“How to Train Your Daughter” from DreamWorks

“How to Train Your Dragon” is a great movie; I was riveted from start to finish. The story is compelling and the animation is wonderful. A misfit boy, Hiccup, refuses to kill the dragons who relentlessly attack his Viking village, even as everyone around him, who he loves and respects, viciously slaughters them. Hiccup, instead, befriends and trains the creatures, ultimately bringing peace to his people.

Viking  leaders

But why couldn’t Hiccup have been a girl? Why couldn’t the dragon in the title have been female?

This movie, like most modern day animation blockbusters, does throw girls a few bones. There are two main characters that are girls; Astrid and Ruffnut are both good fighters, but they are clearly in supporting roles. Their job in the movie, as for most girls in most movies, is to help propel the guy, in this case, Hiccup, to greatness. Astrid and Ruffnut preform their archetypal tasks as helpmeets very well. Rah rah.

There are a few minor, minor roles for adult female Vikings, drawn as fat rather than strong, shown mostly in crowd scenes, never getting more than one line at a time. Hiccup’s father is a main character; he’s the leader of the tribe. His mother– surprise, surprise– is dead, so unusual for the mom to be killed off in a kids’ movie. She’s mentioned just once, when Hiccup’s dad hands his son a helmet which he tells his son used to be half of his mother’s breast plate. Ha ha.


The repetitive gender dynamic of boy-leader/ girl-follower is troubling because, like it or not, Hollywood provides our kids with some of their earliest leadership training. The star of the movie is the leader of the movie. Hiccup demonstrates all the skills of a truly visionary and effective leader: he’s smart, compassionate, creative, listens to his own truth, advocates for causes he believes in, builds constituencies, and trains his team. The girls’ critical choice in the movie is whether or not to follow him.

What gets me about “How to Train your Dragon” is here was a prefect opportunity to put a girl in the star role, even without messing too much with Hollywood’s beloved gender stereotypes.

Usually, when I complain about the lack of girl characters, people respond with something like “But in real life, lionesses never lead a pride” (Lion King) or “There aren’t really female chefs in top tier French kitchens” (Ratatouille)— temporarily forgetting while this may be true, it’s also true that rats can’t cook or even speak, and that lions don’t pal around with warthogs and meerkats or sing songs either. Why can’t DreamWorks create a magical world where girl and boys are equally important?

In “How to Train Your Dragon” Hiccup was already stretching the bounds of accepted masculinity by being so skinny and sweet compared with the muscley, hairy, slow-thinking, Popeye-on-steroids Vikings. Hiccup redefined bravery by refusing to kill. Why not go just a little further and make the character a girl? Apparently, DreamWorks is still too afraid, or too unimaginative, to come out with a movie starring a female, so I guess a skinny, weak boy is the next best thing.

How is Astrid finally convinced to put her trust in Hiccup instead of in his father, the tribe’s real leader? Hiccup takes her for a ride on his trained dragon, Toothless. As she dares to climb behind him on the saddle, grinning and clinging to his back, she reminded me of watching “Superman” as a kid, seeing Lois Lane dazzled by handsome Christopher Reeve as he flew her through the starry night or myself, cruising down a freeway in Austin, on the back of my boyfriend’s motorcycle, in awe at the sunset in the giant Texas sky. Yeah, it’s seductive and all, but why can’t Hollywood give girls the chance to be the hotties in the driver’s seat?

Toothless, Hiccup, and Astrid

There’s one more female in this movie, blink and you’ll miss they call her a she. Spoiler alert: it turns out all the dragons are stealing food to feed a secret, hidden, giant, boss dragon, “like worker bees to a queen,” Hiccup discovers. I’m going to look at this paradoxically minor/ major female role as subversively feminist, and awarding the movie an extra G for it, though I don’t know how many people who see the movie will get that part is a female one.

“How to Train Your Dragon” gets a GG/S rating: some girlpower, some stereotyping.

For those of you who are going to comment boys will see movies about girls, girls will not see movies about boys, please see this post.

