Every dog needs a boy: ‘Mr. Peabody and Sherman’ continues pattern of sexism in kids’ movies

“Mr. Peabody and Sherman” repeats the same old sexist pattern of so many kids’ movies where male characters get to star while females are stuck on the sidelines, in supporting roles.

Let’s start with the title of the movie: “Mr. Peabody and Sherman.” Note this title features the name of not one, but two, male stars. That’s right– “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” is yet another father-son story. While movie studios strategically switched the title of “Rapunzel” to “Tangled” and “Snow Queen to “Frozen” to hide female stars, the marketing for “Peabody” showcases males, and I’m not only referring to the movie title. I live in San Francisco, and here’s the poster that my three daughters and I see all around town:

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Major close up of two male stars. Compare that to “Frozen,” one of the rare children’s movies to feature not one but two female protagonists. Anna and Elsa get buried in the snow. The marketing implies that Olaf, the snowman, is the star of the movie.

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A major problem with this sexist marketing is that even if your children don’t see the movies, they see the posters. From this media, kids see that boys get to be front and center while females get sidelined or are invisible all together. The repetition of these gendered images teaches all children that boys are more important and get to do more things that girls.

Like most children’s movies, “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” features a Minority Feisty. The Minority Feisty is “a strong female character” (or two or three) who plays a crucial role in helping the male star achieve his quest. There may be more than one Minority Feisty in a movie, but there are always a minority of female roles compared to male roles, even though girls are one half of the kid population. The purpose of the Minority Feisty is to make parents overlook the lack of female protagonists, because, hey, at least there’s a strong female in the narrative. To really get how sexist this gender ratio is, imagine gender flipping the characters. How likely is a it that a studio would put out a movie called “Ms. Peabody and Sharon” with a close-up of the two female stars on the poster? When is the last time you saw a children’s movie advertised with two female stars in the title and a just two females in the poster all around your town or city?

I blog a lot about a particular trope in children’s media that makes me crazy called “riding bitch.” While male characters often soar through the sky on all kinds of magical creatures, from dragons to hippogriffs, female characters usually are put in the passenger seat, not steering or deciding where to go, just along for the ride. Even though I’ve noted this trope endless times, I was shocked by how sexist it is in “Mr. Sherman.” Here’s what happens in the movie. Mr. Peabody, Sherman, and Penny go back in time to visit Leonardo da Vinci. Penny sees da Vinci’s flying machine and, as the Minority Feisty is wont to do, she hops on. Sherman is afraid but follows. Penny flies through the sky and whoops in delight while Sherman shrieks. My 7 year old daughter saw this scene in the preview and told me about it, she was so excited. But here’s the bummer:

Yes, Penny starts out flying the machine, but then she encourages Sherman to try. He refuses and she repeatedly tells him that he can do it. When Sherman continues to shy away, Penny lets go of the steering wheel, and they almost crash before Sherman finally takes control. This is the length the female character goes to put the male back in the driver’s seat. Sherman flies and he’s great at it, until Mr. Peabody sees him and says. “Sherman! You can’t fly!” reinforcing that all Sherman needed was a good girl to believe in him. When Sherman crashes, da Vinci runs up to Sherman, who is with Penny in a pile of debris, and says, “You are the first man to fly!” At no point does Sherman say, “No, actually Penny is the first woman to fly.” ARGH. What do my kids– and all kids– learn from this narrative? The same thing they learn from the whole goddam movie: it is the role of the female to help the male, to make him feel good and secure in his role as star, while she is happy and content as the sidekick; that’s where she belongs.

Lean In and Girl Scouts just started a “ban bossy” campaign which I love. But how much hope do these organizations have of getting a different message across when narratives like Penny’s are mass-marketed to little kids?

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There’s a lot more I didn’t like about gender in “Mr. Peabody.” Penny goes back in time, not to meet a suffragist or Joan of Arc or Queen Elizabeth, but to be the child bride of King Tut. That narrative is all about her wedding. UGH. If they wanted to do ancient Egypt, couldn’t she at least have encountered Cleopatra? Time and time again, Penny is a damsel in distress/ Minority Feisty who gets to play a small– but crucial role– in her own rescues, and is ultimately saved by Sherman again and again.

