Grrl on Film-Princess Synergy: Disney



The big pop culture news this week – and other than the death of Michael Jackson, likely some of the biggest pop culture news of the year so far – is that the Walt Disney Company has purchased comic book, film, and video game powerhouse Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion.

While I’m personally in no way rattled by the acquisition/merger, I do think that it provides some opportunities to discuss gender, entertainment and marketing.

Marvel has over 70 years of history, and Disney will have access to over 5,000 characters (though the ones that have been mentioned most in the past week are the most profitable: Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the X-Men. Hmmmmm . … what could be missing here?)

The deal has included lots of business speak about “brands,” “vertical integration,” “long-term growth,” “value creation,” and my favorite, “synergy,” (mostly because it reminds me of 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy telling Liz Lemon to “never badmouth synergy”). There certainly will be many opportunities for profit, but I’m interested in how y’all respond to the fact that one of Disney’s major motivating factors has been securing a young male demographic.

Heidi MacDonald at The Beat notes that: “Disney has always wanted strong boys properties. They rule the pink world with their princesses, but have had a historic weakness with older boys that they’ve tried to bridge. This is obviously a slam dunk for that.”

The New York Times echoes this somewhat with: “The brooding Marvel characters tend to be more popular with boys — an area where Disney could use help. While the likes of Hannah Montana and the blockbuster Princesses merchandising line have solidified Disney’s hold on little girls, franchises for boys have been harder to come by.”

They also write that:

“The deal is not without risk. Questions include whether Marvel’s lesser-known characters can be effectively groomed into stars and to what degree the most valuable and heavily exploited assets (Spider-Man, the X-Men) have weakened in box-office power.”

Lesser-known characters include obscure characters – of which in a universe of 5,000 are many – but we can also assume that a handful of those are women and minority characters that might make compelling stories that have the potential to reach a diversified audience.

The Huffington Post writes:“Buying Marvel is meant to improve Disney’s following among men and boys. Disney acknowledges it lost some of its footing with guys as it poured resources into female favorites such as “Hannah Montana” and the Jonas Brothers.”

There’s lots we can tease out here about pouring resources into projects that resonate, for whatever reason, with girls (and we can, and should get into those reasons too). My concern is that the resulting products will continue to be two unfortunate sides of the same gendered coin: Good-Girly Princess and Oversexed Superheroine.

As Nicholas Yanes muses in his piece for SciFi Pulse:“The final issue I want to address ties into why I think Disney bought Marvel in the first place – they are desperate to appeal to the young male demographic. The problem I have with this is that Marvel and Disney suck at appealing to anyone outside of their core demographic. Marvel has never been successful at developing a female fan base and Disney, in recent years, has developed a larger female following at the expense of gaining young male fans. My concern is that Disney and Marvel are going to forget appealing to the other gender: Disney will continue to roll out with Pop Princess stuff and Marvel will give up on creating powerful and popular female characters. Meaning that I’ll be stuck feeling like a creep every time I buy a comic with a woman on the cover.”

Johanna Draper Carlson reported on the investor call for Comics Worth Reading, and noted that Disney’s President and CEO, Bob Iger, said something about “how the popularity of Marvel characters and stories transcends gender and age, which I disagree with, but once Disney gets a hold of them, that will likely become more true.”

Like Carlson, I find Iger’s comment difficult to swallow considering all the comments concerning the idea of a “Disney for Boys” – as well as how much of popular culture is marked towards the perceived and stereotyped male gender –but I’m curious to read what y’all think about this in the comments section.

Now I would hate to see a Princess Sue Storm (gag) – but there’s a real opportunity here. Warner Brothers (who own DC) has dropped the ball on a live-action Wonder Woman film, and as I already discussed at length in a previous post there was all the buzz in the past year about how they are no longer making films with women in lead roles. And Marvel royally effed up with their semi-adaptation of Greg Rucka’s Elektra/Wolverine: The Reedemer in 2005’s Elektra (though there is one aspect I appreciate that I discuss at length in my book.) They also did a disservice to both Jean Grey and Ororo Munroe of the X-Men.



