Launched in 2005, the Disney Fairies marketing campaign had an online presence from its beginning. (1) It was introduced following the success of the Disney Princess brand, which is now valued at 4 billion dollars. (2) The Disney Fairies franchise is not yet as successful financially, but similar merchandising strategies are in play and the Disney Corporation predicts similar profits in the future. (3) Where Disney Fairies is already phenomenally successful is in its web presence. Disney’s Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) Pixie Hollow (4) boasts more than 16 million unique fairy avatars, according to the Disney Corporation. (5)
This article will explore the Disney Fairies website and the Pixie Hollow game in terms of gender and representation. There is much more to explore in these texts, for example, the structuring of game play and the ways in which the site engages with space, but in this article the focus will be on the representational elements of the site. My interest here is in the ways in which the website interpellates its young users as gendered and raced bodies, and uses visual and aural strategies to encourage embodied, and whole-bodied, performances of gender. Using an Althusserian framework, this article will analyse the ways in which user interaction on the site and within the game are structured to illicit these identifications and embodied responses. Users of the website and the game are encouraged to engage in a fantasy in which they embody the style, behaviour, and look of a Disney Fairy. They also present the user with images of idealised feminine bodies which model this fantasy.
My work here is framed by the work of internet theorists Zillah Eisenstein (6) and Susanna Paasonen, (7) who argue that online identities are not separate from embodiment and power. Because the text I am studying is targeted at young girls, I will also be talking about identity formation. The formation of an online identity and the formation of “real” identity are linked here, mutually effecting each other. I will be arguing that the ways in which Disney rigidly structures the choices which shape the online personality, and the ways in which the user may interact with the site, means that the online identity has the power to shape the “real” one in significant and meaningful ways. Specifically, I will discuss the ways in which this online self is conceived as a (feminine) consumer, or consumer in training.
According to Richard deCodova, since the 1920s, when reformist concerns over the influence films might have on children led to the creation of an accepted canon of films for them, Disney has achieved and held an enviable place in American and westernised popular culture. The Disney Corporation promotes itself as the producer of wholesome family entertainments, acting as the antithesis of other entertainments and influences which might damage the innocence of children. (8)
deCordova’s historical research identifies two registers of consumption for children: The children were firstly addressed as consumers of films, secondly as consumers of products displayed in those films. The work of merchandising was then to link the two registers, creating a network of mutual points of reference. (9) As the second register of consumption has become more valuable to the Disney Corporation, the ways in which they promote and link sites of meaning have come to be increasingly sophisticated. (10)
This sophistication can be seen in the Disney Fairies website. For example, the Fairies homepage gives you some indication of the kinds of interactive ‘play’ that are on offer, and how the website integrates these with advertisements, in both cases encouraging consumption. The second register of consumption, where the child is addressed as a consumer of products, is very definitely in operation here. Brightly coloured advertisements – including embedded flash videos – pitch a succession of the latest Fairies products, including the latest Disney Fairies DVD. The first register of consumption, where the child is addressed as a consumer of films, is still present here. Children can even view parts of upcoming films. That said, the website, including the MMOG Pixie Hollow, is more than a part of the second register. It works as an entertainment in itself (and it is possible for this to be the primary or even first interaction with the characters in Disney Fairies for some children). It also works to confuse the difference between the two registers.
As a user of the site, the child consumer is encouraged to explore links and to actively participate in polls and activities, and to watch free entertainments. The site is also the main platform from which to begin playing the MMOG Pixie Hollow. But the layout of the site presents buying products and theme park holidays as just another part of the exploration of the website; an equal part of the Fairies online experience. For instance, the menu bar integrates options to ‘explore’ products with options to play games. Advertisement is offered as another entertainment: viewers can view parts of upcoming movies and can preview games which they can buy for Nintendo DS.
There are even parts of the site that look like advertisements, but aren’t, strictly speaking. For instance, a link instructs users to ‘Fly to the Shops for New Fashions!’ But instead of operating to ‘fly’ the user to an online catalogue for Disney Fairy themed clothes, the link refers the user to clothing shopping for their Pixie Hollow game avatar. Just like ‘Second Life’, (11) the Pixie Hollow experience is also a shopping experience. Here there is a clear effort to use the active entertainments embedded in the Disney Fairies website to structure play in ways that are consistent with (and will encourage) consumer behaviours.
