When she was an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, Lindsay Hahn was frustrated by the prominent belief that video games and television rotted people’s brains. Her frustration fueled her passion for studying media psychology, morality and the interaction between children and media.
Now, Hahn, a communications professor at UB, has published research on character morality in arguably the most widespread and highly advertised media company ever: Disney.
Her study analyzes all 734 Disney films produced between 1937 and 2019 for three main things: what values are associated with their heroes and villains, what viewers might take away from the story, and whether audiences’ preferences affect what content they create.
“The content since 1937, when Snow White was released — it turns out that heroes are always moral, villains are always egoistic,” Hahn said. “Disney found the secret sauce to what audiences like, and they just have not changed it at all.”
But not every character is created equal.
“Obviously, there’s a pretty big difference between Ursula and Maleficent versus some of these obscure villains that may have hilariously robbed a bank and got into some hijinks,” Hahn said.
This line of thinking led her to conduct a follow-up study on what separates the bank robbers from the baby cursers and sea witches. Her main conclusion: Disney villains don’t go the same lengths they used to.
“In older Disney films with the classic Disney villains, we see that they’re willing to harm other people,” Hahn said, “whereas more recent villains are less likely to do that, even if they are still self-centered in general.”
Though Hahn enjoys watching Disney films, she mainly chose to study them for their enormous popularity and cultural presence; few other media companies have enjoyed Disney’s immense and timeless success. But the concept of media ruining children’s vulnerable minds is a “Tale as Old as Time” and has existed far longer than Disney.
Hahn explores this not only in her research, but also in her UB freshman seminar, “Media and Moral Panic,” in which she and her students examine societal panics caused by the invention of new technology across history.
“From the printing press, from radio, from books, from television, from video games — the panic around them is all the exact same,” Hahn said. “People ask the exact same questions about whether or not this is bad for us.”
Hahn’s research has led her to conclude that media is not inherently bad. Violent media cannot influence a person to be more violent. Repeated exposure to any form of media cannot change a person’s morality. Media consumption is only an issue when it interferes with participation in daily life.
And the horrors of Disney’s villains won’t make children more evil than they already are.
“We research Disney, we research violent video games, we play video games for research, and all of those things are extremely fun to me, but also I love getting to play around with them for work,” Hahn said. “So I feel like because of that, I have the very best job.”
Xiola Bagwell is a copy editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Xiola Bagwell is a copy editor at The Spectrum. She enjoys reading and writing fantasy/romance novels, watching lighthearted movies and spending time with her friends and family. Xiola is a linguistics major, minoring in Spanish.