Common Classroom: The Common Sense Education Blog

A "Skinny Minnie" Makeover

Kelsey Herron Blogger Categories: Digital Literacy
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Screenshot/ Change.org

One of the Disney Corporation’s most beloved characters has gotten a makeover, a big one. To be more specific, Minnie Mouse has traded her average, and, well, mouse-ish appearance for a 5’ 11”, size 0, more “fashionable” look, at least according to British Vogue writer Sarah Karmali. The makeover was, indeed, about fashion, stemming from a new collaboration between Disney and Barney’s New York for its 2012 Christmas campaign, “Electric Holiday.”

Similar to last year’s high-glam incarnation of Miss Piggy in InStyle Magazine, a handful of Disney’s most popular characters are to be dressed by well-known fashion designers and displayed in Barney’s windows next to an accompanying short film. However, the designers and animators felt that today’s trends and Minnie Mouse’s traditional shape were incompatible.

“When we got to the moment when all Disney characters walk on the runway, there was a discussion,” said Barney’s creative director Dennis Freedman to Women’s Wear Daily’s Marc Karimzadeh. “The standard Minnie Mouse will not look so good in a Lanvin dress.”

So, what kind of person does look good in a Lanvin dress? And what message does this send to Minnie’s littlest fans? Los Angeles body image consultant Ragen Chastain sought answers to these questions, and created a petition on change.org to encourage Barney’s to rethink the character’s new image.

Chastain prefaced her petition:

There is nothing wrong with tall thin women. There is something wrong with changing a beloved children’s character’s body so that it looks good in a dress that almost nobody looks good in - adding to the tremendous pressure on young girls and women to attain Photoshop perfection. The problem isn’t with Minnie’s body; it’s with a dress that only looks good on a woman who is 5’11 and a size 0.

That little girl who is going to become a 5’4, size 12 woman can’t just become a 5’11, size 0 woman when she wants to fit into a dress that was designed by someone who couldn't be bothered to make a dress that looks good on someone who is not a model.

Chastain makes an important point. Not only does Minnie’s makeover reinforce negative body image stereotypes for young women, but it promotes the idea that extreme body modification is necessary to be applauded by the rest of society. And Minnie’s new look is undoubtedly an extreme change.

“What our kids see in advertisements and the media powerfully informs their sense of what’s acceptable and normal,” our senior editor, Sierra Filucci, told the Chicago Tribune. “We also can’t forget the effect that this kind of marketing has on boys too. If girls look at this new, skinny, glammed-up Minnie and believe that’s how they’re supposed to look, then boys are seeing exactly the same thing: that disproportioned, heavily made-up women are the norm, and what boys are supposed to interpret as sexy.”

In addition to Chastain’s petition, now with more than 138,000 signatures, online forums and news sites have added to the uproar over the makeover. Writing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, George Mathis compared Minnie’s new physique to that of a “fence post,” and another online commenter, Cathy Mutis, wrote, “Children's characters should be lovably approachable, not a reflection of some cold, unattainable image of the adult fashion world.”

While the new Minnie is quite shocking, her appearance was created solely for Barney’s Christmas campaign and will not be permanent. However, Disney did recently modernize the images of their princesses, making subtle changes like giving Cinderella a more youthful face, and slightly altering the dress and hairstyles of Mulan, Ariel, and the others.

Even Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer received a new "grown-up" look back in 2009, which caused a fair amount of online backlash among experts and parents, including author Peggy Orenstein.

The author, who published “Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girly-Girl Culture” last year, tackled the Disney princessification of Dora in a recent blog post.

As Orenstein puts it, companies like Disney groom little girls for “premature sexualization,” while claiming the opposite, and exploit their fantasies in order to “turn imagination into something to be scripted and sold.”

While these marketing pressures are surely not new (the ultimate unattainable ideal, Barbie, after all, has been around since 1959), today’s children face a veritable onslaught of marketing from many different channels, including online. Now, more than ever, it’s important for children to have grounding in media literacy so they can recognize the gendered marketing messages in heroines like Dora and Minnie.

To help students unpack these messages, we developed a new Gender and Digital Life Toolkit, where we tackle the same issues showing up in  the “skinny Minnie” fiasco. Our lesson “Picture Perfect,” designed for children in grades 3-5, teaches children about altered images and how they affect self-perception. Another lesson, “Selling Stereotypes,” created for the same age group, teaches youth how to expose media-perpetuated stereotypes using two gendered LEGO activity zones.

There are also customizable lessons for middle and high school students that delve deeper into the reasons behind these stereotypes, and the roles they can have in digital drama. One lesson in particular breaks down “gender codes” that often shape online identities and relationships, while another takes a critical approach to reality TV to expose gender-based generalizations.

Interestingly enough, Minnie’s makeover caused such a hubbub that Barney’s released a statement on Wednesday assuring critics that the video-clip portion of the display will feature Minnie in her classic form – with the exception of a short dreamlike runway sequence. During this part of the video, she and her pals imagine that they are a part of a fictitious fashion show, which features their new couture appearances. Despite this update, the company’s initial decision to make Minnie over still reflects the idea that thinness equates to beauty, and that both are necessary to gain cultural acceptance– something we at Common Sense Media are trying to deconstruct.

Screenshot/ Change.org

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