Why Kids Deserve Better Than Your Queer Reading of Disney Movies

Akash Nikolas’ recent editorial in the Atlantic showed up on my Facebook newsfeed as “The Pro-Gay Message Hidden Inside Every Disney Film.”  A friend had liked it.

I dubiously clicked.  At the beginning, Nikolas tells us, “The culture warriors have decided: Disney’s Frozen is queer. Elsa hiding her ice-powers could be read as a metaphor for the closet [and] the Oscar-winning “Let it Go” plays like a coming-out anthem.”

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Well.  I never decided that.  I mean, I get it- as adults with (hopefully) many years of English classes under our belts, we can recognize metaphors and potential parallels with the queer experience in contexts that are not explicitly queer.  Assuredly some older children and teens picked up on these things as well.  I know many people have felt empowered by “Let it Go”, and that’s awesome.  Hell, I’ve felt empowered by “Let it Go”.  But Disney’s younger audience (and arguably, their target audience) is not analyzing Frozen for queer subtext.  And we are doing those children a huge disservice if we label Disney movies as “pro-gay” and turn away and slam the door.  We are ignoring a very real problem- the void of representations of queer people on screen in children’s media.

Media speaks with a loud voice, and while Disney movies are fiction, children get a lot of ideas about the real world from them.  As Tuchman writes in The Symbolic Annihilation of Women by the Mass Media, “Americans learn basic lessons about social life from the mass media.”  And when movies lack representation of certain groups of people those people are, as Tuchman and others put it, “symbolically annihilated.”  We can’t see them on screen, so it as though they do not exist.

“Symbolic annihilation” might sound like an overly dramatic phrase, but I think it fits the severity of the problem.  Nikolas allows that Disney stories always promote heterosexual pairings but posits that “Queer kids [can] identify with Disney protagonists, who are usually outcasts set apart from society by some innate desire… Ariel (The Little Mermaid) wanted to be part of another world, the townspeople think Belle (Beauty and the Beast) is ‘a funny girl… different from the rest of us.’”  Feeling vaguely empowered to be different is great, but if queer kids don’t see the full diversity of human difference represented on screen, they probably won’t relate that message to their own identity.  If they don’t talk about it at home or don’t see gender and sexual diversity much in the circle of people they (or their parents) know, they might not even be aware that there are other ways to be a person.  It’s not media’s sole responsibility to fill this gap, but it’s a part of the problem.  When small children don’t see representations of gender and sexual minorities on screen, they don’t get to internalize that it is totally ok to be something other than straight, cisgender, alloromantic, etc., and won’t be as confused if they do no feel that way.

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Halloween 1993- me at age 4 as Snow White (with my 2-year-old brother as Thomas the Tank Engine)

Some day my prince will come.
Some day my princess will come.
♫ Someday my non-binary royal person will come. ♫

I’m glad that Nikolas recognizes gender as a part of queerness, and mentions that “In the seminal Gender Trouble, Judith Butler pointed out how gender was in part performance-based, a fact that Disney has often depicted with cross-dressing and gender subversion.”  Nikolas goes on to list many examples in the Disney canon, including the obvious Mulan.

But to call gender “in part, performance-based” is to miss Butler’s point entirely.  Butler is not talking about a literal “performance”- for her, the performance of gender is not a pretense or even a conscious choice, but something that people of all genders do every day within a social framework.  As Jagose explains in Queer Theory, An Introduction, “Presented by Butler as an example of performativity, drag was taken by many of her readers to be ‘exemplary of performativity’… [but] gender, being performative, is not like clothing and therefore cannot be put on or off at will.”  Mulan does not “perform” as a male in this sense; she mimics the performance of “man” that she sees within her social context.