For Disney theorist Henry Giroux, the way in which children are addressed as consumers works as a powerful pedagogical device. One of Giroux’s main concerns is that the message that the Disney Corporation sends to children is that democracy and the right to consume goods are the same thing. Part of the concern for Giroux is that there is no dialogue about the realities of producing such mass goods in the popular reception of them. (12) The modes and practices of production in which Disney Fairies products are made is certainly invisible in the website. The products are intertextually related to the online experience, at the expense of knowledge about the life of the product before it reaches the stores and, finally, the homes and play spaces of children. A toy may carry a label telling us it is made in China but Disney’s online strategy works hard to relate the toy to the world of Disney Fairies, obscuring other information and ways of relating to the object.
The ways in which Disney Fairies websites are related to by users is strongly motivated by identity politics. The items purchased online – both for the online self and the corporeal ‘real’ self – may be imagined to have the power to, in turn, transform the buyer so that he or she is, or will be, at least a little closer to being a Fairy. Celia Lury argues that, since the emergence of individualism and mass consumer society, there has been an increase in the conceptualisation of possessions as defining aspects of the self. (13) Lury takes this argument even further when she states that: “consumer culture provides the conditions within which it is not just that self-identity is understood in relation to possessions, but that it is itself constituted as a possession.” (14)
For the Disney Fairies consumer this suggests at the very least a close relationship between the desire to buy Fairies items and the desire to be or become a Fairy.
Lury also points out that not everyone who is interpellated by the likes of Disney Fairies will be able to buy Fairies merchandise or participate in all aspects of Fairy play. However, the aspiration to do so means that the individual can still be seen as participating in consumer culture, and thus still define themselves in terms of consumer culture and possessions. The desire for Fairy products could then bring about or galvanize the desire to have the ability to consume more. (16)
The Disney Fairies websites invite the user into a “world” in which they are encouraged to both have and become consumer products. The games and activities offered on the sites, as well as the design of the websites, all work to encourage the user to think of themselves as possessions.
This brings me to my next piece of textual analysis, the Pixie Hollow game. The game is an MMOG: A Massively Multiplayer Online Game. MMOGs are games that support potentially huge numbers of players to play together within the same game. Pixie Hollow players use avatars to negotiate the ‘world’ of Pixie Hollow – a virtual world populated by Fairies. The users ‘move’ through this world via their avatars, collecting points and playing various nature themed games as they go. They can also communicate via chats with each other, and attend special events with groups of other Fairies.
The user of the game begins by creating an avatar. The user is given a selection of physical attributes to choose from in order to shape their Fairy into a ‘unique’ avatar. The attributes that users can alter include size, hair, wings, and ‘face’. The ‘face’ menu allows the user to pick from various face shapes and expressions, skin colour, and eye colour.
This part of the game draws an outline of a certain type of preferred body and style. Alterations can be made but these do little to effect the end product. Whatever choice the user makes, their avatars end up looking all but identical to other Fairies. For example, the ‘face’ can vary, but the actual face shape varies only slightly, and changes mostly relate to things like whether the avatar has raised eyebrows or not. Skin colour can be altered, but even the darkest shade is fairly light. The limited range of choices on offer is not unusual for the genres of games and online interfaces which use avatars. What is of interest here is the particular form which is the preferred standard.
Size can also be changed slightly but this makes very little visual impact. A fairy can be ‘short’ or ‘shorter’, ‘little’ or ‘littler’. Hair style and colour can be changed but the options are all tidy waif-like styles –no unruly tangles, no frizzy hair. A very clear indication is given about what a fairy should look like: it is able bodied, thin (‘little’), and has Anglo-Saxon features.
Later, when you have earned enough points, you can also buy and alter clothes for your avatar, but the choices are limited to overly feminine ‘looks’. For instance, pants are not an option (though sneakers are, as long as they are Converse brand sneakers). In this part of the game there is a clear emphasis on feminine appearance and, in particular, the conscious styling of the body. The body is alterable, while remaining rigidly idealised. In this it is the perfect model for identity –as a consumer object.
The game also makes clear the logic of consumption. Points are awarded for completing games and tasks, as with most comparable MMOGs. But rather than accruing a numbered total of points, players collect them in the form of nature themed items such as twigs and berries. While these points still have a fixed exchange value, the twigs and berries also carry associations with a vision of the natural world as innocuous and creative. The alignment of what is essentially money with such associations works to render the capitalist economic system as similarly natural, harmless, and productive.
Users are also granted an extra layer of rewards for displaying proper consumer behaviour: They will know that they have advanced in the game when they have enough ‘twigs’ to buy things –that pretty dye that turns their avatar’s dress blue, for instance. Here the user is encouraged to understand that the work of acquiring ‘twigs’ will both gain them desired goods as well as advancement in the game and access to further opportunities to collect ‘twigs’. Additionally, while the game is otherwise free, access to ‘shopping’ for your avatar is only possible if you also pay a monthly membership, back on the ‘mainland’ –i.e. in real life.
