The Magowan Test for gender bias in children’s movies

Commenters ask me a lot about the Bechdel Test created by Alison Bechdel in 1985 to check for sexism in movies. It names the following three criteria for a movie: (1) it has to have at least two women in it (2) who talk to each other (3) about something besides a man.

I love Bechdel’s test. Here’s my version, inspired by Bechdel and adapted for children’s movies: (1) At least two females who are friends (2) go on an adventure (3) and don’t wear revealing clothing.

The Magowan Test is for movies marketed to little kids.

 

32 thoughts on “The Magowan Test for gender bias in children’s movies

  1. What about Tangled? Rapunzel and the witch aren’t friends, but I’d make an argument that it’s pretty close to passing.
    The Incredibles? The characters are in Spandex, but that’s true for all the characters, not just the girls.

  2. Ballet Shoes, The Incredibles, Mary Poppins, The Rescuers, the first two Narnia films (tho the second one really took liberties with the books), Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the original Parent Trap…
    That’s all I can think of at the moment.

  3. I think “going on an adventure” might eliminate too many movies only because it prioritizes a certain kind of movie. I understand that a lot of a children’s movies center around an “adventure” of sorts but I think that ignoring all the other criteria and just asking “do any of the characters go on an adventure” eliminates a lot of films automatically. Also, I find that a lot of films without actual teams are more Bildungsroman than collaborative effort so requiring two female characters to go on an adventure together knocks out a lot of films as well. One female character going on an adventure would work. Two generally means that they are both main characters or one is a servant.

    For example, Barbie the Princess and the Pauper has two female characters who don’t really wear revealing clothing but since it’s about switching lives, they obviously go on separate arcs and I wouldn’t classify either as a traditional “adventure”.

    The Princess and the Frog has Tiana and her best friend Charlotte. Neither wears anything too revealing (unless you think a sweetheart neckline is too revealing). But Charlotte is a representative of the established order and to find herself, Tiana needs to learn to move outside of the established order. So while Tiana does go on an adventure, she can’t take Charlotte with her. Though Charlotte does figure into the adventure plot somewhat towards the end.

    Pocahontas has a best friend but I don’t count that as an adventure movie. I suppose if you really wanted to make the argument, Aurora is friends with the fairies, no one wears revealing clothing, and they face off against Maleficent. But again, it doesn’t seem like an “adventure” to me.

    I think the problem is that a lot of female characters are represented as somehow being alone in the world (which is somewhat typical of a Bildungsroman) and if they do have friends, they are animal friends.. who are almost always male in Disney films. And I can’t think of female characters who aren’t part of a team who go on “adventures”.

    I guess I need to ask how you would define an adventure. I really think maybe that one needs to be altered a bit. Even in non-princess movies I wouldn’t classify just leaving the house and doing things or facing off against a villain as an adventure. To me, adventure means actively going out to pursue some goal and either completing tasks or facing obstacles along the way.

    • I will say that it’s interesting how a lot of starring female characters or female characters are often the lone female of importance in the film. I don’t think that’s just because of the sexism of the creators. The animals or non-human creatures kind of smack of “male is the default” but I think there’s something more to it. It’s almost as though when there is a female character, the creators want everything else to fade into the background so we focus most of our attention on that female character and only acknowledge the host of male characters when she focuses her attention on one of them. For some reason this makes me think of Mulan and Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s history plays are my least favorite because there are just a host of male names who blend together for me. And that’s kind of the way I feel about a lot of background male characters in animated films in particular. They aren’t fully fleshed out. It’s just like a lot of background noise that serves to move the plot along.

      • Another thing I think a lot of films end up implying is that having a female friend means that you’re not really alone. Many characters have male friends but are still considered alone or find their lives unsatisfying. Of course, this often means they end up going to find a love interest. But I would suggest that it also means that if there were fewer female antagonists and more female friends, there wouldn’t be a movie. Female friendship almost seems to mean stability. I just came up with this but I feel like you often see girls leaving their female friends (if they have any) and a stable world to go seek adventure or change in the uncertainty of an unstable world, only to return and find female friendship or at least family.

        I’m interested in what you think of this theory, Margot.

        • Hi Cat,

          I disagree that friendships imply stability. Friendships are complicated, with conflicts and ups and downs, just like all relationships, coming together and pulling away, friends can become enemies, enemies become friends, the protag is transformed by it all.. Males in movies always get these kinds of relationships (“buddy movies”) but females with their one dimensional characters rarely do.

          Margot

          • I don’t mean that I personally think friendships imply stability. I mean that in a lot of films that either have one female friendship or that involve a lone female character leaving society for whatever reason, its the female relationships that seem to suggest stability while the relationships with male characters persist regardless of the setting.

