Is Disney TV Unhealthy for Bilingual Children?

by Corey · 12 comments

By Corey Heller
Photo: Loren Javier

This past week my my children and I came down with some nasty illness. Lethargy, exhaustion and fevers abounded in our household. I wish I could say that I recovered quickly and was back in action with lightening speed but unfortunately that was not the case. Instead, my children and I have been snuggling on sofas and waiting out our illnesses.

I was far too exhausted to even think of reading to my children, which is what I usually do when my kids get ill (we love it!), so instead we all eagerly turned to our media babysitter: Netflix (we subscribe to the streaming option). We started off by watching carefully chosen documentaries (Guns, Germs and Steel, Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, and When Worlds Collide these fit well into my children’s homeschooling subjects – I highly recommend them). However, not surprisingly, as our illness continued, we soon turned to a variety of children’s media (holiday films, TV shows and cartoons) that we had never seen before.

We all know that too much screen time for anyone is unhealthy, so I did feel a little guilty for allowing my children (and myself) to watch so many hours of it. However, that is not what ended up concerning me. (In fact, we ended up having a great time checking out so many different programs that we had never seen before.) What I ended up finding most unhealthy were the stereotypical cultural expressions that my children were exposed to from one mainstream children’s media production company after another. At times I was shocked and almost disgusted with the way cultures were being represented, especially German. I asked myself and my children: “How do you feel about this?”

Last year Disney was praised in the media and by bloggers for it’s film, Toy Story 3, in which the character, Buzz Lightyear, was accidentally reprogrammed for a while to speek Spanish. Even though my children enjoyed the scenes, through the media and blogger frenzie I couldn’t help but see this as a targeted marketing ploy aimed at Spanish-speakers (which seems to have worked wonderfully), which left me feeling pretty negative about the whole thing.

My children and I have enjoyed watching movies from Disney and other production companies over the years and we will continue to enjoy their movies. However, I can’t help but wonder if stereotypical cultural and linguistic bursts in a film really do the service to multicultural families that so many claim? Or do they actually do the opposite by instilling stereotypical images and impressions even deeper?

What I found to be the worst this past week were the TV shows aimed at children, especially shows from all-day children’s programming channels. The way cultures and characters were portrayed in these programs was, at times, shocking to me. Some were just fun, others were down-right disturbing.

Here are some general examples of what I observed in these mainstream children’s TV programming:

  • The Bad Guys: Very often the “bad guys” in a show were from another culture. I found this to be the most disturbing, especially since in one show after another, the bad guy was German (one of my children’s cultures). They spoke with a German accent, at times wore traditional German clothing, and had stereotypical German traits (e.g. intelligent and efficient). In one show, the bad guy was shown as a child in his past childhood home in Germany where he showed how strict and mean his parents had been to him (implying that this is why he turned into a bad guy).
  • Poor Character Traits: In many shows, the independent, arrogant, slang-talking child (usually American) was the hero. Ignoring authority and parental advice was what made him admirable and successful. Is this really how we want our children to become?
  • Stereotypical Portrayal: When someone from another culture was included, they were often portrayed stereotypically, displaying traditional manners, clothing, food choices, attitudes and accent. Do we want our children to believe that people in other countries wear their traditional, festive clothing all day long and every day?
  • Simple Characters: Protagonists (American or from other cultures) in most shows had no complexity and were rarely thoughtful. They made snap decisions, were reactionary, were rarely confronted with issues that needed careful consideration, and were rewarded when punishing those who had done him wrong. Is dumbing-down characters really necessary for children to appreciate a storyline?
  • Lack of Culture: More often than not, the shows didn’t even portray characters from different cultures or with different skin colors. Everyone was a perfectly fit, attractive, Caucasian.
  • Speed: The rate of image switching was so incredibly fast that I don’t think it could be healthy for anyone, adult and child alike. When I finally insisted that we go back to some “normal” programs, it felt like things were moving in slow motion. Could this have something to do with our children’s poor attention spans?

