Dr. Toon investigates the gender role cultural values that children and tween animation present to the world of young spenders.
American animation has long been a medium for the transmission of cultural values. Since the decline of the theatrical short and the rise of network (and later, cable) television most of the animated transmissions found their mark in two demographics: Children and tweens (an audience niche describing children roughly 7-13). True, an occasional cartoon show does break through to adult audiences, but adult mores seem to derive more from live-action dramas and sitcoms. The effects of animated violence on children has gained far more press than any other artifact, but some of the most crucial cultural values disseminated to juvenile audiences are those relating to gender roles. More than at any time in our history, televised content is relaying messages about gender norms (most likely, because there is a multiplicity of outlets; cable and satellite broadcasting has ensured more than 50 times the number of channels available since 1965).
Along with information about gender norms, televised entertainment also relays information about societal expectations. In our present culture, many of these relate to aggressive, active consumerism. What happens when mainstream animation attaches this baggage to its primary purpose of entertainment? Before we examine two specific examples, it would be fair to say that not every animated feature or televised series transmits values with the same amount of strength. In addition, the range of expression for gender-related behaviors, especially in female characters, has never been greater. I wish to avoid generalizations about American animation while pointing out that some concepts and series do make highly specific statements regarding gender and capitalism, and that these statements appear to be purposeful.
It may seem much longer, but Barbie has only been with us since 1959. An enterprising couple named Ruth and Eliot Handler created the plaything, a curious mixture of a German figurine called Lili and Mrs. Handlers dream of a more sophisticated doll for her daughter Barbara. Barbie was arguably the first doll created to provide a guide to fashion and lifestyle rather than for nurturance. As the dolls evolution progressed, Barbie morphed into a blonde California beauty with Beverly Hills taste to match, sauntering a high-heeled path through glamorous clothes, dream houses and sporty pink cars. In the gender-equal 1980s, this paragon of plastic pulchritude expanded her talents, the better to pursue high-powered, lucrative careers.
After 45 lucrative years, however, Barbie finally met her match. An increasingly diverse population now represented America young females wanted dolls that reflected their own looks, tastes and attitudes. Feminist critics of Barbie noted that her dimensions, translated to a human female of proportional height, would make Pamela Anderson seem like Olive Oyl in comparison. Add to that her luxurious lifestyle and Ph.D.-level intellect, and one wonders for whom Barbie is role modeling. There are many darling little girls out there, but how many of them (excluding your own daughters) are perfect?
Thus, in 2001, MGA Entertainment stole Barbies thunder by introducing the Bratz line of dolls. The Bratz, who recall the offspring of Angelina Jolie and a stray shipment of PVC, combine a wide range of ethnicities and an all-consuming passion for fashion. The Bratz dolls wear duds described by MGA as totally dangerous, totally ferocious, and totally funkadelic. These words appear to be well chosen. There is an unsettling, incipient sexuality suggested in the appearance of the Bratz, whose very name suggests misbehavior. Some parents remain a bit uneasy about the dolls.
Although some lip service goes to the importance of academic performance, the Bratz exist in a consumerist fantasy of unlimited wardrobes, attentive young males and compulsive shopping sprees. In one of their recent books, the Bratz buds find themselves fortuitously trapped in a mall after closing time. The title sums up the horror of their situation All-Night Mall Party. The gender norms for these dolls consist of being popular eye candy, dressed to kill, glittering celebrities of the high school scene. Their roles as shoppers, consumers and boy magnets could not be clearer.
In direct competition with their squeaky-clean rival, the Bratz not only toppled Barbie, they buried her. Before 2001, Barbie accounted for 90% of fashion doll sales; by 2003, it was down to 70% and dropping fast. During that pivotal year Barbies sales fell by 25%. An ill-advised marketing ploy in which Barbie and Ken broke up after a 43-year relationship backfired miserably, and a 2004 poll found Barbie ousted as top doll by the Bratz.
The battle spilled over into animation; indeed, how could it not? Barbie certainly had a luxurious lifestyle. What the lovely doll lacked, however, was animated exposure. The mavens at Mattel, Barbies manufacturer, changed all that in the mid 1990s. A series of TV commercials featuring a CGI Barbie and her buds brought the golden-haired girl to life, and another computer-generated version made a hilarious appearance in Toy Story 2. It did not take long for execs at Mattel to see the bright possibilities. Rather than expose Barbie to the rating wars and the rigors of network deadlines (especially when working with pixel-based technologies) Mattel decided to lavish time and care on their meal ticket. Little did Mattel know that Barbie was about to lose the animated battle as well.
