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Portrayal of Work and Culture in Disney Films

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 5294 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Section 1

Disney is claimed to be one of the most influential and recognisable brands on the planet (Bryman, 2004; Wasko, 2013). Coined by Bryman (2004:1) the term “Disneyisation” describes the increasing influence of Disney, which make “crucial contributions” to the most highlighted disclosures of the self (Miller & Rode, 1995, p.86). According to Gond, Cabantous, Harding, & Learmonth (2016), representations in Disney animations are likely to have performative effects, which make contribution to the development of cultural norms and values that may then affect young viewers’ expectations of work and their place in organisations. This section provides a detailed and critical review of the literature on “the portrayal of work in popular culture” –Disney, highlighting its relevance to the management of organisations. Examples are used as supportive illustration. Lastly, an evaluation and suggestions for future study are given.

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A study found that children in the US averagely spend 32 hours a week on TV, DVDs, and streaming (McDonough, 2009). Evident from previous literatures, children’s attitudes, demeanours & self-esteem are affected by the TV & films they see (Livington & Bovill, 2001; Meltzoff, 1988; Vanderbury, 1985). Numerous similar studies (e.g. Marsh, 2014; American Academy of Pediatrics, 2013; Christakis & Zimmerman, 2009) suggest film’s images & characterisations act an important role in most children’s social development in shaping their attitudes and behaviours, hence, their conceptualisation surrounding issues of work and organisational life (Griffin, Learmonth & Piper, 2018). Globalisation has driven the almost unavoidable presence of Disney animations and associated merchandises in children’s life, causing a widespread effect on children’s development, namely “commercialised child” (Schor, 2014, Wolff, 2016). Additionally, as Walt himself cooperate with educationalists in story and movie development, which focus on the cultivation of future productive workers (Sammond, 2005), Disney is considered as a much wider source of education for children (Bowdoin Van Riper, 2011). 

Theoretical perspectives

Substantial literatures explore the critical interpretation of popular culture (especially movies) on contemporary life, and in which way (Stam, 2000; Storey, 2012).  The theoretical construct of “organisational readiness” (Griffin, Learmonth & Piper, 2018) is developed as to explore the cultural product (Disney films) consumed by the future labour-force, and its speculation on the social construction in workplace. It describes children’s expectations towards future organisational life which is gradually built-up from the cultural influences on which they are exposed to (Griffin, Learmonth & Piper, 2018). These expectations may encompass gender appropriate behaviour, social relations within the workplace, and how one should conduct oneself at work, etc. On the other hand, growing engagement of the way that gender in organisation is represented via pop culture (Czarniawska, 2008; Panayiotau 2010, 2014).  According to Stacey (1994), women representation / underrepresentation in cultural media influence on female self construct. Revealed in the UN report, the continued depiction of women as impotent and second-rate has salient influences on the expectation of women in work. Kanter (1977) introduced the four “role traps” (“the seductress”, “the mother”, “the pet” and “Queen Bee”), which illustrate the narrow range of roles women are available at work. Role traps affect how women are read and misread as caricatures of female figures, therefore, stop women being taken seriously as professionals in their own right. Media such as Disney animations act as visual and audio representations of thought (Vygotskian theory, 1934), which moderate the cultivation of the child’s capacities and understanding of the world (Vassilieva, 2013). Even passively observed by young children, media are cultural tools that enclose building blocks of organisational readiness (Griffin, Learmonth & Piper, 2018).

Previous studies (Griffin, Learmonth & Piper, 2008; Griffin, Harding, Learmonth, 2016) has discovered 6 themes within Disney’s characterisation of work:

Separation from parents; Subjection to dangerous, dirty or unfulfilling work; “Manipulation and deception by managers”; “Accentuating the positive at work”; “Being rescued and returned to a safe nonworking environment” (implying “quitting job”); “Quit unrewarding work and re-establish identity in a new working role”.

