The curse of the Minority Feisty in kids movies

If you see an animated film today, it’s likely to include a token strong female character or two who reviewers will call “feisty.” In “How to Train Your Dragon,” Astrid; in “Toy Story,” Jessie; in “Ratatouille,” Colette. She’s supposed to make us feel like the movie is contemporary and feminist, unlike those sexist films of yesteryear.

The problem is that because Pixar or Disney has so magnanimously thrown in this “feisty” female (who may even have some commentary about sexism or male domination) we’re no longer supposed to care that almost all of the other characters in the film are male, including the star who the movie is often titled for and usually his best buddy as well. The crowd scenes in the film are also made up of mostly males.

“Feisty” isn’t a word that describes someone with real power, but someone who plays at being powerful. Would you ever call Superman “feisty?”  How would he feel if you did?

The Smurfette Principle has evolved into the Minority Feisty. Now instead of a “token” female in a children’s movie, we may see a few females sprinkled around, a “minority” of them. Parents, the next time you watch a children’s movie, try not to let the Minority Feisty population distract you from the limitations female characters are almost always forced into. Ask yourself: Is the female the protagonist in this film? Does the narrative revolve around her quest? Or is she there to (play a crucial role in) helping the male star achieve his goal/ dream?

Imagine if the gender ratio presented in movies for kids was reflected in the real world. Girls would be a minority. Is that a world that you want your kids to live in? Why does the imaginary world have to be sexist at all?

See Peggy Orenstein’s post: “Pixar’s female problem: Please stop asking ‘What about Jessie?,” on the Minority Feisty issue

See Reel Girl’s Gallery of Girls Gone Missing From Children’s Movies in 2014







51 thoughts on “The curse of the Minority Feisty in kids movies

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  4. Kids don’t notice this mess. I have a little girl, and she loves the minions. they are cartoons people. There are worse things goin in reality kids, real problems. Smh. You wanna see a sorry portrayal at life look out your window. Better yet look at yourselves. Adults whinning about kids cartoons. Wow.

    • Your kids might not notice, or more likely you never bothered to ask them if they did because it’s prevalent enough for them to accept as norm, but that doesn’t mean all kids don’t.
      I know I noticed these things when I was little, but more pertinently adults scrutinizing the products of other adults is important. That’s literally what parents have always done with media they leave their children to consume. You have the audacity to make an ad hominem attack on this article but all you’ve illustrated is your glaring ignorance.

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  6. Right on Margot. But shit, I just started up a business and named it Feisty Fems! I’m going to go ahead and reclaim that word and show that there can be real power there…and make Superman proud to be called it!

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  21. And yet there’s no commentary on how cartoons or shows targeting female demographics are the polar opposite of what you just complained about. Jem and the Holograms had a token male (some guy in love with both Jem and her normal persona). Sailor Moon had a token male (Tuxedo Mask). Every direct-to-video movie based on some line of girls toys has a token male that plays the male equivalent of a “feisty female”. Every family comedy on TV shows the dad character being a bumbling idiot to laugh at and not take seriously. Every commercial on TV shows men to be bumbling idiots that need a superior woman to shake her head as if going “oh you silly man, you’re lucky I’m here to hold your leash”.

    But,you conveniently don’t complain about that. Look, if you’re going to complain about one facet of entertainment, then you need to cover it from both angles. The problem is that marketing folks base entertainment on the demographic they’re targeting. If you have a problem with male-dominated movies, then take it up with the marketing department of the company rolling out the movie, don’t just hate on men in general. I can’t stand day-time TV commercials and soap operas, but I understand I’m not the target demographic. Really, I think THAT’S sexist. Day time entertainment is geared towards women … as if to say “you ladies are losers that don’t have jobs and are nothing but stay-at-home mothers.” Why don’t auto racing shows come in mid-day? It’s the 21st century. There’s such a thing as a stay-at-home-dad.

    Anyways, the way you feel about women portrayed in male-dominant shows is how men feel about guys in women-dominated shows. In male-dominated shows women are just second fiddle meant to be some love interest. In women-dominated shows it’s the same thing, or worse, men are just there to be stupid so women can feel superior. Marketing dept’s suck up to peoples perception of what makes their own sex superior and what makes the opposite sex inferior. It’s always been like that. Not saying it’s cool. Just saying if you’re going to complain then you need to do it from both sides of the aisle instead of making it seem like just a male-dominated thing.

    • The article was about the portrayal of women in children’s movies. There was no “hating on” men! And frankly the sitcom thing of the bumbling dad is horrid and insulting, but it’s a bit out of the scope of an article that is quite focused on a different genre. Stop freaking out.

    • Dear lord. There is no longstanding institutional bias against men and boys. To put forth a reverse sexism argument in this, and probably ANY, context is ridiculously contrary. Why don’t you go bother your older, teenaged sister with your yapping so the grown-ups can have a sensible conversation…

      • “There is no longstanding institutional bias against men and boys.”

        I’m sorry, you’re joking, right? Have you heard of the Duluth model? A severe lack of shelters for male victims of domestic abuse? Infant circumcision? Higher suicide rates often due to a society that refuses to listen to men when it comes to emotions/mental health? And your answer to progressiveness it to shut someone up for expressing some very valid points?

