Great female characters in Hollywood’s current animated blockbusters for kids: where are they???

Taken individually, most of Hollywood’s recent offerings for kids have been reasonable quality entertainment. But taken as a group (I’ve been watching them alongside my kids), I’m struck by the lack of female characters in these films. For a while I was thinking “Well, I have only boys, so of course I haven’t been following the ‘princess movies’…” But after I thought about it a little, it hit me that I have kids, and all I’ve done is show them all the (generic) kids’ films that I’ve seen advertised. So why are none of these films about girls or women?

Let’s look at them one by one:

Ratatouille:

This is a cute film overall, and I recommend it. In terms of female characters, there’s a little old lady in the beginning who tries to kill the rats — and she’s kind of an amusing character — but she doesn’t have any lines. She just provides the reason why the rats end up moving to Paris. Then there’s Colette, who is the main human character’s love interest. She actually points out the fact that she’s the only woman in the kitchen of the high-class restaurant and explains that it’s because of sexism (and that she’s there herself because she’s competent and doesn’t take any crap). Yet that doesn’t precisely absolve the film of its failure to include women. For example, many of the main characters are rats, and they could have, say, had some of the rat characters be female. But they didn’t.

This film fails the “Mo Movie Measure.” (To pass, a film must include at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.)

Shrek III:

This film actually has a whole group of princesses who end up rescuing themselves, which is a nice positive point. However the movie overall is so forgettable that I can barely remember what their exact situation was. (It’s a typical sequel: the first movie was excellent, the second also quite good, so the third one is sure to make money whether they bother to make an effort on it or not…). Also note that the sequence with the princesses was a minor sub-plot: the main story was the guys’ adventure to go find Prince Arthur and install him as king.

Another annoying thing about the film is its subtext that part of the problem with the evil Prince Charming is that he’s an effeminate theater-loving mama’s boy whereas Shrek is a butt-scratching, fashion-retarded real man. Actually, this subtext was already present in Shrek II, and the fact that they drew out and emphasized the importance of males meeting male gender expectations in Shrek III makes me feel like going back and re-evaluating Shrek II

Mo Movie Measure: pass.

Happy Feet:

I liked this movie a lot, as I explained in my post morals for children in Cars and Happy Feet. And if this film were the only one, I would be happy to forgive the filmmakers for giving us the same old same old in terms of female characters. But really the story couldn’t be more cliche (or traditional) in terms of female roles.

There are a non trivial number of female characters: there a couple of female teachers in the very beginning and some nameless girls who are hit on or part of the guru’s harem, then there’s the hero’s mom and the hero’s love interest who are important characters. What’s striking is the variety of different personalities that the male characters are given and the range of different types of relationships/interactions they have with one another which the corresponding female characters don’t really have. True, the love interest is independent and successful and feisty, but her success is that she’s beautiful and popular: in short, she’s the prize to be won.

In the case of both the mom and the love interest, their one great act of courage and defiance is to stand up for the hero when others reject him. As far as I’m concerned, “stand by your man” is not wrong or bad or even unrealistic for a female character, but I’m tired of seeing it as the only adventure for a girl.

Mo Movie Measure: pass (there’s a scene near the beginning where a female music teacher talks to a female pupil about singing).

Cars:

I think Cars beats Happy Feet in terms of female characters. The main story still revolves around the male characters and their competition, friendship, and growth. However, in the town of Radiator Springs, Sally, Flo, and Lizzy are all business owners and fairly original characters. Sally in particular has accomplished some impressive goals and has chosen an unexpected path of making a life for herself in Radiator Springs because that’s what she wanted to do. And Lizzy is funny — she has some of the best lines in the film.

This film has an interesting side note for feminists discussing the male gaze: In the scene where Lightning McQueen first meets Sally and is hitting on her, at one point he says “So your job is pretty easy today — all you have to do is stand there and let me look at you.” It is very clear from the scene that his behavior is intolerably crass and obnoxious. Later there’s a “turnabout” line where Flo says “Mmm! Watching him work is make me thirsty — anybody else want a drink?” I’m not sure how much analysis this deserves since it’s not clear it was even intentional on the writers’ part, but I thought I’d at least mention it.

Mo Movie Measure: pass (Flo and Sally briefly talk about customers and business).

