*co-authored with Laura Coffey-Glover, Nottingham Trent University*
In a bid to keep children entertained this summer, Sainsbury’s collaborated with Disney to launch a new series of ‘Disney Heroes’ collectible cards. The cards were based on the theme of ‘unlocking the hero in you’. As such, they had an aspirational remit, designed to draw out the positive qualities in various Disney characters and encourage children to embody these attributes. This instructional and inspirational element was apparent in the cards’ six ‘challenge’ categories, expressed in an imperative form that encouraged children to act the cards’ messages: Eat Well, Do Good, Get Active, Express Yourself, Be Smart and Team Up.
Laura and I have a long-standing interest in popular supermarket promotions that target children. Our study of the 2017 Sainsbury’s/LEGO ‘create the world’ collectable cards (in press, with McGlashan and Payne) revealed consistent and worrying reproductions of gender norms and stereotypes. Focusing primarily on the visual depictions of LEGO minifigures in the set, we found that there were twice as many male minifigures, and all of the female figures had their gender marked visually and/or linguistically. Female minifigures were represented as being younger and slimmer, and engaging in frivolous activities; male minifigures were depicted as physically stronger, larger and older, and engaged in dangerous and adventurous activities.
Since the release of the 2017 LEGO cards, public attention to, and concern with, gender stereotypes has been steadily growing. The campaign group Let Toys be Toys have continued to influence the production and sale of children’s toys and products, with fifteen retailers now promising to make changes that break down barriers between ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ toys. In June 2019, the committees of advertising practice released a new set of standards on gender stereotypes in advertising, after a review by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) found that harmful stereotypes were restricting people’s choices and aspirations.
When the Disney promotion began, we were intrigued to discover whether Sainsbury’s had taken note. After all, children are particularly vulnerable to harmful gender stereotypes, and this set of cards quite explicitly sets out to inspire young minds. Yet gender equality is bound to be a challenge when collaborating with Disney, whose traditional films are particularly well known for reproducing and perpetuating traditional gender roles.
Unfortunately, the 2019 Disney Heroes cards, like the 2017 LEGO cards, fell short at the first hurdle: representation. Of all the cards featuring a single character, we found that 60% were male, whereas only 36% were female (the rest were gender-neutral). There are therefore fewer female role models in the collection, sending out a message from the outset that women and girls are less heroic; less worthy of inspiration and respect. Further, we found that there were more male heroes in the Get Active cards, and more female heroes in the Express Yourself cards. This echoes well-worn stereotypes around men being more active, and women more expressive and emotional.
We also found that the cards were more likely to depict male characters as engaging in actions that have a direct impact on the world: for example, Spider-Man ‘fights crime’ and Falcon ‘outmaneuvres his enemies’, but Spider-Girl ‘uses her flexibility to swing through the streets of the city’ and Violet ‘can become invisible at will’. The difference is subtle, but consistently showing male characters having effects on the world (on ‘crime’ or ‘enemies’, for example), whilst female characters influence no-one but themselves, sends an insidious message that women are less likely to do things that matter in the world. In addition, we found that female characters are more likely to be positioned on the receiving end of actions, making them seem more passive. For example, Cinderella ‘receives a ballgown’ and ‘Captain Phasma ‘got dumped in a contractor’. We also found that the female characters’ appearance was more likely to be evaluated, for example Aayla Secura, who ‘looks striking with her bright blue skin’.
As well as analysing the whole set of cards, we also looked at cards with a male/female counterpart, such as Hulk and She-Hulk, Spider Man/Miles Morales and Spider Girl/Ghost-Spider, Mickey and Minnie Mouse – as well as gendered pairs who were otherwise closely related, such as Mr Incredible and Elastigirl (the husband and wife team from Disney’s ‘The Incredibles’) and Violet and Dash (their daughter and son). We again found that there were subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) differences in the way these counterparts were represented, showing that even when there is ‘equal’ representation of male and female role-models, in fact they send out quite different messages about what kinds of heroes women and men, or girls and boys, can be.
The trope that male characters have more effect on the world around them is also apparent in comparisons of Spider Man and Spider Girl, as well as Dash and Violet. We also found that the gendered pairs were evaluated in different ways. Mr. Incredible, Hulk and Dash are all valued for their strength and physical activity: they have, respectively, ‘energy and enthusiasm’, ‘strength and speed’, and Dash ‘can run as fast as a lightning bolt’. Further, these evaluations are emphasised with superlatives that imply their skills are extraordinary or boundless. So Mr. Incredible has ‘endless’ energy and enthusiasm (his name is superlative in itself), Hulk has ‘unlimited’ strength and speed, and Dash’s speed is compared with the impossibly fast ‘lighting bolt’. Elastigirl, She-Hulk and Violet, on the other hand, are valued for their skills in ‘balancing’, being ‘fun-loving and kind’ and ability to ‘become invisible’, respectively. There are no superlative modifiers attached to these skills.
The difference between Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl is painfully stereotypical. Elastigirl’s ability to ‘balance family time with fighting villains’ ties in with stereotypes about women being good at multi-tasking, especially their ability to effortlessly juggle work and caring roles. There is no reference to Mr. Incredible’s family or parental role. Hulk and She-Hulk rely on stereotypes too; although She-Hulk is described as ‘tough’, the attribute of toughness is qualified with the modal ‘might be’, and emphasis is placed on the qualities of being ‘fun-loving and kind’ as more salient. Whilst Hulk is unquestionably valued for his strength and outgoing nature, She-Hulk is valued for her stereotypically feminine frivolity and gentle nature: her kindness towards others.
What’s the problem?
Our close linguistic analysis of the ‘Disney Heroes’ cards has shown that, like the 2017 LEGO collection, this is one of many places where children soak up the message that girls and boys do not have equal opportunities and roles in the world. More specifically, they are learning that boys and men are more worthy of attention, have more remarkable qualities, and are able to have a more direct impact on the world around them. We were disappointed to find that these cards remained reliant on restrictive gender stereotypes, especially in light of growing awareness about how damaging such stereotypes can be. The ASA has made promising strides by limiting gender stereotypes in advertising, but we now call for similar regulations and standards in manufacturing, especially in relation to products targeting children, who are arguably the most impressionable and vulnerable members of our society.