Childhood is a time of innocence, and it's easy to dismiss children's media as harmless because of the simplicity with which most of its audience will approach it. The truth is all media is created with a message, and the messages we send to our children may be the most important of all. The same innocence with which they approach the world leaves them less equipped to analyze the underlying intentions. As an offshoot to my main blog, See Jane Juggling serves as a place for some analysis on the messages children's media send. My perspective is admittedly biased toward gender and race concerns, but I would love to hear from you about your other viewpoints as well. Rate the media (explanation of ratings to the right) and leave a comment, and together we can shed some light on these complicated decisions.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Bratz Kidz Fairy Tales

MGA Entertainment
Rating: N(G, R)

Bratz Kidz Fairy Tales centers around four friends who are having trouble getting excited about putting on a play as fairy tale characters (Rapunzel, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella) because they feel no connection to them. As they complain about the fairy tales, a talking frog appears and explains that he's been sent by The Keeper to whisk them away to Fairy Tale Land where they will each embody their character in her actual story. If they are able to outsmart the villains and ensure happy endings all around, then everyone will get to come back safe and sound, and he can become a prince again.

The girls help each other overcome each of the fairy tales, throwing in modern interpretations of their surroundings and recognizing that the heroines of the tales didn't have it quite as easy as they originally thought. They ultimately succeed, defeating two wicked witches, a hungry wolf, and an ugly stepmother.

When they return to their own time and place, they have a renewed appreciation for the fairy tales they dismissed earlier.

The Good
The premise of this film centers around a dismissal of the princesses from the fairy tales as too weak for modern standards. In this way, the girls demonstrate high expectations for women and do not accept ascribed gender roles as an excuse for substandard performance.

There are also some moments within the recreated fairy tales where the girls get to share their modern worldview--with mixed success. The girl playing Rapunzel initially thinks that waiting for someone to save her is ridiculous and immediately tries multiple ways to escape the tower on her own. Though she is ultimately caught, she does escape from the wicked witch without any help from a prince (unless you count the frog, who does throw in a little assistance).

Likewise, the girl playing Snow White lets the Seven Dwarves know that where she comes from, there's "a lot more going on than cooking and cleaning." She is bullied into cleaning anyway, but eventually wises up and walks out, even as the men taunt her by telling her how scary the woods will be. She stands strong on her principles that being demeaned is above her and that she is capable of more than cleaning and cooking.

The girl playing Cinderella tries to take an equally dismissive stance toward romance and the need for a prince to save her, but she discovers that without a prince she will remain poor and homeless. The frog informs her that there were no other options for women in the "15th century . . . not even school." Upon finding out that Cinderella threw a glass slipper at the wolf to escape him, the prince happily declares that he's "so over wimpy gals."

Through these messages, there are some efforts to demonstrate a modern portrayal of women as powerful and able to step outside of traditional gender norms.

The Bad
First of all, no matter how much the show might intend to subvert traditional gender roles, it's created as a platform to promote Bratz dolls, which are horribly sexist stereotypes. Even though the girls in the movie are fully clothed, they still represent traditional (and fairly adult) standards of beauty. They wear tight-fitting clothing and heavy make-up. They are all thin with big eyes, nearly invisible noses, and pouty lips.

In addition, many of the plot lines promote sexist ideas. I know that the creators of this film didn't create the story lines, and that they were sexist in the original fairy tales, but I can't give them a pass on this because the message at the end is that the stories are "great" and so much "more fun" than the girls originally thought. Even though this is--on the surface--an endorsement of the strength of the heroines, it is also an endorsement for the stories themselves (and all the sexism they contain).

Beauty is equated with good--at least for women. The witch in the Snow White narrative is trying to get rid of (by feeding some to the wolf and locking one in a tower) all of the girls so she can be the "fairest in the land." The witch from the Rapunzel story line is old, wrinkled, and misshapen--and she discusses her frustration with her looks on screen. While the women villains are ugly (or at least perceive themselves as uglier than the girls), the wolf exhibits the stereotypes of the traditionally strong male. He has a broad chest, narrow waist, and big arms. These portrayals promote female morality as associated with beauty while male morality is not.

Also, the wolf story line made me uncomfortable. He's trying to eat the girls, but he demonstrates how sad he is that the girl playing Red Riding Hood didn't play along with his grandma act to tease out the chase a little longer. The chase then becomes literal, as he scares all of the girls up a tree and then follows them, teasing them about "which order will I eat you in." He teams up with the witch from Snow White until his ravenous bloodthirsty-ness overcomes him and he pounces on her and devours her. The body language and ways of talking about the chase were too reminiscent of predatory sexual behavior for me.

According to this document on ways to analyze children's books for racism, a sign of tokenism is when a minority character "look[s] just like whites except for being tinted or colored in." That is definitely the case for both the black girl and the black dwarf. 

In addition, the black dwarf speaks with a stereotypically black accent and says things like "what are you doing up in our crib?" He's the only character who speaks like this, and these decisions promote stereotypes in a negative, reductive way. 

Also, it really bothered me that both of the black characters (which are the only real representation of racial diversity) have green eyes. While I know that black people can have eyes in a variety of shades, other critics have talked about how making a dark-skinned character have light eyes can be read as a way to keep people of color from identifying with the character. Shannon Price dubs it the "Esmerelda Eyes Syndrome" (as a reference to Esmerelda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, another person of color with unusually green eyes). Price says that the decision was meant to show "that in order to be beautiful or worthy . . . you had to have at least one European feature, and animators were determined to provide Esmerelda with one even though it clashed alarmingly with her other features." The same can be said for the black characters in this movie. 

Bottom Line
Even though the film purports to be subverting the rigid gender roles in traditional fairy tales, it ends up claiming that these same story lines are actually "great" and "fun." It gets to this message through a series of mixed messages about gender norms and some very stereotypical portrayals of race. It's also important to remember that this film acts as a marketing platform for the entire Bratz line, which is rife with stereotyping and sexist portrayals.

My first-ever Bratz doll.
From partymonstrrrr

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