Shark’s Tale:

This film is the most questionable of the lot. On some level it seems like they’re shooting for diversity by portraying black culture, but to me it looks like a smorgasbord of negative stereotypes. Some characters are Italian, so they’re in the mafia. Then the main character is a black hip-hop wannabe who’s dream is to find an easy way to riches and who gets to learn that he’s happier accepting his fate at the bottom of the food chain. Naturally we’re treated to some lovely female stereotypes as well: the hero gets to choose between the glamorous gold-digger and the plain but pure-hearted girl who loved him all along. Ah, the suspense! Which will he choose??? (Please forgive the sarcasm…)

This one also makes Cars look good by contrast since you can tell from the accents of the cars that many of the characters represent different ethnicities (Mexican, Southern, Italian, black), yet none of them are given stereotypical roles or traits.

Mo Movie Measure: fail

Finding Nemo:

This one may be the best of the bunch because there’s actually a female character who follows one of the two (male) heros on the central adventure of the story. (Sad to say that’s enough to make a film stand out from the pack in feminist terms, but it is…) Plus she’s an original character, and she’s not even the hero’s love-interest. (I have absolutely nothing against love stories, indeed I think that’s a great facet of the human condition to write stories about. I just don’t like the fact that it seems that practically every story is about males, and a girl always has to be the hero’s girlfriend or dream girl to be allowed in the story at all.) Still the majority of the characters — major and minor — are male.

Mo Movie Measure: fail

Overall:

It looks like some non-trivial effort is being made on the part of the film industry to at least make the female love-interest somewhat independent and outspoken. Though it’s not clear how much improvement has been made, if any: they feisty love-interest has always been a stock character from the beginning of film-making since she’s more interesting than the wilting flower who can do nothing but exclaim “My hero!” as she’s being rescued.

It’s perfectly reasonable for parents to expect to see a range of interesting female characters in both major and minor roles in the films they show their kids. Moms and Dads (and uncles and aunts, etc.): let’s get out there and demand better.

Comments

  1. says

    Great post, C. L.

    I just saw Stardust the other day, and really enjoyed it, but I was thinking afterwards that it’s a sort of classic “young hero finds his place in the world” sort of story, of which I’ve seen many – but not any that feature female leads. And with all the children’s and family movies featuring male leads, there aren’t many at all that have female characters cooperating or even interacting with each other, as you point out. It seems normal because it’s what we’re all used to as consumers, but if you stop to examine it at all, it’s really weird.

    We definitely should expect and demand better.

  2. says

    Very True!!!

    Even if Alison Bechdel herself didn’t invent the “Mo Movie Measure” I’m glad that DTWOF pointed out the rarity of female characters interacting with one another so we’d have the idea to be on the lookout for it.

    It’s astonishing how rare female-female discussion is in films when you look for it. In each of the cases above I had to dig through my memory for a single fleeting exchange between two women, while men talking amongst themselves about their various adventures is the substance of practically every scene…

  3. Nenena says

    Great post!

    RE: Ratatouille. I wasn’t bothered by Colette being the only woman chef, because that *is* a reflection of the fact that the world of haute cuisine is still incredibly sexist, and since she pointed this out herself in a speech, I like to think that the animators knew about and were deliberately drawing attention to that sexism.

    It still doesn’t explain why there are no female rats, though. >was a love interest. Or at least, her relationship with Whasshisname was portrayed in such a way that it would be very, very easy to read it as a love story.

  4. Nenena says

    (reposted for borked HTML)

    Great post!

    RE: Ratatouille. I wasn’t bothered by Colette being the only woman chef, because that *is* a reflection of the fact that the world of haute cuisine is still incredibly sexist, and since she pointed this out herself in a speech, I like to think that the animators knew about and were deliberately drawing attention to that sexism.

    It still doesn’t explain why there are no female rats, though.

    RE: Findig Nemo. I thought that Dolly/Doreen/Whasshername was a love interest. Or at least, her relationship with Whasshisname was portrayed in such a way that it would be very, very easy to read it as a love story.

  5. says

    It still doesn’t explain why there are no female rats, though.

    Or why Ratatouille couldn’t have been a girl rat instead, who helped *Colette* triumph over entrenched industry sexism, either.

    But that would have been far too Thelma & Louise…

  6. says

    Happy Feet also has the moral lessons that Adventures Are Not For Girls, Girls Can’t Help Save The World and It’s Heroic To Lie To Your Girl To Protect Her From Adventury Danger – but don’t worry, she’ll still be waiting a pure virgin at home with your half-sixpence, pining for you forever, when you show up after seven long years at sea! And yes, I’m a sucker for “Long-Lost John Riley,” but I am well-aware of the problematic nature of that so-gendered trope.