The last line of the movie pretty much sums up how males are front and center while girls go missing. Mr. Peabody, watching Sherman go off to school, says, “Every dog needs a boy.” What about a girl? What about at least saying “kid” or “child”? Instead, females don’t exist at all.

I get that this movie is a remake but that’s no excuse to recycle sexism for a new generation of kids. We had three Shrek movies (the first, of course, based on an original story) and in each one, Fiona, a Minority Feisty, gets a smaller part. This is a typical interpretation of “remake.” By the last Shrek movie, the narrative devolves into another father-son story (co-starring Justin Timberlake.) There was a spin off, and still, it was not Fiona, but Puss In Boots who got his own solo movie, featuring the Minority Feisty Kitty Softpaws. When will Kitty get her own movie? Ever? Do your kids even know who she is? The other problem with remakes is that when girls star, in each new incarnation characters like Strawberry Shortcake, Dora, the Powerpuff Girls, get “makeovers” where they get less powerful and more sexualized.

Once again, I write this: I would not have a problem with “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” if it were just one narrative. The problem is the repeated pattern of sexism that kids see again and again and again. Children learn through repetition, and I am beyond sick of this sexism marketed to kids. If you want a refresher of how many movies for kids star males versus how many star females take a look at Reel Girl’s Galleries of Girls Gone Missing From Children’s Movies:

2011 http://reelgirl.com/2011/07/heres-a-visual/

2012 http://reelgirl.com/2012/12/reel-girls-gallery-of-girls-gone-missing-from-childrens-movies-in-2012/

2013 http://reelgirl.com/2013/01/reel-girls-gallery-of-girls-gone-missing-from-childrens-movies-in-2013/

2014 http://reelgirl.com/2014/01/reel-girls-gallery-of-girls-gone-missing-from-childrens-movies-in-2014/

Reel Girl rates “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” ***H***

 

 

 

19 thoughts on “Every dog needs a boy: ‘Mr. Peabody and Sherman’ continues pattern of sexism in kids’ movies

  1. First of all let us be thankful that Penny was not in the posters and stuff because that is not the kind of girl that we want children to identify with. She’s a straight up annoying girl that makes my blood boil with the bullying and harshness. There was zero character development that I saw so I don’t believe in a mere second that she became nice all of a sudden and taking the blame and shit. She’s rotten to the core and Sherman’s an ass for liking her.

  2. My major problem was Penny & Sherman’s relationship.
    She was a nasty bully in the beginning. And Sherman (justifiably) hates her.
    Cut to Egypt and all of a sudden he wants her because she ‘belongs’ to someone else.
    What they heck!?!?!
    It was just a spin on the ‘treat em mean, keep em keen’ or ‘he/she hurts you because he/she liiiiiiikes you’.
    Utter rubbish.

    I was also really bothered by the ‘First man to fly’… and it was my son who pointed that out to me. He was frustrated, and he’s 9. When are they going to understand that kids deserve better?

  3. Pingback: Mr. Peabody & Sherman | Girl Engulfed

  4. I was mostly annoyed about Penny because she was a bully. From the right out bullying in the beginning to the flight thing. She stopped bullying directly, but still didn’t really help, much as she was mostly standing around waiting to be rescued. Why didn’t she go in the time machine in the end? Wheren’t they a team now?

    As Ebert put it http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/mr-peabody-and-sherman-2014 ” She’s just another annoying, self-involved chick causing problems for a lovable dude” (and then he mentions how shallow the other female characters are).

    • Hi Thomas,

      True that. She did have some moments like flying the machine, but they were few and far between. Her character did have a transition but not enough of one.

