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:
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.)
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.
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).
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).
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
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
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.