22 thoughts on ““How to Train Your Daughter” from DreamWorks

  1. Late to the comments, but I would like to share a few thoughts about HTTYD on learning that they’re doing a live action remake. When the movie came out I really enjoyed it, because who doesn’t like dragons, Vikings, or a well made animated movie? But on closer inspection I began really disliking some of the more sexist elements of the movie and it’s sequels. Yet, when I research sexism in this movie online, this is the only discussion I have found on the problem of how leadership is presented as a male thing. It’s sad. So the issue is this: we have a fantasy world in which the characters of Astrid and Ruffnut demonstrate that conservative western gender roles are not a for-granted part of this world. Yet we have male, hereditary leadership as a key part of the plotline. Why? A little research on the matter and we discover that hereditary leadership was not part of Viking society, and not all leaders were male either, so this aspect is clearly just an invention of the creators. It really doesn’t matter what leadership model you create when it’s a fanstasy world, but the fact that there’s no discussion either in or around the movie about this male hereditary leadership model ends up normalising and naturalising it. The big danger for kids who watch this is that the normalising and naturalising of male leadership in this movie will reinforce a sexist idea of what leadership should look like, especially as this is far from an isolated instance of leadership in society being presented as “naturally” male in media aimed at children. Also, just about the comment on The Lion King, that’s not at all based on real life either. In real life, lion prides are run by the lionesses, who run the pride equally rather than in a hierarchy. The notion that it’s the male lion who leads the pride is an old one that was mostly based on confirmation bias by sexist researchers from an era where males were assumed to lead or dominate everything. Male lions certainly do not inherit their position in the pride from their fathers either. Males are evicted from the pride when they become adults.

  2. I entirely disagree. Astrid is a very strong female character, and if she was the protagonist, you wouldn’t be complaining that she’s not a boy. Hiccup is the complete opposite of a typical male character, using brain instead of brawn and all that. Hiccup is compassionate, kind and smart, not usually qualities that are seen in male protagonists. This film broke the mold that tells boys that they need to be tough, muscular and unfeeling, and DreamWorks (well, essentially Cressida Cowell) did an incredible job. Ruffnut isn’t a particularly main character, but she represents being a tomboy, and not the typical girly-girl. These characters were very well presented, and if you think that it is sexist just because the main character is a boy, then you are the one being sexist.

  3. To be honest, I feel that if the lead character had been a girl, we’d be talking about how stereotypical it is to have a female lead be the one who takes the nurturing, anti-war stance in the movie. I personally find it much more subversive that they would have a young male eschew fighting and redefine bravery as kindness – too often a trait associated with girls. How often do people tell girls to be nice, while telling boys to stand up for themselves? In this case, I would not have liked to see a girl acting as peacekeeper, because I think it’s more revolutionary to redefine masculinity around the concept.

    • This is a stupid post. Frankly I am diaappointed in the author. There are cases of sexism in movies but pointing out ones that aren’t makes me think she is an idiot. If the author wants to call a movie sexist she better do some damn research instead of throwing out that word. How to train your dragon is a book whose main character is male. Period. We aren’t going to make a harrietta potter or any other movie because that’s bullshit. A character does have to be female for a movie to not be sexist. The writer of the series is a woman. Honestly I can’t take the website opinions seriously if she doesn’t learn context or research the topics she writes about something as serious as sexism. Creating problems instead if fixing them is part of the problem, mot the solution

  4. I liked the movie HTTYD 1 BUT… I didn’t like HTTYD 2. In addition to the sexism (why is the mom’s skin perfectly wrinkle-free while Stoic is so wrinkled?) I was horrified to see that the villain had all the characteristics of an anti-Semitic stereotype. Hook nose? Check. Long ringleted shiny black hair and beard? Check. Swarthy skin? Check. Just way to similar to a Nazi propaganda poster. It was really upsetting to have to talk about this with my daughters and diminish their pleasure in the movie.

  5. Hello! I’m a 13 year old girl who is a huge fan of Harry Potter, and I loved the movie How To Train your Dragon even though the I haven’t read the books-yet. I agree that there should be more female main characters, but the reason that doesn’t happen with popular series like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson is because boys don’t generally read stories about girls. I completely understand and agree that it’s wrong. What I don’t understand is why you seem to dislike amazing stories such as Harry Potter and HTTYD ( at least, that’s the impression I have) simply because the main character is a boy. Isn’t that just as unfair to the boys as people are to the girls? And dream works, I think wouldn’t have changed the gender of hiccup since that would be completely disrespectful of the books. They should have a movie with a female main character, but I think it’s fine if they didn’t do it with how to train your dragon. As far as books go, recent popular series such as divergent and the hunger games do have strong female characters, although they aren’t fantasy.Also, both stories did have strong female characters. Harry wouldn’t have made it past the first book without Hermione and Astrid is anything but a damsel in distress. Thank you for reading this; I simply wished to point out a few things, but I do agree that overall there should be more female main characters in fantasy.

    • Hi Bluebell,

      Thank for you comment, it’s great to hear from teens on Reel Girl.

      “What I don’t understand is why you seem to dislike amazing stories such as Harry Potter and HTTYD ( at least, that’s the impression I have) simply because the main character is a boy.”

