Condemnations of toxic leadership have poured from the business and academic press for more than a century. Meanwhile a subtler, no-less scathing critique has subconsciously shaped our perceptions of workplace authority.
We’re talking about Disney movies.
The world of work is ubiquitous in Disney films, from the grueling glitter of diamond mines in Snow White to Krei Tech in Big Hero 6 with its innovate-at-all costs ethos and ethically challenged CEO. In the last quarter century, denouncements by feminists and social critics prodded the transformation of Disney heroines from damsels needing rescue into strong, independent women. Disney bosses, by contrast, have remained caricatures of casual cruelty, contravening the real-world trends toward employee empowerment and enlightened leadership.
Children’s worldviews–which may extend into adulthood–are shaped not only by parents, teachers, and other real-life relationships but also by television and movies. Of those cultural influences, Disney films are among the more pervasive, according to a new paper by professors Martyn Griffin of Leeds University and Mark Learmonth of Durham University. For example, if you were a parent of young children between, say, 2013 and 2015, just recall how much of your household’s attention and entertainment budget were sucked up by all things related to Frozen.
The paper, published by the Academy of Management, addresses Disney’s effect on “organizational readiness”: children’s expectations of what the world of work will be like. “Just because Disney films are made this way doesn’t mean everyone thinks their boss is Stromboli,” said Griffin in an interview, referring to the evil puppeteer in Pinocchio. “However managers should understand that young employees are not a blank slate.” Pop culture in general and Disney in particular may plant negative perceptions of managers’ motives and actions in young people’s minds. It is up to real-life leaders to dispel them.
A bad buffalo, an empathy-less emperor
Griffin and Learmonth identified five recurrent work-related themes in Disney’s 56 feature-length animated films. They include “subjection to dangerous, dirty, or unfulfilling work” (think Dumbo’s torments in the circus) and “being rescued and returned to a non-work environment” (in The Sword in the Stone, Merlin creates a magical “assembly-line system” for cleaning dishes, so a young Arthur can escape his kitchen duties and become squire to the king).
The most common theme, appearing in 35 Disney movies, is “manipulation and deception by managers.” In earlier movies–and even today–the boss-employee dynamic is cloaked in fairy-tale trappings. “Pinocchio, you will make lots of money for me, and when you are too old you will make good firewood,” says Stromboli.
More recently, however, recognizable corporate situations and jargon have infiltrated the films. Judy Hopps, the young rabbit protagonist of 2016’s Zootopia, is an abused and undervalued parking enforcement officer because her cape buffalo boss, Chief Bogo, is bigoted against small mammals. In the 2000 feature The Emperor’s New Groove, Kuzco dismisses his elderly female adviser: “You are being let go; you are part of being downsized, you have a replacement; we are going in a different direction; we’re not picking up your option; take your pick.” Rather than apply to the EEOC, the advisor turns her former boss into a llama. “It is a film about age discrimination in the workplace for 6-year-olds,” Griffin says.
Princesses with potential
The researchers were hard-pressed to come up with any examples of benevolent Disney bosses. “That is surprising because this is a huge, really successful company that presumably has lots of managers who think they are nice people,” Griffin says. On the other hand, he points out, Disney fits neatly into a pop culture tradition of malevolent bosses, from Ebenezer Scrooge to The Simpsons‘ Mr. Burns. “There is a long history of portrayal of managers as not evil in an absolute sense, but as the kinds of people you would not want to go for a drink with.”
The clear message for children: When you get a job, expect to be mistreated. Those with early ambition may take away a different lesson: in organizations, bullies succeed. “They see continuous representations of managers who are acting in this aggressive, domineering fashion, and those are the people who have made it,” Griffin says.
If good bosses are rare in Disney films, there are at least presentiments of good-bosses-in-the making. In The Princess and the Frog, for example, Tiana is overworked and disrespected as a waitress in Duke’s Café. When she finally realizes her entrepreneurial dream to open her own restaurant, “you assume she is going to be a better manager and do all the things [her old boss] didn’t do,” Griffin says.
Then there’s Frozen. Fearful of her own uncontrolled power, Elsa flees from the leadership of Arendelle. At movie’s end, she rediscovers her humanity and embarks on what promises to be a benevolent reign. The princesses Elsa and her sister Anna “are aware of their weaknesses and their vulnerabilities,” says Learmonth. “I would quite like to work for them.”