  7. says

    Nanena — That’s true that Dorrie could easily be read as a love-interest for Nemo’s dad. It sort of looks like she’s Nemo’s step-mom at the end of the film. I was just giving the film the benefit of the doubt because it wasn’t explicit and it’s theoretically possible to read it as not being a romance.

    bellatrys — exactly, there’s no reason why the talented rat had to be male and/or the person he helped or really any of the characters. It’s true that if the person the rat helped had been female then they might have had to talk more about sexism which might possibly have made the story more complex, but not necessarily.

    That’s another good point about Happy Feet. That whole romance actually kind of bothered me, and that is essentially what inspired this post in the first place. I was really surprised and impressed by the theme of “reason over faith” in the film — which I don’t think I’ve seen in a mainstream children’s work before — so I praised the film for that in my earlier article. But I didn’t feel like I could give it such high praise without at least mentioning the questionable gender dynamics…

  8. K Lee says

    The marginalization of female characters in Hollywood children’s films has a long history. Animated films have had a few high points but overall it is still more common for the boys to go on the adventure, have interesting personalities and lead the movie. It’s troubling. I don’t follow the animated films as closely as the live-action ones so this breakdown of recent animated portrayals is rather revealing. Thanks for the food for thought.

  9. salla says

    Wow, that’s a really horrible trend. I wonder if they even notice they’re doing it anymore or if it’s so ingrained that’s it automatic. Like I
    haven’t seen any kid’s movies lately, but the last movie I did see, Evan Almighty, failed the Mo Movie Measure in really, really bad way. Halfway through the movie I realized that the wife hadn’t talked to anybody outside of her family and nobody outside of her family had talked to her even in scenes where normally someone would have said hello or something. It was disturbing.
    Um, sorry to derail like that

  10. says

    I was really surprised and impressed by the theme of “reason over faith” in the film — which I don’t think I’ve seen in a mainstream children’s work before — so I praised the film for that in my earlier article. But I didn’t feel like I could give it such high praise without at least mentioning the questionable gender dynamics…

    This is evil^h^h^h^h chaotic of me, but damn, if it doesn’t sound like the product of the collective id of Daily Kos, when you put it like that – scientific rationalism plus environmentalism plus male chauvinist piggery = modern liberal Nice Guy gestalt!

  11. says

    bellatrys: bwahahahaha!

    And color me surprised to find that Cars manages to pass the Mo Movie Measure. (And, unlike The Incredibles, does so without having to resort to mother/daughter conversations.)

  12. says

    salla — I really get the impression that you’re right that it’s ingrained and automatic. Honestly, watching the previews of coming attractions, I keep getting the impression that I’ve seen these films already (even though I know in each case that I haven’t seen the latest incarnation). I swear it’s like they’re sleepwalking and have a computer program that generates new scripts from the same damn formulas!

    bellatrys — I don’t read the Daily Kos, but that sounds really unfortunate. Normally I think of scientific rationalism and environmentalism as going hand in hand with feminism, but I guess it doesn’t have to.

    In the back of my mind I was thinking that they might have made the gender dynamic kind of traditional/retrograde in Happy Feet in order to compensate for the pro-gay metaphor (since every big-budget film has to balance out who its offenting and not offending…). But if I were being cynical, I’d say that the scene where the hero tells his love interest that not to follow him on his adventure was partially designed to equalize the power dynamic in their relationship. Since she’s popular and he’s an outcast, he has to tell her he doesn’t need her in order to keep her from having the upper hand. Then there’s his new batch of buddies who are fun, funny, unique characters, and the only interaction the lot of them have with girls is to hit on them or woo them or whatever, which really creates a feeling of “guys are fun and go out and do fun stuff, and girls aren’t welcome to join in,” which isn’t the most fabluous message for a kids’ film. And I’m the feminist with a reputation for getting into arguments with other feminists because I think that often feminists go too far with the assumption that sexy = bad, but this case really comes off as limiting women’s possibilities. But like I said, if you’re willing to compartmentalize and ignore the gender dynamic completely, the film has a lot to recommend it.

    Mickle — the funny thing is that Cars is actually one of the better choices just because the others are so bad. It doesn’t pass MMM if you require a full dialog between two female characters, but Sally and Flo have a couple of fleeting exchanges about business. Also when the tourists from Minnesota get lost in Radiator Springs, Sally talks to the wife a little (though she’s really talking to both of them).

