‘Despicable Me 2′ latest children’s movie to star male, limit females to supporting roles

I really wanted to say great things about “Despicable Me 2,” so I’ll start with the positive. This movie made me laugh a lot. As far as personal enjoyment, I had a lot more fun watching “Despicable Me 2″ than I did watching “Monster University.”

It was great to see a movie with my three girls about three girls. Except “Despicable Me” isn’t really about three girls. It’s all about Despicable Me AKA Gru, the star of the movie, played beautifully by Steve Carell. Before you protest as I go on to call “Despicable Me” sexist, please read this next sentence carefully: If the male protagonist with females limited to supporting roles was featured in just a few children’s movies, or even half of them, I would have no problem with the gender roles. The problem is that kids hardly ever get to see a female protagonist in movies made for children. The fantasy world, where anything should be possible, is sexist and unfortunately, “Despicable Me 2″ is no exception to this rule.

The villain in “Despicable Me,” is also, surprise, surprise, male. I admit, this guy totally cracked me up. First of all, his name is El Macho. When Gru describes him, he says, “El Macho died in the most macho way possible, strapped to a shark, flying into a volcano.” Hilarious and only when I write this, do I remember sharks don’t fly.

Despicable Me 2

Though I was kind of uncomfortable with the Latin lover stereotype– Macho’s open necked shirt reveals a hairy chest and he wears a huge gold chain– I delighted in the gender play.

There is more gender play in “Despicable Me 2″ that could’ve been great– and that’s why I wanted to say good things about this movie– but again and again, instead misses the mark. Gru is a single dad of three girls, so there’s a lot to work with there. But just like “Monster University” had sororities with cool characters, but then gives them minimal lines and screen time, “Despicable Me” doesn’t pull off gender equality. It doesn’t try to.

The movie opens with a princess party (ugh)  for Agnes, the youngest daughter, and Gru is dressed as a fairy princess. Again, I laughed when I saw him, but frankly, seeing a female dress up in pink frills ought to be be just as ridiculous. But it’s not, of course. A female looking like this is normal and expected in kidworld.

fairygru

The minions also dress up as females to comic effect, as a maid and also in a grass skirt topped with a pair of coconut shells, to give just two examples.

minion-dressed-like-maid-photo

I laughed during these scenes too, but the whole “boys dressed up as girls, how hilarious” joke solidifies all kinds of gender stereotypes. I wish we could leave it out of kids’ movies. There are so many ways to get kids to laugh without teaching them this one.

Gru’s spy partner, Lucy, is a pretty good Minority Feisty. She’s smart, brave, and enjoys adventure. But Lucy is clearly Gru’s sidekick. After the initial capture, she follows his lead and becomes his love interest.

lucy

There is a truly awful scene where Gru goes on a date with the superficial Shanon, and Lucy shoots a dart in Shanon’s ass. All kinds of unfortunate things happen to Shanon after that, and this part of the movie I didn’t find funny at all.

As far as Lucy’s lipstick taser which you’ve seen if you seen a preview, I for one, am sick of lipstick as a symbol of female empowerment. When Pat Benatar sang about a notch in her lipstick case 25 years ago, it was an original and ironic image. Now it’s a cliche, as overused and tired as an empowered woman ripping off her corset. Though I admit, I did laugh again when, in a desperate moment, Gru uses Lucy’s taser and she calls out “You copied me.” The final insult: the movie shows Lucy as the classic Damsel in Distress, strapped to a rocket and shooting into a volcano, and Gru, of course, saves them.

I liked the three girls, loved that there were three of them, and the oldest is named Margo.

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I would LOVE to see a movie where these three are the stars with Margo as the protag and Gru in the supporting role. Universal, are you listening?

Before you comment on this post, let me say three things:

(1) I like this movie. I love going to the movies in general. That’s why I started blogging about them. Like Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency who makes videos about sexism in gaming but loves to play: I criticize media because I enjoy it. I want it to be better.

(2) I am not advising you not to take your kids to see these movies. I thought that was obvious because I blog about taking my own kids to see these movies. I try to teach my kids to watch with a critical eye. If the movie is sexist, I usually will not see it again, rent it, buy it, mention it much and try to avoid buying my kids games or clothing with the characters. If the movie has a female protag, I will buy a lot of that stuff. Some movies, I do avoid, for example, I didn’t go see “Oz” or take my kids. I couldn’t take what they did to Dorothy and Ozma, but that was a personal decision as yours, of course, should be.

(3) I wrote this already, but the problem is the repetitive pattern of marginalized females. The pattern, okay? Kids learn from what they see, through repetition.

In children’s media, females, who are half of the population, are presented as a minority. That is why I came up with the term Minority Feisty. Often, today, there is not jut one token female (as with the Smurfette Principle) but several and she is “feisty” ( a demeaning way to describe strong, usually reserved for females, and often used by film critics describing females in kids movies.) But the Minority Feisty is not enough. If we keep moving along at this slow rate, the Geena Davis Institute reports, we won’t have gender parity for 700 years. Your kids won’t experience it, nor will their kids, nor will their kids, on and on.

