Problems With Representation Part 2: Gender

The pre-Merida lineup of "Disney Princesses"

The pre-Merida lineup of “Disney Princesses”

Let me begin this post with a note. I know representation is tricky. For a really good perspective on the challenges of choosing to represent non-white/straight/male characters, check out this blog post by Lindsay Ellis AKA Nostalgia Chick.

That being said, I hate that Disney made Mulan a “Disney Princess,” and not just because the character is in no way a princess. You see, Mulan holds a very special place in my heart, and Disney decided to rip that special place out of my chest, examine it, and then shred it to pieces because it didn’t fit their marketing strategy.

Edit: For the sake of this post, I’m only discussing Mulan and company as female characters. Disney’s issues with race and non-American cultures is another issue.

But wait. I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let’s talk a little  about Disney and fandom.

Many of us can probably look back and say many of our first forays into fandom (or fandom-like activities) were focussed on Disney products. For me, I was loved the Lion King. I had a multitude of stuffed animals, shirts, jewelry, toys etc. In many ways, my obsession with Simba in the Pridelands foreshadowed my future obsessions with Lord of the Rings, Avatar: The Last Airbender and whatever other nerdy thing I learned to love.

Disney is a great way to prepare kids for a future in geekdom, priming them to buy merchandise, live vicariously through other characters, and indulge in a little escapism while still enjoying a pretty good story. (I will not debate the merits and flaws of every Disney movie, but I find many, if not most, of them to be more good than bad.) The sequels, cartoons, and picture books that expanded on existing material pretty much gave us some of our first exposure to fan fiction, and their costumes just cried out to future cosplayers. (Some of those cosplayers would still be dressing as Disney characters well into their adulthood.)

A lot of Disney’s success in building fandom seems to come from merchandising and marketing. Wasn’t the Disney store (if you had one in your area) just an awesome place when you were a kid? I mean, you could go see the new movie and then run to the mall and get a stuffed animal, play set, and costume from that same movie.

Yet, while one of Disney’s greatest strengths is certainly its profit machine in the marketing and merchandise department, this is also where they’ve come under increasing scrutiny lately as many have come to question the values of Disney’s “Princess” marketing.

I think one thing a lot of people don’t necessarily understand about the objections to “Disney Princesses” is that not liking the Disney Princess brand is not the same as not liking the characters. I like many of Disney’s heroines, and many are far better written than some of the women you’ll see marketed towards supposedly mature adults. The problem is when those characters are limited by the nature of the “Disney Princess” brand into roles that only represent a limited interest.

As previously stated, I really hate that Disney made Mulan a “Disney Princess” and almost exclusively refuse to market her in anything other than a dress. While I may have loved Lion King above all other Disney movies, Mulan was my hero. She was the first female character I can remember completely admiring. So, when I recently ducked into the Disney store at my area mall I was more than a little disappointed that the goofy, awkward, strong, warrior-woman I had loved as a kid was replaced with this benevolently smiling doll in a pink dress.

Look, she has a pretty dress and sings! That's what Mulan was about, right?

Look, she has a pretty dress and sings! That’s what Mulan was about, right?

I mean, Disney goes through all this trouble having a character that intentionally breaks traditional gender roles, and then, a few years down the line, takes that all away.

Did they not understand how powerful an image Mulan was for some girls who didn’t want to be princesses or wear  cute dresses? Did they not realize how cool it was to see a girl wearing armor and going into battle wielding a sword? As a future participant in Dagohir, I ate that up, and I’m sure many other girls did too.

This all goes into what frustrates me so much about their “I am a princess” ad campaign. On the one hand, I love that they clearly know that not all little girls are the same. The ad shows girls who love all sorts of activities, many of them not traditionally feminine. So, if Disney supports these girls and thinks they’re just as special as the stereotypical little girl, why don’t they have anything for these girls in the Disney store? Why aren’t they trying harder to appeal to girls who, I don’t know, hate pink, and want their favorite characters to be depicted as something other than a politely smiling young lady in a pretty, sparkly dress?

I ask myself all these questions before I suddenly find myself asking one more. Is this really so unexpected? Female characters are often marketed based solely on their “feminine” characteristics. In the past, this manifested itself in some pretty hilariously sexist ways:


This actually happens in an issue. Babs keeps getting distracted by her feminine need to look pretty in the middle of fights. But, it’s okay. By the end she learns to use her femininity against men by purposefully ripping her tights and showing off her sexy thigh. And no, I didn’t make a word of that up. (Detective Comics #371)

This comic is from the early days of Batgirl, but I do find it interesting that this was the cover chosen for the showcase collection. I imagine it was chosen to highlight the silliness of those early comics, but still…

Then, of course, there’s the over-sexualized depictions of female comic characters that are so easily parodied by The Hawkeye Initiative. I say this is more of a marketing issue, because the sexualized nature of these female characters’ depictions is rarely relevant to the actual content of their character. These female characters are dressed and posed as sex objects, but their actual personalities rarely reflect that.

