“Three out of four characters in G-rated movies are male. We studied the top 100 movies released from 1990 to 2005. Of characters shown in groups, only 17% were female, and, of the few female characters that were in these movies, most of them were highly stereotyped. And, by the way, during this 15-year period, there was zero improvement as far as the percentage of female characters. So you have to think: ‘What message is our culture still sending to kids?’ That women and girls are worth less, and their worth is different than men and boys.
What if, partly because the media children are seeing from the very beginning, programming that’s aimed at our very youngest kids, have this huge imbalance, it’s affecting them when they’re adults?”
– Geena Davis at the NCMR, video and quote found here.
Let me begin by saying this: I LOVED Up. I don’t think it would have been possible for me to have enjoyed that movie more – it was appropriate for all ages, had a diverse range of characters, a unique, whimsical, and highly entertaining storyline… and it had a kick-ass female character! Its actually because I loved Up so much that I felt the need to write this post, a post that it turns out has already been written (in part) by many other talented bloggers/journalists.
For instance, I totally agree with NPR journalist Linda Holmes, who writes in an open letter to Pixar:
“This is not an angry letter. It is especially not an angry letter about Up, which I adored. I could have sat in the theater and watched it two more times in a row. I cried, but I also laughed so hard in places that it wore me out.
Amanda from Pandagon also voices similar thoughts to my own in her review of Up:
“Unfortunately, the one female character in the film of any note (besides the bird) is Ellie, the deceased wife. It’s hard to be too mad about this, because they actually give her a real personality before they kill her off, and they allow her to be an old woman, to boot, which is more than any of the Manic Pixie Dream Girls get. It’s amazing how much of her personality comes across in the short period she’s onscreen, and it makes you long for a Pixar movie that actually puts a woman front and center as the main character. They’re able to give us old men and whiny kids*, so why not a woman?”
It bothers me that there are so few strong and capable lead female characters being featured in movies, especially children’s movies. It bothers me because this exclusion** means that the gender dichotomy and the idea that girls are supposed to be nothing more than dainty, passive, princesses lives on in the media that this generation of children are watching, which means that on some level these children will be internalizing these ideas and living them out – another generation of girls brainwashed into believing “princess” is the female ideal and pressured to hold in many of their strengths in order to be acceptably feminine (obviously there will be girls who fight this pressure, but the point is they should not have to fight anything – they should be allowed to express their power and abilities without social pressure!)
There are exceptions of course. Lilo, from Lilo & Stitch. Eve from Wall*E (although she’s not really a human nor is she conscious for the whole film.) Fiona from Shreck (although, again, not human for most of the film.) Ellie from Up (even though she dies in the first ten minutes.) I’m grateful for these exceptions, but to be quite honest they are not good enough because by having these females be the exceptions, rather than the rule, we are teaching children that strong females are the exception and that most girls are dainty and passive damsels-in-distress.
I was recently lucky enough to stumble upon a copy of “Dick and Jane as Victims: Sex Stereotyping in Children’s Readers” which details a content analysis of children’s readers done in 1972 (and again in 1975). This study showed the sexist divide between male and female characters in books aimed at impressionable children in the seventies, unsurprisingly it got me thinking about today’s society and the sexist divide that still exists in material aimed at children, especially movies.
The study shows that out of 134 books the ratio of boy-centered stories to girl-centered stories was 5:2, adult male main characters to adult female main characters was 3:1, male biographies to female biographies was 6:1, and male animal stories to female animal stories was 2:1. It also went on the show the differences in how these characters were portrayed, with the male leads more often pictured and described as doing active, adventurous things while the girls stood or sat passively.