“Despicable Me” is a classic example of this sexist pattern. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of male minions. Why are there are no females? These scenes are so funny, my favorite parts of the movie, but females are excluded from them.

Two great posts came out this week about sexism in film and the Minority Feisty issue:

The U.N. women’s agency is teaming up with actress Geena Davis to support the first global study of how women and girls are portrayed in family films, saying the images have a strong impact on how females see themselves. Lakshmi Puri, acting head of UN Women, says “the dearth of female characters of substance in the media means children are being taught that girls and women ‘don’t take up half of the space in the world.’ Please read this if you haven’t yet. It’s pretty exciting.

The other great post is from the New Statesman: “Men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story. Women grow up expecting to be the supporting actress in somebody else’s.”

Please don’t be distracted by the Minority Feisty in children’s movies. She is there to distract you, to make you forget the lack of female protagonists. To the point the New Statesman made, and I have made numerous times on Reel Girl: We are all heroes in our lives. We all have our dragons to slay. But too often, women are trained to find a man in power, someone we can rely on to do the scary deed for us, instead of taking the risk ourselves. No risk, no reward, right? Except that women often don’t get the same cultural rewards men do for being heroes.

In fantasy, a world we can control, why can’t we show children a place where females and males are treated equally instead of perpetuating sexism? If we can’t imagine equality, we can’t achieve it.

Reel Girl rates “Despicable Me 2″ ***S*** for gender stereotyping

Update: Just learned there will be a 2014 spin off of “Despicable Me.” YAY, I thought, a movie starring the three cool girls: Agnes, Edith, and Margo, just like I hoped for. But no. It will be a movie about the all male minions. Read about it here.

 

 

28 thoughts on “‘Despicable Me 2′ latest children’s movie to star male, limit females to supporting roles

  1. Margot, after seeing the movie, I wish you had given more attention to this: “There is a truly awful scene where Gru goes on a date with the superficial Shanon, and Lucy shoots a dart in Shanon’s ass. All kinds of unfortunate things happen to Shanon after that, and this part of the movie I didn’t find funny at all.”

    Even if you are afraid of spoiling it for others, just write spoiler alert, I mean, this scene deserves more commentary. It’s about our supposedly loveable main characters bonding over how much disregard for a woman’s body they can have (like when both sort of look at each other and understand they were thinking about tying her to the car’s roof because of space when they could just put her in the back), and we’re supposed to laugh at her body being paraded around town as if it was a punch bag, constantly awkwardly being throw around and beating on stuff, it’s fine though the movie seems to assure us because Shanon “deserved” the treatment. Lucy even slut shames her, because Shanon can’t be nasty cause she’s nasty, it’s because of what she wears or anything? In a world where people’s first reaction to hearing of a woman’s body being assaulted is trying to find a way she deserved it or sympathise with the aggressor, I find it deeply disturbing that the movie condones the behavior for cheap laughs, and it’s a generation of kids learning that it’s okay to do that, and the woman probably deserved to be treated that way.

  2. Hi Margo

    This is a long overdue response to your fabulous blog. I love how you critique the movies from a gendered perspective and reiterate why it is so important to point out and address sexism in the fantasy world. Sexism and the under representation of girls and women in mainstream media is a major bugbear of mine, and always has been, way back to the (mostly) sexist kids movies and cartoons of my childhood (hello Smurfs).

    So thanks for all your time and efforts, its much appreciated! Its very affirming to know that my frustrations around these issues is not isolated and that others feel the same!

    I have just started a blog – Unchain me sister – and my second post is about the absence of girls and women from cultural narratives (and how my feminism emerged from this).
    If you get a chance to read it I’d love your feedback as an experienced blogger :-).

    Thanks

    Karlene

  3. Thanks for highlighting the issues in Despicable Me. It’s so unfortunate that the three girls have to be sidelined in the second movie. I especially enjoyed the first, and how the girls are not archetypes; they have varying personalities. I’m planning to catch it this weekend, and I’ll keep in mind the problems this movie has. Anyway, Margot, have you heard of the new movie from Japan expo? It’s called the Queens and it is about two powerful queens who dictate the whole of Europe during the middle ages. However, they are mortal enemies. This is the disappointing part. But I am still looking forward to it.

    • Hi Valkyrie,

      I liked the girls a lot, they could do so much more with them! I haven’t heard of Japan expo, it sounds good! We need more great female villains, masterminds, evil geniuses, and arch enemies.