Beginning in 2001, Barbie began appearing in direct-to-video movies, and she has done so on a yearly basis since then. The first OAV starred Barbie dancing her way through the Nutcracker and was an amazing success. It is important to examine Barbies forays into animation to date: Each successive video cast Barbie in either a ballet fantasy or a fairy tale setting. After the Nutcracker there appeared Rapunzel (2002), Swan Lake (2003), The Princess and the Pauper (2004) and this years entry, Fairytopia.
The appeal of Barbies computer-animated videos was limited to the younger set and did not greatly appeal to the coveted tween market. The major reason why? None of her videos featured shopping, hip tunes, modern fashions or realistic romances. Female tweens are into music, clothes and boys. Barbie, neither dangerous, ferocious, nor funkadelic, comes off as a purebred princess/ballerina displaying attitudes and behaviors that most feminists have laughed out of existence. Her videos are closer in spirit to Disneys Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, and fewer female tweens romanticize in this manner today.
Many of those tweeners have long given up their tutus and they hip hop to Nelly rather than jeté to Stravinsky. In fact, they are stripping the store shelves of Bratz dolls. Barbies OAVs are of good quality, but the messages in them seem to be outmoded, uncool and, frankly, boring to millions of girls who have immersed themselves in the Bratz lifestyle. The dividing lines could not be clearer -- Barbie would never make a video clad in the Bratz fashions. The Bratz would have Swan Lake as a locale where they could go stylin in their winter togs while skatin around attracting Bratz Boyz.
MGA Entertainment launched its counterstrike in 2003 with its animated video, Bratz: Starrin and Stylin. It is a video for the age of reality TV and American Idol, one in which every living American has a birthright to 15 minutes of fame and everyone gets it simultaneously. The Bratz do not dream of being Rapunzel; they dream of being Paris Hilton, Alicia Keys, or, well, Angelina Jolie. In this video, the plotline (which has something or other to do with a prom, a gossipmonger and a school project) is trivial. The real point is fashion, shopping, style and the importance of looking slammin. A fashion mall game is included as an extra, but this is almost a redundancy; the video is a fashion mall game, one that helps train young females to be conspicuous consumers of clothing, makeup and accessories. How better to reel in the Boyz?
In late March 2005, MGA entered into partnership with Mike Young Productions to produce a CGI television series starring Yasmin, Jade, Cloe, Sasha, et. al. As Larry Sarnoff, senior creative director for Bratz Ent. put it, (The Bratz) have come to life through this process and we are excited to show their fans around the world their stylin new looks and hip attitude. Thus, TV animation will serve as a conduit for transmitting the Bratz values to a generation of tweens, just as Mattel is transmitting their version through Barbies animated video adventures. At present the Bratz seem to own the bling, but this does not mean that one message is inherently better or worse than the other one.
One can deride Barbie as an unreachable ideal and her animated videos as outdated and jejune. Some child psychologists also believe that the unquestioned canalization of fairy tale princess myths can lead to unrealistic adult idealizations. The results could range from disappointment at best or co-dependency and tolerance of abusive relationships at worst. Conversely, there is nothing wrong with being drop-dead gorgeous and aspiring to become a physician, veterinarian or senior executive. Or staying monogamous for more than 40 years. Or dancing with the grace of Fonteyn.
One can dismiss the stars of Starrin and Stylin as shallow mall rats whose swollen lips and cosmetic-caked faces hide personalities thinner than a credit card. On the other hand, who in this celebrity culture wants to go unnoticed? If the styles are out there, why dress like Anne of Green Gables? And if girls really do wanna have fun, shop with their buds, and practice their developing social personas with a temp boyfriend or two, why indeed shouldnt they? The golden years are brief; for many girls, work, marriage, the kids soccer practices and cellulite are but a few years removed from the malls protective doors.
In the end, dolls are molded lumps of plastic and swatches of synthetic hair; whatever image manufacturers and marketers project upon the dolls determines how consumers perceive them. What is hot (and what is not) in America is determined by societal shifts and evolving perceptions. Much of popular culture is shaped by how these changes and perceptions find transmission through the media. I hold the belief that animation has a more powerful presence among modern media than most people realize.
Witness the iconic endurance of Mickey and Bugs, the billion-dollar industry that is SpongeBob, or the long history of animation used in advertising. Animated features, videos and commercials were an integral component of a greater cultural shift that allowed the Bratz to topple Barbie. In a Darwinian sense, the Bratz adaptation to, and use of, the animated medium was superior in terms of image and profitability. The Bratz values concerning gender and capitalism have captured a greater range of transmission than Barbies has. The feedback loop to the larger culture is already evident in the fashions and behaviors of countless tweens who now style more like Bratz and less like Barbie.
Clothing and accessories sold separately. Dolls do not actually move by themselves.
Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.