Although I cannot comment on readers today, I can say a little bit about the children’s movies we watch. I analyzed the releases of three major animation studios (Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks) to see how they measure up in terms of male-centered stories, and female-centered stories. Then I made a fun chart to tie it all together:
This chart shows an obvious disparity, which only gets worse when you consider the content of each film – many of which show women (even the women who are protagonists) as weak and in need of rescue by their “Prince Charming.” Be it Snow White, who spends much of the movie either hiding or in a coma, or Mulan who may kick some major butt on the battle field but, at the end of the day, would be nothing without her army trainer turned boyfriend – these films are sending the wrong messages to generation after generation of girls who aspire to be passive princesses instead of awesome astronauts, firefighters, teachers, lawyers, professors, and so on…
An excerpt from “Dick and Jane as Victims” is sadly too close to the message I am trying to convey, more than three decades later:
“Johnny says girls aren’t fun. Janey says she wants to be a doctor when she grows up but she knows girls cannot be doctors, so she will be a nurse instead. Dick says he will be an engineer. Sally says she will be a mommy. Dick says girls are stupid. Janey says she might only be a girl but she isn’t stupid at all. Where does this all come from? Some station is transmitting a clear message to our children about their place in life. They have been tuned in from birth to a frequency that directs everything they attempt, from skipping rope to getting a Ph.D. Something insures that any deviation from the norm will be fraught with personal hazards and traumas.
If Janey does become a doctor, she will feel guilty about a Mommy, or as good a Mommy as she “ought” to be. Johnny will not feel at all guilty about being a doctor whether he is a Daddy or not. Dick will say girls are stupid, and most girls will agree with him, except for Janey who is on the way to becoming an “aggressive” woman. Dick himself will feel no guilt at his remark. Sally, however, would feel very bad indeed if she called Dick stupid, for it might wound his self esteem, which even at the age of nine, Sally knows is a serious thing. Johnny will spend much of his working and playing life with boys, whom he expects will be much more fun than girls; his wife, locked into domesticity, will be even less fun in her confinement. […] Again, where does this all begin?“
– Intro to “Dick & Jane as Victims”, emphasis mine.
It goes on to describe the character’s “lives” even more, but I had to stop transcribing at some point! Reading this I was amazed at how very far we’ve come, and how very far we haven’t come all at the same time (if that makes any sense.)
We’re maintaining the social structures that guilt women into choosing between children and a career, make men feel embarrassed when they choose to be stay at home parents, promote the idea that women are not as intelligent, analytical, or capable of success in the corporate world as men are, and so on… social structures that should have been gone a long time ago. Social structures that begin, in part, with the movies this generation’s children are watching.
I’m not saying that the media is solely responsible for this, or even mostly responsible for this, of course; the media is largely a reaction of the societal values we have in place . However, it goes both ways, society can shape the media that is produced, and media can in turn present and shape new societal values. I think its time for our media, especially that which is aimed at children, to begin promoting the idea of a world where both genders are equally diverse and capable of great things!
If little girls AND boys were given more independent, brave, and capable fictional female role-models to look up to they may just group up believing that real life women are smart, strong, and capable of much more than the life of a passive princess – can you imagine how much more progress could come from a society where everyone felt capable and free to follow their dreams, regardless of gender?
In the end, I’d like to turn again to Linda Holmes who puts it better than I ever could:
“Little Russell, in Up, is Asian-American, right? And that’s not a big plot point; presumably, he just is because there’s no particular reason he shouldn’t be. You don’t need him to be, but you don’t need him not to be, either. It’s not politics; it’s just seeing the whole big world.
* In her review she frames showing a whiny kid as a good thing, because movie companies often portray children as more experienced/sophisticated than they realistically are. (Funny how they seem to do the opposite to women quite often!)
** Which I honestly do believe is, at least for the most part, an unintentional omission by the movie makers!
# Disney movies from the chart I made:
Male -centered: Pinocchio, Dumbo, Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Bambi, Peter Pan, The Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, Robin Hood, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, The Fox and the Hound, The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver & Company, Aladdin, The Lion King, Chicken Little, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Tarzan, The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, Meet the Robinsons
Female-centered: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, Mulan, Lilo & Stitch, Home on the Range, The Princess and the Frog
Both-genders featured equally: Fantasia, Lady and the Tramp, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Aristocats, The Rescuers, The Rescuers Down Under, Fantasia 2000