Sociology Professor Analyzes Gender-Targeted Cartoons
Issue   |   Wed, 04/26/2017 - 00:23

Katia Perea gave a talk titled “Girl Cartoons, Bronies and the Princess Paradox” on Thursday, April 20 in the Friedmann Room, discussing the ways in which both classic and contemporary cartoons reinforce the gender binary.

A professor of sociology at Kingsborough Community College, part of the City University of New York system, Perea received her Ph.D. in sociology from the New School for Social Research. Her talk was sponsored by the Women’s and Gender Center.

Perea began by giving a brief overview of the history of animation, beginning with Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” which she said established the Disney narrative of a prince rescuing a “damsel in distress.” Perea then shifted the conversation to cartoons specifically about and for girls below the age of 12, a genre she refers to as “girl cartoons.”

According to Perea, these cartoons “created a space for little girls where they’re not the sidekick. They’re not waiting for the prince to rescue for them — it’s a show for them.”

But Perea also acknowledged the flaws within these cartoons, including the sexualization of preteen characters. Another problem, she added, was that the motivation for many of these “girl cartoons” was to market cartoon-based toys to girls.

“The drive is not because they care about little girls,” Perea said. “No, they couldn’t care less, actually. The drive is price and profits.”

Audiences have, however, found ways to subvert consumer expectations, said Perea, citing “bronies” as an example.

“Bronies” are men, generally adults, who identify as fans of the TV show “My Little Pony.” In the past, they have faced criticism from parents of young children who watch the cartoon, as well as from feminists, for sexualizing its characters. Because of their large internet presence, these fans’ liking for “My Little Pony” has attracted questions about their enjoyment of the cartoon and become the focus of countless jokes and memes.

Contrary to some audience members’ expectations, however, Perea presented ”bronies” as forward-thinking, well-intentioned individuals transcending the gender binary while disrupting capitalistic companies’ expectations.

“Popular consumption gets re-functioned without intention or irony,” she said of the “brony” movement. Perea explained that bronies changed the way My Little Pony products were meant to be consumed. They have become actively invested in a product that was not originally marketed towards them and did so not because they wanted to make fun of it, but because they enjoyed it.

“Here were these men, mostly between the ages of 15 and 33, who are becoming fans of a little girl’s show. [They] watch it because it makes [them] happy.”

Perea said that these types of counterculture movements have contributed to different modern cartoons abandoning the Disney narrative and creating more complex, powerful female characters, citing Adventure Time and Frozen as examples.

“Bronies”’ pursuit of happiness, she said, regardless of what toy and cartoon producers expect demographics to buy or enjoy, is in itself a revolutionary and anti-capitalist act.

Perea ended the talk by encouraging audience members to consider what makes them happy and think beyond creators’ intentions.

“The way for creating change is, essentially, that you’re viewing these things and you’re viewing them because they make you happy,” she said. “You’re doing because of who you are as an individual, and that’s incredibly important.”

Kathleen Isenegger ’20, who attended the talk, said Perea’s generally positive outlook on girl cartoons surprised her. “I expected [the talk] to focus a lot more on the negative aspects of girl cartoons, like their detriments to women, but it was really the opposite and focused on the ways it empowers women and gives them a space,” Isenegger said.