STUDENT SAMPLE – Gender Norms in the Top 50 Highest-Grossing Animated Films

Research Report by Pearce (WRTG 3020 – Spring 2011)



Gender norms are integrated into children’s lives at a very young age. They learn it from their parents, their teachers, TV, and movies, particularly popular animated movies. This is why I chose to investigate gender roles from the highest grossing animated films of all time. Seeing as majority of Americans partake in watching animated films from a young age I suspected that they might learn a lot of gender norms from observing them in animated movies.

I thought I’d find gender norms pertaining to females fulfilling what society has ordained as feminine, i.e. dresses and playing the motherly role. I thought that gender roles for males would be exemplified by the male being the hero, and being portrayed as big with large muscles, and in a leadership position.

While most of the movies did fulfill these stereotypes, I was surprised by the number of movies that didn’t. Several of the movies had female characters playing a more independent role, where their sights were not on marriage and kids, but doing a job or serving in what society deemed a male role.

Overall I found messages about men signifying that they should conform to the norms for masculinity:  muscular, heroic, and strong leaders. None of the male characters challenged gender norms.  I also found two common messages suggesting that women should conform to norms in reference to their appearance and role as the caretaker, but one surprising message was that they should be allowed independence or power.


The category I looked at was the highest grossing animated films of all time worldwide. “Highest grossing” was defined by Box Office Mojo, which is a website that looks at different aspects of movies. Box Office Mojo looks at all genres of movies. They look at which movies were highest grossing, studios affiliated, people involved, what’s in the news about movies, and many other aspects. The website defined box office sales including box office opening sales, but not rentals, VHS sales, DVD sales, or merchandising.

I then look the 50 highest grossing of all time, which excluded films before 1990 like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, because of significant changes in: population size, inflation of ticket prices, and trends in ticket purchasing. I then alphabetized the movies, removing words such as “A” or “The” if the movies started with those words. Then I choose every fifth movie, and ended up with my target of 10 movies. My final sampling consisted of Brother Bear, Dinosaur, Horton Hears a Who?, Ice Age: Meltdown, Madagascar, Mulan, Ratatouille, Shrek Forever After, Tarzan, and WALL-E. I then took note of significant gender themes in each movie.


The following is a short description of each character that will be discussed to clarify their genders and roles in the movie:

Mulan (Movie: Mulan): Mulan’s father is summoned to join the Chinese army because he is the only male in the familiy. She secretly goes to war in his place because he is too handicapped to go. She poses as a male until she is discovered after being hurt.

Li (Movie: Mulan): He is the general leading Mulan’s sector of the Chinese army. Mulan and he fall in love.

Gloria (Movie: Madagascar): She is a hippo who is stranded on the island of Madagascar with two of her friends from the zoo. They were being transported to a different zoo on a ship when the crates they were in fell off the ship.

Alex (Movie: Madagascar): He is a lion and one of Gloria’s friends who is stranded on Madagascar.

Tarzan (Movie: Tarzan): As a baby he survived a shipwreck with his parents, living in a tree house in Africa. A leopard killed his parents and a female gorilla saved him. She took him back to her troop and raised him as her own. He grew up with the gorilla troop and didn’t encounter humans until he was grown and came across Jane and the explorers she was with. Tarzan realized they were like him, human, and visited their camp repeatedly, learning human behaviors.

Kala (Movie: Tarzan): This is Tarzan’s mother.

Jane (Movie: Tarzan): Jane, a British girl, comes with her father, a professor, and other explorers to Africa to explore and study gorillas. Towards the beginning Jane gets lost and chased by baboons, and is saved by Tarzan. She and Tarzan fall in love.

Shrek (Movie: Shrek Forever After): He is an ogre who is sick of being a family man, and wants to be a regular ogre. He meets Rumpelstiltskin who gives him a wish. Shrek wishes to live like he used before his family and marriage to Fiona. He is taken to a time where ogres are hunted by Rumplestiltskin and used as slaves. Shrek wants to undo the wish but he can’t without first loves kiss. He then seeks out Fiona, who he was married to before the wish. She no longer gives him the time of day. Towards the end Shrek sacrifices himself to save all the captured ogres.