  13. aren3 says

    You should have taken your kids to see Nanny McPhee – unless you were only discussing animated films. The article doesn’t explicitly say so, but all the examples are.
    ‘Cause Nanny McPhee’s a good kids’ movie that’s got all kinds of women: Nanny McPhee herself, the evil fiancee lady, the aunt played by Angela Lansbury, and half of the children are girls. There’s also the father’s love interest and the cook, come to think of it.
    I unfortunately can’t think of any other good counter-examples, though.

  14. cub says

    if you go to the dvd extras on chicken little, you will find out that the animators originally designed/wrote her to me a girl! yet another betrayal by studio heads, alas.

    btw, i’m from the south. it is a region. i have an ethnicity. “southern” is not an ethnicity. but i get your point, if you are talking about negative southern stereotypes: the south being all rural, hickish, provincial, ignorant, bigoted, &c. i have lived in or visited different regions inside and outside the u.s., and i’ve never found any one place where people are “better” than anyone else. however, i have found the rural, hickish, provincial, ignorant, bigoted, &c. character to be pervasive in the u.s., even on the coasts, and that the south is just a whipping boy for all our sins.

  15. says

    Cub, I grew up in the South (Knoxville, TN). I hated it and I hated the people (they hated me first) and I hated the sexism and the xenophobia and the racism and the everything else -ism. When I got to L.A., however, it didn’t take me long to see past the facade of everyone getting along nicely and not being overtly bigoted: in L.A., they just call it demographics and that supposedly makes it okay. But really, it’s exactly the same thinking that fuels the KKK. Exactly.

  16. cub says

    betacandy–
    i enjoyed your input; i’m from the other end of tennessee– memphis, where it is a “black” majority. i was a “white” person with school friends, work friends, and neighbors who fit every (grew up with mom teaching english to family of brand-new chinese immigrants, and dad worked for a jewish family-owned funeral home that served the whole city and held ecumenical services) demographic, even crossing age and orientation–this was especially true in midtown, where i chose to live.

    when i moved to long beach, ca, my new neighborhood was almost as diverse, and it had the same vibe. not to say that i loved everyone i knew in memphis, nor that it was a great place, for it was and most likely still is a good place to get robbed, raped, and so on, but i was surprised to experience some random racism in LB– not against me, but some weird guy on a bike saying something directed at “black” people and i ended a relationship with a guy who was paranoid about jews– btw, he was chicano– the stereotype is that anti-semites are people who at least look like they could be members of the kkk… i guess you just can’t count on anything ;)

  17. says

    Cub, that’s very true. I was naive enough to be surprised to learn that in some places, whites aren’t the only racists. There’s a lot of prejudice among various races everywhere. People are so xenophobic.

  18. says

    Come to think of it, the only animated film I’ve seen in the past few years that has a dynamic female character is Flushed Away, from Aardman studios & Dreamworks. It, in fact, semmed a lot like a gender reversal of a lot of stories I’ve seen in cheap chick flicks and romance novels. You know, “A spoiled, wealthy woman finds herself alone in a place that seems ‘uncivilized’ to her, and must rely on the aid of a rude, abrasive man as a guide she may not be able to trust.” Except, in Flushed Away, the spoiled rich one is the male, and the rude, abrasive ship’s captain he must turn to for help is female. Most of the film demonstrates how much more street smarts and strength Rita has than Roddy, how much more capable she is than him, in general. She doesn’t even have, (as is sadly the case in any films), outrageous emotional reactions. I don’t recall if it passes the Bechdel test, (there are no female characters other than Rita, her mother, and grandmother, and I don’t recall whether or not they talk much), but I do recall being shocked that Roddy and Rita do not seem to develop a romantic relationship in the film. They become friends, and Roddy becomes something of Rita’s first mate, (another great thing is that she seems to stay in charge), but there is no romance. She does end up being saved by Roddy at the end, but it’s not too garish, if I recall correctly, because she does save him throughout the film.
    Still…That’s all I can think of, and even that film was problematic.

  19. says

    Wow, Flushed Away sounds amazing! I’d never even heard about it. What was problematic about it?

    p.s. to Beta and Cub: Sometimes being in the minority gives people more opportunities to learn why racism and xenophobia are bad, but it’s not an easy lesson. I think some amount of misunderstanding/mistrusting other races and nationalities is the default for humans across the board.

  20. ARWinNJ says

    hello . i commented on the post about Happy feet on Rationalmoms.com then i followed the thread over here, and Ive realy enjoyed reading everyones comments. i have a movie to recommend : My Neighbor Totoro, it is a Japanese anime film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki . Its one of my personal favorites but the reason i recommend it here is the strong little girls at the center of the story. Really i cant say enough good about this film

  21. BB says

    I realize this post is old, but if you want great female leads in children’s film, check out movies by Studio Ghibli. MANY of them have amazing female leads, pass the MMM test, and have females as actual people.

