Disney XD: A Case Study on Packaging Boyhood

aaron stoneNov. 3, 2009 In diving into media messages targeting boys for my weekly Tuesday Packaging Boyhood posts, my mind snap went to ‘gaming’ pronto.

Is this a stereotype? Or did I just do a Malcolm Gladwell style “Blink” in rapid cognition? I flipped to the Packaging Boyhood chapter on “What Boys Do” since we know marketers are tapping a boy’s desire to be ‘powerful’ and admired by others for their image as same, which plays right into gaming. Sure enough, along with tackling topics like sports, speed,  winning, guys-n-guns, beer-n-babes, heroes, “tough guise” and porn, they shared:

“Boys told us they love games where they can perform like rock stars, jump or kick like sports stars, fight like warriors, or kill enemies with some of the most impressive weapons of modern combat. By playing video games, a boy can become a hero; he can turn the tide of battle or make the right decision to change the world,” wrote  authors Lyn Mikel Brown, Mark Tappan and Sharon Lamb.

Yep. Sounds pretty dang motivating. Who wouldn’t want to have control of their own destiny? Sure beats dressing up to please and serve with all the pink think video game gender cues…

So how do we instill healthy media literacy in boys so they don’t get drunk on their own power, shifting into the ‘blood, guts and glory’ domination cues of some of the more toxic gaming behaviors and GTA violent vices?

Here are 5 tips from the authors, and a ‘case study’ from yours truly, pointing to the Aaron Stone/Disney XD strategic marketing of masculinity across multi-channel platforms…

aaron2Note the nice kid, sweet guy persona and bulging ‘buffed boy’ muscles of the sports ‘failure’ who is now a ‘target’ to resurrect himself as a hero online and offline…

Ahem, marketers are mining those same exact insecurities playing on the same motivations, so Disney’s being pretty upfront in their lack of subtlety here…After all, they’ve focused heavily on the launch of XD for boys 8-12 for the last couple of years in their worldwide channels.

As Media Commons sums nicely in this article,  In Search of Boys:

“Charlie/Aaron’s life is all about a video game, he borrows a skateboard to make a slick getaway in the pilot episode, and tries really hard to do well as a brother and son, as a basketball player, and as a gamer/crime-fighter, where he succeeds most spectacularly…

…Aaron Stone is a skilled and powerful fantasy figure, but Charlie Landers is flawed and relatable.

The fact that they are one and the same allows the series’ title character to be all things to the young male audience XD hopes to attract.”

In short?

Think Hannah Montana geared to guys…

After you watch the clip, be sure to catch the comment section echoing Disney’s strategic “boy-driven, girl-inclusive” objectives, as the writer adeptly captures the allure of XD complete with offline to online bridge of adolescent angst channeled into ‘relief’ by entering the gaming fantasy land for heroism and self-worth.

No coincidence here:

“Amongst Disney’s findings about boys, as explained in press accounts and in presentations at the company’s summer 2009 faculty/industry summit, are that “video games are their lives,” that skater brands and logos are cool, and that accomplishment—not just winning but hitting the ball for the first time—is a primary value…”

…“While these features seem carefully calculated to match Disney’s marketing goals, the series speaks nevertheless in provocative ways about gaming and young masculinity, making clear gaming’s precarious status as a culturally acceptable obsession.”

…”Disney’s embrace of gaming as an important—even admirable—avocation may fit the company’s mercenary aims, but it may also be validating the passions of many boys in a way that endorses their interests without making those interests more significant than their responsibilities and commitments to family and community.”

tinkerbell UNWell said. I’ll leave the full gaming and gender analysis to research gurus like S.Y. correspondent Sara M. Grimes over at ACT Games Lab and Gamine Expedition, as she’s written entire published papers and journal offerings on these topics…Including a great blog post this week on “Fairies to Fairy Godmothers” about transmedia expansion and interconnectivity of these various gender messages. And no, Sara, I did NOT know the United Nations cast Tinkerbell in an honorary ambassadorship for ‘green’

Since when does the UN stump for Disney? wow!