        There is no such thing as “reverse” sexism, there is only sexism – which is described as being bigotry towards a sex. You don’t get to pull a “but mine is more REAL, it’s *institutionalised!*” card, because guess what – everyone has to deal with sexism. Everyone.

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  23. This ones’s pretty obvious,but the entire Star Wars series fits that pattern! Are there ANY women in Lucas’ universe except Leia and Amidala?

      • Well now that the universe is beginning to expand, let’s include Ahsoka, shall we? Strong, brave, opinionated, loyal, honest and ready to fight for what she thinks is right. AND there are multiple episodes centered SPECIFICALLY on her.. Most of which wherein she commands battalions of Clone Troopers (male). Let’s also take a look at some other female characters in Star Wars than have cropped up.

        Cassie Cryar (Only appears in one episode but manages to steal Ahsoka’s lightsaber, and outruns her, despite not being a Jedi and having no Force powers)

        The Duchess of Madalore (Pacifist with a voice and will that can move mountains and then some)

        Aurra Sing (Definitive badass, verified and true.)

        Asajj Ventress (She can take on multiple Jedi and soldiers with little to no sweat, and has nearly succeeded in killing off one of the most powerful characters in the show)

        Barriss Offee (Lady Jedi, follows directly in her female master’s footsteps, kicks ass and good friends with Ahsoka. Flawed but virtuous.)

        All of these women have episodes centered mainly on them, as well as other female characters.

        Undoubtedly Leia is not the most feminist or progressive character, but the Star Wars universe has come a long way since then and the female characters are really adding up, as well as getting upgraded in their skills of badassery, both with and without males.
        Multiple episodes have starred both Ahsoka and Barriss with few to no male characters of any prevalence, and they all pass the Bechdel Test.

        • Yeah no one knows those women’s names or stories. There are exceptions to every rule, please don’t do further damage to our fight by acting like naming the 5 women characters in existence you can name make up for what the article is about.

          • “Please don’t do damage to our fight.”

            So you’re going to ignore any pre-existing, positive female character that you hadn’t heard of before, for the sake of keeping your victim complex intact?

  24. It’s almost like they put her in just to make us have that frustrating “but what about Jessie?” conversation with people, over and over.

    “Ratatouille” made me the most cross, because even if they made a point about the sexism in the humans’ world, that gave them zero excuse for the rats. Was I the only one wondering how they managed to breed so many of them when they didn’t appear to have any females?

    (As a side note, my little boy spent a couple of months telling people that his name was Astrid, after “Dragon” came out, then this week there was a new little girl in his dance class who was insisting on being called Hiccup. I see a great future for them both.)

    • Hi Orlando,

      Yes, that speech Colette made about how hard it was to get ahead in a male dominated kitchen TOTALLY PISSED ME OFF. This is a movie about a rat who can cook, but when it comes to sexism, all of a sudden we are concerned with being realistic?? WHY?


  25. Heh heh, I was actually just thinking about Astrid just yesterday.

    While she certainly has the facade of a strong character, I dare say the film would have been much more interesting had she been in the lead role instead.

    Unfortunately, she’s relegated to being a pseudo sidekick/love interest and I doubt the upcoming sequel will change this.

    • Hi Charles Kenny,

      Totally agree, or why couldn’t the dragon have been female at least? I know, I know because it was a book first and the book had male lead characters. I did not know a sequel was coming. Is it a book as well?

      I love your blog by the way, learning a lot about animation.


      • Thank you for the kind words! I’m enjoying your blog too 🙂

        There is a series of books, but to the best of my knowledge, the first film took bits and pieces from them all, so it’s not like say, Harry Potter, where the films follow the books exactly. The sequel is likely to stray further from the original material.

  26. Hmmm…that’s very interesting. Now I’m thinking over all these kids’ movies and it’s exactly what you just pointed out. Now I’ll be looking for the sassy female in all the movies that come out.

    • Hi Bubbawheat,

      Is the heroine of Brave surrounded by men? I am hoping there is at least one other female who helps her in some way. I just blogged about the phenomenon od surrounding the heroine with males in The Golden Compass.


      • What about Serafina Pekkala in The Golden Compass? What I find interesting about her is that she’s a witch (which isn’t a bad thing in Lyra’s world), and only women can be witches; any boys they give birth to are just ordinary humans. Thus the women in their society are the ones with the inherent power.

        More generally on the topic of the post as a whole, I think part of the damage done by the ‘token feisty female’ is that it sets this up as how women should be. It’s not really any different from the Smurfette, in that this has become the new standard female, in which the femaleness of a character *is* her personality.

      • Oh, and this article is great for explaining the problem of ‘Strong Female Characters’:

        In a way it’s more applicable to films directed at teen and adult audiences, because it talks about how female characters remain ‘sexy’, but then again a lot of kids’ movies have pretty, skinny, scantily-clad female characters, too, so it probably does still apply.

  27. Wow,…SO many examples of this! _Cars_ is another one. Of course, if the female character happens to be black or Latina, she’ll be described as “sassy” or “fiery”.

    • Hi Lesley,

      Yes, sassy and fiery! There are so many examples: Po In Happy Feet 2, Kitty Softpaws in Puss in Boots, probably the Taylor Swift character in The Lorax will be feisty, Smurfette, the Angelina Jolie character in Kung Fu Panda…


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