By literalizing the notion of gender performance, Nikolas misses one of Butler’s biggest assertions, that gender is not tied to sex in any way and therefore not a binary of male or female.  (Though, sex is hardly a binary itself- as Butler suggests, “perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is a culturally constructed as gender.”) And Mulan is a film very concerned about sex- much of the tension comes from Mulan being afraid she will be “found out”, e.g. discovered to have certain body parts, which has very problematic implications for trans kids.  The film also takes many opportunities to remind viewers of the differences between men and women, such as when Mulan first meets her fellow soldiers.  They are depicted as all having severely lacking hygiene and seem to be unable to stop punching each other for more than a few seconds.

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Other Disney movies maintain this heightened contrast between men and women- Tarzan and Beauty and the Beast stand out as particularly dramatic examples.  And as Amanda Marcotte notes in Slate, there are actually numbers to back this up.  Marcotte references a study from Cohen at the University of Maryland that looked at the difference between the wrist size of male Disney characters and female Disney characters.  They found that the males’ wrists were 3 to 4 times bigger- while in real life the difference between people assigned male at birth and people assigned female at birth is only about a 1.15-to-1 ratio.  You could argue that there are always supporting characters that reflect more of a spectrum in character design, but these are often the villain or the comic relief character.  It is the protagonists and their love interests that usually follow this trend, which makes it all the more problematic as those are the characters the viewer is supposed to identify with.

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Just look at that insane wrist ratio.

All of this is harmful to non-binary kids and gender non-conforming kids alike.  And actually, Butler would probably argue that it is harmful to gay/lesbian/bisexual/pansexual/asexual kids, too.  As Jagose explains in her summary of Gender Trouble, “Heterosexuality is naturalised by the performative repetition of normative gender identities.”

I will admit that I think Disney creates fantastic animated films, and I make a point to go see them in a theater even as an adult.  And I also think that very slowly, Disney movies are getting more progressive.  But they’re still not anywhere near where they should be.  It’s far past time for a lesbian princess or a gay prince.  And I know that bisexual, trans*, asexual, and non-binary folks have much longer to wait for equal representation in Disney movies, when even adult media can’t seem to manage it.  But I refuse to accept anything less.  Queer kids today deserve so much more, and we can’t settle for hidden sub-text.

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(Fe)male Character Genderbent Cosplay: The Doctor, Ross Tyler, and Marty Jones

Before we found out that Peter Capaldi is going to be the next Doctor, a lot of fans were speculating- could the next Doctor be a woman?  And that made me think of a related question- what if the Doctor’s companions were male?

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(Ok, yes, not all companions are women.  But, especially in New Who, the main companions have been overwhelmingly female.)

So I grabbed my genderbent Tenth Doctor cosplay, my brother Mike, and my friends Erik and Andrew (a photographer) and we tried to imagine what that might look like.  I picked what I think are the two most iconic outfits of Ten companions Rose Tyler and Martha Jones, and we had a photoshoot.  I pulled some promotional images from the BBC to use as inspiration.

Here are the results:

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I think how the BBC chooses to advertise Doctor Who says a lot about the gender politics of the show.  In promo shots, The Doctor is usually in the front, or dominant in the frame, and is depicted as being the protector of his companion.  Of course, any one who has watched Doctor Who knows that there is more to Rose and Martha than just being damsels in distress.  New Who companions are fully realized characters with their own storylines and struggles. Martha and Rose are smart, capable women who can shoot guns and kick ass.  However, the plot devices on Who do leave them damseled all the time. (As Anita Sarkeesian explains, “damsel” is a verb, not a noun, and strong female characters are not immune.) Remember that the Doctor’s oft-quoted advice to Rose, “Always bring a banana to a party,” was said to her while she had a knife to her throat.

Male companions regularly end up damseled as well- Mickey was at knifepoint in the above mentioned scene as well. But within the context of Doctor Who we see this trope employed much more often with women, since women are more often companions, and that reinforces preexisting stereotypes about that gender.
As I look forward to another 50 years of Doctor Who, I hope that the BBC will continue to try new things and consider exploring new gender roles for the Doctor and his (or her) companions.

