Tuesday, October 9, 2007

But Mommy, where are all the girls?

My new favorite feminist is Cecilia, an opinionated five-year-old upset by anti-feminist attitudes rampant in the entertainment industry. According to Cecilia, children’s movies are “boring for girls.” Her negative view of the genera is entirely due to the scarcity of female characters in many of the kiddy movies she has seen. For example, after viewing the first fifteen minutes of Disney’s The Jungle Book and finding no female characters, Cecilia lost interest. Cecilia’s questions as she searched for a character with whom she could identify were really quite eye-opening. “Is Bear a girl?” No. “Is Tiger a girl?” No. “Is Buzzard a girl? Is Snake a girl? Is Monkey a girl?” No, no and nope.

Cecilia’s strong reaction to female-less plot lines got me thinking about the portrayal of female characters in my own favorite children’s movies. These are the children's movies I love best, and how they measure up:

Monsters, Inc.
The good news about this film is that one of the three main characters is a little girl, Boo, and she is curious and brave. The bad news - she doesn’t have lines, per say, since she is a toddler who can’t yet speak. Worse, however, is that almost all other characters in the movie are male. All the “scarer” monsters are male. The technical assistant monsters that run the closet door machines are male. Even the comic janitor monsters are male. In fact, in the energy plant where most of the action takes place, only three monsters are portrayed as female: the secretary, the administrative assistant, and the monster that runs the nursery. Not a great message about the job opportunities that await young girls – answering phones, filing paper-work, or watching the kids are the only gigs to be had – even in Monsterdom. Of the three, the female who gets the most scenes is the ditzy, baby-talking secretary, Celia, who is also the love interest of main character Mike Wazowski. To be fair, the administrative assistant, Roz, does turn out to be the head of a secret sting operation and “Number 1” at the Child Detection Agency, revealing her to be the most powerful character in the film. Roz has the power to put the bad guys behind bars, shut the plant down if need be, and return Boo to the human world. Given that, it seems like perhaps Monsters, Inc. doesn’t do that badly, but you have to wade through a lot of negative gender stereotypes with Celia, the dig-bat secretary, to get to the final feminist pay-off. I’m not sure that Roz’s secret power makes up for the overall lack of empowered female characters in the monster world.

Beauty and the Beast
Obviously there are tons of Disney movies in which female characters are given the lead, but most of these characters are portrayed as admirable based on their good looks, and their sole quest seems to be to find a true love. Perhaps I liked Beauty and the Beast a bit better than the other Disney “princess films” because it broke somewhat with this tradition. Belle, the Beauty of the title who is drawn to be as lovely as her name suggests, is intelligent and yearns for adventure - and is a peasant rather than a princess. The adventure she finds happens to lead her into a love story, but at least she does not start out pining for a prince, like Snow White. Yet, I am disturbed by the underlying message that 'if you are attractive enough, kind enough, and smart enough you can change a man-monster into the sweet prince you’d like him to be.' Listen kids, do not put up with abusive brutes that yell at you and try to lock you up, no matter what promises you’ve made or what potential you think they might have with just a little magic help. Just save your poor dad and take off.

Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Ware-Rabbit
Although the two main characters are male, the love interest of Wallace also scores a major part and has a delightfully distinctive personality. Yet, although I love Lady Tottington (or Totty as Wallace is sometimes allowed to call her), it must be admitted that she is a complete ditz. While the male characters like Wallace, Gromit, and Victor Quartermaine have very active roles in the plot, Lady Tottington serves two functions – to remind the characters of their better natures and to provide a prize for which Wallace and Victor compete. All in all, I would recommend this movie to Cecilia, but I would like to see it paired with one in which a smart and active female character plays a part other than the love interest.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Here, perhaps, is one such movie. Hermione Granger is one of three main characters and is both intelligent and active. The movie makers were not quite daring enough to choose an odd-looking child to play the female lead, so the movie character strays a bit from her description in the book, but at least Hermione’s attractiveness is in no way portrayed as the source of her appeal. Hermione avoids being cast as a love interest for the duration of the film and takes part in almost as many of the adventures as the boys. There is one key scene in which Hermione is strangely cast as the damsel-in-distress when she is attacked by a troll and must be rescued by the boys. Yet, Hermione has the opportunity to return favor when she saves them from a strangling plant. Hermione’s fairly prominent roll is attested to by my own niece’s referral to this film as The Hermione Movie. Although she is not, in fact, the title character, she does make quite an impact. Finally I have a movie that I could recommend to Cecilia. Yet, I'm still looking for a movie where a Hermione-like character is actually the lead.

To see how more children’s movies held up, visit the fabulous Hathor Legacy. And in case you think that this problem is limited to children’s movies, be warned that Warners has threatened not to make any more movies that feature female leads since many recent mega blockbusters have been male-centric. Well, that’s the rumor anyway.

UPDATE: I am looking forward to seeing The Golden Compass in hopes that it will be the movie which finally presents my nieces and Cecilia with a hero with whom they can identify. Lyra, the main character, is a bold leader and an artful lier - finally breaking from a long tradition of sweet side-kicks. There are also many additional female characters in the book version of this story, among the heroes and villains alike, and it looks from the trailer like the movie will include them all. Let's hope audiences turn out in sufficient numbers to show Warners and others that there is a real desire to see films with interesting female characters in the lead.


Casmall said...

I like hathor. They seem to be Battlestar Galactica fans.

La Pobre Habladora said...

What I liked best about The Hathor Legacy is the "Mo Movie Measure," in which a film must include at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man."

I am going to start considering this Mo Movie Measure when I evaluate any film.

Casmall said...

Why is it called Mo?

Mächtige Maus said...

Curly was already taken?

Another Anonymous Poster said...

But you shouldn't forget the whole 'killing god' part of the third book. The siblings might not be too down with that.

La Pobre Habladora said...

No, the siblings won't like that.

It will be interesting to see what the films does with the religious (or irreligious?) themes. Even in the first book, the Church never gets to be on the good side. This might cause some problems for New Line. If you look at the web site, you'll notice that they are spelling "demon" a bit differently.

Of course, we listened to the trilogy on tape - so perhaps demon has an odd spelling in the books as well.

Another Anonymous Poster said...

As I recall, it was daemon in the books.

La BellaDonna said...

What I find utterly depressing about the whole Harry Potter Phenomenon is that the author ostensibly wrote them for her child - who is a girl. Why the heck, then, didn't she write a series called HERMIONE POTTER - whose friend and sidekick is an odd-looking boy named Harry? It seems like a complete slap at Rowlings' own daughter right from the get-go.