Tuesday, June 22, 2010

All "Tangled" Up in Gender Norms

Promo image for new feature film Tangled © 2010 Disney

A couple of weeks ago, Disney released its new trailer for an upcoming addition to the Princess line of feature films/media properties, Tangled. Loosely based on the story of Rapunzel, the film is already gaining momentum via the Disney promotion machine, with toy line sneak peaks and now trailer gaining coverage online, along with a number of (strategically placed?) leaks that the movie will contain "swashbuckling action" aimed at broadening the usual Disney Princess audience, i.e. better targeting "boys". According to an LA Times article published back in March, despite the fact that the Disney Princess brand has an estimated value of about $4 billion and has completely saturated girls' culture at the moment, the perceived under-performance of The Princess and the Frog (which, by the way, grossed $267million worldwide despite its many faults) was enough to make Disney rethink its approach to Princesses altogether. As the article states, the biggest 'problem' with the The Princess and The Frog was that it didn't appeal enough to boys:
Brace yourself: Boys didn't want to see a movie with "princess" in the title.

This time, Disney is taking measures to ensure that doesn't happen again. The studio renamed its next animated film with the girl-centric name "Rapunzel" to the less gender-specific "Tangled."

I guess Princess Mononoke and The Princess Bride don't count. Anyway, the same article cites Ed Catmull, president of Pixar/Disney Animation Studios, who claims that the studio is taking an entirely different approach with Tangled than it has with previous Princess titles: "We did not want to be put in a box. Some people might assume it's a fairy tale for girls when it's not. We make movies to be appreciated and loved by everybody." As Jaime Weinman describes on MacLeans.ca, the resulting film has clearly been "focus-grouped within an inch of its life".

Like Weinman, I agree that the trailer is more than a little reminiscent of Shrek (comedic "bad-boy" hero/anti-hero, kung fu fighting princess, cute & quirky side kick, initial adversarial relationship between the love interests, etc.). It also has undertones of Charlie's Angels, Alladin, and a little bit of Bayonetta. Either way, the trailer implies that the film will deviate from the traditional format of Princess as (only) passive and sweet damsel in distress, tormented and imprisoned by an evil older woman (usually step-mother), to be rescued by a one-dimensional prince charming, primarily on the basis of said prince's immediate admiration of the princess' undeniable beauty. In Tangled, the prince is a thief, funny and on the run, charming in a roguish way I'm sure, but himself in need of "saving" of some sort. Though the princess is only revealed mid-way through, I saw this as a typical teaser strategy...the big reveal that in this version, Rapunzel is no prisoner waiting to let down her hair. Instead, her hair is a source of supernatural combat skills, a thing she controls and uses to overpower and entrap intruders. While I'm sure that the movie will ultimately resolve with its gender norms fully intact and gender roles restored to their usual, traditional configuration (it is Disney, after all), the trailer and premise depicted so far are surprisingly progressive...a sort of fractured, potentially subversive re-telling of an otherwise highly conservative fairy tale. Kind of cool, no?

I like Weinman's description of the film as likely incorporating themes and marketing strategies that can be seen as much more "boy friendly" than some of Disney's previous Princess offerings. But I kind of cringe at the idea that's been promoted in many of the other reviews/coverage of the trailer/campaign that I've read so far, which interpret and reduce "gender inclusive" as simply "for boys". For example, Grady Smith's review of the Tangled trailer is titled "A Princess Movie for Boys?" and states:
"After disappointing results for The Princess And The Frog, Disney is targeting boys and using contemporary CG animation with Tangled in hopes that it will join the box office ranks of How To Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda.


Rather than the subtle grace of poised princesses like Snow White and Belle, Rapunzel is a feisty teenager, proficient in tae-kwon-hair-do. The fact that she only has one line in the trailer (“BEST. DAY. EVER!”) further underscores Disney’s desire to attract boys to Tangled."
I don't think that there's any evidence that straying from narrowly defined, cookie cutter interpretations of female protagonists somehow needs to be understood as necessarily (let alone solely) male-targeted. And I certainly don't like the implication that a tough, grrl power-type heroine means that the movie is therefore "for" boys. There are a number of properties targeted to girls that contain progressive female characters (some of which are mentioned above), just as there are a number of properties that try to break down gender stereotypes and gendered audience segmentation (How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda are surely examples of the latter, albeit not perfect examples). Targeting a broader audience and moving away from "fairy tales for girls" could just as well mean "more diverse stories for girls" or better yet, "more nuanced, diverse stories for girls and boys". And from what I've seen of the property's other tie-ins and marketing initiatives, there's absolutely no evidence that Disney is turning its back on its girl audience or even diverging all that far away from its usual Princess strategies.