      • Hi Cat,

        disagree again, look at classics like Dorothy of Oz. the scarecrow is a great character, so is the Tinman and the Cowardly Lion. Same with the Mad hatter in Alice, the armored bear in Golden Compass, Mr. Tumnus and Aslan in the Lion, teh Witch, and the Wardrobe, on and on

        Margot

        • I wouldn’t count those as lone female character movies. The Narnia movies have at least two sisters and the witch. Alice has Alice, the red queen, the white queen, probably other characters (I haven’t seen the movie). Dorothy has the Wicked Witch of the West, Glinda. I am talking about something like Pocahontas where she has one best friend (who she spends most of the movie ignoring) and as far as I can remember, everyone else is a guy.

    • Hi Cat,

      I agree adventure is actively pursuing a goal, facing tasks and obstacles, but I think the movies you list qualify as that.

      Margot

  4. The only children movie i know that pass this new test is Ghibli’s My Neighbor Totoro, it has 2 sisters as main characters, they’re friends, talk to each other about lots of things and have adventures.

    That new test is a really good idea, i think japanese animation have higher chances to pass this test them hollywood animation.

    • Hi osakadaioh,

      “Brave” passes, Merida and her mom qualify as friends who go on an adventure together. “Spirited Away” passes, Sen befriends a female on her adventure. I think “Wreck-It Ralph” would pass…I have to think on this to see what movies do.

      Margot

      • Oh, I though both girls needed to be main characters. So, almost all ghibli movies passes, some Disney princess movies passes too, Tinker Bell movies and maybe Barbie movies.

        • Hi oskakadahloh,

          Both females do not need to be main characters. I have one Barbie movie on my list of great movies with female protagonists: Barbie Fairytopia Mermaidlandia (i think that is the title) but i don’t think the outfits would pass. Tinker Bell’s outfit is horrible and would not pass. Disney, I don’t know if any pass. Mulan is not bad, does she have a female friend on the adventure? Maybe Beauty and the Beast would pass b/c of the Tea kettle. For Miyazaki– Ponyo passes b/c of the mom, and the ones I mentioned and you mentioned. They all have adventures and don’t have revealing clothing, so I think its just the female partners aspect.

          Margot

          • Oh, i’ve forget about the clothing rule, but most of Barbie’s fairy tale inspired movies would pass the test, like
            Barbie:
            Swan Lake,
            Princess and the Pauper,
            12 Dancing Princesses,
            Diamond Castle,
            Christmas Carol,
            Island Princess,
            Three Musketeers,
            those are the ones i’ve watch, i’m pretty sure they pass the test, Barbie as female friends, they talk about lots of things, unfortunatally they talk about men too, does it invalidates the test?
            I’ve forgot about Tinker Bell clothes, it really is a problem, i’ve only consider the female friendship part of the movies.
            From Ghibli, the ones i’ve watch: Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Arrietty, Ponyo and From up to poppy hill passes.
            Disney princess, i can only remember Tangled (Rapunzel always talks with Mother Gohel, about herself), Princess and the Frog (Tiana talks with her mother about her future), Cinderella talks with her step-mother and step sisters and with the fairy godmother, but i guess most of the time they talk about the prince. Aurora talks with the fairy godmothers about herself and the prince… I guess only Brave, Princess and the Frog, Tangled pass the test…

            Sorry my big list.

          • Hi osakadahloh,

            For my test, the females must be friends and go on an adventure, there is no rule for what they talk about. Mother Gothel is an enemy. Not sure about Princess and the Frog, does the mom go on the adventure?

            MM

          • I just want to talk about one movie that passes and is remarkable at that: Porco Rosso. The lead is a man, but throughtout the movie we see girls, the whole team minus the organizer that fixes Porco’s plane are girls.

          • I was in doubt about Porco Rosso, but u are right aninha91, another one from ghibli that passes.

  5. So Justice League Birds of Prey is out, along with many Tomb Raider segments in which Lara Croft teams up with other women…

    We’ve endured a number of B-movie rentals about hiking teenagers being pursued by bushy-haired strangers with crossbows and what-not. Many of them make sure to leave the girls standing at the end after the boys have been picked off, it’s like they had a point to dress them in skimpy clothes and then simply forgot. These would meet your criteria, albeit by accident, while the women essentially act like helpless shrieking princesses and I don’t think you’d like that compared to the two examples listed above. So, two notes: 1) It is presumed that revealing clothing is equal to sexualization, and that sexualization cannot be done tastefully (as it is routinely done with men), and 2) you forgot to have the women do something strong and capable, such as figure out the last clue to a puzzle, or save the world from some kind of planet-destroying menace without a man doing all the hard work for them.

  6. Oh, you forgot one key element of the Bechdel test: The female characters have to have NAMES. (And I don’t think just being named in the credits counts, the names have to be stated in the film, I believe.) You’d be amazed how many movies this rule eliminates.