Why we aren’t bothered by summer movies teaching morals to our kids

From ‘Space Jam’ to ‘Luca,’ kids movies tend to express values favored by liberals. But new research suggests a commonality of values gives reason for hope in a rigidly partisan society

The new “Space Jam” movie debuts July 16 with a familiar cast of Looney Tunes characters, save one. Pepe Le Pew has been cut from the film in light of behavior under heightened scrutiny because of the #MeToo movement.

The amorous skunk, introduced in 1945 in a cartoon called “Odor-Able Kitty,” has been decried as a sexual harasser for his aggressive pursuit of a black-and-white cat. One New York Times columnist has said the character “normalized rape culture.”

Pepe Le Pew was in the first “Space Jam,” which featured basketball star Michael Jordan teaming up with Looney Tunes characters for a basketball game against aliens to save civilization. In leaving the skunk out of the new film, which stars Los Angeles Laker LeBron James, the filmmakers sidestep the controversy, but they’re also sending a moral message to families, which is that the skunk’s behavior is nothing to laugh about.

Hollywood wading deep into moral matters is not unusual. We all do in the most ordinary of actions. “We are constantly paying attention to moral information, giving moral messages to each other in our daily lives,” said Steve Guglielmo, a psychology professor at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

For most of us, those messages come across in the words that we choose in our conversations or what we choose to share on social media. For filmmakers, they come across in theaters or on our TVs, and the message is magnified accordingly. But curiously, the full-on culture war being waged in America rarely comes to the big screen.

To be sure, there are skirmishes — people can disagree on whether a cartoon skunk’s actions can rise to the level of sexual harassment and whether a sleeping Snow White was violated when Prince Charming kissed her. But beloved children’s movies like “Toy Story” and “The Lion King” are generally beloved by all Americans; not beloved of Republicans or Democrats.

A study released in March suggests that this surprising commonality of values gives reason for hope in a rigidly partisan society. But with the summer movie season upon us, the moral messaging in children’s film is something to which parents should pay close attention, one scholar who has studied Disney films says.

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Guglielmo, along with Rachel Gehman and David C. Schwebel, examined moral messages in 42 children’s films in two studies, the results of which were published in March in the journal PLOS One. They used an academic concept called Moral Foundations Theory to assess whether values depicted in the films were prized most by conservatives or liberals, then examined people’s responses to hypothetical resolutions to moral dilemmas raised in the films.

Researchers often group these values into two broad categories. “Individualizing” values reflect concern about minimizing others’ experience of harm and unfairness, whereas “binding” values reflect concern about obeying authority figures and being loyal to one’s social group. Liberals tend to prize individualizing values, while conservatives give more importance to those that are binding, social scientists say.

The film industry has long been perceived as a bastion of liberal values, so it was perhaps not surprising that when the researchers looked at heroes and villains in popular films, the heroes were more likely to embody individualizing values, such as minimizing suffering and correcting injustice; the villains, represented binding values, such as respect for authority, according to the researchers.

Citing examples from “Monsters, Inc.” and “Beauty and the Beast,” the authors wrote, “In individualistic cultures, it is admirable to ‘speak truth to power’ and to fight for one’s beliefs, especially when those beliefs contradict prevailing norms or dictates of authority.”

In general, people who identified as conservatives preferred the moral lessons expressing binding values, while liberals preferred those expressing individuating values. But there was more agreement between the two groups that the individualizing messages were good. This could help to explain why there isn’t a bitter partisan divide over the outcomes of the “Toy Story” films, even though Woody and Buzz Lightyear display values that the researchers said are more important to liberals.

The researchers concluded, “Despite political polarization in the U.S., children’s movies may be a place of commonality, where the moral concerns of care and fairness are celebrated by both liberals and conservatives.” They note, however, that filmmakers often eliminate moral nuance from children’s movies, creating characters that are unambiguously good or evil.

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In her 2002 book “Mouse Morality, the Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film,” scholar Annalee R. Ward examined the Walt Disney Company’s role as a moral educator of American children, and said that “in trying to please the largest audience,” the company sends inconsistent moral messages.

For example, some of the films teach that women can be happy and self-sufficient but still unfulfilled without a man. Others say that our inner beauty matters more than outside appearance, while showing the opposite on screen. “After all, Quasimodo never did get the girl,” Ward said in an interview, referencing the hero in “Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

While marketing itself as a family-values company, Disney changes with the culture and seems to respond to criticism, Ward said. As such, its moral messaging evolves and will continue to do so.

“You see some really beautiful turns in the current films,” she said. “Take the megahit ‘Frozen’ — it was a different message. While Elsa was still Barbie-doll looking, Anna was more of a little girl.”

But Ward says she was troubled by a common moral message of Disney films of the ’90s, which was “follow your heart,” a valuing of individual knowledge at the expense of the collective, and a repudiation of another historic value, responsibility. But the “follow your heart” value seems to be changing. “They’re now coming up with messages that maybe following your heart isn’t solely the thing you need,” she said.

While Ward says that the ultimate message Disney tries to convey is “go buy” its merchandise, she believes that the company is sincere in trying to convey good values, although the values that children and their parents take away from the films may not be the same, especially if the children are watching the films multiple times.

“As a parent, you may walk always with the obvious message, and your kids will get that. But if you’re parenting with video and you’re letting your kids watch it over and over again, the kids are going to start to choose what messages they walk away with.

“‘The Lion King’ was a fabulous film, but if the kids have control, they’re going to watch ‘Hakuna Matata’ over and over again. Are they going to walk away with the message that sometimes you have to go through hard things and take responsibility, or are they going to walk away with ‘no worries, no responsibilities, ‘Hakuna Matata?’”

Parents need to expose their children to a variety of stories and films, have conversations about them and model the values they want their children to embrace, she said.

NBA star LeBron James in “Space Jam: A New Legacy.”
LeBron James stands next to Bugs Bunny in the forthcoming Warner Bros. Pictures film “Space Jam: A New Legacy.” | Warner Bros. Pictures

Whose values?

After scant offerings in the year of COVID-19, Hollywood is looking to rebound with summer movies for families that will be both in theaters and go straight to streaming. The “Space Jam” sequel, for example, opens in theaters and will stream on HBO Max starting July 16.

Other family movies expected to be popular this summer include “Luca,” a Disney Plus film about a boy who is actually a sea monster; “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway,” “Hotel Transylvania 4” and “Paw Patrol: The Movie.”

As for the moral messaging of “Space Jam,” as Ward noted, the messaging in movies is often mixed.

The second trailer for the Warner Brothers film shows an array of Looney Tunes characters of dubious moral character, to include the violence-loving Wile E. Coyote and the gun-toting Yosemite Sam. There is no Pepe Le Pew to be seen, but the Grandma who owns Tweety bird is drinking a margarita at halftime of the otherworldly basketball game. “Haters gonna hate,” she says.