I’ve always despised Disney’s portrayal of women. I haven’t watched anything of theirs in decades, so the other day I decided to subject myself to Kim Possible, a cartoon about a teenage super-hero a la Buffy without the slaying. I was pleasantly surprised.
The story began with Kim getting her geeky friend, Ron Stoppable, a really cool haircut. He wasn’t too sure about it, so they got him a really cool wardrobe to go with it, and then he strutted into school and instantly had senior girls wanting to go to lunch with him. During all this, the power went out all over Europe because a multi-billionaire on a private island was using ludicrous amounts of energy for amusement, so Kim went to explain to him how turning out a few lights now and then would really help the whole world. During the course of this, Ron blithered on in detail about how awesome the billionaire’s mansion would be as a bad guy hangout. Kim keeps trying to get him to shut up, but he won’t, and eventually she drags him out.
So, after they left, the billionaire realized he needed a hobby, and made all the changes Ron had suggested, and took all of Europe’s power on purpose. So Kim had to go back and stop him. By this time, Ron had changed into a self-absorbed prima donna who know longer cares about his pet… I think it was a ferret, but whatever it is, it lives in his pocket, until he gets tight pleather pants to complete his new look and lost all interest in the animal.
But the billionaire had a son who was even more self-obsessed. Guess what happens? Ron comes to his senses just in time to help Kim stop the billionaire and attacks the son by throwing his comb onto the edge of a diving board. This sparks a spectacular catfight which centers mainly on the two boys mussing each other’s hair and getting indignant about it.
Meanwhile, Kim keeps a cool head and handles herself well, but the billionaire’s defenses – inspired by Ron – aren’t allowing her to get the upper hand. Ron shows up just in time and throws something into a machine, jamming it so Kim can take care of business.
In the end, they go back to school with Ron dressed and coiffed like his old self, and Ron says he realizes now it was never the look that made him cool, but rather the confidence that went with it. He approaches one of the senior girls, fully expecting her to be as interested as she was the day before. Her response? “Why would I want to have lunch with you?”
And so Ron goes back to Kim and his ferret and realizes he doesn’t need attention from senior girls to like himself.
The messages – which were delivered in the text, so I don’t even have to guess – were:
- Don’t pressure your friends to be more fashionable, even if you think you’re helping them. You risk losing what makes them unique, by making them more like everyone else.
- You don’t need to look a certain way to be great, and if some people don’t get that…
- …you don’t need to be popular to like yourself or to have friends who are actually loyal.
It wasn’t exactly a role reversal. Kim had the traditional role of a heroic lead that’s usually reserved for men: level-headed, skilled, capable of making mistakes, particularly in personal relationship. Her gender just wasn’t relevant. But Ron had the traditional role of a blundering sidekick who actually causes much of the trouble the hero gets into, which is also most frequently a male role, though it can be used to put down blundering girlfriends, second-in-commands, or girls who think they can be heroes. Ron’s portrayal did have a few tongue-in-cheek girly cues (fashion diva syndrome followed by a catfight).
Ultimately, the message I got was that qualified girls can be heroic, and less-qualified boys can be content to live in their shadow, helping as best they can. That message is a total reversal of the one I got as a child from Disney, which was, “If you’re really lucky, you might get to provide sexual services for an important man! That’s the highest privilege you can ask for, little girl!” No, thanks, it’s not.
I never thought I’d hear myself saying it, but kudos for Disney… on this particular project.