Now, I realize masculine characteristics are over-emphasized as well in media and marketing. I’m sure I could write a very similar piece using the Disney emphasis on a gender divide in marketing that emphasizes traditionally masculine traits, even though most of their movies appeal to both boys and girls. In fact, a few weeks ago I was in Barnes and Noble when I witnessed s small family drama between two women and a little boy. The boy wanted a Little Mermaid play set. One woman was totally fine with it, while the other one kept trying to convince the boy that what he really wanted was a Star Wars toy or some other traditionally masculine toy. Gender stereotypes swing both ways.

So, what’s so special about gender-specific marketing in  fandoms? After all, much if not most marketing is gender targeted, especially if its for beer or yogurt.

I guess what makes the infliction of gender lines and over-emphasis on feminine and masculine characteristics in fandoms is that, in many ways, fandoms are a refuge for people who don’t fit into society’s neat little boxes. Fandom is a way for men and boys who don’t necessarily fit in to the traditional male role to indulge in what they love and gain acceptance for it. Whereas they might have been bullied in school for being more artistic or creative rather than masculine or tough, in the world of the geek, creativity is often one of the most revered qualities.

The same goes for women, though there has been quite a bit of backlash based on last years “Fake Geek Girl/Idiot Nerd Girl” meme (as I’ve written a 20+ page paper on the subject, I’m sure I’ll go into more detail here eventually). Even with this backlash, geekdom is still fairly receptive to women who are interested in media and activities outside of traditional femininity. In fandom, we get role models like Batgirl and Wonder Woman who aren’t just the love interest or the damsel in distress, but are the heros who are often saving the men in their lives. While more mainstream media has been moving towards stronger women, we still get some of our most kick-ass ladies in fantasy and sci-fi, as those genres are not bound by the gender expectations and societal structures of our current world.

Yet, whenever I search online for Batgirl costumes, this pops up:

Yep, this will be perfect for stealthily pursuing Gotham's underworld...

Yep, this will be perfect for stealthily pursuing Gotham’s underworld…

Look! She’s in a pretty pink dress! Maybe she sings, too!
This costume is from Target, which offers, according to their website, six variations on a “Batgirl costume.” Two of these costumes are pink, all of them have a skirt.
Look, I hate to break it to Target, but Batgirl doesn’t wear a skirt. And, it’s okay, I guess, if some ladies just really need to show off their legs on Halloween and say they’re “Batgirl,” but what about girls or women who just want to dress like the character? Why are their only options these over-feminised versions?
That’s the real problem I’m having with representation, both of women and of race. There are no options. White men are depicted in all sorts of ways in media and even marketing. Yes, there’s an emphasis on traditional masculinity, but it’s not like there’s only 1-3 roles a white man can play. He’s not forced to be the side kick or love interest or guy who dies in the first act or tough girl who dies instead of the more feminine lead. This, of course, isn’t even going into representations of non-straight characters who also get to die a lot.
Shouldn’t everyone get a chance to have a variety of role models, and to see themselves as the hero of a story? And, when they do get that  representation from media, shouldn’t they be able to embrace it fully? Instead of just Slave Leia, I want to see more people dressed as dirty, pants-wearing, action-hero, revolution leader Princess Leia. I want there to be more bankable non-white male leads than Will Smith and Denzel Washington. I want Hollywood to stop insultingly pandering to me because they assume I can’t handle non-white leads, and to stop pandering to men because they assume men can’t relate to non-male leads.
And I want to walk into the Disney store and not see half the store in blue and the other in pink, as though only boys can like Cars and only girls can like Brave.
And I want them to bring back Mulan action figures. Because, in the immortal words of the Nostalgia Chick, “Bitch, you aren’t a princess!”


Filed under About Fandom

3 responses to “Problems With Representation Part 2: Gender

  1. Pingback: The Most Controversial Part of Fandoms: Shipping | The Fandom Learning Curve

  2. Pingback: Updates: Gina Torres as Wonder Woman, Videos With Better Analysis Than Mine, Babsgirl vs Oracle, and My New Action Figure | The Fandom Learning Curve

  3. Pingback: Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? A Look At Debate in Fandom. | The Fandom Learning Curve

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