Like the happy ending to a Hollywood film, the day has finally come: at four years old, Felix is watching interesting movies! I mean the kind of movies that an adult (namely, me) can appreciate too, as opposed to the flicks that a parent sits through for their child’s sake, the ones so boring you’d gnaw your hand off to stop yourself from ever seeing them again. (I’m looking at you, Thomas the Tank Engine.)
This isn’t to say that my son has only been captivated by inane locomotives. Felix has loved Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo for some time, but he’s getting more out of it, following the plot instead of just oogling the beautiful cartoon fishes. He’s able to handle darker stuff now, movies with conflict and villains, like Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
This opens a world of cool kid movies to watch together. But while I’m excited to share these films with Felix, I’m also hesitant, as my little guy’s easily impressionable.
For example, one of Felix’s classmates plans on dressing up as Darth Vader for Halloween, or, as Felix calls him, Darp Bater. He had never heard of Vader before, and so I showed Felix a few You Tube videos of the masked villain. The kid loved ’em, and said he couldn’t wait to watch all of Star Wars. And then, after only a thirty second clip of Luke and his Dark Side daddy duking it out with light sabers, Felix began running around the house thwocking things with a cardboard tube.
This shouldn’t surprise me. The Jedi knights are fighting one another with two glow-in-the-dark phalluses! This is primal boy stuff. And yet it gave me pause. What else might Felix pick up from the movie?
A lot of great messages about courage and honesty and facing your fears, all of which have been very important to me. However, as this TED Talk by educator Colin Stokes illuminates, Star Wars is a boys world not simply because of the sword fighting. The film fails the famous Bechdel Test, named after the cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who popularized the test in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. To pass, a movie must have (1.) at least two women in it, (2.) who talk to one another, (3.) about something other than a man. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope has two female characters with names: Luke’s Aunt Beru and Princess Leia, and they never meet, so can’t very well talk to one another.
In her defense, Leia is anti-establishment (part of the rebellion), smart, and wields political power (as well as a blaster). Still, for most of the movie she waits around for the guys to rescue her. When they do, she moves off screen so that Luke can go head-to-head with the Empire, proving his manhood by piloting his ship through the tight confines of a Death Star tunnel and then blasting a tight target, all while evading fire from his evil daddy. (What would Freud say?)
By comparison, Stokes’ talk examined The Wizard of Oz, in which the majority of the power players, at least those with any real authority, are female Glenda, The Wicked Witch, and Dorothy. While Dorothy, like Leia, finds herself rescued from peril by her male friends, Dorothy’s gang acts not out of sexual interest in her (like Luke) or for monetary reward (like Han Solo), but because of friendship and altruism.
In addition — and this is me, here, not Stokes — all of the male roles in The Wizard of Oz express masculinity in non-traditional ways. The Wizard’s power is literally an illusion — he’s a massive head with a big mouth and no substance! The lion is a coward, the scarecrow silly, and the Tin Man effete, yet despite these affectations they’re shown to possess true grit. At the end, they’re rewarded with the kind of respect and prestige we might expect an action movie star, or a tough guy, to have. (Compare, for example, their masculinity with Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, another famous film from 1939. Rhett was a man’s man, to be sure.)
Stokes wonders what effect our male oriented action films have on little boys, and laments that they’re aren’t more movies like The Wizard of Oz. He points to a handful of movies with great heroines, like Pixar’s Brave and Disney’s Tangled, neither of which I’ve seen, and certainly most of the Miyazaki films feature girls in the starring roles.
I agree we need more kid movies with strong female roles. Often, the discussion focuses on why little girls need these role models, but boys need them too, so that they don’t grow up thinking of themselves as the big heroes who swoop in to save the day and rescue the poor defenseless girl, even when she’s as tough as Princess Leia. I’d like to see movies, both for kids and adults, where men and women work together, where power is shared, plans discussed, and good triumphs not because of the efforts of one, but because everyone’s in it together. Hey JJ Abrams, as you work on the next batch of Star Wars films, could you please keep this in mind?
This doesn’t mean I’m against Felix watching Star Wars. Some day soon Felix, me, and my wife will sit down and watch it, and when we do, we’ll focus on Leia’s as an active, intelligent leader, and less on her as a damsel-in-distress.