Human beings are notoriously messy. They fall in love, embarrass themselves in public, and fall prey to the forces of gravity, time, and nature. Sometimes they take their clothes off for the camera. Sometimes rumors get started of unplanned, out-of-wedlock pregnancies. For the moment let’s leave aside the question of whether these things are good, but let’s please acknowledge that they do happen. Who among us has not done something embarrassing at an unguarded moment?
On the other hand, the public reputations of cartoon characters are much easier to manage. Minnie Mouse never gets caught in the arms of another rodent. Donald Duck has never been arrested for decking the paparazzi. And sure, Tigger’s taken a swipe at a fourteen-year-old or two, but everyone knows it’s really just in fun.
Sound like I’m talking about the recent scandals (and lack thereof) surrounding Vanessa Hudgens and Miley Ray Cyrus? Well sure, but let’s think a little deeper here, get some historical perspective. This is the lesson of the Hollywood Star System of the 1940s: Unlike cartoon characters, people are unpredictable and fall prey to the temptations of human life. You can’t build a family-friendly corporate identity around them without a tremendous amount of risk management.
Let’s review the Hollywood Star System, courtesy of Wikipedia:
The star system was the method of creating and promoting film stars in Classical Hollywood cinema. Studios would select promising young actors and create personas for them, often inventing new names and even new backgrounds. Examples of stars who went through the star system include Cary Grant [. . .], Joan Crawford [. . .], and Rock Hudson [. . .].
The star system put an emphasis on image rather than on acting, although discreet acting, voice, and dancing lessons were a common part of the regimen. Women were expected never to leave the house without makeup and stylish clothes. Men were expected to be seen in public as gentlemen. Morality clauses [. . .] were a common part of actors' studio contracts.
Just as studio executives, public relations staffs, and agents worked together with the actor to create a star persona, so they would work together to cover up incidents or lifestyles that would damage the star's public image. It was common, for example, to arrange sham dates between single stars and starlets to generate publicity, especially if one of them was homosexual (as in the case of Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, and others). Tabloids and gossip columnists would be tipped off, and photographers would appear to capture the romantic moment.
Now, I would guess that Disney’s not going so far as to require that Vanessa Hudgens not leave the house “without makeup and stylish clothes.” But surely you can see the parallels here: The Star System, like Disney’s current practice of building up a tween brand based on stylish, attractive young people, relied on the wholesome-yet-sexy images of those individuals who represented the brands. But because these people are in fact human beings, they are vulnerable to human failings and human nature, whether the scandalous actions turn out to be real (in the case of Hudgens’ nude photos), or manufactured (in the case of Miley Ray Cyrus’ alleged pregnancy).
Cartoon characters’ images simply can’t be tarnished as effectively, even when used in far more scandalous and unauthorized ways. Remember the sex scandal at Disneyland Paris, where a video of fur characters engaging in rowdy sexual play backstage was circulated on the interweb? Remember the 1967 Paul Krasner satire comic, showing Disney characters performing unspeakable acts? While either of these might jar the psyche for a moment (or titillate, depending on your emotional bent), neither permanently mars the characters’ images the way one nude photo of a real human being changes the way you see her. Disney has managed these characters’ images so effectively that we know that wasn’t the real Minnie Mouse – she would never do such a thing! But when the scandal is attached to a real flesh-and-blood person, we wonder if it might be true . . . after all, people are only human.
I’m not the first to note this parallel; the Boston Phoenix beat me to it by more than a month, and surely there must have always been voices within Disney noting the cost/benefit ratio of building a tween brand on the images of real human beings, especially given the later lives of some 1980s’ Mouseketeers (wardrobe malfunction, anyone?).
I’m encouraged to see that Disney’s standing behind Hudgens’ so far, perhaps in recognition that people make mistakes. She’s certainly not the first person whose nude photos have ended up online without their permission. Will Disney remember the lessons of the Hollywood Star System by continuing to accept their human stars as truly being human?