What I find most unforgiveable in today’s children TV programming is the way in which children’s media companies seem to have all agreed on a set of simple, stereotypical representations for each culture (native costume and accent included). My children, with their bilingual upbringing of American and German cultures, are continually confronted with images of German characters who are the evil and cruel bad guys. American characters are often greedy, arrogant and disrespectful (yet often win in the end nevertheless). Strong characters are often caucasian, attractive and wealthy, while the underdog often has a skin color, lives simply and isn’t very smart. (As a side note: the ultra-politically-correct children’s programming that goes overboard is also doing a disservice, as far as I am concerned. Often those shows are just, plain boring!).

When it comes down to it, I would almost rather that children’s programming not include characters from other cultures if it can’t be done well. I’m not saying that the differences between cultures can’t be shown, explored, discussed and represented. My children and I thoroughly enjoy witnessing cultural differences represented with fun and humor in children’s shows (I’m thinking of a few PBS children’s shows). It’s just that if our children are sponges, as we are told, then they are soaking up each and every image and storyline that we offer them, so let’s do it right!

I don’t want to specifically target Disney TV here since so many mainstream programming channels are doing the same. Thus, my current approach with mainstream children’s media for my bicultural children is that we simply avoid it, or at least encounter it only occasionally. Talking with my children about how media programming is created for entertainment, but is often not an accurate account of cultures in our world, is helpful but it won’t change the influence that it has on my children.

Regardless of what we say to our children, if we expose them to regular stereotypical images of their (and other cultures), this is what they will come to internalize.

How do you feel about your children being exposed to stereotypical images of your culture? Is it better to at least show characters from different cultures, even if they are portrayed stereotypically or negatively?

Do you have some good examples of children’s programming that you can recommend?

Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher of Multilingual Living Magazine. Multilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. Corey, an American, and her German husband live in Seattle where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 15, 14 and 12, in German and English.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sonja Gardner December 2, 2011 at 6:06 pm


I completely agree with you. It always bothers me that the bad guys are often German in so many movies and shows. When will they figure out that this country is made out of people from many different cultures that should be celebrated, not stereotyped or shown incorrectly?

Take care,

Sonja Gardner


2 Corey January 3, 2012 at 10:25 pm

Thank you for your comment, Sonja! Yea, in movies for adults, I don’t mind it as much (even though it still gets on my nerves that everyone seems to think it is ok to make Germans the psycho bad guys). But in kids’ shows and movies, I think it is unforgivable! It isn’t that all shows have to be perfectly politically correct (those shows are often boring and not very entertaining) but shouldn’t we be able to be more creative and come up with something that doesn’t create such strong stereotypes!?

I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one who gets annoyed by this!


3 Yara December 2, 2011 at 7:05 pm

I believe that many of the shows you refer to are aimed at older kids than mine. I don’t let them watch those shows. We do watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Little Einsteins and Handy Manny (which I can switch to Spanish language, a huge plus)
Little Einsteins is my favorite of the three. My kids are bilingual, bicultural and biracial. When my son looked at me and said: “Mamá, that kid looks like me!” from the Little Einsteins it really hit home that most of the time there’s no Black, curly hair children on TV shows. The Black character is intelligent, plays every instrument and is a nice kid. No weird accent or different clothing. I’m happy he can identified with him.
Handy Manny, well, you could say he’s a stereotype. I like to think that he’s doing good, honest work. Then again, is a kids show. Not many of them have doctors, lawyers, presidents, etc:) At least the town Major is a woman.


4 Corey January 3, 2012 at 10:27 pm

Yes, I believe you are right, Yara. The shows that my kids are watching are no longer those for very young children (my oldest is now 10). I feel that at these ages, in particular, children are more aware of the stereotypes that are being fed to them, even more than when our children are very young.

I just wish mega-millionaire companies like Disney could be more creative when coming up with characters. I can’t be so difficult, I would assume. Maybe the next generation will do this! 😉


5 Suze Nowak December 3, 2011 at 6:50 am

And that, right there, is exactly why we don’t have a television! Great article.


6 Corey January 3, 2012 at 10:31 pm

Suze, GREAT reason!

My husband and I are movie buffs so I love our TV and DVD player. And I love that we can watch some amazing documentaries and shows via Netflix (part of our homeschooling) – things that I am not sure they kids would be as interested in had they not seen it in “action” (like shows about the universe or dinosaurs, etc.). But every time I try to watch some mainstream stuff (which a large portion of the United States population is watching) I am shocked! How can those shows get the money they need to actually get made? Wow!