As seen, for example, in a recent article in The Independent exploring the new tie-in toys that Disney Consumer Products has planned around Tangled:
"Disney's big launch for next year is Tangled, an animated reworking of the Rapunzel myth which has inspired a range of girls' dolls with extremely long hair, which is made from special fibres that glow and twinkle, exploiting traditional play patterns that have been around since the invention of Barbie."Link
We might consider the following toys as exhibits A & B, courtesy of Disney fan site Stitch Kingdom (© 2010 StitchKingdom.com). Not exactly as evidence of the movie's gender inclusiveness, but rather as a counter to the argument that Tangled should be seen as "for boys" just because it focuses on comedy and action rather than romance and domesticity. Again - a sort of ironic way of using these particular toys, seeing as they are so traditionally gendered and so clearly DO promote conservative notions of domesticity and femininity.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

CFP Alert: Write 4 Children & Red Feather

Head's up on a couple of publishing opportunities that are available to both academics and professionals conducting research on or involved in the production of kids' media/lit. The first was advertised on the new "Exploring Childhood Studies" email list recently launched out of the Rutgers-University Camden Department of Childhood Studies, and is more specific to children's literature. The CFP reads as follows:
As we are heading towards the summer we thought we would send out a quick Call for Papers - just in case you are lost for something to do in the long summer months. Send us articles and discussion papers on writing for children or children's literature or even a combination of the two. Authors, publishers, librarians, illustrators lecturers and researchers are all welcome to submit work. There is no restriction other than the piece will be peer reviewed. Work needs to be submitted to write4children@winchester.ac.uk by 1st September 2010.

Check the website for guidelines for authors: www.write4children.org

The "About" section of the journal website provides further details about the scope and mission:
Write4Children seeks to provide an international forum for peer reviewed research papers and debates about writing for children and children’s literature.

It will contain articles and discussions which:
  • provide an international forum for high quality academic and pedagogic research into writing for children and children’s literature
  • promote best practice and academic research in advancing international debates on writing for children and children’s literature
  • stimulate debate in peer reviewed articles and discussions on controversial issues in writing for children and children’s literature: such as, race, class, gender, sexuality, drug culture, sex, multiculturalism and education
The second CFP of potential interest was forwarded to me some time ago by Alissa (Antle) when the journal was first announced. It now has its first issue out and available online, and looks like a very interesting forum for research and inquiries into various aspects of kids' visual culture. Some great subject matter here, for e.g. an analysis of depictions of children in Pixar films by Iris Shepard, a discussion of "tomboyism" in Joss Whedon's Fray by Amy Clayton, and a review of discursive representations of children, freedom and food by Charlene Elliott, etc. I also like the more casual tone adopted in the couple of articles that I've read so far. Here's the CFP, as posted on the journal website:
Red Feather facilitates an international dialogue among scholars and professionals through vigorous discussion of the intersections between the child image and the conception of childhood, children's material culture, children and politics, the child body, and any other conceptions of the child within local, national, and global contexts. The journal invites critical and/or theoretical examination of the child image to further our understanding of the consumption, circulation, and representation of the child throughout the world's visual mediums. Some sample topics include, but are certainly not limited to: studies of images of children of color; child as commodity; images of children in Africa, Asia, Middle East, South America, etc.; political uses of the child image; children in film; children in advertising; visual adaptations of children's literary works; child welfare images; children and war; or any other critical examination of the child image in a variety of visual mediums.

Red Feather is published twice a year, in February and September, and adheres to the MLA citation system. Authors may submit articles in other citations systems, with the understanding that conversion to MLA is a condition of acceptance.

Interested contributors please submit the paper, an abstract, and a brief biography as attachments in Word to debbieo@okstate.edu.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Going to Toronto!!!

© 1992 Jouannigot, Éditions Milan

I realized today that I've let some pretty important, as in life changing levels of important, events slip by without writing a single blog post about them! I blame Twitter and Facebook, where status updates provide the instant gratification of social interaction, in the form of immediate response/dialogue with friends and colleagues. But that's no excuse for failing to make an official announcement, so here goes:

First, I successfully defended my dissertation on May 3rd, and am now a doctor of philosophy. I might write something more about the final stages of that experience someday, but for now you can check out my defense Prezi. I've also posted my abstract and chapter outline on a separate page of Gamine Expedition. I should have some news about downloadable copies or at least some idea of possible (fingers crossed) publication opps by the end of the summer, so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, if you're interested in reading the version submitted to the SFU library, just drop me a line!

Second, as of July 2010, I will be joining the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto at the rank of Assistant Professor, where I'm going to be researching and teaching in children's new media and literature. I am beyond thrilled and eager to become a part of the iSchool and its friendly, collegial and dynamic faculty; to contribute to the amazing, critical and important work that goes on there; to further develop my research interests in narrative and children's lit; to work with graduate students and foster linkages with children's libraries/librarians; and of course to experience everything that Toronto and UofT have to offer.

I'm particularly excited about all the opportunities for collaboration that this move will afford - both within the iSchool faculty and the larger (very impressive) academic community that I will now have access (and proximity) to, as well as in terms of all the children's media outlets and professionals located in and around T.O. (and Montreal, NYC, etc. etc.).

I'll have new contact info coming soon, which I'll post here and on all the appropriate sites/networks. Until then - YAY!!!!!