The user’s Fairy avatar is also hailed as a genteel body, eschewing rough play for creative and caring roles. This body is located within domesticated space: Pixie hollow is set in a “Natural” forested world, but it is imagined as a domesticated version of nature. The game space is furnished with chairs and tables and other domestic items fashioned from items such as branches and petals and flax, allowing for your avatar to sit down and have a nice conversation. Other parts of the pixie hollow environment feature similar niceties, including shops and meeting places made from hollowed out trees. Pixie Hollow provides an image of nature that is already tidy and ordered. And most of the games involve increasing the orderliness of nature. For instance, many games involve sorting or collecting things like stray leaves and seeds, or building furniture. The collective goal of players, aside from earning points to buy clothes and making friends, is to help to ‘bring in the next season’ by taking part in ‘community’ games such as sweeping up and transporting snowflakes. The game works to generate and support an immersive involvement with the game, which requires users to take imaginative leaps: ‘make believing’ the caring role of a Fairy who contributes to the orderly scheme of the Pixie Hollow world.
Imagination and fantasy have long been key to Disney’s overall marketing discourse and to the Disney Fairies website in particular. The research and development wing of Disney which conceived the Fairies franchise is even called ‘Imagineering’. Play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith argues that the emphasis on the concept of imagination in play is itself a relatively recent phenomena of Western thought: Educator Freidrich Frobel introduced it and it was only popularised in the late 19th Century. At that time, imaginative play was conceptualised as a higher form of playing, distinguished from other ‘lower’ forms of physical play. This distinction, Sutton-Smith argues, has remained relatively persistent. (16) In a sense then, when children’s behaviour is framed as imaginative play, it is already structured by an ideological division between high and low, and between civilised and uncivilised.
Disney works hard to create and promote these elevated ‘imaginary’ interactions between children and their products, and it works equally hard to use and shape these fantasies to make profit. However, as Janet Wasko has argued, while Disney promotes imagination in its texts, theme parks and films, it is always limited by a variety of control mechanisms. Wasko, analysing the reports of a number of theme park analysts, argues that the persistent imagination motif is contradicted by the structure of the parks and the rides, which are so rigidly controlled that any actual spontaneous play is precluded. (17) The use of control mechanisms continues on in the space of the online Disney worlds such as Pixie Hollow.
The feminine, civilised body which moves in the space of Pixie Hollow is called into being through the Disney Fairies experience. The site also hails participants in the game as bodily, as corporeal. Hailing, or interpellation, is ‘the elementary ideological effect’ according to Louis Althusser. The process by which the subject is produced: The subject responds when they are addressed as subjects, and recognises that their status as a subject is ‘obvious’ and unproblematic. Following Spinoza, Althusser argues that we are all ‘always already subjects’, because there is no outside to ideology. (18) What this means in the world of Fairies is that, whether they are actually accurately described by the game or not, when playing the game the subject position they are called into is that of a girl-consumer who is civilised, feminine, and domesticated. Not only that, but the body itself is hailed here: The user of Pixie Hollow is interpellated as a clean, dainty, tidy, body which epitomises and embodies idealised femininity.
Mauyra Wickstrom theorises about this processes of embodiment and Disney in her study of the stage version of The Lion King. She argues that through Disney texts viewers are encouraged to “slide” from being spectators to being part of the fictional world. (19) Working with Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto’s influential work on Tokyo Disneyland in Images of Empire, Wickstrom notes that,
[T]he consumer-subject is no longer an autonomous eye, but rather the suggestible subject/object of the fantasy, playing as well as consuming the commodity. In this scenario, it is not through the commodity, but as the commodity that the experience apparently takes place. (20)
Wickstrom also suggests that the called-for response to this narrative fantasy is the consumption of other products and images which will intensify and confirm the experience. In particular the invitation for children to extend the fantasy play in Pixie Hollow by dressing in Disney character merchandise and playing with Disney character toys. The Fairies fantasy takes place through and in the body – the body which “feels” the site via the computer cursor, hearing and seeing, and responding, to the features of the site, and the body that is hailed and imaginatively transformed as a Disney Fairy.