Put that one on the product placement map for the ol’ ad creep globalization watchlist, eh?)

mousetrap matrixAnyway, for now, I just wanted to give you a snippet of how ‘packaging boyhood’ is being ‘sold’ to sons from the XD mouse house and remind BOTH genders that this is a media machine that knows how to ‘set’ a mousetrap with just the right kind of cheese.

(Hilarious post/media visual about dodging ensnarement on Amanda Newton’s blog, hopefully ‘no harm came to the animals’ in PhotoShop etc.)

Anyway, kids…

Watch the bait. Don’t be trapped in narrowcast roles…

Be aware, media literate, vocal, and conversant.

And adults? Open communication channels rather than close off to what play ‘means’ online and offline with divergent interpretations of what’s ‘fun’ to YOU. Discuss rather than dismiss game play of all kinds, especially those prompting forms of ‘alarmist’ bell-ringing…

Even the most relentless ‘World of Warcraft’ player may be ‘in it’ for a different motivation than you’d surmise. (See research scientist/WoW gaming guru Nick Yee’s papers showing the average age ‘in-world’ is 26, and his Daedalus project studying MMORPG team behaviors/group dynamics etc.)

Gonna hush now…Here are the pros from Packaging Boyhood for our weekly Tuesday tête a tête. Reminder: These authors are also savvy Shaping Youth Advisory Board members and authors of Packaging Girlhood.com So leave a comment at the end of today’s post about gaming and be entered in our Tuesday PB book giveaways (3 copies awarded by year’s end!)

packaging boyhoodFive Tips for Raising Media Savvy Sons

by Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D., Sharon Lamb, Ed.D., and Mark Tappan, Ed.D.

Your son’s world is changing every second, but the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In Packaging Boyhood: Saving Our Sons from Superheroes, Slackers, and Other Media Stereotypes (St. Martin’s: 2009) we explore the kinds of narrow stereotypes and limiting messages that your son faces every day in his world.

Below we offer five tips for talking with your son about media and marketers’ attempts to influence him.

Are there paths through the forest of tough, buff, angry thugs or wild, hard-partying, cocky players?  There sure are.  And whether you’re a mom or a dad, you can raise a son who can make his own way through the prefabricated, prepackaged, homogenized world that marketers are trying to sell.

1.  Do you own work. This is a lot harder than it might sound, which is why we put it first.  Doing your own work means becoming familiar with what’s out there.  Watch what your son watches; listen to his music; read his books and magazines, so that you know what messages his world sends him.  Doing your own work also means being aware of your emotional response to the things you see.  It’s important that you take the time to name and understand what makes you so uncomfortable, so that you can process and take care of your own feelings before trying to understand his.

2.  Listen to what your son likes and why he likes it. Ask him about his world.  Don’t assume, for example, that you know why he loves playing Halo.  You might be surprised by his answers.  He may like the freedom of getting out his aggression in a violent shoot-em-up game, or he may be really enthralled with the game’s intricate storyline and characters.  Only when you understand where your son’s really coming from can you talk about his desires and your concerns.

3.  Bring him the world on your terms, from your broader view. Reflect on what he says.  Share your discomfort.  Help him notice the bigger picture, for example, how acting like a slacker dude may be cool but can also have a negative impact on his success in school and thus his future hopes and dreams.  Wonder aloud about more general patterns you see, like how the over the top action in every form of media might make boys think that they have to be wild and crazy all of the time.

4.  Start young. You can help your four or five year old develop a vocabulary and a way of talking that will set the stage for conversations for years to come.  What better way to introduce the word “stereotype” to your son than by walking through the girls’ and boys’ departments of any clothing store, or the “blue” and “pink” aisles of any toy store?  If you question, he’ll question.  Model a way of seeing and talking about the different choices presented to your children.  Ask him to imagine stories other than superheroes who need to seek revenge or prove their super strength or guys that need to fight to teach someone somewhere a lesson.  Help your son notice when his world is becoming smaller and more limited, so he can step back and say, “That’s silly. That’s a stereotype.  Real boys (and girls) aren’t always like that.”

