The depiction of female characters in animated films may affect the body image of young girls who watch them in a more complex way than previously thought, a new study by a University of Connecticut doctoral student has found.
The study, published in the journal Animation, notes that the debate over whether television and film affect girls’ body image has been contentious. But Rebecca Rowe, a specialist in children’s literature in the university’s Department of English, says that while scholars have studied body image in animated films – particularly in so-called “princess” characters – they have focused primarily on body size issues rather than body shapes.
In her paper titled, “Shaping Girls: Analyzing Animated Female Body Shapes,” Rowe says that body shapes in animated characters have changed over the last two decades. She was recently interviewed by UConn 360.
Rowe told CT by the Numbers that she was most surprised by “how restrictive Disney movies during the Disney Renaissance (1989-1999) were. I originally started my study with the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Many of the earliest Disney films contained many female characters who were all different shapes and sizes. The Disney Renaissance, which many have claimed produced some of Disney's best animated films, had few female characters, and the ones they did have were all pretty much the same shape.”
In her research, Rowe analyzed bodies in 67 films produced by several American animation studios from 1989 through 2016. She classifies 239 female characters as one of four body types: Hourglass, Pear, Rectangle, or Inverted Triangle.
“In the twenty-first century,” she noted, “we're moving back towards more body diversity, but I was surprised about how limiting the 1990s were.”
Her argument in the journal article summarizing her research is two-fold: (1) over the last 30 years, there has been a shift from a singular dominant shape (Hourglass) to the dominance of several body shapes (especially Pear and Rectangle); and (2) young girls may be affected by characters their own age who have been largely ignored in studies thus far.
“What I found,” Rowe explained to CT by the Numbers, “is that as there has been more conversation about how media can affect girls' body image, there has been a shift in how animators draw bodies. Animators have to draw what will sell, what their society will buy and buy into. I think we can see from these changes that animators and studios recognize that a change is necessary in order to keep their consumers. And that, I think, is really hopeful.”
Her research paper argues that young girls see diverse images of bodies rather than the singular image that scholars study. Girls’ body image may be affected by animation, but animated images are so diverse that this effect may be difficult to determine. A more nuanced understanding of the body shapes animation utilizes may allow researchers to study the more complex messages that girls do or do not internalize.
Rowe is looking forward to additional research in this arena, suggesting that the next studies on this topic need to be about how specific identities, especially race, affect these bodies. Among the questions that may merit study - how do animators draw different races, and does that change over time? She also says there needs to be more research done with actual girls, to determine whether they are recognizing the increased diversity in body shapes or not.