“Separation from parents” is commonly entailed in fairy-tales (Propp, 1968) and is an overriding theme in Disney animations. Often the character is left to a wicked stepmother and / or being subjected to degrading and fearful work along with numerable depictions of characters weeping or being bullied and manipulated (Courpasson, 2000; Le Flaive, 1996). Feminine work is either portrayed as forced or unskilled and unfulfilling labour that gender norms depicted from Disney animations are oppressive. Exploitive, dominant and aggressive female boss –the “Queen Bee” (Cooper, 1997; Kanter, 1977; Mavin, 2006), who blocks younger female’s development, is illustrated in Disney in numerous ways. Famous examples include Snow White and Cinderella being subjected to monotonous work (as scullery maids) after a loving parent died. Dumbo (1941) is forced to start working in a circus after his mother being taken away. A failure in performance forces Dumbo to undertake dangerous and frightening tasks after the re-establishment in his identity as a clown elephant. Secondly, characters are often manipulated by duplicitous individuals (portrayed as managers or overseers) who pretend to be caring and compassionate to the abandoned child and hiding their deceitful exploitation (Frost, Dutton, Worline & Wilson, 2000), e.g. Stromboli who imprisons Pinocchio (1940) and forces him to work; Cinderella (1950) and Snow White (1937)’s wicked step mothers. Characters are tricked into situations where they can be exploited, e.g. Cinderella was given permission to go to the ball if she can finish all of her chores while the stepmother refuse to commit the promise and locks her in the attic. Interoperated from Disney, powerful, independent women are portrayed as wicked and evil who must be overthrown; instead, feminine passivity is relatively desirable. Classic Disney convey the message that organisation is no place for strong women by disavowing the strength in women. Thirdly, represented in Disney animations, despite all of the dangers and negative experiences, one should accentuate the positive and bravely face the adversity and abuse (Learmonth & Humphrey, 2011). E.g. Cinderella and Pinocchio remains positive throughout bad situations. This Disney depiction encounters the full force of the “pet” or “younger sister” described in “role traps” (Kanter, 1977, p. 393). Furthermore, Disney work suggests that one will eventually be rescued by heroes if one suffers from exploitive situations (Fletcher, 2004). Various critiques are suggested on Disney Princesses’ passiveness and their need to be rescued by man (Liberman, 1972; Orenstein, 2014), while another “role trap” – “the mother” who assists those in crisis (Bowman, 2011) is represented. e.g. Pinocchio, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty (1959) are recused by fairy god-mothers; Snow White, Sleeping Beauty (the “pet” / “younger sister”) are rescued by princes, leading to a “happy” (presumably work-free) ending. Despite so, Snow White also naturally acts as a “mother” that she takes care of the dwarfs, cleaning their house and cook their dinner.

Analysing through a Vygotskian-developmental-lens, children’s understanding formation about organisational life is affected by the representation of workplace they consistently see in Disney animations. Overall, early Disney animations normalise children’s conception of humdrum work (Molstad, 1986) and / or precarious and horrifying work (Jermier, Gaines,& McIntosh, 2006) in organisation life, therefore should be avoided. Rather than critiquing capitalism (according to Smoodin (1994), childhood constructed by Disney is entirely harmonized with consumerism), Disney coveys the construction of the expectation of normative child to work diligently in school so as to avoid “hard work” (physical work) (Sammond, 2005). Instead of actively resisting oppressors, the “organisational readiness” interpreting from Disney animations is the expectation of unenjoyable manual work and oppressive management, that compliance will eventually lead to pleasant results. This consequently produces “docile bodies” (Foucault, 1979). Any sense of collective and “political resistance” toward authority figures are absent in the portrayal of work within Disney animations, whereas accentuation of positive and being rescued to a workless environment are depicted as the ultimate resolution to oppressive organisational situations.  “Happy-ever-after” is represented with the assumption that “work is demeaning and should be escaped from, reflecting on a wider culture of denigrating but simultaneously celebrating the working class, oppressive management and organisation” (Parker, 2006, p.2). Early organisational readiness for young boys is the importance of obtaining high aspirations to reach managerial class so to avoid physical work; oppositely female audiences should expect rescue to the safety of home with the “mother” reside.

Early Disney animations offer negative organisational readiness that encourage children not to engage in work. However, Disney has adopted a “revisionist fairy tale slate” (Flemming, 2015). Contemporary Disney animations suggest children to be attentive and active within organisations. Resistance acts are illustrated in recent animations (but simultaneously encourage an individualistic organisational readiness to children), e.g. Tiana (The Princess and the Frog, 2007) overcomes the bankers’ opposition, and finally has her own restaurant. Additionally, the integration of self-determination and independent representation of women are proposed e.g. Moana (2016) becomes the leader and rescues her tribe by embracing her power to control the sea with her hair.

