The Little Mermaid

SDCC 2018: What kind of magic makes us identify with Disney characters?

Contributed by
Jul 23, 2018

Are you more like Ariel, the teen mermaid princess obsessed with collecting human artifacts or Ursula, the tentacled sea witch who would rather fawn over her assemblage of poor, unfortunate souls? Your answer might say a lot about you.

There are deeper psychological aspects to the Disney fandom beneath those iconic mouse ears. SYFY WIRE attended the From Mickey Mouse to Mary Poppins: How Does Personality Influence Our Favorite Disney Characters? panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2018 to explore the secret passages of Cinderella's castle. Marshall University professors of psychology Keith W. Beard, Psy.D. and April Fugett, Ph.D., as well as psychology grad students Britani Black, M.A. and Carrie Dean, M.A. shed some light on how our personality traits influence the characters we identify with — and how the House of Mouse creates those characters we identify with so strongly in the first place.

Disney fans' personalities may be valuable for figuring out which characters will make movie tickets, DVDs, toys, and other merch magically disappear, but the traits of those characters you identify with the most can also tell you things about yourself you never thought a mouse in red boxer shorts could. SDCC's expert panel revealed some insights you may have never realized while watching Frozen for the eleventy-billionth time.

"There are states and traits," Beard told SYFY WIRE in an exclusive interview. "The traits are inbred — you're born with it and have those qualities. The states are personality characteristics that come out stronger or less so depending on the situation or the environment. I think there are certain characteristics or personalities that are definitely going to be drawn to the Disney characters, but I also think there are aspects of our environment that will do that."

Scar, The Lion King

Credit: Walt Disney Studios

So does this mean you're destined to turn into the human version of Scar and his three hyena minions just because you happen to be more into Disney villians than the more sparkly characters? While the psychologists agreed that Disney has had a history of presenting its heroes and villains as black and white, they also acknowledged that the House of Mouse is starting to flesh characters out as real people — meaning its characters are growing more complicated rather than falling into opposite categories of the Great Good and the Big Bad.

"We see some really cool things with what we consider more positive aspects of personality," Fugett says. "What we see is that we have people across a broad variety of personality types who identify with and love the villain and it doesn't make you a whole lot different from someone [who] identifies with the hero.

"You can see situational things," Beard adds. "That's part of the whole thing to rectify — so they're not all good or bad but multidimensional."

That may not make Simba forget about who murdered his father or convince Cinderella that Lady Tremaine is the most gracious stepmother in the universe, but it can also give you the relief of knowing that you aren't suddenly going to morph into an animated, fur-obsessed puppy murderer.

If any of you introverts out there wonder why Disney characters can seem like they've had too many shots of espresso sometimes, it's actually the stories and situations encountered by those characters that determine which personality traits are expressed. Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas tends to blend into the shadows and sway with the wind until the chain of unfortunate events set off by Jack Skellington's desire to be something other than the Pumpkin King led her to show unexpected bravery.

"In terms of Disney, their job is to tell a story, and I think it's easier to tell a story if the characters are put in that situation," Beard says. "So I think the story drives them into having that extroverted character more so than what's really out there."

Something else behind the magic that the psychologists are looking to research further is how the personalities and resulting likeability of characters can change from animated to Pixar to live-action films, and also how revealing more of their often dark origin stories can affect who identifies with them and how.

"I think that's what we were getting at with Tinkerbell," Fugett says. "In the Disney-fied version she's a fairy with pixie dust and all these great things, but when you look at the actual origin story, it's very different."

Just as humans are made up of more than a single personality factor, the characters we've loved for decades are the same. And thank Zeus for that.