A few months ago, I saw a trailer for a charming-looking animation called Ballerina. It seemed to be about a young French girl called Felicie who dreamed of being a dancer and went through all the trials and tribulations you’d expect an aspiring young member of that profession to go through. I decided I wanted to see the film, either at the cinema or on DVD and went about the rest of my day.
A little while after that, I saw a poster for a film that looked almost exactly the same as Ballerina but had a different title. This one was called Leap! and the focus no longer seemed to be on Felicie, but the male lead, who, despite his small cameo in the trailer I saw, was front and centre on this poster, sweeping across frame with a pair of wooden wings on his back and the young girl in his arms. This is, in fairness, the same as the French poster (or one of them, here’s a more ballerina-y alternative), but the change of title shifts the entire dynamic. No longer does Felicie seem in control – it seems like she’s being saved as part of some superheroic act on the part of the boy.
As I often do, I had a little moan about this on social media, and did the same today when I spotted an EW story announcing that Kate McKinnon (who, sidenote, is obviously brilliant) had been cast as one of the stars. This in itself is a bizarre situation, as the film (a French Canadian production but in the English language) has already been released in the UK with one set of actors and now seems to be being re-cast for its US release. An odd situation likely driven by a confusion on the part of The Weinstein Company (distributors in the US) as to how to sell the film.
As this is a thorny issue, I want to point out a few things before I get to the main point. I’m not saying that boys can’t or won’t watch a film about a dancer or that boys and men can’t be dancers. As someone who loves musicals and knows every word of every Disney Princess song ever written, I’d positively encourage it. Nor am I saying that a girl can’t or won’t watch a film about a boy with wings saving a girl. The huge female fanbase the Marvel films have proves that the barriers between what we consider ‘a boys’ film’ and what we consider ‘a girls’ film’ are blurring more and more with each year. And that is a very good thing indeed.
However, what I am saying is that it’s important for young girls to see themselves reflected on screen and that a film about a young girl should be marketed as such. Ballerina is a small animation from a little-known foreign studio. Few people are going to actively seek it out, so it relies on the marketing more than many other animations. If a girl goes to the cinema one day and wants to see a film that will speak to her, she’d likely be more won over by Ballerina than Leap!. By skewing so much at young boys, the marketing is creating a barrier between the film and its intended audience – and that’s a real shame for a film that looks like it has the potential to inspire and empower.
What’s more, it sends out an appalling message. “Sorry girls,” the poster for Leap! seems to say. “You and your interests aren’t good enough. Girls and dancing don’t make money. Boys and heroic antics do.” This is a very important issue and one that struck me when I went to a Women in Film panel at a local film festival a few weeks ago. On this panel was director Bronwen Hughes, whose movies include 1996’s Harriet the Spy. She recounted the story of a marketing meeting for the film, where she was told that Harriet would receive a lower marketing budget than a similarly themed film featuring a boy. The reason? Films with boys do better at the box office.
Of course, as Hughes pointed out, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Give a film about a girl less marketing clout and it’ll obviously fare less well at the box office. How can it possibly do anything else? If the boy film is shouting about its existence while the girl film is having to make do with a broken whisper, then it’s perfectly obvious that the boy film will make more money.
By turning Ballerina into Leap!, the film’s marketing brains are playing into that wrong-headed thinking and making it harder for films about young girls for young girls to find their audience and make money. So ultimately we’re going to see less of those films and young girls will struggle to find films that speak to them and their experiences directly. In an age where Rey and Jyn Erso are taking on Empires that’s – gladly – slightly less of an issue than it’s been in the past, but by the same token, it makes the Ballerina/Leap! switch more baffling.
Girls shouldn’t have to seek films like Ballerina out, and films like Ballerina shouldn’t have to morph into something entirely different to reach those girls. The world is changing, and movie marketing needs to replace its outmoded thinking and move with it. Otherwise it won’t be Felicie who needs someone to swoop in and save her; it’ll be the marketers.