      Margot

    • Oh, and, I didn’t find the minions and Gru dressed in feminine clothing as funny. In fact, I feel that laughing at it is darn sexist, and reinforces the stereotype that effeminate men are ridiculous. It is your femmephobia and internalised misogyny that I was trying to highlight in a previous comment of mine. Apparently, you didn’t take notice of it. What I’m trying to say is, that by shunning anything associated with women, you’re being a misogynist. You have inadvertently absorbed the sexist notion that “girly” stuff is inferior to traditionally masculine things. This is also the reason why glorifying tomboy and stigmatizing “girly”girls is problematic. By adhering to masculine standards of superiority, you are sexist. You are reinforcing the notion that you are “different”(meaning superior) to the “other” women. You’re essentially marginalising women who choose to be feminine. I forgot who it was, but I assume it was Cat who is also against femmephobia. Remember Sofia the First and Rebelle? Margot, I hope you would comtemplate over this issue. You do not deserve to speak for all women if you can’t understand and admit your misogyny. Also, wasn’t it a bit too extreme when you compared anti-Semitism and slavery to Bratz? Personally, I think Bratz is pretty feminist in terms of female friendship and represention. You do not criticize other women for their preferences.

      • Hi Valkyrie,

        I totally agree about males dressing as females, that is why I wrote about it! I still laughed because of my conditioning but I don’t think kids should be trained to.

        Margot

      • As far as slut shaming, I don’t think little kids should see females, again and again, sexualized. And I don’t speak for all women! I have responded many times to the how dare I compare oppression. Comparing oppression– who has it worse, blacks, jews, women etc. is a waste of time. The post was about how propagnada has been used throughout history to dehumanize.
        Margot

      • “By adhering to masculine standards of superiority, you are sexist.”

        Except Margot doesn’t do that, you’re not giving her enough credit, she even wrote about gender fluidity in here, and honestly, she makes it very clear that the problem is not girls being portrayed as feminine, but girls being nearly exclusively portrayed as feminine and being marginalised. And I think you should take some time to examine your preconceptions as well, the entire division of girls into “tomboys” or “girly girls” is ridiculous, first, because it suggests that being what warrants the tomboy label is an anomaly (just look at the word, it’s “tom” + “boy”, it basically classifies girls that aren’t stereotypically feminine as more leaning towards the boy area, they’re less legitimate or real girls), and second because it stupidly divides girls into two types when girls are simply human beings who can be a whole complex range of things rather than only two we are trained to see as polar opposites.

        And of course women can be critised for their preferences! We are not magically born with all our traits and preferences perfectly in place! We get influenced all the time by the world around us and what it values and we “choose” what to prefer in that context. You yourself in this post is criticising Margot for apparently prefering “tomboys”.

        • Thanks for your comment Aninha, it’s a great summary of what I think/ blog about. Yes, it’s about the lack of diversity, the hegemony of sexualized females marketed to children. Peggy Orenstein explains the issue beautifully in this post http://reelgirl.com/2012/02/peggy-orenstein-on-the-difference-bewteen-sexuality-and-sexualization/

          Also, totally agree the tomboy/ girlie girl dichotomy is ridiculous. When I blogged for SFGate and posted pics of my kids in dresses or on a pink bike, I got all these comments saying: “I thought you were against pink!” I’m against the pinkification of girlhood. I don’t think anyone would call any of three daughters a “tomboy” (though I hope no one would call anyone “tomboy” anymore.)

          Margot

  4. Hi Cat,

    Why are there no females? Because females aren’t funny??? I use Minority Feisty because female characters are in the minority.

    Margot

      • Hi Cat,

        I didn’t understand it, this is why no females? “The movies are about a gradual inclusion of female characters into a male-dominated narrative.” Are you saying DM movies are about this and that’s why they have male minions?

        Margot

        • Yes. If Gru had female minions, or a female scientist helping him, or a female archenemy then it wouldn’t have been as radical of a shift for him to adopt three little girls. The point of the first movie is that he makes a shift away from this idea of machismo and pointless male competition.

          • Oh, I see. I didn’t see the first movie. Of course, the sexism “makes sense” in the plot.

            Margot

          • But it’s about breaking down that system -oh, forget it. If you want to be stubborn, fine.

          • I have to agree with this interpretation of the first movie. I also think that all though there were some problematic elements to the new movie, the cross-dressing wasn’t one of them.

            I think seeing Gru dress up as the fairy princess at the beginning of the movie shows his complete transformation from the first film.

            I also don’t see the minions cross-dressing as something negative, because they are constantly pushing at traditional gender norms (in the most adorable way). They like to dress-up, and no one in the movie gives a damn. It’s wonderful, and one of the things I love about them.

            I would also highly suggest watching the first movie, to give this one a better context. But in terms of the minions gently pushing “traditional” boundaries, one of the recurring easter eggs from the first film is that two of the minions pop-up as a couple and make-out in the background of crowd-scenes.

          • Hi TJ,

            I saw the same kind of comment that you are making about “Monster University” that the males don’t fall into stereotypes. Great but girls are still missing, in the minority, sidelined, not protagonists again and again and again.

            Margot

  5. I think it’s pretty clear why there are no female minions. The movies are about a gradual inclusion of female characters into a male-dominated narrative. And I disagree with your categorization of the female characters as minority feisty characters. I don’t deny that they are in supporting roles more than they are the main protagonists but I think you assign the “minority feisty” label more than it is warranted.

    • You have a good point on the first movie but the chance that margo will listen to anyone other then the other feminists on this site that are circle jerking away in her comment section are slim to none

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