Ice Age: setting female characters back a few millennia…

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Ice Age is one of the worst children’s films I’ve ever seen in terms of gender portrayal.

In a nutshell, Ice Age is a classic all-male buddy adventure in which a motley group of guys of different prehistoric species bring a (male) baby back to his human clan. The human clan is weirdly also all male except for the baby’s mom, who sacrifices her life in the beginning of the movie in order to set up their great adventure. The lack of female main characters is pretty standard fare, so it’s the “mom’s sacrifice” scene that truly places this film in a class of its own.

In order to save her baby from a saber-tooth tiger, the mother clutches him to her and throws herself over a high waterfall. When she reaches the river below, she’s in good enough shape to grab onto a tree trunk extending from the riverbank and pull herself to the edge of the water. As she pulls herself along, she’s walking on the floor of the river, thus she’s not paralyzed or otherwise mortally wounded. She has the strength to push her baby up onto a rock and look sadly into the eyes of the mammoth, imploring him to steady her baby with his trunk so he won’t slide back into the river. Once she sees that her baby is safely in the mammoth’s care, she lets go of the rock and swirls away down the river, and the only reaction to her death was the sloth sadly saying “she’s gone.”

ice_age_moms_sacrifice.png

Even if I suspend my disbelief enough to buy that she has the strength to get just that far but can’t pull herself out of the river, this scene screams the following question: Why didn’t the mammoth put his trunk around both of them and save them both?

Answer: Because the only purpose of her life was to set up their buddy adventure, and that would have messed it up.

This was worse than the mom’s sacrifice setting up the adventure in Finding Nemo because in that case at least it was clear the mom couldn’t have been saved. The scene in Ice Age demonstrates that the writers didn’t give a second thought to the mom as a person: they saw her as a disposable character and wanted to milk her for one last emotional parting shot before throwing her away.

Aside from that, a few nameless females make brief appearances in their usual roles (moms, girls being hit on). Even the pride of saber-tooth tigers out to get the heroes is all male for some unknown reason. Actually, I know the reason: the film is pure formula from start to finish — including the jokes — and that’s the only thing their script-generating program knows how to spit out.

Ice Age II is an improvement over Ice Age since — in addition to adding several wacky new male characters to the cast — they added one wacky new female character. She is, of course, the love interest who provides romantic comedy as the male mammoth character woos her.

ice_age_mammoth_love.png

In a memory sequence in the first movie the mammoth was shown to be sad and lonely because his mate died — coincidentally enough — protecting their baby. In that case, though, the baby died too, so he was even more sad than the human dad who was okay with losing his wife when at least he got his son back. Thus the mammoth needed a new mate to make him happy again.

How many (theoretical) female characters have to give their lives to set up some back-story for male protagonists? I hate to even touch the question…

Comments

  1. Nenena says

    It’s amazing how the human brain will fill in gaps in missing information. When I saw Ice Age, I just assumed that the mother had been impaled through the stomach with a rock, or suffered some other fatal wound, and because it was a children’s movie the gore just wasn’t being shown. Like, the mammoth could see her guts leaking out into the river, but the camera angle obscured that from the viewers. My brain made that assumption for me, because the alternative – that there was no reason for her to die, or for the mammoth not to save her – made no sense whatsoever.

  2. says

    p.s.: I was watching this film again with my kids, and as I paused it to take that screenshot, my six-year-old son asked me “Why does the mommy give the baby to Manfred? Doesn’t she want him anymore?”

  3. says

    Logically, going over that waterfall, the mom probably would have broken her back or head on rocks and died immediately. If it were just a question of avoiding the gore for the kids’ sake, they could easily have gone with the same “just find the baby alone in the wreckage” approach like Jungle Book or Finding Nemo by having him get caught on a branch or something. But they actually show her pulling herself on a tree and walking along all the way to the edge of the water. It’s jarringly weird that she doesn’t even try to continue pulling herself around the rock she’s clinging to (see the screenshot) and try to climb up out of the river.

    The only reason this doesn’t jump out at the audience is that you know she has to die — it’s a standard formula that you’ve seen a million times — so the brain dismisses other possibilities that would be obvious if a similar scene had been placed somewhere else in the narrative. For example, if this scene had come at the end of the movie (and we’d been following her as a protagonist the whole time), she would have been saved.

  4. says

    p.s.: I was watching this film again with my kids, and as I paused it to take that screenshot, my six-year-old son asked me “Why does the mommy give the baby to Manfred? Doesn’t she want him anymore?”

    Shit, that just really says it all right there.

  5. says

    Some additional context:

    The mammoth had just gotten done battling two charging rhinos to save the life of a sloth he’d just met. A few scenes later, he risks his life to extend a helping trunk to save an untrustworthy tiger from falling into a pit of (what else?) hot, boiling lava.

    Yet he can’t extend a helping trunk to this mom as he’s standing there watching her struggle? She doesn’t reach for it? Even if he thinks she’s probably mortally wounded, he can’t spare the two seconds it would take to pull her out of the water and see if she can be saved? Even if it were just a question of being more concerned about the safety of the baby, it’s obvious that the baby would have a far better chance of survival with his mom alive.

