Movies - The Concerns

In this section, we examine some concerns related to the movies kids enjoy and we offer tips for talking about problematic film content such as violence and gender and racial stereotyping.

Stereotyping in the Movies

Stereotypes are simple, one-dimensional portrayals of people—usually based on sex, race, religion, profession or age. All of us stereotype people to some degree as we try to make sense of the world. 

Filmmakers often rely heavily on stereotypes, because they’re a quick and simple way to establish a movie character’s traits. Blonde women are dumb, for example; foreigners are villains, Mexicans are lazy, and blacks are great athletes. Teenaged characters are variously shown as sex-crazed, uncivilized, moralistic or shallow, and they tend to be lumped into groups of either popular kids or geeks.

The film industry today is more sensitive to issues of culture and gender than it once was, but many movies still perpetuate common misconceptions about groups of people. Such oversimplified and inaccurate portrayals can profoundly affect how we perceive one another, how we relate to one another and how we value ourselves. For more information, see the Diversity in Media and Gender Representation sections.

Because children have a limited experience of the world, they’re particularly vulnerable to being influenced by media stereotypes. Even animated movies have their share of stereotypes, because they’re familiar and easily understood. Those cookie-cutter Disney heroines are always curvaceous, have the same attractive features (regardless of race) and rarely take physical risks.

The kindly grandfather in Pinocchio, the wicked stepmother in Cinderella and the heroic male lion in the Lion King are all stereotypes known and understood by children.

We can teach children to recognize media stereotypes, and to understand how they influence us:

  • Have them watch out for stereotypical portrayals of children and teens in movies. Seeing inaccurate portraits of themselves will help them to understand the concept of stereotyping.
  • When watching older films with children, look out for dated stereotypes and discuss them. The portrayal of Native Americans in Westerns is a good example of how negative stereotypes can distort the history and our understanding of another culture.
  • Discuss the qualities that are most commonly used to define male and female characters, and talk about how such portrayals may limit people’s views of real-life gender roles.
  • When choosing films for younger children, look for strong female characters and caring male characters—and films that emphasize friendship and mutual respect between the sexes. Look for sympathetic and insightful views of other cultures, races and religions.
  • Expose older kids and teens to movies that break down barriers between people and address issues of sexism and racism.


Movie stillThere has been a great deal of debate about the possible connection between violent behaviour in young people and their exposure to violent films, video games, TV programming and music.

Though a direct link between the two has not been conclusively proven, there’s a growing consensus that exposure to violent entertainment is one of the variables to be considered, along with others, including family stability, learning disabilities and personality—when examining the behaviour of children and teens. For more information, see the Violence section.

Kids are drawn to movies with scary themes, and watching “slasher” films is a rite of passage for teens and even younger kids. But being steadily exposed to violent images from an early age can have a lasting effect on young children.

Researchers have identified three potential responses to media violence in children:

  • Increased fear—also known as the “scary world syndrome”
    Television frequently portrays a much more violent world than the real one, and this can have an effect on kids: children who have seen significant amounts of violence on TV are more likely to believe that the world is a frightening place. This effect is more powerful when the violence is portrayed realistically (as in thrillers or police procedurals) or when it is depictions of actual violence (as in documentaries or news programs). [1]
  • Desensitization to real-life violence
    There is significant evidence that exposure to violence in real life (for instance, witnessing violent crime or domestic violence) can cause young people to see violence as acceptable or unremarkable. [2] There is some evidence to suggest this may happen, on a smaller scale, as a result of exposure to media violence. [3]
  • Increased aggressive behaviour
    There seems to be a relationship between violent media and aggression, but it’s not clear whether violent media makes children more aggressive or whether kids who are already more aggressive are drawn to violent media. [4] It’s also possible that the two reinforce one another, so that kids who are prone to be aggressive choose more violent media which encourages their aggressiveness.

With the many different platforms for watching movies today, young people have easy access to movies with graphic and gratuitous violence. As well, the media industries actively market violent entertainment to young children: the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood found that PG-13 films, and toys connected to them, were routinely advertised on shows aimed at much younger children. [5]

There’s a reason why the movie industry produces so much violent fare: action films export well. Unlike dramas and comedies, which need expensive translation of their dialogue, action-packed movies make the transition to foreign languages and markets easily and cheaply. Even at home, their simplistic content means that violent films appeal to a broad range of ages. In North America and abroad, violence is profitable.

Parents and teachers can use the tip sheet Talking to Kids About Media Violence to discuss the different kinds of violence in films. Point out the distinction between realistic violence, which produces consequences (usually unpleasant), and gratuitous violence, which tends to glorify force as an appropriate response to conflict.


[1] Soulliere, D. Prime-time murder: Presentations of murder on popular television justice programs. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture 10(1), 2003, pp.12-38.
[2] Kutner, Lawrence and Cheryl K. Olson. Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games. New York: Simon & Shuster, 2008.
[3] Montag, Christian et al. Does excessive play of violent first-person-shooter-video-games dampen brain activity in response to emotional stimuli? Biological Psychology, October 2011.
[4] Kutner, Lawrence and Cheryl K. Olson. Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games. New York: Simon & Shuster, 2008.
[5] “2010 PG-13 Marketing to Children.” Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, May 14 2010.