I’ve never been able to figure out why my girls don’t take me up on my frequent offers to go see movies. I love movies and one of my recurring new-mom fantasies involved me and my girl spending Saturday afternoons in the dark eating popcorn.
I used to think dark, loud theaters were the problem. Or that some of the plot-lines were a bit dark and traumatic for her age (this movie, in particular, kept her out of the theater for a solid two years). But she’s 10 now and darkness and noise don’t bother her. It wasn’t until Disney’s Tangled came out — and she asked to go see it — that I realized what the problem was: if she was going to see a movie, she wanted it to be about girls. The Kung Fu Pandas and Cars and Ups and Nemos and Ice Ages of the movie world just didn’t have any of that.
Filmmakers write kids movies about boy characters. If it has to be about a female, well, then you know it’s about a Princess.
Peggy Orenstein writes about Pixar in her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter. She notes that this critically acclaimed and highly successful movie company has made 12 films, none of which features a girl as a main character. They’re working on one now — Brave, due out in 2012. But, this is where a person like me (or an undervalued potential movie-goer like my daughter) wants to tear her hair out: Brave’s lead character, while female, is a princess.
A fairy tale!
When Orenstein criticized Pixar in her book, many people responded “what about Toy Story’s Jessie?” Here’s part of her answer on her blog:
In Pixar’s films, maleness has consistently been presented as “universal” as neutral. while femaleness is singular, and–even when a character is “strong”–she is inevitably imbued with those particular stereotypically female characteristics: she is a love interest or a helper. She is caring. She checks out her butt in the mirror. It has never once been HER experience, HER feelings, HER complexity or crisis that drives the narrative. If it were the opposite and Pixar had NEVER made a film in which a male character’s quest drove the story wouldn’t you find that a smidge odd?
Orenstein also links to another blog, Vast Public Indifference (a post that went up in 2008), which lists a bunch of Pixar movies, scoring them in her search for female characters. VPI points out what’s especially wrong about Bug’s Life (and Bees) for having such a dearth of female characters:
A Bug’s Life: This adventure story concerns the efforts of a male ant (Flik) who sets out on an adventure to save the colony from the wrath of a grasshopper gang. Interestingly enough, real male ants do nothing but eat and fertilize eggs, so Pixar had to go out on a limb to make this character male.
To which Orenstein adds this:
I point this out ALL THE TIME. Any ant you see out in the world is female. Same with Bees. So that Jerry Seinfeld Bee Movie? All those bees would beeeee female. Not in this man’s Hollywood, though. Transgender bees! What next?
It should go without saying that no one is asking for boys to be eliminated from children’s stories. It’s just to recognize that, except in some very specific contexts — i.e. princess fairy tales — girls already are. We can argue that movies about boys are universally enjoyed while movies about girls are only enjoyed by girls. In the case of princess fare, I would have to agree. What about an interesting, non-princess female on an exciting quest?
I think this issue is similar to the one where boy characters dominate children’s literature. If filmmakers attempted a non-princess female lead, would parents keep their sons away? Can you name any kids movies with a female lead who wasn’t a princess? Was it a blockbuster?
Though I had high hopes that Tangled, which I heard great things about, would turn my daughter’s movie-going world around, it didn’t. In the end, the female on a quest turned out to be a princess (of course), which was disappointing for me. For my daughter, though, the biggest disappointment was that the next round of big releases were all about: boys.