    But really it’s a question of priorities. What really matters here is their wonderful buddy adventure.

  6. kristi says

    I didn’t think Ice Age 2 was much of an improvement. Sure, there is a female, but she is the classic ditzy blonde. She grew up with two possum brothers, so she thinks she is also a possum, despite the fact that she’s at least twenty times their size. And it’s pretty clear that the purpose for her existence is to provide a mate for Manny.

    It still amazes me how few female characters there are in kids’ movies. There are moms and girlfriends and potential girlfriends, and that’s about it. If I knew nothing about humans aside from what I saw in the movies, I could easily assume that the human race was 75% male.

  7. says

    kristi — I think Ice Age II is pretty sexist as well. The only reason it’s an improvement ove Ice Age is that it merely has the (unfortunately) typical level of movie sexism rather than being a serious contender for worst ever.

  8. Jennifer Kesler says

    Re: the lack of females in kids’ movies that Kristi observes. I believe this sets kids up to understand that “male is default”. I don’t think it’s done intentionally, because early on it was done so convincingly in the form of Genesis, where Adam comes first and Eve is an afterthought created for his entertainment and you’re not allowed to question this because men didn’t make up the story, God dictated it to them, and we have the word of the men on that, oh, yeah, that now it’s just a value people default to.

  9. G. Lewis says

    I think the fact that women aren’t included unless they are in roles that provide a specific relationship to the male characters is important. It shows a how dominant this male-centric view of the world is that half the population can routinely be significantly under-represented without people noticing. (How many female Muppets can you name?) It doesn’t mean that it’s malicious but that it indicates a problem in which women aren’t thought of as personalities but just relationships relative to men. It diminishes our humanity.

    I also noticed that the mother character was attractive even though she was a “cave man” while the male members of the tribe were more rough looking. This is another common theme — women always have to be good looking.

  10. Djiril says

    I just remembered something about the first time I saw this movie. Right until the end, I was hoping the mother was still alive somehow and would pop up at some convenient moment as a deus ex machina. I still think that would have been a cool plot twist.

  11. says

    Regarding the point that Manny didn’t want to save the mom because he hates humans: Then why did he help the baby at all?

    But the fact that Manny didn’t bother to save her (after battling two rhinos to save Sid, whom he didn’t like), isn’t nearly as disturbing as the fact that she doesn’t make the slightest attempt to save herself. She goes to heroic efforts to get the baby just that far, and then basically says “My work is done, my baby is in safe hands.”

    But really, even if all she cares about is saving her baby, she would continue to make every effort she can to save herself because her baby’s survival would depend on her. Handing your baby to a wild animal is the same as ensuring that he will be eaten or die of exposure by the next day, so basically she’s gotten that far just to give up.

    I know this is the point where people will say “Sure, in real life giving your baby to a woolly mammoth would be a death sentence for the baby, but come on, it’s just a movie!” Right, it’s just a movie. A stupid, stupid, sexist movie.

  12. says

    Just so that anyone commenting on this post is aware, I’m leaning towards the “delete button” on any comments that are essentially saying that it’s just Disney, say that this isn’t unique (it happens in every buddy movie and it’s just the way it is), or that any sexism was unintentional and therefore irrelevant.

    I apologize, because I think many of the people making those comments are reasonably well-intentioned, but these points have been addressed already in the thread. To summarize:

    Disney, advertising, and pop culture in general are extremely powerful in terms of defining the boundaries of normativity. Just because something is light and fluffy, that doesn’t mean it’s not important–from the point of view of this site, that makes it *more* so, because so many people tend to watch it and *not* question what is presented, but nonetheless internalize the messages.

    The fact that no one sat around a room and went “Hey, let’s piss off the feminists” or nefariously tapped their fingers all Mr Burns and went “How can I hate on women today?” also makes it worse. Sexism (and racism, and homophobia) does not depend on the sexist person knowing they’re being sexist, nor on their being hateful about it. It’s the default, presumed assumptions about the way gender roles and relationships work, and the relevance of women in society, and the fact that nobody has to consciously set out to be sexist makes it harder to take apart.

    And finally, the point that other movies also don’t have female characters, or that buddy movies are always this way, or that plenty of other movies are worse…is making our point for us. If “Ice Age” really were just one movie, we probably wouldn’t care. The fact the we already recognize it as a standard model is why we care.

    These three points are essentially the reason this site exists. It has occurred to us that some others don’t think they’re that important, but we continue to think that they are, and you’re not likely to change our mind just by making the points again. So if your posts are being deleted, that’s probably why, and unless you have something more unique and substantive to say, you’re best to go elsewhere.

  13. says

    It’s more the fact that this is how female characters are used the vast majority of the time, whereas it happens relatively rarely to male characters. It’s the imbalance of it that suggests deep down, our culture thinks of women as props (the “love interest”, the “wife”, the “mommy”) and thinks of men as complete human beings who have jobs and quests and life philosophies, etc.

    Where they also screwed up is in making it look like she could have saved herself but opted not to.