7 Bee December 3, 2011 at 6:55 am

Hi Corey,
Well said! I really agree with you.

Personally, I have never been a fan of the newer Disney films. We don’t have a TV and we don’t live in the US so we have missed all the cable programs as well. When we have visited the States, my children haven’t even liked the Disney shows–or any other American shows, actually, like the newer Sesame Street (although they loved Bear in the Big Blue House!). This bothered me for awhile, as I wondered if the programs really had gotten so bad since I grew up in the States or if my own tastes had changed so much as I lived my life outside of the States. Also, I really wanted my children to get the best of American programs, both for language purposes (they are bilingual Swedish-English) and for cultural purposes (we are all dual citizens). In the end we ended up watching more British children’s programs than American–and definitely many more Swedish videos than English. We also love Japanese films and all the strong girls in them.

All that said, my children find the Swedish chef hilarious. Partly because they know he is based on a real chef and partly because they find it funny how Americans might understand the Swedish language.
Otherwise, Swedish actors often tend to play the bad guy–and then with a fake Russian or German accent. Mostly my boys are so old now that they see right through it.

In any case, I enjoyed reading this, Corey! You are always spot-on!


8 Corey January 3, 2012 at 10:45 pm

Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Bee! I agree with you 100%. I don’t want to turn every show into a politically-correct statement – that would definitely be a bummer (I love the Swedish Chef!). The shows that are too politically-correct can be so boring and feel sterile. I don’t like many of the newer shows on PBS very much anymore either for a number of reasons. I think progress is inevitable but I wonder if we need to make things so much more “modern” for our youngest viewers.

I think that some of the German bad-guys in the shows are funny – very clever show creators! However, I wonder if they are thinking how children will be impacted? On the one hand we are talking about stamping out bullies, yet the shows emulate arrogant, show-off kids who are the heroes because they are cool, defiant and always in charge. Hmmm.

Thank you for your sharing your thoughts! They have given me even more things to think about! 🙂


9 isabel December 4, 2011 at 2:51 pm

Spot on about stereotypes. It is a shame that our kids grow up watching tv and thinking that the bad guy is always a foreigner (with Russians and Germans being the prime suspects, sometimes Latinos, and most recently Arabs).

Stereotyping also applies with regards to dolls and toys. I guess this happens all over the world. A lot of them look the same (very blond hair and ice blue eyes). This is not the way than us Spaniards look like traditionally. And these dolls look less and less like the inhabitants of the new Spain, where there is a large South American community (darker skin tone than the Mediterranean types), and a growing Asian population.


10 Corey January 3, 2012 at 10:50 pm

You are so right about the dolls, Isabel! It is funny how recently my children were looking at different toys online, to show me what they were hoping they’d get for Christmas and often the Caucasian family was given the title “Family” while the Asian looking family was the “Asian Family” and there was “Mediterranean Family” “African American Family” etc. Seriously? They can’t come up with more creative names? If companies can come up with names like Netflix, iPhone, Facebook and Twitter, I think we can come up with names for toys that make them just normal parts of our society. Or at least call the Caucasian family “Caucasian Family”! Do I really want my daughter saying, “Wow, mommy, I got the Asian Family for Christmas… they can live near the normal family.”

Thank you for this reminder!


11 Amy December 14, 2011 at 7:02 am

I agree, Corey! Thanks for posting this. We don’t have TV, so that solves a lot of begging to watch things with dubious messages for our kids, cultural stereotypes or otherwise. I don’t particularly like Disney stories, especially the unhealthy messages they send to girls (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella), never mind the token ethnic characters with exaggerated features. We stick to reading fairy tales (French or English) with more progressive values. Paperbag Princess by Robert Munch is one of my all-time faves!


12 Corey January 3, 2012 at 10:54 pm

Thank you for the comment, Amy! You are so right about how many alternatives there are to the mainstream media options. It is really a bummer since so many of the Disney options are now in Spanish (but that is a whole other topic in my mind about the lengths Disney is going to attract Spanish-speaking families to feel excited to purchase Disney products).

I think it is a ton of fun to share familiar fairy tales with our children that aren’t the mainstream ones. Those will be the ones that our children will then feel compelled to share with their children! Isn’t that exciting to think about! Ending the stereotypical cycle! 😉

Thank you for your reminder about the progressive values! There are so many options out there for that!


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