Much of this embodied Fairies play calls upon the use and training of non-visual senses. These senses are generally understood as less intellectual and more emotional and innate. Mark M. Smith contends that, to a certain extent, these senses could be considered to be historically and culturally specific. Smith also advocates for an understanding of all the senses as culturally learned. (21) Non-visual senses are likely to be experienced as instinctive and intuitive – as “gut” feeling. (22) The body which interacts with the Disney Fairies website not only sees idealised images of femininity but also hears and touches, and gets a visual and audible response to his/her own touch via the animated swirls and noises the mouse makes when it is moved across various icons and objects in the Pixie Hollow world, and when his/her touch moves their avatar across the same objects. It may be argued that Disney Fairies’ appeal to these senses work to construct an understanding of sensory difference so that the user who “moves” through the nature themed website hearing antiseptic pop music, and whose touch appears to generate sparkles and leaf growth, will develop a “gut” feeling about gender distinctions. (23) This sensory assault may then contribute to an understanding that the user does, or should, experience their bodies as “sugar and spice and all things nice”.
The child user of Disney Fairies is hailed as a “good” girl, one who is not violent or raucous or misbehaved or dirty. She takes care to dress nicely and cultivates a feminine “look” for herself. She spends her free time in non-destructive communal pursuits which produce pretty things to wear, or contribute to an ordered, clean and domesticated environment. She is, in short, thoroughly civilised.
Sean Redmond argues that the civilised body is a “constructed body, moulded to not only distance itself from the supposedly natural impulses, noises, and desires of the body, but to also embody social difference and validate social hierarchy”. (24)
The “good” girl addressed by Disney Fairies marketing is then a girl who embodies, or should embody, the social status of a wealthy (read: white) consumer (read: Westerner), through rejecting those bodily functions and behaviours which are constructed as natural and savage.
This assumed link between western whiteness and civility, and between whiteness and femininity, is historically and culturally constructed. Richard Dyer argues that in Western society whiteness has come to have connotations of purity and intellectuality as well as spiritual enlightenment. (25) Redmond identifies a double bind here in which whiteness is privileged because ‘one cannot truly be white unless one is enlightened and cultured, and one cannot truly be enlightened and cultured if one is not white’. (26) Upper and middle-class white women particularly have historically been represented in ways which emphasise their whiteness and depict it as coming from within, as emanating from an inner spiritual light. (27) Thus, even conventionally ‘raced’ bodies depicted in Pixie Hollow are depicted as washed-out, or whitened, with idealised Anglo-Saxon features.
Uncivilised and disorderly bodies do not appear to be possible in Pixie Hollow. They are, if anything, implied by their absence. In the Disney Fairies online world it is the absence of boisterous active bodies which do not conform to normalised standards of feminine behaviour, as well as unlovely or unconventional bodies, which is of concern, especially given that the visible bodies are waif-like fashion model types with standardised features which promote a version of beauty which takes whiteness as the assumed ideal.
The site also implicitly encourages self-surveillance of this body. The site encourages its young audience to critically compare themselves against the body styles and behaviours that their avatars and avatar ‘friends’ exhibit. In working toward becoming a Disney Fairy children engage in the mechanics of power through the regimes of critical self-analysis and discipline which promise to bring them closer to the body of a Disney Fairy. As Foucault puts it, such regulating discipline “produces subjected and practiced bodies, ‘docile’ bodies”. (28) Girls are thus given a clear blueprint with which to begin a body project where the goal is a feminine body that is shaped to fit a strict model of idealised norms, a body which is graceful, gentle, and docile.
The Disney Fairies online experience works to shut down the potential for multiple, fluid, dynamic identities online; circumscribing the possibilities for online ‘self’, and influencing the identity formation of the child internet user. The Disney Fairies website and the MMOG Pixie Hollow work in ways which attempt to produce gendered identities that are contingent on the consumption of products. In Disney, and the Disney Fairies website, imagination is king. But imagination is defined by desire for consumer products, and imaginative thinking includes defining the emerging “self” as yet another consumer product.
The very fact that sanctioned Fairies play is heavily scripted by Disney may, for some at least, prove its undoing. Its interpellation of consumers assumes an audience which is affluent, female, and beautiful according to current Western norms. Bodies who do not conform to this standard are invisible in terms of representation. As previously argued, those who are not affluent may experience the Disney Fairies, an experience that has to be purchased as something they are deprived of, the absence of which could cause feelings of low self-worth. Others may feel they are distanced from engaging Fairy play because they do not see resemblances of themselves in the Disney Fairies avatars. When prompted to compare themselves with these avatars, they may feel that they come up short. Nonetheless, as with the case of consumers who are not able to buy Disney Fairies products, this experience may not dissuade consumers from desiring the experience of being a Fairy. They may in fact be prompted to play more and buy more in the hope that Disney Fairies will make good on its promise that they too will someday match their Fairy avatars. However, this is not inevitable cause-and-effect logic.
