Can Marvel-Disney Help Close the Comic Book Gender Gap?

Marvel/Disney & the Comics Gender Gap

In the wake of Disney's purchase of Marvel, there's plenty of speculation about what, if anything, Disney will want to change about the comics Marvel currently publishes. Much of the discussion focuses on whether Disney executives will crack down on freedoms at Marvel or the impact that this merger will have on upcoming Marvel movies, and there seems to be some fear that Disney will affect Marvel's focus, forcing it to change things that it already does very well.

But for a moment, let's focus on something that Disney does very well, something that comics by and large, manga excluded, doesn't do very well: market to girls.

Comics companies have tried repeatedly to market to preteen and teen girls - most recently with DC's well-intentioned, but now-canceled Minx line. Traditionally, trade paperbacks from DC's other non-superhero imprint Vertigo and title's like Joss Whedon's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" from Dark Horse sell relatively well with women. And Marvel and DC have both recently rolled out new series with female leads, more or less explicitly targeted to a female audience. Though "Marvel Divas" has met with mixed reviews from women readers, at least it showed the company's interest in expanding its readership. Could Disney provide a window into that so-far elusive audience?

Disney, with animated and live-action feature films and television programming, has pretty much cornered the market on tween girls. "Hannah Montana". "High School Musical". "Enchanted". All Disney. And of course, the never-ending stream of animated Disney Princesses, from "Snow White" to the upcoming "Princess and the Frog", continue to have pop culture resonance.

The success of the "Twilight" franchise and its spillover into the comics world via Comic-Con has taught fans and creators alike the power of an engaged — some would say obsessed — tween female fanbase. Of course, this has resulted in pushback from territorial fans who think that women have no place at Comic-Con, and endless jokes about squealing teenage girls. But in-between their squeals, teenage girls spend money, and comics' publishers hurting for readers in a recession understand that fact even if they've not done the greatest job as of yet tapping into that audience.

Anne Elizabeth Moore, editor of "The Best American Comics" series, notes, “When comics started out they were actually read by equal or greater numbers of girls than boys.” Like many comics fans, Moore grew up on the "X-Men", and she notes, “Marvel in particular has always had sort of a grander gender problem than Disney. But this isn't going to resolve it.”

Sean McKeever, writer of teen-girl-friendly comics like "Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane" and "Nomad: Girl Without a World" for Marvel, thinks Disney can help. “I think the entire industry could learn plenty about marketing new characters from Disney," he told Newsarama. "It's one of those areas in the medium where we're just so lax. We put out these new series with new creations and do little more than hype the first issue in the catalogs, show a preview online and do a few interviews. Really, to me, a big part of the reason new characters tend not to 'stick' in comics is because there's no excitement built around them.”

Jenn Pozner, media critic and director of Women In Media and News, takes an opposing view. “If we define marketing to girls well as producing a lot of money for the company, then Disney is the king of that," she says. "But if marketing to girls well means giving girls what they want and need in a way that doesn't exploit them, Disney doesn't know the first thing about girls.” 

Moore agrees, saying, “Disney has always strayed into this dangerous Conan the Barbarian zone to sell things.”

Barbara Ehrenreich, an author, columnist, and noted Amercian feminist, took on the Disney Princesses recently, writing at The

“Disney likes to think of the Princesses as role models, but what a sorry bunch of wusses they are. Typically, they spend much of their time in captivity or a coma, waking up only when a Prince comes along and kisses them. The most striking exception is Mulan, who dresses as a boy to fight in the army, but--like the other Princess of color, Pocahontas--she lacks full Princess status and does not warrant a line of tiaras and gowns. Otherwise the Princesses have no ambitions and no marketable skills, although both Snow White and Cinderella are good at housecleaning.”

Yet Hoi F. Cheu notes in Claudia A. Mitchell and Jacqueline Reid-Walsh's "Girl Culture: An Encyclopedia, Volume 1" that “Disney's tween girl culture, of course, is modified from its classic themes.” 

No longer is it just about meeting Prince Charming and being rescued. Instead, the new Cinderellas have a social conscience, and, Cheu says, “glamour and success are not everything. . . . the star must address the ordinary lives of people.”

The new Disney glam, still feminine but more active and engaged, might be a decent fit for teenage superheroines as well, and perhaps the superheroines' tendency to do the rescuing themselves could be a good influence on those princesses in return. Recent Disney stars like Mulan have more in common with superheroes than with the passivity of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.

Still, Pozner notes, there is often far more complexity in Marvel comics characters, whether they are male or female, than allowed in the Disney universe. She worries that Disney might wind up dumbing down those characters, and points out that even through the recent changes in its characters' roles in life, Disney presents a limited range of possibilities for female characters, both physically and mentally. “They're not kid inventors, they're not skateboard queens,” she points out.

McKeever has some ideas about girl-oriented fare that he thinks would fit well with Disney and still maintain the integrity of Marvel characters.

“What I'd really love to see is something like 'Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane', but where the protagonist is the superhero, and she has to deal with her life, her family, grades, money, friends, boys. . . and her secret life as well," says the writer. "I think Firestar would make a great character for that sort of series. Or, to once again nudge my upcoming book in everyone's face, 'Nomad'. Her quest for finding a place in a world she doesn't feel is her own is a universal coming-of-age experience.”

Though films like "Enchanted" and franchises like "Hannah Montana" rely on the star power of a live actress, the long-standing appeal of the best-known Disney characters is much like the long-standing appeal of comics characters. They have an image that is recognizable despite changes in artist, writer, and certainly the actors that have portrayed the characters on film. Disney is as much a merchandise marketing company as it is a producer of entertainment, and it has licensed several of its tween-girl properties for comics—Tokyopop created "Lizzie McGuire" comics, and Papercutz is creating "Disney Fairies" graphic novels.

Moore notes that with the purchase of Marvel, Disney has closed in on even more of the teen market, and since Marvel's audience skews a bit older, they have a new inroad with that demographic. In addition, the marketing of Marvel-related products, whether in Disney's stores or elsewhere, will be easy. “Nobody's going to balk at Spider-Man being on a lunchbox.”

Dawn C. Chmielewski of the Los Angeles Times profiled The Disney Channel's Rich Ross in June, focusing on Ross's success on reaching the tween market. "They existed. They weren't programmed to," she quotes Ross saying of his biggest audience. She also notes that his latest ventures have been aimed at expanding that ferociously loyal fanbase by targeting boys. With a Marvel merger, will more Marvel-themed shows be on the way?

McKeever would love to see more Marvel characters make it to the small screen. “Disney obviously has that outlet in terms of television and movies,” he says. “But as we're finding out through success stories like "Iron Man" and "Smallville", the interest generally doesn't seem to filter down to the comic books.” 

Still, the tween years are often when a person's entertainment preferences are shaped — many comic fans can trace their buying habits back to those years. If comics companies could get preteen girls hooked on comics, they could form a new fanbase that is just as loyal as the old one. The question is, can Disney help Marvel reach out to tween and teen girls, or is purchasing Marvel merely their effort to buy the audience that they've had trouble building for themselves?

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