    Even Spirited Away, which could have so easily have had a little boy as the lead, had a shy and awkward girl grow up and help everyone around her, and it works so well you don’t even think about it. She helps free Haku and falls in love with him, but it’s something adorable and sweet instead of a girl getting a token love interest.

    Ponyo even had more female characters than male characters, like Ponyo and the old ladies at the retirement home and Granmammare, and it’s the females who drive a lot of the plot. Again, a boy and girl fall in love and it’s sweet instead of being a token relationship.

    Porco Rosso is also great, because the film makes a point of making him a chauvanist pig, and yet realizes that the young Fio is a mechanical genius and comes to greatly respects her. Even though Gina is his love interest, she’s still a gorgeous and independant woman who isn’t portrayed as a love-sick fool because she’s ‘waiting’ for someone. (She’s also amazing for getting hit on by a typical sexy American that you usually see in films and she laughs in his face for thinking he’s go to woo her like it’s a forgone thing.)

    I also haven’t seen Princess Mononoke, but that also has a pretty kickass female lead.

    Actually I should stop rambling now, otherwise I’ll gush over every single film. Go see them!

  22. Charles RB says

    Since this post, Monsters VS Aliens came out – the lead is a female character who, by the end of the second act, has had an epithany and realised her fiance was a jerk & she’s completely capable of doing awesome things by herself. I’m wondering what everyone here thought of that film?

  23. Janet says

    Agree about Studio Ghibli! The female characters in these have a lot of grit and interest.

    Desert cultures generally don’t give women much credit. Walt Disney’s legacy was taken over and turned into a moneymaking factory by his sharp-trading son-in-law. It’s just a bazaar under a big striped tent now.

  24. Nomstock says

    Has anybody seen How To Train Your Dragon yet? It didn’t pass the Bechtel test, but it wasn’t bad – I felt like the one important female character they did have was more than just a love interest, she had agency and an actual role in the story and she kicked more butt than the male lead. I’d check it out.

  25. Quib says

    I’m noticing there are a number of films that have an interesting, capable, and successful female character, but it’s very much not her story. How To Train Your Dragon sounds like an example of that.

  26. Ravyn says

    Speaking of “Not her story but…”, Aisling from Secret of Kells. Wood-wise, occasionally shows up as a huge wolf and scares/commands other huge wolves, and between saving the male lead’s life on four separate occasions and rescuing him from being locked up once, the story couldn’t have gone without her, and despite being female and of the main character’s age, she’s not written as a love interest. (Not to mention that she’s the only thing in the movie that can, even if by proxy, chase away Vikings.)

  27. samantha2074 says

    I realize there’s a difference between movies marketed for kids (i.e. targeted towards boys ’cause we all know girls will watch too) and those specifically geared towards girls, but discounting a whole swathe of kids movies and then wondering where the good female characters are doesn’t seem quite fair, either.

    For instance, I just watched the first TinkerBell movie with my daughter. While it’s not entirely unproblematic, it easily passes the Bechdel test. The majority of the characters are female and spend most of the time talking about their work. In fact, there’s no love interest, although one minor character may prove to be one in later movies (which I haven’t seen). TinkerBell herself is presented as brash, inquisitive, and clever, traits which should appeal to both boys and girls. The animation is of high quality, but nonetheless got a direct-to-DVD release instead of a theatrical one. Why? I assume because girls are inexplicably seen as a niche market.

    So, yeah, while I think increasing the number and variety of roles for female characters in kids movies in general is important, I also wish we could convince boys that movies centering on girls and made with girls first and foremost in mind could also be something they could enjoy. But we’ll be here a while before that happens.

  28. says

    I love Ghibli films, but I’ve disliked Miyazaki’s increasing focus on younger and younger children “falling in love” (Ponyo) and committing themselves to relationships they couldn’t possibly be ready for. Granted, I think he’s doing that because he’s distressed by what he sees as the younger generation’s inablity to focus on accomplishments, and sees romantic love as one expression of it, but still!

    However, does animation in the US offer anything comparable to Miyazaki’s stories, like “Kiki’s Delivery Service” or “Nausicaa”? No. All the girl oriented movies/TV shows I’ve seen are full of fluff, bad animation, and unworthy storylines. Winx is on at our house, as lousy as it is, because it shows a group of girls working with each other.

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