Tuesday 17 September 2013

Guest Editorial: Is Disney Animated Princess Marketing Sexist?

Disney's next princess movie, Frozen. Note the lack of focus on, y'know, the

This is a guest post by Morgan Stradling, of The Rotoscopers.

It seems every time a new Disney animated princess film rolls around nowadays that people pick up their pitch forks and begin chanting the war cry that Disney is sexist. That “they’ve forgotten their core audience,” “they are catering to the boys,” and have ignored the women.

A Little Marketing History

Much of this started after The Princess and the Frog, which was released in December 2009. The marketing campaign for this movie was much more princess-focused than it is today. From the very first teaser trailer, Tiana—with ballgown on and crown on her head—was the main star and we, as an audience, knew what we were getting ourselves into. This was a fairy-tale and it had a princess.

Unfortunately for Frog, it didn’t as well in the box office as Disney would have liked. While it wasn’t a complete flop, it didn’t bring in record numbers like the other princess films of the early 90s. So, in Disney's mind, something had to change. They must have thought to themselves, “Maybe Frog didn’t do so well because the boys didn’t want to see it because it was obviously about princesses. This won’t happen again for our next princess flick.”

So the next year, Tangled entered the stage. Except, it wasn’t originally titled Tangled. It’s original title was Rapunzel, the name of the film’s titular character. The title change to Tangled was made much later during the production process. This old name made it obvious the film was about a fairy-tale princess and, to Disney, this alienated half of the audience: boys. So, according to the President of Disney Animation Studios Ed Catmull, Disney changed the name because Disney “did not want to be put in a box." He said, "Some people might assume it's a fairy tale for girls when it's not. We make movies to be appreciated and loved by everybody."

As a result, the marketing for Tangled showed this new boy-friendly approach. The teaser trailer for Tangled begins with the dashing Flynn Rider being escorted to prison by some royal guards, then not even 10 seconds in, the action starts! Flynn breaks free from the guards and the titles “He’s fearless,” “He’s dangerous” pop onto the screen. While Rapunzel herself isn’t completely absent, she’s on screen for less than 25 seconds of the entire two-minute trailer. For most people who only watch this trailer, it’s clear that this movie is about the dashing scoundrel Flynn Rider and that blonde-haired girl is just a nuisance sidekick (as expressed by his numerous faces of disgust throughout the trailer).

Tangled was a smash hit, making nearly $600 million worldwide. Some would say it was due to the boy-friendly, bait-and-switch marketing campaign that did a great job of hiding the princess from boys’ subjective eyes. I remember boys, even in their mid-20s loving Tangled. I recall one of my guy friends who saw it upwards of 10 times. Personally, I don’t think the title to anything to do with it, but rather I think that Tangled was success due to the incredible story. But maybe that’s just me.

So here we are three years later and another Disney princess movie is before us: Frozen. This movie doesn’t just have one princess, it has two! Talk about promotional gold for Disney Consumer Products! But, in Disney’s new marketing fashion, nobody knows about the princesses. Yes, there have been a few promotional items that introduce us to all the main characters, but the majority of the movie-going public doesn’t read those articles online; they see only the trailer. And unlike The Princess and the Frog trailer in 2009, which prominently featured the princess, these princesses are out of sight. Instead, the Frozen teaser trailer gives us two funny, goofy sidekick characters: a snowman named Olaf and a reindeer named Sven. This trailer gives the impression that this going to be a hilarious comedy; that you’re going to laugh the whole time. Now the movie is marketed as a “comedy adventure,” so it very well may be a rip-roaring good time. But this trailer neither focuses on the main protagonists nor the plot, namely the two princess sisters named Anna and Elsa.

In Japan, they already have a Frozen trailer that reveals the princesses, the conflict, and the action. It’s not comedic at all. It’s serious, it’s dark and, boy, is it awesome. I don’t quite understand why Japan was deemed worthy to receive that trailer (although, historically, the trailers they get are much darker), while the English-speaking audiences got fluff. It’s almost a low-blow to English audiences, saying “You can’t handle anything serious. But you can handle comedy.” These two very distinct trailers have me wondering: is it a comedy or is it an action-adventure? It must obviously be both. It’s just interesting to see the different tactics used to promote the film in different parts of the world.

Now, all this will probably change on 26th September, when we will receive another new Frozen trailer. This will be a full-blown trailer, not just a teaser. While we have seen the human characters popping up here and there, this trailer will most likely be our first chance to see the human heroines and heroes in action. It will probably show more action, but I imagine the comedy will still be prevalent. And I imagine we’ll still get equal parts of the comedic and male characters such as Hans, Kristoff, Olaf and Sven, in regards to the females.