Conclusively, early Disney portrayal of workplace arouse dreadfulness and the desire to be rescued while recent depiction encourage children to see their power and strength. The new generation of Disney animations undoubtedly creates new representations of gender through Mulan (1998) & Tiana (The Princess and the Frog, 2009), etc, which have been extolled for their disparate portrayals of femininity (Lester, 2010; Towbin et al., 2004). However, one might argue that audiences watch the classics alongside the new-released, therefore, girls can hardly escape from the past understanding of women representation as passive and weak figures that should be carers rather than creators. One might also critise that Disney animations always follow a similar story-line.  Yet,Bulter (1990) emphrases that “how to repeat” is the salient point, the task should indeed be repeating through a radical proliferation of gender, to displace the very gender norms that enable the repetition itself. Despite the similar story-lines, characters are portrayed very differently in contemporary works: portrayal of powerful women as reprehensible is replaced by appreciation of female strength; portrayal of passivity of women is replaced by agentic and active women, that they rescue themselves as strong independent females facing up the responsibility of work or by other female characters. But it is questionable that whether resistance (changes in gender representation) is possible, despite a wide range of animations as resisting tool. In organisations, managers might associate the organisational readiness derived from Disney to critical management education (CME; Grey, 2004). Scholars should harness the immense power of pop culture by utilising them to support students’ understanding and critical reflection on concepts within management. It is suggested that future studies should apply alternative visions based on the 5 dimensions of organisational readiness. Researchers should investigate in the validity of TV / film as central tool of organisational readiness, and in which dimension (s) of organisational readiness and dominant features are the most influential to (1) individuals, & (2) society. The possibility and ways of actively shaping and bringing alteration to organisation readiness should be explored in future studies.


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Section 2

Hyper-aging society bring unprecedented and significant alteration, and create challenges & opportunities in multiple business areas, including strategy, human resources, and marketing management. This section provides a brief critical overview of literature on management in hyper-ageing society. Firstly, an overview of the aging situation worldwide and its causes are presented. The impacts of the greying population and its implications for businesses are discussed with the support of previous literatures. Finally, recommendations for future studies and businesses are provided.

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Aging has been identified as one of the five major global risks in the following decade (Howell, 2013) and as one of the four “megatrends” shaping the world in 2030 (National Intelligence Council, 2012). Aging occurs when the median age of a country or region increases because of the prolonged life expectancy and / or declining birth-rate (Chand & Tung, 2014). In today’s world, by 2050, elderly population will surpass 35% in some fast-growing European countries, e.g. Germany and Italy; whilst it will reach 40% in Japan, Korea and Singapore (Beard et al., 2012). Workers aged 55+ currently make up for 16% of the total workforce in the EU, found in the data from the European Labour Force Survey. This implies for every 10 Generation Z members, there are 12 people aged 65 or above. Management scholars therefore begin to investigate in the implications of the demographic shifts to business management and addressed the strategic management issues of the decreasing labour intensification and HR issues of the aging workforce.

Age diversity in workplace enables businesses to flourish in an increasingly competitive global market with employees who have full-range-of skills and experience. According to CIPD’s report on Managing an Age Diverse Workforce, notable advantages of older workers are: obtaining greater work experience, knowledge and skills; greater maturity and professionalism; a strong work ethic; being more realisable and loyal; therefore experiencing less turnover (SHRM, 2002). However, potential conflicts occur in businesses management are suggested in previous studies.

Firstly, unless raising the retirement age, an aging population causes declination in labour supply available to businesses, which then drives the intensification of the “war for talent”. The inefficient labour market particularly affects certain sectors requiring more physical workers, e.g. manufacturing and construction.  Consequently, without rising productivity, labour costs are driven up. This led to higher inflation and lower consumer spending power. Subsequently, an aging population implies different demand & consumption patterns for goods and service, leading to structural changes within and across industries (rise and decline in certain industries), e.g. rise in long-term health care and retirement planning service, and potential declination in e.g. child-care sectors. Thirdly, greying population implies aging workforce. J.Tamburo (2017) listed four reasons to aging workforce. Firstly, financial need due to the lack of a proper pension plan or retirement saving. The fall-out of the financial crisis in 2008 left many of them with debts and insufficient income from their pension. Increased life-expectancy is another reason. Thirdly, as the generation that come immediately after “Baby-Boomers” (“Baby-Bust”) are substantially smaller, businesses experience talent shortage on the take-over of retiring Boomers’ jobs. Therefore, older workers are often requested to retain. Lastly, despite looking for propose in jobs as Millennials do, Baby Boomers enjoy the social benefits of work and the feeling of being productive (SHRM, 2014 Survey). But, according to Bal et al (2011), elderly workers are often stereotyped as pertinacious and resist to changes. Older employees are considered as more inflexible and costlier because of high wages and additional health benefits. Older employees are evident to have lower rate of absenteeism than younger workers, but with longer duration (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, 2009). Fourthly, demographic changes also prompt business geographical relocations (MNEs) as to capitalise and leverage local resources, so called “arbitrage strategy” by Ghemawat (2007). In terms of strategic management, businesses aiming at maintaining competitive advantage offshore labour-intensive production (e.g. textiles) from rapidly aging countries to regions with young population. Consequently, lead to intensification of “global war of talent”.