      Margot

  5. Actually the third Shrek movie was a father/son story with JT. Shrek needed to learn about accepting responsibilities, both that he could be a decent king and that being an ogre wouldn’t prevent him from being a decent father. You talk about the messages sent to girls, and you’re right. But I think that’s actually an important message for guys, especially in today’s society. And that actually wasn’t the last Shrek film, there was one more in which Fionna actually had a bigger role than she did in even the first. Because if “Shrek 4Ever After,” she was a bad ass warrior ogress who the entire clan of ogres respected, revered, and knew they had no chance with. She lead men into battle. So don’t pull Shrek in as an example just because they did one father/son story in four movies.
    You say you wouldn’t be offended if it were only one narrative. Is that the case? Because I’m pretty sure frikkin EVERYONE knows that “Frozen” is about Anna and Elsa. Olaf, on that poster, to me, looks like he THINKS he’s the star. And actually he’s the reason I (and a lot of people I know) still haven’t seen the wildly successful, progressive, and female dominated movie– Olaf looks like the most annoying thing Disney ever thought up.
    Those sisters though, have captivated a nation. That movie made it BIG.
    And like you say, Peabody and Sherman is a remake. Specifically, it’s an adaptation. Of a cartoon created as an “educational” segment of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show, back in the late 50s / early 60s.
    Thinking up a movie now that worked this way might be sexist
    But this is just remaining true to the source material
    And, yes, boys do need movies about them as well. Girls might be largely missing, but little boys have to hear ALL THE TIME about how WRONG it is that the media wants to depict people like them. They have no idea that this is because of generations of sexism and gender oppression. They just know “Everyone makes movies, and books, and magazines, and toys marketed to girl audiences, because ‘girls need it more.'”
    I remember growing up with a sister who read 17 and TeenBeat and thinking “Why are there no teen magazines geared toward what’s trending for males?”
    I agree with you that Penny should have been allowed to actually be the pilot, and meeting some strong heroines of history could have been great.
    In fact, there’s kind of a chance this movie has, but doesn’t take, to make a plot in which Mr. Peabody, observing Sherman have feeling for a girl, takes him to meet Cleopatra and Joan of Arc and everyone to prove to him that girls aren’t weak, and that it’s okay for him to look up to someone like Penny.
    *shrug* But they went the more conventional route.
    Don’t think, however, that sexism is entirely one sided.
    Especially in media. Maybe in media production, but… in the industry. If you’re growing up as a male actor, you have all this pressure on you to always keep yourself perfectly castable. Which has a lot to do with maintaining your weight, physical appearance, etc. etc. You grow up with other kids who aren’t, and everyone looks at you and says things like “Why are you eating that salad, girlfriend?”
    Now that’s incredibly wrong and sexist because there isn’t anything wrong with being a girl
    But a boy hears that behaviors he knows it’s right and healthy to maintain are “like a girl,” sees this call for more female influenced media everywhere, and thinks “Are boys worthless?”
    And I mean look at it, what have we given them in terms of role models?
    As unrealistic as Disney Princesses are, how many of us think it’s fair to expect a kid to grow up to be Batman?
    Yes. THIS movie uses very traditionalist gender roles which were more prevalent at the time of the character’s conception than now.
    Yes. Girls are missing from a lot of movies… although if you want an even longer list of movies geared towards or about women, check out the “Nostalgia Chick” (Now THERE’S a critic)
    But you can’t deny that all those movies exist
    you can’t claim that only little girls have discovering who they are rough
    you want to do away with archaic gender roles?
    DO. AWAY. with them. Forget all this “boys” and “girls” nonsense
    You want Peabody to say “every dog needs a child”
    Why don’t YOU start?
    Cause I’m not saying that there isn’t a lot to get offended about as a female in society (aside from the fact that despite all that, at least in Western Culture women and legally and socially equals, which isn’t true everywhere)
    But if you want to get offended because of movie posters about cartoon characters from the 60s
    Lady, I understand you need blog posts… but… seems to me like you’re looking to get offended.

