‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ and the Minority Feisty phenomenon

Yesterday, my two younger kids and I saw “How to Train Your Dragon 2.”

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The movie was fun, exciting, showed off some spectacular animation, and we all enjoyed it. “HTTYD 2” also followed the same old, same old pattern where there is a male protagonist while the “feisty” females are stuck on the sidelines providing some crucial role to help the male star achieve his quest.

I could list for you the small gains for females in the movie, such as it opens with a race where Astrid, one of the Minority Feisty, wins. I could add that Astrid is not racing her boyfriend and the star of the movie, Hiccup. That in the next scene, Hiccup is seen soaring through the clouds on his male dragon, Toothless, faster, better, much more daring than Astrid and her she-dragon. That Hiccup actually flies himself, dragon-less. I’m not going to list all these baby (“feisty)” steps females are allowed to take in this narrative– telling you those two scenes is enough, because that, right there is the pattern of this movie: females are allowed to be strong, just not as strong or as important as the males. “HTTYD 2” reminded me of a well known interview— at least well know in my feminist/ internet world– with Kevin Smith and “Tower Prep” creator Dini about Cartoon Network, where Dini quotes CN:

We need boys, but we need girls right there, right one step behind the boys” — this is the network talking — “one step behind the boys, not as smart as the boys, not as interesting as the boys, but right there.”

 

This gendered scenario is just what you will see in “HTTYD 2.” Let me add that I really loved the Minority Feisty in this movie. I’m not going to “spoil” it for you, but one female in particular is really great.

I recently got this comment from a 13 yr old on my review of “How to Train Your Dragon.”

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.

 

I wrote back:

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 tired 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.

Margot

 

Bluebell wrote me one more time:

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!
Bluebell

 

Once again, my problem is not the individual children’s movies which are often great, but the gendered pattern where males star while females are marginalized or sexualized, stuck in supporting roles on the sidelines, in fantasy world, a world where anything should be possible. Instead, it’s like: Have no fear audiences, “HHTYD 2” is so firmly grounded in the patriarchy model that the villain’s name is Alpha, as in Alpha male, the king of all  dragons.

The Minority Feisty phenomenon in children’s movies– that females are allowed to exist, to be “feisty” but they must not be the protagonist or  be in the minority– is a dangerous one. Parents see Astrid, or Wyldstyle from “The Lego Movie,” Andie and Precious from “The Nut Job,” Penny  from “Mr. Peabody and Sherman,” the list goes on and on and on, and think, “Okay, we’ve got that covered, there’s a strong female or two or three.” But in 2014, 18 children’s movies star males while just 6– a Minority Feisty of them– star females. Females are one half of the kid population, so why do girls go missing? Why are girls presented in fantasy world as if they were a minority?

I recently saw a post in “The Week” about a Minority Feisty in “The Edge of Tomorrow:”

It’s the Female Yoda Phenomenon: A seasoned warrior who has the knowledge and skill to transform the ineffectual everyman into a heroic savior. She is smart, competent, and tough. At her most mundane, she will teach the hero about responsibility and maturity (Knocked Up). At her most powerful, she will use her countless skills to make the male hero into a fighter like herself (Matrix, Edge of Tomorrow).

 

I like the term “Female Yoda Phenomenon” but what’s changed in children’s movies since Katha Pollitt coined “The Smurfette Principle” is that there is often more than one feisty female. In kids’ movies, its not about “one female yoda,” but about repetitively showing females as if they were a minority.

There has been some talk about the gay character in “HTTYD 2.” Am I happy the guy got one line about how there’s “one more reason” he didn’t get married? I guess, but I’d rather the movie just show a gay couple, a gay couple who are married. This is fantasy land, where fire-breathing dragons are best friends with humans, and we can’t imagine a gay, married couple? Or an animated population where we see as many females as males? I’ll remind you of Reel Girl’s tagline: imagining gender equality in the fantasy world. Sadly, it’s much rarer than a unicorn.

Reel Girl rates “How To Train Your Dragon 2” ***H***

 

6 thoughts on “‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ and the Minority Feisty phenomenon

  1. Hi, Margot!

    I read on article on the “Trinity Syndrome”, that seems to me a sort of “next step” to the minority feisty, and as much a dangerous illusion as it. And it was actually triggered by HTYD 2. I think you’ll like it: http://christyheyob.com/2014/06/17/were-losing-all-our-strong-female-characters-to-trinity-syndrome/

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, I think I’ll go next weekend with my little sister. As soon as I do, I’ll be back to comment again!

  2. Hi Margo and Company,

    First, thanks for your excellent posts on the Minority Feisty trope: its great to have someone out there who can clearly articulate the problem.

