The Disney Channel has made its mark in the US and worldwide with its successful batch of series (e.g., Hannah Montana) and movies (e.g., High School Musical) that have been enormous hits primarily amongst girls. Ever-seeking to expand its brand, in February 2009, Disney Channels Worldwide launched Disney XD, its effort to become “the number one boy-driven, girl-inclusive multi-platform entertainment brand” (quote from Richard Loomis, SVP, Marketing & Creative, Disney Channels Worldwide, August 11, 2009, Disney/ABC Television Group Impact Summit). Much of the energy of Disney Channels Worldwide for the past two years has been focused on the launch of XD, with its core target audience of boys ages 8 to 12.
Disney XD premiered with an original half-hour drama series, Aaron Stone. This clip, from the pilot episode, displays the premise: high schooler Charlie Landers is a mediocre basketball player, a nervous wreck with girls—and a master at Hero Rising, an online video game in which his avatar, Aaron Stone, is widely regarded as unbeatable. The creator of the game wants Aaron Stone to help him fight real-world bad guys; Charlie’s mom wants him to be a “normal” kid, socializing with friends instead of playing video games alone in his bedroom. The series hits upon all of the key findings of Disney’s research on the boy market, as well as examining contemporary cultural assumptions about young masculinity and gaming.
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. 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.
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.
I find it fascinating that Disney XD's explicit aim is to be "boy-driven, girl-inclusive." So Disney's "girl-driven" brands are shows like Hannah Montana--in which a young teen is a wildly successful pop star--while its boy-driven brands are about nebbishy boys who can only achieve notoriety in the virtual world of video games? I'm not making a value judgment about gamers here, but it is an interesting contrast, particularly since Disney's products for young girls--princesses who swoon, fall in love and must be rescued by men--offer a very different experience.
Gendered & gamer appeals
It's long been a staple of programming logic for kids is that girls will watch boy shows, but boys won't watch girl shows. So the "boy-driven, girl-inclusive" model is pretty common, although you're right Amanda, that this brand of "ideal boy" seems a bit different than their girl idols.
One question that came to mind reading about this show was whether there's ever been a successful show or film about gamer culture? It seems like the industry keeps trying to hook the gamer audience, but why would heavy gamers want to watch a mediocre show about people like them instead of playing games?
high school musical vs. aaron stone
Watching the basketball scene in the clip, I could not help but be reminded of High School Musical and the big "Keep Your Head in the Game" number. What a relief that there was not a high-energy song and dance Nazi youth number. (Perhaps that sounds too harsh, but I can't be the only one who perceives HSM as the purest kind of fascist spectacle.)
Interestingly, while Charlie's brother could easily be an HSM extra, Charlie looks different than the typical Disney boy who has evolved in recent years in girl-oriented Disney shows/films/brands. To put it bluntly, he's slightly less pretty or, really, less gay, less Tiger Beat-y. Not the kind of kid to end up on the cover of Lisa Simpson's favorite magazine, Non-Threatening Boys.
The big theme of HSM--be yourself, which means being naturally great at sports and singing--seems tempered here. Charlie misses a basket and can't successfully flirt with his girl neighbor, but he doesn't seem to want to work through these "issues" in what we see here. He's quite happy NOT being himself and living through his avatar. I suppose that if he's going to have to be pulled into "real life" adventures, he will find his "true self" somehow, but there doesn't seem to be any real urgency for him to work out his problems. Frankly, though I can't say I'm pumped up to watch the show, this looks more appealing than HSM on so many levels.
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