Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Fairy Tales, Marketing, and Heroines

I just finished an online class, a MOOC* at Canvas Network, called Fairy Tales: Origins and Evolution of Princess Stories, taught by Dr. Kevin Yee. This was a shorter course than the Gender Through Comic Books that I took previously, and not as in-depth as I would have liked, but it was only 4 weeks. There was some attention paid to the modern retelling of these stories through the practically ubiquitous Disney movies. In many cases, the Disney version is they only version people know well. I'm not a fan of the message that Disney is selling.

Here's my criticism of Disney, no matter who's at the helm of the company but primarily after Disney's death. Marketing has driven the direction of these movies. Marketing experts determined that if you "brand" your item as for girls or for boys, it will make more money. So instead of having wonderful movies for children (like The Rescuers, which I saw in a theater when I was 7), we have movies that are explicitly for boys or for girls. That brings us to movies that lack male or female characters, depending on which "brand" you're watching. In Planes, faster planes deride slower planes as being "ladies" because they're slower -- message? Being a girl is not as good as being a boy (or a man). If there is a female character in a boy's movie, then she's background only, or perhaps what other writers have called a "minority feisty" - an apparently strong female character thrown in so no one can say there are no female characters. I think this is also problematic of the princess genre movies, with a near-complete lack of male characters in some, and with his role being the most crucial one -- to save the princess, and the day (see Sleeping Beauty). The movie is about the girl, but she's still passive and in need of rescuing; another horrible message for modern girls.

The villain has more agency† than the supposed heroine of the story.
(Maleficent as the dragon, in Sleeping Beauty)
We read through some of these old stories, hundreds of years old: Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Rapunzel, the Frog Prince, Cinderella, the Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. They are fascinating to study and read, as well as entertaining, but their messages are not necessarily ones that should be taught to impressionable young children. Brave was important because it was our first really feminist heroine. And just like those of us who are clamoring for a Wonder Woman movie (15 live-action Batman and/or Superman movies, fifteen!), many of us would like to see more stories like Brave for girls AND for boys. That women can be strong and interesting characters is an important message for boys, using feminine epithets to insult other boys is not.

Pop quiz! Which of these girls has agency?
I believe that people who present things for the consumption of a young audience have a responsibility to those kids. Positive messages include things like working together, personal growth, keeping promises, being true to oneself... Why does everything have to be pink and blue?! You can have your message, tell your story, in a framework that is meant for all children, not just half of them at a time.

I have had some issues with Disney for years, before my daughter was born, but now I can see the potential damage of the same message of passivity/inferiority over and over again from them. And the gendered marketing juggernaut that is Disney just gets bigger and bigger.

StrideRite -- girls skip and twirl, boys are powerful;
blogger Margot Magowan is through with you.
I think what puzzles me the most is why so many people don't see what I see. I know there are other bloggers who do -- lots of them, in fact -- but the opposition to our opinions is harsh and swift. It's a backlash against feminist thought, and the "make me a sandwich" trolls abound. So many people are critical of those of us who bother to speak out about this. I was enormously criticized for daring to post on Target's Facebook page about the pink/blue pegboards in the toy department. People suggested I find better (more important) things to worry about. What's more important than our kids? It starts so small... indoctrinating that pink/blue dichotomy is the first step. When they're toddlers, we introduce them to Disney. Girls get the Princesses, boys get Toy Story and Cars (with active male characters). When they're older, they get Spider-Man and the Avengers. The message is repeated over and over, and eventually, some of those girls are going to believe the hype: girls are passive, boys are active. Do I blame Disney for this? Not entirely, but they have certainly played a large role in this. In their quest to make money, girls have gotten sold a bill of goods. It's one of the reasons I was so horrified that Disney purchased Lucasfilm... was Princess Leia -- arguably one of the modern age's best heroines -- going to be Disneyfied? She's already a princess, but are they going to make her a passive Disney princess? I guess we'll find out.

* Massive Open Online Course
† Agency: when an individual is free to make choices and to act independently on them; Aurora lacked agency because she was "cursed" to find a spinning wheel and forced into that long sleep


ShesFantastic said...

I'm jealous of your classes.

One thing I find equally offensive is the consistent message to young boys in this same media. They are only shown examples of characters being aggressive, competitive, and smug. And these traits are always rewarded. Meanwhile, the same character will be derided for showing sensitivity, caution, and diplomacy. basically "don't waste time figuring it out, just do it and win." In older Disney films, it's easy to write off these polarities as a facet of a bygone era, but it's still there in all the modern films, too.

How do you feel about Mulan? I really like it, but I'm curious if your classes have touched on it.

For some reason I haven't been Brave yet. I'll get on that :)

Wendy said...

I absolutely agree that boys are damaged by this, too. The pink/blue dichotomy doesn't allow for any variation on either side. If we just let them be kids without a label, everyone would be better off! With so many psychologists telling us that this hyper-gendered world is bad for the kids, you'd think Disney would want to jump all over that so they could claim they were part of the solution.

I haven't seen Mulan, though I'd really like to (maybe I should check On Demand). I know a bit about the character and the plot, less about the original inspiration. Some of the criticism I've heard about the Disney version is that very little has been done to promote her, a non-white princess in a non-Western culture. According to Dr. Yee, she was created to gain traction in the Asian audience/market. (She wasn't one of the princess stories we discussed, this story was touched on in "bonus content" for the class.)

Brave was absolutely wonderful, with a strong heroine AND message. Too bad they felt they had to sex her up when they made her an "official" princess...