      I love Harry Potter! Love it. If you read my posts on it, you will see how many times I write about how I love the series and admire the author. I also love Lord of the Rings. I haven’t read HTTYD. In spite of my love for these books, I am sick and ired of reading about male protags again and again and again. It really bothers me when people refer to a Minority Feisty in these stories (Hermione, Astrid etc) and act as if that makes the narrative feminist. In too many books for kids, girls are allowed to be powerful only if they are (1) in the minority compared to male charcaters (2) Helping the male protag on his quest. It’ snot tha i don’t like these stories, but the repetitive pattern of gender roles is restrictive and limiting to girls and boys.


      • Thanks for clarifying! It’s good to know that you do like Harry Potter and HTTYD. Also I realized that when I first read this I was thinking about how there are lots of fiction books with strong female main characters, but there aren’t really that many fantasy books like that. And I spend most of my time reading fantasy so I would know. Also I want to be an author when I grow up (well, as soon as possible, really- why wait? ) and I find it easier to write about girls than boys. I guess not too many authors are like that then. Thanks for replying!

        • Hi Bluebell!

          I noticed you commenting that fantasy doesn’t often have female main characters, and I agree. I’m 24, and I’ve noticed since I was a teenager that there is a lot more YA SF/F with female protagonists, but it tends to be dystopias (like The Hunger Games) or paranormal romance (eg Twilight).

          Girls are making headway in high fantasy, though (try Throne of Glass, by Sarah J. Maas, or The Magicians’ Guild, by Trudi Canavan), as well as non-romance-based urban fantasy (such as City of Bones and Clockwork Angel, by Cassandra Clare; Valkyrie Rising, by Ingrid Paulson; The Chaos of Stars by Kiersten White; Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, which was actually begun in the 80s; and Vampire Academy, by Richelle Mead).

          I hope something I’ve listed here has caught your eye ^_^

  6. Have you read these books by Cressida Cowell? There area at least 8 and my 6 yo daughter is obsessed with them. In the first book, with the same name as this, but much different story, there is only one female human, Hiccup’s mother Valhallarama, notable primarily because she her humongous bra plays an important role. Also, “girly” is one of the lowest of the low Viking insults, apparently. In the 2nd book, “How to be a Pirate,” there is a strong female character, which is nice to see, although her mother, the leader of a rival tribe, is named Bib-boobied Bertha. We have decided to edit as we read . . . Love the stories, but very disappointed in some of the choices Ms Cowell made. . .

  7. I love your blog, and I hate to disagree with you on this movie. There was a reason they couldn’t make the main character a girl. In the movie, notice that Astrid was the “tough, cool girl”, leader of the gang who were in dragon training, and best dragon killer. All the other kids admire her, including the male leader of the gang. Hiccup is a weakling, a thin, scrawny little kid who gets treated like dirt by the rest of the gang, including the “cool, tough” Astrid. He is a peace-loving wimp but eventually befriends a dragon and teaches the village the meaning of peace. The high-and-mighty Astrid accepts him as her boyfriend. If Hiccup had been a girl and Astrid a boy, it would seem far more sexist of the movie producers. The media would be quick to pick up on the fact that there was a female sterotype where the hero, though a girl, is a weakling who is peace-loving and has to befriend the dragons, while the leader of the gang is a strong, tough, cool guy who treats the girl like dirt. Indeed, Astrid is definitely not a help-along role. She does not act or seem like the pictured girl who holds on to Hiccup tightly as they fly through the air on Hiccup’s dragon’s back. In the movie, she is portrayed as fiercely independent, tough, and brave. Hiccup is a peace-loving nerd and wimp with a strange accent.

    Finally, Hiccup’s breastplate-wearing, battlecry-screaming Mom is nothing like the repulsive female Viking stereotype– for instance, a stereotypical fat, homey blond Viking woman who never went out to war and weaved and cooked Hiccups’ luncheons each day before sending him into battle.

    • Karen,

      Thanks for your comments and your views on Astrid. I still would prefer Astrid to be the title character. I get what you’re saying– and basically wrote the same thing in my post– that making the skinny, weak, peaceloving kid a girl would be capitualting to gender sterotypes. That said, I will take what I can get! If that gets a female as the star, and she is ‘weak’ compared to a bunch of steroid war crazy Vikings, that’s not so bad by Hollywood standards in kid media.

      Thanks again for visiting ReelGirl.


    • Thank you Karen, I totally agree. Yes, we need strong female role models for our girls, but we also need role models that teach boys that being gentle and showing mercy is not the same as being feminine or weak. (And also being anti-violence, I’d rather my children watch this movie than one where a female warrior kills hundreds in an avalanche.) While perhaps not “girl-power” I’d say this movie is definitely anti-stereotyping.

