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.

1 comment:

Chuk said...

Saw the trailer with Toy Story 3 and it actually looked a bit entertaining. They could have some neat videogame mechanics.

It seems to me that kids' media is a little bit less gendered than it was a few years ago -- this is anecdotal, but my youngest (almost 5) is far less interested in princess toys and baby dolls than her 8 year older sister was. The shows and movies she likes seem to reflect that -- no interest in Princess & the Frog, but she loved How to Train Your Dragon. (Small sample size though. :-) )