Many policies nowadays focus on attempting to encourage older workforce to remain employability and postpone retirement (Griffin and Beddie, 2011). Various researches highlighted the importance of elaborating an effective aging management in organisations. Facing labour shortage, organisations should assess the workforce’s age structure which helps estimate individual’s retirement time, as well as future skills requirements as to enable effective HR (Zacher, Kooiji & Beier, 2018). An age-friendly organisational culture which provide a flexible tailoring on job design and other HR practices to older workers (e.g. flexible work schedules) should be created. Five organisational action fields are suggested by various scholars (e.g. Streb et al, 2008; Voepel & Streb, 2010):

Managerial mindsets: Elderly workers are often portrayed negatively (Rapoliene, 2010).  Referring to Zacher et al (2018), managements should recognise and eliminate age-related stereotypes and discrimination on older workers. At organisational level, organisations should be supportive and encourage older workers to participate in considerably “age-inappropriate” activities (e.g. training) and roles. In terms of interpersonal level, top management (e.g. supervisor) should act as important role-models in which organisations should encourage age-diverse team of young and old workers.

Knowledge management: Pointed out by Drucker (2000), knowledge is the foundation of the 21st century organisations. Thus, knowledge sharing is an important strategy in the process of developing competitive advantage in any organisation (Chua, 2003). A strong positive correlation between adult age and knowledge is found in Kanfer & Ackerman’s (2004) study. With proper knowledge management, e.g. knowledge sharing between retiring workers to those who are recruited for their position (Dalkir, 2005), organisations benefit from the prevention of corporate memory loss. In which, exchange techniques comprise “mentoring”, “storytelling”, “training”, “communities of practice” and “orientation” (Casher & Lesser, 2003).

Health management & Work environment and physical tools: Health, cognitive abilities and work motives change with age, therefore, workplaces needed to be re-designed for the sustention and the promotion of elderly workers’ physical, mental and social well-being, and to prevent health challenges and disabilities (Zacher et al, 2018), e.g. adjustable workplace with tools and devices assisting physically strenuous tasks, avoid repetitive motions, and providing adequate breaks.

Human Resource management: Suggested by Chand & Tong (2014), management should hold an optimistic view on aging workforce as to balance their workforce-need with younger workforce: young workers are more comparably suitable for heavy manual tasks and those require technical knowledge, while older workforces are more appreciated in position needed a greater degree of interpersonal skills and empathy (Chand & Ting, 2014). A good-mix of the use of younger and older workforce help lower workforce-related risks (Beard et al., 2012). Additionally, due to the declination of working-age population, organisations must particularly focus on the attraction and retention of suitable workers for almost all kind of jobs, especially those experiencing talent shortage (lack of employees with the rightful skills and / competencies). As the workforce now obtains increased bargaining power, organisations can create value by the implementation of systems ensuring flexible perks and reward life-long learning.

Conclusively, literatures of the aging population and its implications to businesses are reviewed. To evaluate, organisations nowadays have recognized the significance of aging issues and begin to implement new HR practices and restructuring business strategies in numerous ways. However, these internal modifications often take long time to execute and evaluate. It is questionable whether managements’ act can catch-up with the increasingly rapid trend of greying population. Little research has been carried out on the investigation in which knowledge management policies are most appropriate and effective on filling the “talent gap” (Casher & Lesser, 2003). Therefore, future studies should focus on developing models on knowledge management and explore appropriate policies and programs for talent attraction and retention.


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