To summarize, it seems the new way to market a Disney princess movie is as follows: release a comedic, gender-neutral trailer that hides the girls, then transition to trailers that are more action-comedy based showing more of the princess but definitely not making it appear as though she’s the star (see: Tangled Trailer #3).

Back to the Boys

I don't think that boys’ lack of interest in Disney princess films has much to do with Disney per se, but maybe a little more with society in general. There seems to be a bit more of a dividing line between what boys "should" see and what girls "should" see. There are gender-neutral movies and entertainment, but for the most part, I think boys are expected to be boy-ish and shun all things girl. (That being said, the one exception to this is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and the whole Brony phenomenon).

For that reason, there might be an initial reluctance from the boys and male teenagers to see a Disney princess movie. So, Disney, knowing this, had no choice but to pivot and change their marketing. They make it seem more boyish, cool, and/or adventurous, so that they give it a chance and get in the theatre. Then ultimately, the movie really is just a princess fairy tale, but by that point, the boys are hooked and actually really like it.

Tangled, as discussed, was marketed more gender-neutrally and definitely focused on Flynn to get the boys in the seats. And guess what? It worked! But more than that, the story was so fantastic, and as a result I know many guys who love Tangled and will gladly watch it again and again. In the end, Tangled was a success for two reasons: 1) Disney was able to make the movie they wanted (i.e. princess themed) and 2) were still able to convince guys to watch it.

I don't think Disney is purposely trying to alienate their female fans; I just think they’re in a really hard place. They know that the girls will see a princess movie anyway; boys, not so much, so they have to try different tactics with them. As a result, the marketing comes off being a bit anti-girl, when that's probably not the intention.

The Real Winners

Disney knows that ultimately it is the female crowd who will carry this new franchise way past the release date in theatres. The girls will buy the merchandise, the costumes, books, and the whole shebang. By having girls carry this brand, Disney and the new princess film will get lots of promotion and attention for years after. (This is the reason why films like Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and The Little Mermaid are still relevant today, decades after their initial releases.) After the movie leaves theatres, this is where Disney says goodbye to the boys. “Thank you, boys and men, for seeing our movie in theatres, but now we’re focusing on the girls from here on out. Have a nice day.”

While it may seem the girls are being a bit neglected during the “trailer-phase” promotion of a princess film, the girls really are the winners in the long run. Boys get Disney’s immediate, short-term attention, while the girls get the long-lasting affection from Disney.

About the author:

Morgan Stradling is an Arizona native and, as a result, is a desert rat who loves the heat (she doesn’t even turn on the AC in her car in the middle of the summer)! She loves big eyeliner, Survivor, Lady Gaga, and of course, animated films.

Morgan grew up watching, devouring, and quoting animated films. Her favorite animated films are Aladdin, The Iron Giant, Sleeping Beauty and Ratatouille.

She currently is a first-year MBA student at Arizona State University and loving every moment of it! One of her career goals is to become a brand manager for a consumer products company. You can read more of her work at TheRotoscopers.com, where she also hosts their fantastic Animation Addicts Podcast.


Check out the guest post William wrote for The Rotoscopers back in March: Why Animation Is Wrongly Disregarded As Children's Entertainment


  1. "Boys get Disney’s immediate, short-term attention, while the girls get the long-lasting affection from Disney."

    Okay, now I feel left out as a boy :/

    Just wait for Big Hero 6...mwahahaha

    And GREAT article, Morgan! :)

  2. And Wreck-It Ralph was significantly more guy-heavy merchandise-wise! Plus, there's nothing that says we can't buy Little Mermaid merchandise, Gary! ;)

  3. The animation film was awesome. You posted a really nice post.Thanks for sharing this.


  4. Trust me, William, once the Frozen stuff is out, I'll buy it all! Well, maybe except the dolls and bedsheets.

    In all seriousness, Wreck-It Ralph did a good job pandering to girls with Vanellope and the Sugar Rush world. I'm sure Big Hero 6 will have something like a cute girl side character or hey, maybe a female robot!

  5. Are you mad? The bedsheets are the best bit!

    Yeah, I wonder if they had that one small shot of Vanellope in the princess dress *just* to sell toys?

    I just want mugs. Mugs with everything on.

  6. Haha, thanks. :) I know the title was a bit sensational, but hey, gotta do what you gotta do to get people to read.

    And yeah, girls get the princess and boys get all the attention with comic book characters and videogames. :)