BUT, if Disney is willing to take a chance on female characters, albeit a specific type of female character, they may be willing to take more chances than Marvel was fiscally willing or able to do.

Additionally, Disney owns Pixar and John Lasseter has already expressed interest in the possibility of a Marvel/Pixar project. Pixar, of course, already produced one of the greatest superhero films of all time in The Incredibles, as well as one of the most multidimensional of female characters in Helen Parr/Elastigirl.



Aside from the numerous jokes about a Howard the Duck/ Donald Duck smackdown or the emergence of a Spider-Mouse (à la Homer Simpson’s Spider-Pig) right now the focus seems to be on how this deal will affect male characters and male fans. I, for one, would be very interested in seeing a Jessica Jones project, something with Araña Corazon – the first Latina superhero, and a Storm origin story (maybe staring Zoe Salanda?).






This news is still fresh and I’m sure the geekosphere will discuss every aspect of it in appropriately obsessive detail. But since the merger isn’t likely to get much feminist attention, I’m wondering what thoughts you smart Bitch readers have to share about the deal and what it may or may not mean for female characters in film, comics, and television. Will the pop culture Disney and Marvel produce continue to be ever more gendered? How are our responses to the preceding question complicated by the fact that many of us get nostalgic over our experiences of girl (and boy) culture? Should entertainment be gendered at all? (Check out the enormous difference between Disney’s Disney Princess and Disney XD websites.)

What female character from the Marvel Universe would you like to see get a proper treatment in film or television?

Discuss away!


by Jennifer K. Stuller
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Jennifer K. Stuller is Co-Founder and Director Emeritus of Programming and Events for GeekGirlCon -- an organization dedicated to the recognition, encouragement and support of women in geek and pop culture and STEM. Stuller is a writer, scholar, media critic, and feminist pop culture historian. She is an author and contributor to multiple publications, including Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology, and the editor of Fan Phenomena: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She has spoken at national and international conferences and regularly appears at the Comic Arts Conference, the Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses, and San Diego Comic-Con International. She is a frequent presenter on the topics of media literacy, geek activism and community-building, ever endeavoring to use her powers only for good.

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8 Comments Have Been Posted

Number one choice would be

Number one choice would be Kitty Pryde, but anything with the Kyle/Yost New X-men(has a lot of racial variety and some amazing, strong, female characters) team would be really fantastic, as would Daughters of the Dragon(Misty Knight and Colleen Wing). I just think anything with the lesser-known female characters would be really cool. I like the choice of Jessica Jones, but I doubt Disney would touch her story with a ten-foot pole(it's pretty explicit). Just as long as I don't get more Jean Grey shoved down my throat, I'm good.

As a kid, I definitely

As a kid, I definitely leaned toward the more gender-neutral or "masculine" aspects of pop culture and entertainment - I hated anything girly or pink, and was utterly bored by princesses. Thus, up until this point, I've felt pretty okay about Marvel's heavily boy-targeted persona - Spider-Man is my favorite superhero, and I don't feel any societal pressure not to indulge in entertainment that is traditionally "for guys." Reading this article, though, I kind of wish I had strong, powerful female superheros and cartoon characters to look up to as a young girl. None of the existing characters - Wonder Woman, The Fantastic Four's female member (forget the name), etc. - ever appealed to me. So I definitely hope Marvel takes this opportunity to popularize or mainstream their more obscure female characters, which I never would have known about as a kid, but who seem to be pretty cool (like the examples you list above).

What about Spider-Woman? I'd love to see more of her.

My daughers wear pink, but not the Disney shade.

Ach! Wow. As a parent this is another cultural maze to navigate for sure and Disney's purchase just made it more difficult.

It has been relatively simple to automatically put anything with the Disney label on it through a stricter filter than some other pop culture influences while I have very young kids. After all, my oldest didn't see The Little Mermaid until she was 13, cause ewe. But this makes it a little tougher - after all, even a great character like Helen Parr is still a "girl" with a specific skill married to a "Mr." who is globally "incredible." The transformation of Violet's character and the invisibility of women who aren't trying to be pretty is a great topic to discuss with older kids, but dang I wish this wasn't so hard.

