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Girls Rule, Boys Drool? Stereotyping the sexes in family films

10/12/2011 Comments (58)

A reader writes:

Well, I finally got around to watching Monsters vs. Aliens … and was not impressed. Generally, I agreed with your review; however, I had one issue. You stated:

A superfluous scene depicting a young couple parking in a convertible at night first ridicules the virility of the young man, a letter-wearing jock (the girl wants some action, and is clearly disappointed by her beau’s diffidence)—then depicts him trailing fearfully behind his intrepid date as she goes to investigate a mysterious crash in the distance. He even twists his ankle so that she has to carry him.

I believe that this scene was less of an insult toward men and more of a declaration on the manner with which women are consistently portrayed in films. The screenwriters simply switched the clichéd roles of the man and the woman within Hollywood movies. Did it belong in a children’s film? No—what young child would understand? Was it an interesting statement? I thought so.

One thing I’d like to see in mainstream movies is depictions of strong women who, yes, can handle themselves, but treat and are treated by men with respect. In generally every mainstream film, women are there to be sexual objects (and usually that only), while strong leading men have the exciting, interesting roles. In fact, Ms. Geena Davis (an actress) funded some very interesting research on gender stereotypes in television and films. Quote: “Examining over 4,000 characters across 400 G, PG, PG-13, and R-rated movies, our data reveal that two types of females often frequent film: the traditional and the hypersexual.”

Whew, that was a lot! I just wanted to make my point that men usually are portrayed more positively than women in film and television - though still not nearly enough - as women are being equated to sexual objects within our culture.

As a father of three daughters, I’m very conscious of how female characters are portrayed in animation and family films generally. The studies you point to raise some valid considerations: It’s certainly true that male characters simply outnumber females, and that females are often sexualized, whether in a “traditional” or “hypersexual” mode.

At the same time, the studies you cite praise certain family films that “depict females in a compelling light” by highlighting their heroines’ “aspirations and heroic actions.” I’m all for that trend as far as it goes, but I’m also conscious of how the desire to depict liberated and capable heroines sometimes extends to undercutting and demeaning male characters. After all, I’m also the father of three boys—and if anything the male-bashing thing bothers Suz more than it does me.

Sometimes it seems that neither females nor males appear in a particularly satisfactory light. Reviewing The Lion King recently, I noted that Simba’s play/mate Nala is “liberated but not empowered.” That is, she’s tough and confident—she pins Simba repeatedly—and where Simba is passive and diffident, only acting when instructed, Nala acts independently, leaving the pridelands to find food and look for help. She’s insightful too: She knows what Simba needs to do long before he does. On the other hand, Nala and the other females are helpless to take action against Scar until Simba comes to his senses. To that extent, it’s all about the men, even though Simba is hardly as inspiring a figure as Nala.

This isn’t an isolated example. Over and over we see smart, tough, confident, independent heroines—Astrid in How to Train Your Dragon; Hermione in the Harry Potter films; Tigress in Kung Fu Panda; Eve in Wall-E; Colette in Ratatouille; Jewel in Rio—next to whom the heroes appear variously awkward, diffident, incapable, clueless or ridiculous. (For the record, I like all of these films; it’s the recurring patterns, more than the individual films, that I think is potentially concerning.)

Astrid may be a rail-thin, glamorous blonde, but she’s also a tough-as-nails overachiever and the admiration of everyone in the village, while poor Hiccup is the village joke until he eventually proves himself first to Astrid and then to everyone else. Hermione is smarter and more tough-minded than Harry or Ron, though only Harry can save the day. Elastigirl in The Incredibles is more sensible than her husband and is in some ways more the grownup in the relationship (look at who’s keeping secrets from whom), but the drama is ultimately about Mr. Incredible.

On the one hand, then, the stories still revolve around the male characters, often with the flattering premise that even seemingly unpromising males possess hidden greatness, and in many cases may succeed with females seemingly out of their league (a common theme in more mature fare as well). On the other hand, females tend to be more competent and mature, yet are often dependent on the males to make key decisions or perform key actions.

I can’t say I’m happy about either half of this pattern. On the one hand, I want to see strong, competent female characters—but I also want them to matter to the plot, to be able to make a difference on their own. On the other hand, I also want to see admirable, competent male characters who are the equals of the female characters.

In the case of Monsters vs. Aliens, a female rescuing a male no longer strikes me as much of an ironic role reversal, the way it might have decades ago. If anything, it’s a variation on a new cliché. It’s also worth noting that the girl carrying the guy isn’t the only reversal in that scene: Earlier in the scene, she’s the one hoping for romantic action, and disappointed in his reluctance. In both respects, the scene fits into the overall theme of male inadequacy and comeuppance running through the film.

That’s how I see it. What do you think? What images of men and women, boys and girls stand out to you from family films, or films generally? On television? In advertising?

What are some of your favorite depictions of girls in family films, or movies generally? What about boys?

Filed under animation, family films

About Steven D. Greydanus

SDG
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Steven D. Greydanus is film critic for the National Catholic Register and Decent Films, the online home for his film writing. He writes regularly for Christianity Today, Catholic World Report and other venues, and is a regular guest on several radio shows. Steven has contributed several entries to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, including “The Church and Film” and a number of filmmaker biographies. He has also written about film for the Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy. He has a BFA in Media Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York, and an MA in Religious Studies from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, PA. He is pursuing diaconal studies in the Archdiocese of Newark. Steven and Suzanne have seven children.