Fiona (Movie: Shrek Forever After): Fiona’s main role in this movie is the head of a group of ogres resisting Rumplestiltskin. In the end she falls back in love with Shrek.

Aladar (Movie: Dinosaur): He is a dinosaur who joins a pack of dinosaurs looking the nesting ground. He falls in love with a female dinosaur, Neera. He saves the day multiple times by digging for water, and taking over and leading the pack to safety.

Neera (Move: Dinosaur): She is the sister of the lead of the pack of dinosaurs. She originally doesn’t have feelings for Aladar, but at the end they are in love and have a family together.

Colette (Movie: Ratatouille): She is the only female chef in the kitchen of a restaurant.

The Mayor (Movie: Horton Hears a Who!): He is the mayor of Who-ville. Who-ville is a fictional city that is the size of a speck. Horton the elephant has exceptional hearing and hears the people of Who-ville and decides he must take them to a safe place where they won’t get crushed by.

Jojo (Movie: Horton Hears a Who!): He is the son of the mayor of Whoville.

WALL-E (Movie: WALL-E): He is the only remaining robot on Earth; he was originally created to package trash to clean up the Earth. It is far into the future and humans have abandoned Earth because the conditions were inhabitable. WALL-E falls in love with a female robot that was sent to Earth by the humans, who are on a spaceship, to find life. He ends up on the spaceship, following the female robot.

EVE (Movie: WALL-E): EVE is a robot programmed to find life on Earth to see if the humans can return. When she firsts meets WALL-E she doesn’t care about him, but by the end she falls in love with him and saves his life.


Males Should be Look Like “Real Men” (Male Appearance)

The male characters were often portrayed to be an individual who has a large frame, well-defined muscles, and a strong jawline. Tarzan has extremely large and strong thighs, and a very in shape upper body to match. Even Aladar, who is a dinosaur, sports th

e same strong jaw line Tarzan and Li have. Li also has a large frame, with a big chest. These qualities show society’s focus on super masculine qualities like muscles and strong jaw lines, despite the fact that the average male does not look this way. Society loves to set the standard for looks so high that few can attain beauty according to society’s standards.


Aladar & Neera

Mulan & Li

The Male is Always the Hero

Apparently society wants to think of men as the savior, the guy who comes in at the last minute and saves everybody, including the girl. Tarzan saves Jane multiple times throughout the movie. This can be seen in the following clip beginning at time 1:20 (ignore that it’s in Polish, the words aren’t important):

Shrek is the hero because he sacrifices himself to free all the other ogres from enslavement by Rumpelstiltskin. Aladar saves the dinosaurs from thirst by digging to water, and then takes the lead position leading the pack of dinosaurs to the nesting ground.

Seven out of ten of the movies I watched the male character was the hero. All these male characters serving as heroes signifies that men are thought of as powerful by society, and women are thought of as weaker, not as qualified. Women are rarely seen in the hero position in animated films.

Males Should be in the Leadership Position

Males in leadership positions dominate animated films, as well as society. Look at the government, how many female presidents has the U.S. had? Zero. Eighty percent of my sample had men in leadership positions.

The mayor in Horton Hears a Who! is a male, and he is disappointed because his son, Jojo, doesn’t seem to want to follow in his father’s footsteps. You’d think he’d consider one of his ninety-six daughters for the position. Girls aren’t even considered an option for the leadership position. In Mulan Li follows in his fathers footsteps as a general in the Chinese army. Tarzan even steps to the plate at the end of the film when he decides to stay in Africa and take over as leader of the gorilla troop because the last leader, who was male, was killed. This once again shows society’s perception that males are more powerful than females, and that they should be in control.

Women Should Look like “Real Women” (Female Attire)

Female norms were seen throughout the films in that female characters wore what society has deemed as feminine attire. Mulan, when not disguised as a male is always seen wearing a dress. Jane wears a yellow frilly dress for the beginning of the movie, later changing her outfit to a magenta skirt.

In Horton Hears a Who! all the Mayor’s niniety-six daughters and his wife wear dresses as well. At one point in Madagascar Gloria is seen sporting a bikini. Fiona from Shrek Forever After wears a skirt as well. From my sample (excluding movies where the characters didn’t wear clothes because they’re animals) eighty-six percent of the female characters donned feminine apparel.

