article by Sharon Raynor(April 2009), she said

“the image of Black Barbie dolls can transform the standards of beauty for little

Black girls. This image may help the construction or even the re-construction

of self and identity. Exploring and perhaps embracing the Barbie image can

serve as a form of resistance for Black girls/woman, or it may even help

address issues of domination, racism, sexism, and class exploitation that

oppress and threaten the survival of young girls.”

Having analysed the participants’ opinions and views on the correlations between body image and media, as some of the participants pointed out there is a discourse between the Disney heroines and African female bodies as cited by Baudrillard’s (1998, p.127) argument about mass media, in which he insists that they transcend what is truth or falsehood. Several scholars (e.g., Trites 1991; Giroux 1999; Wasko 2001) have offered severe criticism of this topic. Disney’s focus on the thin, spotless, and sexy female body attempts to make people believe that there is an unconscious generally accepted opinion/decision among a group of people the in society about physical beauty that constantly conveys a message about women’s bodies. The excessive focus on women’s thin bodies in the mass media does not only happen here in the UK but is the same in most countries. This phenomenon also is true for most African countries, with some studies claiming that young growing girls strive hard to become skinny thin models (Uduezue 2002). However from the discussions with the participants, they don’t seem to be striving for this.

Extremely thin body images are enshrined in the minds of young teenage girls in our society. As these girls start to grow and mature and start taking greater interest in their own bodies, the image they see about themselves makes them to feel less confident, insecure and dissatisfied. However, this is not true of all the girls Iinterviewed except for Stephanie. During one of our conversations she said “sometimes Iwish Iwas born looking like one of those princesses in Disney films.” This can be evidenced by the increase sale of dieting pills and products, with diet industries becoming one of the sought after professions. Media activist Jean Kilbourne concludes that, “Women are sold to the diet industry by the magazines we read and the television programs we watch, almost all of which make us feel anxious about our weight.”


Personally Ihave a strong conviction that the media such as TV, magazines, novels including Disney and its heroines have played an important role in igniting these feelings in the minds of these young girls. Nowadays toddlers (girls) are continuously flocked with images ( like Barbie and other dolls) of what the ideal female body should look like, as they grow older this continues to linger in their minds resulting in them wanting to look skinny with thin waist lines, size zero models etc.

Though there are no studies that show a correlation between Disney’s films with low self esteem, it can be argued that those girls, who are so engrossed with becoming skinny, thin, dress right and always wanting to belong to the accepted group, have a higher risk of becoming depressed later in their life. Because of time constraint Iwould have loved to interview black African girls from other year groups or girls from other ethnic backgrounds to know their opinions about Disney films and its effect on them. It seems to me that as this girls mature in age they are no longer bothered about the media and how it portrays them. This is an area Iwould very much love to do much more research on.

Texts like Disney’s, deployed by a dominant majority against a powerless minority, tend to be inherently biased and in keeping with a desire to maintain the status quo and socialize others into accepting racist and prejudicial behaviour. Categorically, there are enough grounds to argue that “this saturation of power that mediate images of our world to us” (Giroux, cited in Sun: 2001) places the black woman and girl in a position to view themselves in a way that generates feelings of inferiority and negativism.

What is clearly plausible is that with the concentration of power of any one entity, social thinking can be impacted upon positively by the conscious restricting and strategizing of what can be termed responsible entertainment. How would a child know that he or she is represented as black and inferior unless it is pointed out to him or her and done so on a regular and consistent basis?

What do young black girls think of the female bodies in the filmsFrom my study Ifound out that these girls are aware that Disney uses a certain body type (skinny) and this does not fit with their own cultural understanding of pretty. The views from these girls suggests that they are very able to criticise media portrayal of the ideal female body and stand against it. Over all the girls have shown a great deal of awareness that the body image represented is not appropriate or reflective of the population as whole.

How does watching these films make them feel about themselvesThe trends in their responses signifies to me that initially when they (participants) were growing up they wondered why black girls/women were not used in Disney films maybe because they are not skinny, fair skinned, pretty or for some other reasons. But as they mature in age they become more aware and conscious of their own bodies, more confident in themselves. This is because they have come to the realisation that Disney’s portrayal of an ‘ideal’ female body in the films is not so in real life.

There are several important implications of these findings that Iwill introduce in the school that Iteach. Before any of these can be implemented Iwill speak to my line manager, share my ideas with her and get permission. Before starting: I(and other colleagues) will identify pupils who have issues (like emotional, behavioural, social skills).This will be done through careful observations and discussions in year team meetings.

The first is to have mentoring programmes. Initially this will be for year 8 and 9 girls as they will be more willing to take part also it is within these years groups that we have issues with bullying, fighting, low academic performance, exclusion etc.

Secondly Iwill organise overnight retreats, the aim is for them to learn how to share and live in a community(as a catholic school we have centres where we go for retreats).

Third implication is to organise media lessons(after school film club), have group discussions about films and media. Fourthly within the school curriculum for black history month pupils can do small scale research on a black role models including media role models.

Organise PSHE lessons on media studies. Another improvement Iwill introduce is organising international evenings- celebrating different culture (fashion show, foods from different countries, dancing and a whole lot of activities).

To evaluate the success of this improvements pupils involved will be asked to fill questionnaires at the end of the term. Maybe get other colleagues involved or make it whole school policy. This could then be extended to other year groups depending on the outcome.

This study has been a learning journey for me. It has enabled me to come up with lots of improvements for our school in September. It’s been challenging but am glad at the end it has broadened my understanding on intricacies in educational research. Iam most grateful to my lecturers and tutors especially Paula and Helen for their kind support and words of advice.


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