5.  Open up possibilities and create options.  Our job as parents is to encourage our sons to be all they can be and to introduce them to a world of possibilities.  Increase the time you spend trying new activities that challenge your son’s imagination.  Seek mind-opening books, TV shows, and music that aren’t marketed just to “boys” but to all kids.  Defy stereotypes.  Resist explosions.  Offer boys the possibility of action without violence, humor without put-downs, cool without slacking off.   And also, of course, offer him the full rainbow of colors!

About the book: Packaging Boyhood is for parents who want to help their sons feel empowered without buying into the current testosterone-saturated media that encourages tough guy aggression, a top-dog persona, or a way to avoid humiliation through “cool guy” indifference and slackerdom. Straight from the mouths of over 600 boys surveyed from across the U.S., Lyn Brown, Sharon Lamb, and Mark Tappan offer parents a long, hard look at what boys are watching, reading, hearing, and doing.  They give parents advice on how to talk with their sons about these troubling images and provide them with tools to help their sons resist these messages and be their unique selves.

Don’t forget to comment & be entered to win the book!



  1. To get a feel for more of what’s in the “What Do Boys Do?” chapter involving gaming and such, check out their pithy prose, then tell me the main focus of some of the ‘boy topics’ you want to hear more about in our Tuesday posts focusing on marketing to boys…

    I definitely plan on hitting the tough one (porn) so know that’s a given before year’s end…but prioritization please on topics? What say you, readers?

    “Chapter 5: Wanna Play? What Boys Do

    Put the Pedal to the Metal: Greeting Cards for Little Boys
    Planes, Trains, Automobiles…and Guns: Boys’ Toys
    Super Strong, Super Cool: Action Figures
    Extreme Performance! Even on Training Wheels
    “Gro to Pro”: Sports Stuff
    Getting His Game On
    The Fastest Man Wins: NASCAR
    Full Throttle Drinking
    Big Guys, Big Guns
    The Need for Speed
    Boys Will Be Players: Sex Acts and Media
    Pornification of Boyhood
    Blood, Guts, and Glory: Just Another Day at the Screen
    Your Place or MySpace
    To Do Is To Be

    From Planes, Trains, Automobiles…and Guns: Boys’ Toys

    . . . What happens, though, when a whole generation of boys have fantasies of violence imposed on them? When they’re told that this is what boys love to do, what boys need to work on? When they’re given detailed story lines based on PG-13 movies? No, guns per se aren’t the problem. It’s that other kinds of toys are excluded, guns have become a part of all kinds of toys, and the philosophy of excessive violence is inherent to these toys.

    For example, what the heck happened to NERF? Wasn’t NERF supposed to be the soft alternative to toy guns? Last we checked, you could pop orange foam balls in the air and catch them in rugby-like rackets. Nope. Not anymore. Couldn’t find those. NERF is, however, ominously still present in toy stores throughout the US. There is the NERF N-Strike Tech Target, the N-Strike Rapid Fire AS-20 (machine gun type blaster), a gun called the Buzzsaw, another called the Hornet AS-6. There is the Attack Unit, the Recon CS-6, Firefly REV-8, and an election favorite, we guess, the Maverick. These were gun like contraptions with soft orange bullet like projectiles that emerge in groups, somewhat akin, we conjecture, to semi-automatics. Not “dangerous”, per se… but lethal.

  2. I don’t have Packaging Boyhood, but I definitely need to read it. Per your request, I looked for media literacy material for Boy Scouts (as I’d found programs for Girl Scouts.) But, I found zilch. I’m very happy to see that there is information available now as my son, at 10 years old, is a media target.
    .-= Sandra Foyt´s last blog ..Flaming Arrows On The Wild Side =-.

  3. Human behaviour in any shape or form is always complicated. Most marketers don’t have a clue why people do certain things – they usually come up with retrospective theories that sound plausible. I would treat all of this with several pinches of salt!

  4. The “modern” boys are geared towards being packaged or stereotyped this way. Indeed marketers are going to be more profitable, because these boys are liking it.

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