  14. sbg says

    Am hoping to look into this phenomenon with Supernatural, a show I love dearly but which fits this to a T…

    It’s out there. It’s all OVER the place. Not talking about it or dismissing it as “but this happens all the time” is, IMO, not helpful at all. We shouldn’t expect female characters to be disposable and there only to serve as catalyst for male characters and we shouldn’t be surprised if/when this formula is ever deviated from.

  15. MaggieCat says

    We still have a cultural stereotype that punishes women who don’t want to be mothers and acts as if there’s something wrong with them. And then trains women who are mothers to abandon their sense of self in devotion to their children and spend their all their time absorbed by that one thing. Obviously people who have children love them very much and want what’s best for them, but the most effective parents I’ve known are the ones who also have lives and interests of their own that make them well-rounded people. But I can’t think of a single television show or movie that shows *fathers* doing anything other than that- they’re allowed and expected to have an existence that is not solely defined by their ability to reproduce. Women are frequently denied that right.

    It’s not saying that women are morally inferior to men to say that women shouldn’t be the ones expected to sacrifice every ounce of self to raise children. It’s expecting people to understand that it isn’t necessarily the entirety of a woman’s existence. In the case of this movie it’s a matter of life and death, but it shows up every day in less fatal ways and this is just the conclusion of having her, without a truly visible reason, sacrifice her life as if saving the child is the only thing that matters- without an indication that she valued her own life as well. When valuing both would have been better for both of them since it would be better for the child to have his mother. That didn’t happen here, and that’s the problem. The fact that they most likely wouldn’t do this with a male character is another part of the problem.

  16. Djiril says

    There is a difference between “badly portrayed” and “portrayed as bad.” In this case “badly portrayed” means “portrayed poorly by the film-makers.”

    Personally, my problem with this movie was not how they portrayed the mother so much as, “Hey, there’s a cool female character in this movie-oh wait, she’s dead.” This wouldn’t be a problem for me if it weren’t such a common occurance. It seems the more I want to see a particular woman triumph and participate in the plot, the quicker they kill her off. :(

  17. says

    The main problem with Ice Age is not so much sexism as it is careless, sloppy writing:

    In this one scene I’ve discussed, The writers went with the standard plot device “mom sacrifices herself, the movie’s protagonist takes it from there” and it’s like it didn’t even occur to them to wonder whether the mom’s life might have been worth saving in the scene the way they wrote it. And the audience is familiar enough with the formula that their minds fill in the blanks and unquestioningly accept her death as well.

    But if you take this sequence out of its context (and eliminate the “she had to die, otherwise there’d be no movie” — which some commenters argued), and think of it from the perspective of the mother, it’s clear that it makes no sense whatsoever: She goes to heroic lengths to save her baby, struggles to bring him to shore, then just gives up and stops struggling and lets the water carry her away to drown as soon as she’s handed her baby to a woolly mammoth (whom she has no reason to think might be willing or able to care for her child).

    The whole script is like that: It’s stock buddy/adventure movie scenes sloppily pasted together with sitcom wisecracks. It ends up being sexist because that’s what so many generic stock scenes are like, but the sexism is a symptom of the film’s problem, not the cause.

    Now if you think I’m just biased and would hate any movie with gender representation problems, I’d like you to take a look at my review of Happy Feet which I liked and strongly recommended (follow the link from there to my other review of it) even though it had some serious gender problems as you can see in the comments.

    Happy Feet is more original and has better writing than Ice Age, which is why it deserved a more complex and nuanced discussion. Take a look at the scene where the father sides with the religious leaders in rejecting his “freakish” son. This doesn’t come off as incongruous or stereotyped because there are some (fairly subtle) scenes earlier where you can see how religion was a comfort to him (particularly the scene where the fathers are protecting the eggs through the long, dark winter). The penguin “Happy Feet” himself and the guru both have some interesting and subtle character development as well. There’s nothing like that in Ice Age — watch them back-to-back, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The emotional scenes in Ice Age are all of the “banging you over the head with the obvious” type, such as Manny’s memory sequence and the scenes where the human dad is holding up his wife’s necklace and looking mournfully off into the distance. This is probably why for Ice Age II they scrapped the emotional sequences that didn’t really work and replaced them with more physical comedy and sitcom: the original’s strengths.

    The one thing that’s new, original, and exceptional in Ice Age is the artful way they were able to animate the mammoth’s facial expressions so that you can see the emotion in his eyes even though you can’t see his mouth most of the time. This is one of the things that makes Manny the Mammoth a lovable character. But it’s a shame that after putting so much into the beautiful visuals they didn’t place the same priority on getting an interesting and imaginative script, but instead went with the “safe” choice of the familiar tried-and-true.

  18. Djiril says

    I used to justify this kind of thing by thinking that these characters must be doing all kinds of cool things off-screen, but after movie after movie and story after story where offscreen is the only place where a strong female character like this is doing anything besides some limited stereotyped task, I decided that what happens off-screen doesn’t count, especially (though not exclusively) if I have to imagine it myself.
    If I don’t get to see it, the film-makers get no brownie points from me. (Ok, maybe one or two if it is mentioned, but that’s on a scale of one-to-fifty!)

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