“Tinker Bell” and Our Sexualized Culture

Cultural hegemony refers to the domination that emerges in societies with a diversity of cultures. The dominant culture, or ruling class, has the power to influence the culture of that society, including it’s values, morals, and norms, to create an image for the society on an international stage.  The ruling class essentially decides the dominant ideology of the society to justify their actions within the social, economic, and political structures that they have designed.  Accepting these structures makes it beneficial for everyone because power and order is agreed on, rather than certain social constructs that only benefit the ruling class.  That being said, cultural hegemony is engrained in societies all around the world. Cultural hegemony is displayed and exercised on many different levels, ranging from political structures to mass media.  However, this hegemonic approach to structuring society has its implications. While it is appealing in terms of creating a unified cultural identity, cultural hegemony is a key factor in the emergence of tension, within cultures and between them on a global scale.

Before analyzing its negatives, it is important to understand the positive impact of cultural hegemony.  Cultural hegemony demonstrates the importance of understanding privilege and the responsibilities that are required to take on in this dominant role.  It teaches the ruling class to consider it’s positionality.  Positionality refers to soft reflexive knowledge that individuals must exercise to understand the power they hold in a hierarchical society in order to keep it unified, enabling levels on the hierarchical latter to overlap in everyday courses of action.  It is a process whereby individuals learn to be self aware about their own assumptions when interacting with other cultures – by watching yourself you are better at watching others.  It allows people to become aware of their position within power relations and social hierarchies. Acknowledging certain privileges that are especially important to reflect on include gender and race.  Positionality becomes very important when cultures are interacting on an international level.

In most societies, the idea of cultural hegemony and gender, for instance, refers to a patriarchal system, where males dominate and hold power.   Tension emerges within these societies for two reasons: women battle for agency and men do not acknowledge their positionality.  This dynamic then leaks into larger-scale relationships across the globe.  Tension and hate almost become universal identities for many cultures because much of our identity is based on how others perceive us.  Each society is of course extremely complex with many intersecting layers of social life, but for some reason cultures tend to identity other cultures by their misfortune, and in this case, certain cultures are known for their oppression of woman.  That being said, man and woman both must understand their positionality in relation to each other.  If the relationship is unhealthy where both genders fail to acknowledge their positionality, this behaviour becomes the culture’s hegemonic response to the kinds of relationships they will have with other ones across the globe.  Cultures are very unique, in terms of how gender and race is perceived, and therefore positionality helps to acknowledge these differences without sacrificing other’s cultural identity as well as your own.  It is the accepting nature of positionality that has the ability to steer cultures away from tension by avoiding the potential for cultural hegemony to encourage nations to exert their power over.  The same goes for race.  Race plays a big role in creating an image for the culture because certain societies tend to form their cultural beliefs in line with their religious commitment and practices.  A culture defined by race has had historical consequences, where one culture limits another’s multi-layered identity by categorizing it by race and using power to justify hatred toward that race.  To make matters worse, the mass media then comes into play using stereotypes that reinforce hatred and justify hate crime towards cultures grouped by race.  In the media, gender and race are subjected in ways that encourage the negative effects of cultural hegemony.  An excellent example of gender intersecting with cultural hegemony is displayed in Disney, specifically as seen in the latest movie, “Tinker Bell”, directed by Bradley Ramond.

In the film, the main character Tinker Bell, is extremely sexualized.  She starts off clothed in a robe that covers most of body, presenting herself in a decent way.  As the story goes on and Tinker Bell is undergoing character development, her robe is cut into a skimpy dress.  She is a skinny, blonde fairy, with unnatural curvy hips and visible cleavage, and only then do the male characters in the movie notice her and attracted to her.  The term sexual orientation refers to being romantically or sexually attracted to people of a specific gender.  Our sexual orientation and our gender identity are separate, distinct parts of our overall identity, and Tinker Bell quickly becomes known for her sexual appeal from a male perspective. This dynamic between gender roles causes serious problems.  Gender roles are a set of rules, activities, expectations and behaviors assigned to females and males by society.  Our culture recognizes two basic gender roles: masculine (having the qualities attributed to males) and feminine (having the qualities attributed to females).   Our identities become apparent when our actions as they reflect either masculine or feminine features.  That being said, gender expression then refers to the ways in which people externally communicate their gender identity to others through behavior, clothing, haircut, voice, and other forms of presentation.  Gender expression also works the other way as people assign gender to others based on their appearance, mannerisms, and other gendered characteristics.  From analyzing Tinker Bell’s character transformation, the movie is demonstrating that in order to fit into society individuals must conform to standards.  Tinker Bell was an outcast however once she over-sexualized herself and conformed to the standards of a “female”, the male characters identified her as “sexy” and only then was she able to integrate successfully into this new culture.  What does this say about gender roles?  What does this say about young children developing a sense of who they are within society as a whole?  Does identity become a matter of conformity?