A couple of the Mayor's daughters

This shows that society perceives dresses and bikinis as female attire, inferring that that is how a female should dress. In reality how many women do you see wearing dresses all the time? Women wear pants all the time. I wear pants more often than I wear a dress or skirt by far. Also, how practical is to wear a dress all the time? Especially for a character like Jane, who is in the jungle for the whole movie. It can’t be easy to climb a tree wearing a skirt.  Fiona also sports a skirt despite the fact that she is fighting in battles against Rumplestiltskin. This adds to the social norm of women being perceived as helpless because dresses and skirts are constrictive. Animated movies really exaggerate feminism inferring women should dress this way.

The Female Should Take Care of the Children

Society also had made it the standard for females to be the ones taking care of children. Jane is seen acting as a motherly figure to a baby monkey, who then crawls to her after she speaks to it in a matronly tone. Jane is a young girl, who doesn’t have children of her own, so why is it assumed she is going to happily take care of the monkey? Can’t any of the baby monkey’s fellow monkeys take care of him/her? You’d think the monkey would be more comfortable with someone it knows than this random girl.

Another example is seen when Tarzan’s mother saves him from a leopard in the beginning then begs the head male ape to let her keep him. In Madagascar Gloria is also portrayed as a motherly figure when Alex the lion scares off the baby furry animal, it crawls back to Gloria’s endearing words of, “You want mama to pick you up?”  It wasn’t the men in these cases that were caring for the children; it was the female characters caring for the babies. Stay at home fathers are becoming more common in this day and age, but this is not portrayed in animated films. The female characters are instantly assumed to be the one who is going to care for the children.

The Female as Independent

It was common to see males in leadership positions, or as the hero, but I was also surprised by how many female characters were shown taking control, or as independent. Seven out of ten of the movies in my sample had females who exhibited a powerful or independent role. Female characters appear to fight gender roles as they show their independence, either by excelling at their jobs, being the head of a resistance group or taking a male role in order to defend the family.

In WALL-E, the girl robot EVE doesn’t care about WALL-E at first, she is only focused on her job of finding vegetation. In Shrek Forever After, Fiona is the head of the ogre resistance, leading a group of males.

In Ratatouille Colette is the only female chef in the kitchen and she worked hard to get there. She makes this clear when she says to the boy chef, “How many women do you see in here?”   The clip below shows Colette as a powerful and strong woman in the kitchen.

Mulan takes on the role of a male when she goes to war to represent her family because her father is disabled and can’t go. She also is seen as a hero when she saves the army from peril as she launches a rocket into a snowy mountain causing an avalanche to crush the Huns, her opponent. The clip below is an example of Mulan showing that she is powerful and capable.

These examples show that animated movies don’t always go along with the traditional ways of society. The female characters exhibit power and independence, fighting the gender norm that women are perceived as weak.


After having a quick snap shot of how gender is portrayed in animated movies, I think it’d be very interesting to do a much broader study of animated films, which I believe would turn up more surprising themes going against gender norms. Yes, there are the classical gender roles portrayed in animated films, as seen with Jane in her dress, Gloria taking on the motherly role when Alex couldn’t, heroes like Tarzan with his prominent muscles, and men like Li as leaders. On the other hand there were unexpected gender roles, showing females taking power, as seen with Fiona and Mulan, and I think there’s more to come in that direction. I’m curious to know what role gender norms played in putting these animated films in the fifty highest grossing animated films.

It’d be intriguing to look at how gender roles affect children, particularly girls. For instance, do they prefer to conform to traditional gender norms and dress like characters like Jane for Halloween, or do they prefer the empowered female character like Mulan? It’d be interesting to look at how girls have the option to choose to have the traditional gender role characters as role models or to model themselves off of the independent female characters. Boys don’t have this option, as the messages in the animated films didn’t go against gender norms for males. Do little boys leave the movie theater thinking they need to be a big strong manly hero when they grow up? I think that all of this warrants further research into animated movies and how they affect the perceptions children have of gender norms.

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