Disney has a conundrum. They want to make money — lots and lots of money. Luckily, they have their Disney Princesses(TM) merchandise, Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana, The Jonas Brothers, and High School Musical all working to line the company’s coffers. But they’re not satisfied. Disney wants more. Specifically, Disney wants more boys to love their brand, because they fear their fanbase has been overrun with girlish cooties.
Not content to rely on intuition, they have called in Kelly Pena, a woman who has been dubbed “the kid whisperer.” The New York Times tagged along with Pena as she researched what boys like and how to pigeonhole them from an entertainment standpoint to lure their allegiances over to Disney. Because enormous revenues mean nothing if they’re primarily driven by girls. What’s really needed for a strong brand is boys, boys, and more boys.
I was a Disney girl. I wanted to be Ariel in The Little Mermaid, I wrote my own lyrics to the songs in Aladdin, and I had a well-worn VHS copy of the little-remembered Oliver and Company, starring Bette Midler and Billy Joel. I have been to Disneyland twenty-two times. I am drinking coffee out of a Tinkerbell mug as I write this post. The Mouse (as Disney is sometimes called) did an excellent job of ensnaring me in their web of mass-produced fantasy. Their problem is that they’re tired of being known as a princess-y, tween-y girl machine.
That’s where Pena comes in. She interviews preteen boys, looks through their rooms, examines their natural habitats, and tries to discern how this information can be turned into Disney dollars. (Of course, the reporter has to follow up Pena’s statement that “’Children seemed to open up to me'” with the addendum that “[Pena] does not have any of her own.”) Market research has been around for a very long time, and Disney is not breaking any new ground here. But there’s something icky about pigeonholing boys and girls in this matter, implicitly saying that they can’t enjoy the same movies or TV programs.
Disney thought it had a surefire “boys” hit with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise but they didn’t count on females from ages ten to fifty also flocking to the theaters in droves. Oops. Their animated film division (not counting the Pixar films) has been heavily skewed towards girls for the past twenty years, and whereas the girl-centric films have consistently hit the box office mark, the few aimed more towards boys have been much more hit (Aladdin) or miss (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules). The article notes that the days of “Davy Crockett” are long gone for Disney, as are the days of The Jungle Book, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, and Robin Hood. Male protagonists are few and far between for Disney, but is that really such a bad thing? It’s not exactly like boys suffer from a dearth of entertainment aimed at them. And a boy enjoying The Little Mermaid or Hannah Montana is not a sign of the apocalypse.
When I taught daycare several years ago, I taught a class of fifteen children: six boys and nine girls. Come Halloween, three girls dressed in princess costumes from the Disney store (and I donned the store’s Tinkerbell get-up, much to the glee of my young charges), but the boys were not exactly at a loss for pop culture costumes geared towards them. Batman, Spiderman, Bob the Builder, and SpongeBob Square Pants were all present and accounted for on that day, and I doubt that any of the boys — or their parents — were crestfallen that their costumes did not come from Disney.
And, in the end, the boys fashioned their own Disney costumes during dress-up time for the rest of the year, grabbing my wand and Tinkerbell slippers and disregarding dictates as to which gender is supposed to like which costumes. That was five years ago and my guess is that the boys, all of whom are now eight, are not struggling to find material that is geared towards them. Is it such a bad thing if Disney allows its product to seem nominally girl-centric? Is it such an imperative that entertainment be branded and assessed according to what gender they are perceived as appealing to? My answer to both of these would be “no.” And while I have long since grown disenchanted with the happily-married-princess-living-ever-after mantra of Disney, I would rather have The Mouse reevaluate its characterization of gender within its products than have it drop the girls and work on clumsily pigeonholing the boys in that same manner.
Now if you excuse me, I have to refill my Tinkerbell mug.