The experience of the Disney Fairies online experience may instead cause children who do not live up to the Fairy body to withdraw from play or from fully immersing themselves in the fantasy. Indeed most children in the age-target for Disney Fairies are unlikely to see themselves in the more adult curves and impossible bodies of these sprites. Yet, the power these icons have as an ideal to strive for is not cancelled out by the fact that they are impossible, and, one does not have to fully participate in fantasy to find it seductive. When it comes to the question of how much power Disney has when its ideologies are experienced as a full-bodied fantasy, the Disney Fairies online experience can certainly be confirmed as having the potential to be very persuasive, offering consumers an enticing yet impossible body ideal which they are prompted to strive for.
However, this fantasy of embodiment is offered to the real bodies of real people and there are almost certainly gaps between the bodies it interpolates into this fantasy and the bodies which connect to the world of Disney Fairies, which reach out and touch them with clammy, grubby ‘imperfect’ digits. What they touch may conform to a certain idea of perfection and may coax them into believing in this perfection, in investing in it as a representation of conventional beauty. Nonetheless, problems do arise which indicate that there may at least be the potential for consumers of the Disney Fairies fantasy to question the logic that they should attempt to duplicate this ideal or believe in it as the only possible definition of beauty and worthiness. That said, the seductiveness of the Disney Fairies online fantasy does indicate that this possibility for contestation arises in a gap which Disney is working hard to squeeze out of existence.
This article has been peer reviewed
- Disney, ‘Disney Fairies’, http://disney.go.com/fairies/. Accessed 19/3/10.
- Disney, ‘Disney Princess’, press release, https://www.disneyconsumerproducts.com/Home/display.jsp?contentId=dcp_home_ourfranchises_disney_princess_us&forPrint=false&language=en&preview=false&imageShow=0&pressRoom=US&translationOf=nul®ion=0, 2010. p.1.
- Disney, ‘Disney Consumer Products And Key Character Franchises Poised For Breakout Growth At Retail’, press release http://corporate.disney.go.com/corporate/moreinfo/dcp_licensing.html 2009. p.1
- Disney, ‘Pixie Hollow’, http://pixiehollow.go.com/. Accessed 19/3/10.
- Disney, ‘Disney Consumer Products’. p.1
- Susanna Paasonen, ‘Gender, Identity, and (the Limits of) Play on the Internet’, in Women and Everyday Uses of the Internet: Agency and Identity, (ed.)Mia Consalco and Susanna Paasonen, Digital formations v. 8 (New York: Peter Lang, 2002). p. 28.
- Zillah R. Eisenstein, Global Obscenities: Patriarchy, Capitalism, and the Lure of Cyberfantasy, (New York: New York University Press) pp.70-1
- Richard deCordova, ‘The Mickey in Macy’s Window: Childhood, Consumerism, and Disney Animation’, in Disney Discourse: Producing the Magic Kingdom. (ed.) Eric Smoodin (New York: Routledge, 1994) p. 203.
- ibid. p. 204
- Peter Krämer, ‘”The Best Disney Film Disney Never Made”: Children’s Films and the Family Audience in American Cinema Since the 1960s’, in Genre and Contemporary Hollywood, (ed.) Steve Neale (London: British Film Institute, 2002) p.188-189.
- Second life is a popular MMOG for adults with an internal currency
- Henry A. Giroux, The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001) p. 163.
- Celia Lury, Consumer Culture, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996) p.7.
- ibid. p.8.
- ibid. p.6.
- Brian Sutton-Smith, The Ambiguity of Play (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997) pp.131-2.
- Wasko, Janet, Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy, (Cambridge: Polity, 2001) pp. 166-7
- Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays (London: New Left Books, 1971) pp. 162-4.
- Mauyra Wickstrom, ‘Commodities, Mimesis, and the Lion King: Retail Theatre for the 1990s’, in University and College Theatre Association (U. S.) and American Theatre Association, Theatre Journal (Baltimore, MD, etc: Published by the Johns Hopkins University Press for the University and College Theatre Association vol. 51.3, 1999) p.285.
- ibid. p.294
- Mark M Smith, How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006) pp.2-3.
- ibid. p. 2
- ibid. p. 5
- Sean Redmond, ‘Lucretzia Crumb’s White Docile Body’. PhD submission (2005) p. 54.
- Richard Dyer, White (London: Routledge, 1997) pp.113-115.
- Redmond, “Lucretzia Crumb’s White Docile Body”. p. 71.
- Dyer, White. p. 113-115.
- Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979) p.138.