The movie and many other Disney movies demonstrate how gender is socialized.  Judith Butler explains that gender is what we do.  In the movie, there is a diversity of male characteristics, but the females, especially the main characters, are given one or two characteristics, usually in body shape and sexual appeal.    The cultural hegemony is expressed in this movie in terms of how societies view woman, and that what makes a “woman” is about appearance.  Males in the movie are defined by the culture they are in by their work and positions of power.   Tinker Bell has entered the new culture and in order to fit within the conventions and the societies hegemonic ideals, Tinker Bell becomes sexualized.  As Butler explained, there is a panic, fear, and sense of anxiety around gender norms.  What would have happened if Tinker Bell did not, as the culture would have described it, “fulfill her potential” as a female member of the society?  The socialized and sexualized gendering of females becomes an issue when individuals choose to resist the cultural norms and choose to identify themselves beyond the constructed and designated role that they believe does not identify them correctly.  Tension emerges when cultures deal with resistance poorly.  When the subsequent behaviour of dealing with this tension and resistance, such as oppression of woman and racism, emerges it then factors into the social structure and cultural hegemony as a way to justify exerting power over certain groupings in order for the ruling-class to remain on top.  Resistance is seen as a threat to the system and therefore stereotypes are used in the media, for example Disney, to reinforce hierarchy and other longstanding social structures like patriarchy and colonialism, for example.

It is clear how gender and media intersect in this movie.  The media is so powerful because it promotes gender socialization by showing its audience what is normal in a certain culture.  Disney is designed to appeal to a young audience and the movie “Tinker Bell” has demonstrated how society can attempt at masking stereotypes and cultural hegemony by “sugar coating” it using fairies and cartoons.  Media is a universal phenomenon that has mastered its reliance on certain images to convey a message.  Without the media, can we imagine a world without hatred and oppression?  If you think about it, how else would stories of colonialism, patriarchy, and other forms of socialized structures be passed on through generations?  The media is an extension of the past, and although cultures today are working towards a more ethical cultural hegemonic identity, as long as the media leaks itself into our lives, images of the past with forever linger in the midst of all the progress.

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3 Comments

  1. Your article was very eye opening I did not realize how societies idea of gender roles were presented in the movie of tinker bell. It is very upsetting because many little girls including my little cousins listen and watch tinker bell and idealize her even to the point of wanting to be her for halloween. It is upsetting that such ideals are set as role models for children at such a young age. Little girls grow up with the idea that they want to be the princess or fairy in the disney movies and until frozen was created it was very upsetting because the only thing all the female characters were used for was to attract the men. I am glad you addressed this issue and showed the problems with movies like tinker bell.

  2. Great article, I agree with you a lot. During lecture, when we looked at Tinker Bell, I was very surprised of how many little details of cultural hegemony was included in the movie. I am a little concerned about what our future generation will grow to be, being exposed to varieties of socially constructed standards, gender identities and roles. Also, it was depressing to see that even myself was blind to the little details of this movie. I like your expression of “sugar coating”, i definitely think that is what our media is doing, and it is just depressing.. I think media should be a little bit more careful of the subjects that they are presenting to young audiences, since our generation is growing to be a very technological, media based generation.

  3. Did you know that many scholars spend their entire careers analyzing Disney movies, looking at religious symbolism, sexualization of cartoon characters, etc? It seems that Tinkerbell is no different. I found it interesting how you tied in Judith Butler’s ideas of performativity. Although all these themes that you mentioned are very present in this film and many others, do you think that the general population notices them? And furthermore, does it really influence children to act as these characters do? Clearly media influences young women through the depiction of the “ideal woman”, the representation of women in movies and magazines, advertising, etc. but these images are of real women. I’m not sure whether cartoon characters have the same influence on young children, especially young girls, as they can’t exactly identify with a character who is not played by a real person. Great analysis of this film!

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