You might not expect a college linguistics professor to seriously dissect the children’s movies “Beauty and the Beast” and “Cars” in her writing, but that’s exactly what Pitzer College professor Carmen Fought does in her latest book.
Published in September, “Language and Gender in Children’s Animated Films” was co-written by Pitzer alumna Karen Eisenhauer PZ ’13. The book discusses Disney’s and Pixar’s representation of gender through language and the messages that these gender roles send to viewers. Pitzer funded the research for the book, and Cambridge University Press published it.
Fought wanted to write the book because while other scholars have studied Disney’s gender dynamics, she didn’t feel like these studies used enough quantitative data.
“I would read things that people had written about Disney that were very qualitative, and they would be like, ‘Oh, Pocahontas is so wonderful. …. She does things and she has skills and she doesn’t even go with the guy in the end,’ and then another reading would be like, ‘No, Pocahontas is the same really tired stereotypes of native women,’ and I would agree with one of them more than the other, but sometimes even they would be using the same scenes to argue to different things, and it didn’t feel convincing to me,” Fought said.
She thought that linguistics would be a good way to measure how these movies portray male characters, female characters and queerness in their films. So, Fought began writing the book with Eisenhauer, who had been her student, research assistant and project manager in the past.
“We both felt strongly committed to the idea that we didn’t want a book that just threw around words like ‘hegemonic’ and ‘patriarchal’ and ‘ideologies’ and didn’t really connect with people and wasn’t accessible to anybody who didn’t have any sort of education.”
They started writing the book together in 2020, with each author taking the lead on half of the chapters. Hoping to appeal to peers in the field as well as to the general public, they decided to write their book in a style that was both academic and accessible.
“We both felt strongly committed to the idea that we didn’t want a book that just threw around words like ‘hegemonic’ and ‘patriarchal’ and ‘ideologies’ and didn’t really connect with people and wasn’t accessible to anybody who didn’t have any sort of education,” Fought said. “We wanted it to be an academic book, but we wanted it to be an academic book that people enjoyed.”
The writers also wanted to include their own voices in the book, which took the form of jokes, footnotes and political opinions.
“We didn’t try to be some sort of scientific neutral,” Fought said. “We said when we thought something sucked. We said when we thought something was dangerous. We said when we found something upsetting, and we said what we hoped would happen, what we hoped would change and how we thought things were getting better or not getting better.”
Fought enjoyed writing the book, both because she was able to write it in a personal style and because of the fun nature of the subject matter.
“It was a very joyful process, and a funny one, just because working with Disney and Pixar as your source materials is a little different from other social science data sets,” Fought said. “I remember one time I asked Karen, ‘What would you say is the illocutionary force of “gobble, gobble, gobble, gobble, gobble”?’ We sat there and talked seriously about that for a while.”
Fought also loved getting to collaborate when writing the book, both with Eisenhauer and her research assistants, whom she found to be very helpful.
“With these research assistants, and also with Karen, it’s not just how much work they did on the project, but also, they had such a great attitude and they were like, ‘Oh, we can’t wait for the book to come out,’ and having that community support and feeling like it’s a community project just makes such a difference versus doing it in your room at your desk by yourself,” Fought said.
Despite having written two other books before, Fought believes that “Language and Gender in Children’s Animated Films” is her best work because she didn’t try as much to conform to standards for academic writing.
“I didn’t try to fit into some academic box of how the language had to sound,” Fought said. “I just let myself be myself … and I liked the idea that someone’s going to pick it up and they’re not going to have to force themselves to read through the first 10 pages to ‘get to the good part’ …. I want people to be interested and drawn in right away and ask themselves questions and be curious.”
Overall, Fought is proud of the book and hopes it encourages adults to be more aware of the negative aspects of the films they show their children.
“I think Disney works very, very hard to present itself as wholesome, sweet, innocent family entertainment, [but] there are some really dangerous messages in here,” Fought said. “My perspective on it is just know what you’re watching and be critical and cognizant of it. If you’re gonna let your child watch something, whatever it is –– Disney, ‘SpongeBob’ –– whatever it may be, watch it yourself too and think about the message that it’s sending, and if you see something that’s unhealthy, think about talking to them about it.”