Thoughts of A Girl “Power Gamer”

First, I have to thank  Royse, Lee, Baasanjav, Hopson, and Consalvo (who surely most be gamers themselves) for bestowing upon me the awesome moniker of POWER GAMER in their paper “Women and Games: Technologies of the Gendered Self.”  Badass.  I usually call myself a “hardcore gamer”, meaning that I play more challenging games rather than “casual” games, but this distinction is biased and arguably sexist.  The word “casual” devalues browser and mobile games, which often have a large female audience.  So I think “power gamer” is a valuable concept.  While it refers solely to play time (more that 20 hours per month, according to Royse et al.), it actually correlates pretty well with my notion of “hardcore gamer.”  The sorts of games that Royse et al. describe in their paper as games that power gamers prefer (such as first person shooters,) are what I would consider hardcore.  And the play style and narrative components of hardcore games encourage longer play sessions, which means it’s easy for hardcore gamers to rack up more hours than casual gamers, whose games are designed to be played in short bursts.

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The first time I read Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming, I was resistant to the assumption that today’s hardcore videos games today don’t appeal to girls.  “Hey, that’s sexist!” I thought, “I’m a girl, and I love video games where I can shoot people in the face with a shotgun.”  But, I suppose, many women and girls don’t.  Here, I would like to follow Jenkins and Cassels’ lead and bring the “butch-femme” continuum to bear on gaming.  As with anything, gender expression is a spectrum, and (innately or not) a lot of women and girls fall on the more femme side of the spectrum.  I am on the other end (when it comes to video games anyway), and happen to have a masculine sensibility in the kinds of games that appeal to me- which is probably how I have become a gamer despite the many barriers to entry for women.  Perhaps more women could be power gamers if there were more hardcore games that appealed to a feminine sensibility.

Really though, more diversity in types of video games is good for all gamers.  What we need are more games like Portal.  (If you are a gamer and have not been living under a rock for the past 6 years, jump to the next paragraph now.)  In Portal, basically, you have to find your way out of difficult mazes but running and jumping and shooting holes in the wall.  Your character has a gun, but instead of shooting bullets or anything destructive, your gun shoots portals that you can travel through.  Travel in to the orange portal you placed in one room and come out the blue portal you placed in another room.  Travel in to the blue portal you placed on the right wall and come out the orange portal you placed on the left wall.  Before you know it, you are caught in an infinite loop between a hole in the floor and a hole in the ceiling and your brain hurts.

It was a huge success!  Portal combines the masculine play mechanic of a first person shooter with the more feminine interests of puzzles and platforming, appealing to a wide audience.  As Lazarro argues in “Are Boy Games Even Necessary?”, “designing games based on extreme stereotypical preferences leaves out most of what boys, and girls, find fun.”  AAA games are stuck in a well-defined rut, trying to sell to a narrow slice of the population.  While it is in the industry’s best interest to diversify, I don’t see them in any rush to do so.  It is indie games that are doing the work of innovating.  Small studios allow for the kind of experimentation that big studios don’t want to take risks on.  While Portal was released by Valve, it started off as an independent project.  No more than 10 people worked on the game.  I love a good AAA FPS, but I think indie games represent the future of the industry.  At least, I hope they do.

IT’S GAMING WEEK IN GENDER AND MEDIA CLASS!

…and I have a lot of feels about that.  But before I bore you with my personal experiences, I thought I should recommend two really great recent pieces of media about women and gaming.

Image(illustration by David Saracino)

“No Girls Allowed” by Tracy Lein on Polygon

This article looks to the game industry to try and pull apart where the idea comes from that video games are for boys.  Lien talked with numerous important women and men in the industry.  Game designers in the 90’s didn’t make games for girls because they thought that girls didn’t play games, so as designer Brenda Laurel explains,”The nonexistence of the audience was a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

I was especially interested in Lein’s look at the importance of marketing.  She says, “If Sony were to release an Apple-like montage showing people playing games like Journey or any of its narrative-driven or broadly appealing independent games played on Sony devices, that would send a very different message than a montage of virtual bullets being sprayed into a war zone.”