  6. Here’s just a random thought. Instead of complaining about a cartoon to “teach kids about women important to history,” actually sit down, and go over history in America, and around the world when they bring the homework to study. You know, actually try being a parent. By the way, as a father of a young daughter, we saw the movie, and it was no big deal. We know the difference between animation, and real life.

    • Hi kdkeith,

      Children learn through narratives, images, and repetition. They also learn through history books, and in history books, often through narratives, images, and repetition. In much of “history” books, just like in Hollywood, females go missing. The fantasy world is an opportunity to show children females front and center. In the fantasy world, anything is possible, even gender equality. It’s a shame to see, instead, the sexism of the real world get recycled again and again. You– or your daughter– thinking girls going missing, or not even noticing that girls go missing, is part of the problem.

      Margot

  7. Do you think that, to include the main female character with the two main male characters in the movie’s title that Penny, Mr. Peabody, and Sherman would be a good title?

  8. there are so many problems with this movie! But I almost yelled from my seat in the last moments of the movie when they need the great minds in history to find the solution! Not one woman! seriously not one “great mind” in all of Western History is female? there is absolutely no reason at this point for women to be excluded – I mean it’s artistic license to toss Clinton with his arm around Mona Lisa? Also, would it have been so difficult to have an updated version of the historical events depicted here. did they use a history book from the 50’s?

    • Hi Violett,

      YES! Excellent point, no female great minds. Also totally agree on historical accuracy, it’s a movie about a talking dog who time travels, but when it comes to sexism, let’s all make sure we get everything “right.”

      Margot

  9. I grew up on Rocky and Bullwinkle, and thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Peabody and Sherman and the Wabac machine. You can’t change it. The main characters are Mr. Peabody and Sherman. The movie was wonderful, creative and witty, just as good as how I remember the cartoon. That being said, I agree that there should have been some reference to Penny being the first to fly Leonardo daVinci’s airplane. She should have received credit. And there could have been a better strong positive female figure. The mother wasn’t up to par. But in the end, everyone learned something about themselves and how they viewed each other. I thought it was exceptionally well done.

  10. It’s based on a segment from the classic animated Jay Ward show “Rocky and Bullwinkle”. Like Rocky, it’s quite hilarious (and I’m surprised you’ve never seen it… it’s a lot better then the movie).

    What were they supposed to do, just randomly gender swap the characters?

    • Why is it that when going back in history and interacting with the great “thinkers” could they not have included some notable women?

      • While that’s a valid concern, that has nothing to do with the genders of the main characters.

        I was addressing Margot’s “Ms. Peabody and Sharon” point.

  11. Yeah, I really have no plans to see this movie. At least from the trailer, it seems like this is another movie about time travel that forgets that women are a part of history. I’ve heard Marie Antoinette is featured only for them to incorrectly attribute the “let them eat cake” line again. Hooray.

  12. Thank you for sharing this. I took my kids to see The Lego Movie and was shocked by the trailer for “Mr. Peabody and Sherman”– within the first 60 seconds of the trailer, when Penny and Sherman are “caught” using The Way Back, Sherman sheepishly shrugs, points to Penny, and says, “Well, SHE was into it!” I teach media literacy to middle school students and I was so outraged I showed them the trailer and we had a good discussion about it. What does it mean when a male character speaks for a female character’s feeling of an experience? I know it may seem far-fetched to some, but isn’t this way of talking dangerous when we think about sexual relationships between boys and girls/men and women? Isn’t that what we hear far too often in cases of sexual assault? I know that this line may have been well above my kids’ heads (age 2 and 5), but I do NOT want my son (OR my daughter!) EVER speaking for another person’s experience with a phrase like “SHE was into it”. Here is the link to the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hy6oD7BZw50

    • I saw the Lego movie, too, and while I enjoyed it, I was also disturbed by the “minority feisty” (love that term) character.
      A third of the way through, I really thought “minority feisty” was going to end up being The Special and toss the whole story on its head and then, she didn’t and it was still the male character, who is Special even though according to the movie itself, completely empty-headed. Ugh.

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