    Second, thanks for occasionally drawing attention to the ” Minority Minority” trope, which is even more pervasive. Every excuse you’ve trounced about the lack of women in children’s media could also be said of the lack of non-white characters, e.g….

    “But its set in the Middle Ages, (WWII, Viking times), so it wouldn’t be realistic to have black or Latino characters.” Response: it’s a fantasy. If you can have anthropomorphic planes and cars, or singing birds, or flying dragons, you can have non-white actors.

    “We just went with the best talent available.” Response: really? You really don’t think you could have found a talented Latina actress to play Katniss, or a talented African American actress for one of the witches in James Franco’s Oz? What do you think casting directors do?

    “It would alter the original story.” Response: riiigggghhhhtt…like Hollywood is always completely faithful to the original book, and never alters the characters or creates new ones, (“Tangled” anyone?)

    And of course…”Blacks will go to see movies about whites, but whites won’t go see movies about blacks”. Except for every Will Smith or Denzel Washington movie ever made.

    I loved Maleficent, but it bothered me that there’s this one African American general in a sea of white faces. Why decide to have non-white characters but then show only one? It would have been better to not have any, (at least then you could stick to the claim that this is supposed to be medieval Europe), but if you’re going to admit non-whites to your fantasy universe, then they should be visible **throughout** that universe. Otherwise it echoes your point about women, that they are allowed in but only as a minority presence, that they are never allowed to have their own narrative, or to be the lead, that they exist only to support the (white, usually male) lead.

    So a few stellar exceptions: the new African American-led movie of “Annie”; the ethnically diverse “Cinderella” with Brandy and Whitney Houston; “The Wiz” of course; and Dreamworks new “Home” movie which you championed on Facebook.

    Any others?

    • Hi Lesley,

      Is that “occasionally” written with bitter irony : )

      I completely agree with you and I also think than any claim that the lack of minorities in “historical accuracy” is total bullshit. This is fantasy land, if we see have magic we see have diversity.

      Before “HTTYD 2” there were– get this– TWO PREVIEWS WITH A BLACK FEMALE PROTAGONIST: “Annie” and “Home.” I’ve never seen that before.

      There are a couple more exceptions on Reel Girl’s Top 10 list, 4 feature protags who are girls of color.

      http://reelgirl.com/2014/01/reel-girls-list-of-top-10-movies-starring-heroic-girls-to-show-your-kids/

  3. Hello! I am also 13 years old and an avid reader and would like to share some great books- all with female protagonists (and all fantasy. Can you believe such a thing?) :). First, my favorite, Dorothy must Die. I know, I know. The title literally says a woman must die (for good reason, you will figure out as you read.) Amy Gumm, an awesome teen, must defeat the infamous Dorothy Gale,who has destroyed Oz with the help of Glinda, the seemingly good. She is trained by THREE powerful women who have depth-defying magic powers and a teenage boy (who could pretty much be a minority feisty male). There are strong ladies throughout the book that help Amy, as well. I highly recommend it. Also, the Lunar Chronicles are a fantastic series with books named after the magnificent female protagonist it follows (i.e Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, and Winter). It has several strong females, both evil and good. Lastly, I recommend My Fair Godmother. It follows a young girl with a (stereotypical teenage girl) fairy godmother who just cannot grant the proper wishes. While the ladies aren’t as strong and powerful, they are important to the story and are anything but “feisty”. While I’m at it, Dork Diaries is a great female substitute to (the already fantastic and hilarious) Diary of a Wimpy Kid. It follows the misadventures of one Nikki Maxwell and her fantastic female companions. I have met the author of this series, and she writes these books with her daughters, which makes the series even better. Thanks!

  4. Your review pretty much sums up what I was expecting from HTTYD2 female character wise. It’s not like I expected them to suddenly make Astrid the protagonist, but at least make an even amount of male and female side characters. Hey maybe they could even make MORE female side characters than male??? Wow isn’t that a thought! But you’re totally right, it’s not about each individual movie, it’s about the consistent pattern and roles of the characters that we continually see. Males as protagonists, females as feisty side-kicks who are also a huge minority.

    I haven’t actually seen this movie yet, but I watched a clip when (spoilers if you haven’t seen the movie yet) Hiccup’s mom talks about the king dragon. The last HTTYD made the massive dragon a queen, which was actually surprising and a good change from always seeing male villains. It’s kinda like they were saying that the biggest and most powerful dragon was female. They pretty much squashed this is in the sequel when Hiccup’s mom says: “every nest has a queen, but he is the KING”. King = more important and powerful than queen… Uhg… There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but when in almost EVERY kids movie the males are the most powerful/important it gets old -.-

    • 25Tachigami,

      Yes! This line says it all: “every nest has a queen, but he is the KING”.

      Hated it!!!

      Margot

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