I confess to not knowing much about many Marvel heroes , since they have never really interested me (or my kids until recently), but I am certainly full of doubt that Disney is willing to do much to create a or portray a female character that isn't dependent on the men around her to save the day in the end.

Thank goodness for the Wonder Pets and the age appropriately named Word Girl They should buy me a couple more months to navigate further through the maze.

Very interested to see what the women here have to say about Marvel and their female characters.

Super Women vs. Hapless Girls

I'm middle-aged, grew up with five brothers before video games were invented; therefore, I grew up on DC and Marvel comics as well as seeing strong, smart women characters on TV (such as Wonder Woman, Police Woman). I also watched Disney's versions of fairy tales and read romance novels (sweet, but didn't add much to maturity or make me think a not-cute girl was worth a plugged nickel). Many comic books focus on strong women; even the superheroes' girlfriends are no saps. ...and they have jobs! Girls need fewer sappy, girly, princess-victim role models and more super women. Yay to Marvel!

There's So Much Potential But Will It Be Used?

You've obviously researched potential female comic characters well, and i am but a neophyte in the field of appreciating female comic super-heros. Preferably, from my point of view, more feminist and dominant versions of all female comic characters should be developed. It concerns me that historically conservative outfits like disney would be buying up the rights to all Marvel's comic character rights. I could be mistaken, but I think they're still pretty male dominated in the board room, and if ABC talk radio is any indication their politics are pretty right wing. It seems like most of the movies they put out are pretty thoroughly censored too. Those drawings in your article are great. Maybe they should hire you as head of that division, though I love reading you here at Bitch Magazine, so I'm selfishly hoping you stay here. In answer to the question you asked, I'd like to see ALL of comic-land's female characters get proper (elevated to dominant) treatment.

Potential is the Key Word

Most of Marvel's female characters are problematic, as are DC's. But there are several characters who have received interesting treatment by certain writers. For example with Marvel, Chris Claremont's X-Men and Joss Whedon's X-Men. I also love Greg Rucka's "Elektra/Wolverine: The Redeemer" which was hauntingly illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano. Brian Michael Bendis's "Alias" (w/Jessica Jones) was for Marvel's adult line - my friend Roz Kaveney devotes a chapter to it in her book "Superheroes!" I also think that Pixar could do something great for kids/tweens with Arana.

DC has some great incarnations of female characters like Wonder Woman, Barbara Gordon (Batgirl, now Oracle), and Huntress courtesy of Chuck Dixon, Gail Simone, Greg Rucka, and Ivory Madison. But other than the animated direct-to-dvd WW feature, Warner Brothers hasn't done much cinematically with female characters (Catwoman was awful).

Comics herstorian, Trina Robbins, has a revised version of her book, "The Great American Superheroines," coming out in the nearish future and has a chapter devoted to female/feminist writers & artists in mainstream comics -- of which there are too few.

My hope is that though Disney markets stereotypically feminine female characters, they are successful with a female audience; Marvel doesn't cater to a female audience, but does have some interesting, if also problematic female characters. With Disney's money, might Marvel be willing to take a chance on developing some of those characters for film & television? (And do it with more success than Elektra?)

Sarah Jaffe has another interesting feminist take on this over at Newsarama:

Jennifer K. Stuller

Grasping the Potential for Future Comic Herstory

After visiting your personal website I realized that you were even more versed on the Feminist character's super-hero potential than I'd previously realized. I noted the URL and was thinking to myself that you were being quite modest for an amazon. Hope you don't mind that I added the URL here. It looks like it will be a good read.

Disney is not always

Disney is not always pleasant to have around...

It will take eeeeeeeeeevery bit of sensuality away. For both male and female characters.

Make everything politically correct... try to cover bases more than developing stories.

Bad move Marvel...

Say goodbye to ANY gore whatsoever too...

Wolverine will get his claws manicured and Wal-Mart safe... and Jean Grey will break into song... and if Storm couldn't get any worse... you ain't seen nothing yet!

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