      I’d also note that men and women were in the war party that went out to hunt dragons and the one person that stayed home to look after the younger children was male, And bonus points for showing people (or dragons) with disabilities as functional members of society.

  8. After watching this movie with my daughter (8) and niece (5), I gave them an in-one-ear-and-out-the-other lecture about if in the future they become authors, they need to write girls. When I watched the movie, I had the sense that the book that was written by a woman, which I later confirmed. My 8 year old is a big Harry Potter fan, so I asked her, why couldn’t JK Rowling written HENRIETTA Potter (a thought which left her flabbergasted)? This point really struck home when my daughter picked out two books at the library Oogie Cooder: Party Animal and Roscoe Riley Rules: Never Glue Your Friends to Chairs, both books written by women about boys. Love your blog, Margot.

    • 4-girl mom,

      I feel the same way about Harry Potter! Why couldn’t she have been a girl? And J. K. Rowling too is obviously a gender ambiguous name.

      Thanks for your comments.

  9. Hi,
    I feel like the Christian coalition is doing a better job than women (in general) getting their agenda into mainstream media. Juno made keeping an unwanted baby all fairy tale happy and easy. J Lo’s new movie Backup Plan was probably not written by a woman.

    Is it time for women to develop an old girls network and push this agenda forward. Women (and girls) as capable, strong, people – and characters for movies.

    I’m glad Geena Davis is in the mix.

    • Moe,

      I seriously can’t tell the difference betweeh rom-com posters with Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Aniston, and Sandra Bullock.

      Yes, old girls network! I’m doing my best with the Woodhull Institute, training young women ethical leaders in skills they too often lack (financial literacy, negotiation, advocacy, publishing.) I wanted to create a place like Woodhull because I was tired of women protesting from the outiside (which I do some of in my blogging, but at least I AM blogging. I’m surprsied by how male dominated the intrenet is and the comments are on the mainstream sites.) Anyway, the goal is to create and network more women writers, producers, and media moguls. It’s not that men’s stories are bad, it’s just too many stories come from that one prespective. If women ran the world as a group, men’s roles in movies etc would be boyfriends and foils, that’s why we need diversity.

      Sorry it took me so long to reply, I’m in over my head wit this blogging.


  10. We just saw this movie yesterday — my two boys, ages 6 and 8 and me. I loved everything about it, to be honest. In fact, in the car on the way home my 8 year old said à propos of absolutely nothing, “You know what I learned from that movie, Mom? That just because someone is bugging you doesn’t mean you should be mean to them.” Not a bad takeaway for either gender!

  11. I completely agree with you on a number of terms here. In general, I pay a lot of attention to the respective roles of girls and boys in films and books, and why the writers decide to put them here. I look at if gender roles are meant to make commentary on the real life issue, be historically or culturally accurate, change typical roles, or are simply ignorant. I agree that in fictional stories, when so much else is changed, why not change the stereotypical or cultural gender roles? However, I find How To Train Your Dragon different because the movie is about a father-son relationship, and because putting a girl in the “weak, sweet” role would be even worse.

    Some people would respond to your statement by saying “well viking women wouldn’t have had leadership positions.” Number one, maybe, maybe not, but the whole idea of this movie was to show a father son relationship, not a mother daughter one. Hiccup needed to be a boy to talk about this very specific and unique relationship between father and son. Number two, women are shown as warriors in this movie rather than at home, so that’s good, even if they aren’t in leadership roles. (and your statement about “fat” doesn’t work because that is simply historically accurate and allows the men and female warrior adults to be about the same size. Why would they have fit, slim women adult vikings and fat/buff men vikings? That would be much worse.)

    My main point is that if Astrid was the “weak sensitive” character and Hiccup the “super hot strong” one, that would be pro-stereotypes so much more. The only thing that one could complain about is that the boy ends up saving the day, but the whole point of the movie is that boys don’t have to be stereotypically manly and tough: they can be sensitive, thoughtful, and different. Meanwhile, Astrid gets to be the hard to please, on top, sexy, and tough one. I see this movie as giving the message about gay sons and their fathers, about fathers accepting that their sons aren’t like everyone else, and that they may not be stereotypically masculine. If it were vise-versa, the girl would be in that same old “weak, seen as unimportant, not listened to, and seen as oversensitive” character. How like a girl, to not want to kill the dragon. Though we would all be rooting for the girl when she finally changed the world, it’s not the same as rooting for the boy who is a little like a girl, and who wins by being himself.
    Thanks for putting out good thoughts to talk about and respond to,

  12. Hi Margot. I was drawn to this movie because Toothless reminds me of my cat Laurylai. I think it teaches empathy without promoting an unthinking kind of duty. Philanthropy instead of altruism. Volition, ability and inclination are so much better attributes than duty.

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