 

“Ms. Male Character” by Feminist Frequency

This video is part of Anita Sarkeesian’s excellent “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series.  In “Ms. Male Character”, Sarkeesian looks at video game designers’ problematic habit of “putting a bow on it”, wherein male is the default and female must be signified by stereotypical markers of femininity.  She also talks about the “Smurfette Principle”- the problematic tendency in media to have a huge cast of male characters with different personality traits and one sole female character whose personality trait is “girl.”  It is a longish video but so worth it!

The River Song Rule: Spoilers and Shared Experiences

As I type, I’m waiting for my brother’s girlfriend to get off work so we can watch the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special together.  My brother, his girlfriend, and I are good friends and always watch Doctor Who together.  The three of us have also cosplayed Doctor Who together multiple times and we are currently planning a trip to LA to go to the largest Doctor Who convention in North America.  It didn’t feel right watching this hugely important episode without her.

Right now I can’t go on Reddit, Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter for fear of spoilers.  So here I am.

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I think it’s so interesting that, living in our media-saturated world, I have come to value ignorance.  I love learning (if you couldn’t tell by the fact that I’m still taking classes even though I graduated from college in 2011) and I love how the internet has enabled me to find out so much about the world.  But sometimes, I don’t want to be that connected.  I don’t want to learn a fact about one of my favorite pieces of media before I experience it for myself.  And if you have been to any online fan space ever, you know I’m not alone.  The Facebook group for the Boston Whovians (a local Doctor Who fan group that I am a part of) has instituted what they call “The River Song Rule.”  The rule is named after a time-travelling character from the show (who, coincidentally, has been cosplayed by my brother’s girlfriend- on the left in the above photo.)  River Song’s relationship with the Doctor is out of  chronological order.  So when a River Song from a future point in their timeline meets a Doctor from an earlier point in their timeline, she refuses to tell him about his future- “spoilers”‘ she says.

I LOVE that a term from media fandom is used within the actual text of the show.  So great.  But anyway, the River Song rule is in affect right now on Facebook, to give everyone a chance to watch the special.

A study came out a while back claiming that knowlege of spoilers did not detract from enjoyment of media– that spoilers don’t actually spoil.  But I call bull.  Watching a show and seeing everything unfold is one of the greatest experiences of being a television fan.  And when that experience is shared, and you get to shriek and cry and roll around an the floor with your friends, it is even better.

So here’s to spoilers, and River Song, and staying off the internet until my brother’s girlfriend gets home.  You may hear our screams from miles away.

 

A Recent (Digital) Brush With Fame

To answer a question posed in class- I certainly never expect celebrities to reply to me on Twitter, and I’m pretty excited when they do.  I know I’m not a friend, so it is cool to be treated like one, however briefly.

On my way to a Halloween party earlier this month, I did a double take as I walked by a man who looked just like John Hodgman (best known for his performance as “PC” in the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” commercials).  I tweeted about it and tagged his username in the tweet, of course secretly hoping that he would see it.  And he did!

ImageIt was a commodified interaction- he included a link to his show in Boston the following night, hoping that I would buy a ticket.  But I still think it’s pretty cool.  I suppose I am in a way one of Baym’s “friends,” because I interacted with a celebrity in the same forum that I use to interact with my friends.  If friendship is an economy, this was a a micro-transaction.  But I don’t fool myself in to thinking that I’m friends with John Hodgman any more than my friend Felicia is friends with Pizza Hut.

ImageStill, as a fan, it’s nice to get a personal response.

Way Better Than The MPAA

Four Swedish cinemas have introduced Bechdel test ratings for the films they show!  Movies get an “A” rating if they have two named female characters who talk to eachother about something other than a man.

ImageI think this is incredibly exciting!  It’s obviously not perfect- movies with problematic representations of women can still get an A, and films that fail the Bechdel test are not necessarily anti-feminist.  And I think we can all agree that we should be striving for a future in which the Bechdel test is obsolete.  But for now, I think this is  a fantastic move forward for public awareness of representation issues in media.