“Book of Life” is so retro-sexist, if I weren’t with my kids, I would’ve walked out. Instead, I sat there in the theater with my mouth hanging open, trying to focus on the movie’s dazzling animation instead of the cliched plot.
Manolo, the protagonist of the movie is a bullfighter/ musician. He competes with his rival, Joaquin, a war hero, to marry Maria who is the prize to be won. That’s right, in 2014 children are shown a movie where the female’s role in the narrative is to be a trophy. Typically, as in most contemporary animation, “the girl” actually has a personality! Maria is educated, she likes to read and she likes art. Isn’t that great, parents? Maria is a smart prize. She can fence too, which she gets to do for about 2 minutes of the movie.
“Book of Life” is inspired by Mexico’s Day of the Dead, art I love and used to collect. The characters and scenery are so gorgeously colorful, I tried hard to overlook the sexism. The point where I didn’t think I could take anymore came when Joaquin is at a party with Maria by his side. He is going on and on about himself and Maria mocks him, “I bet you want a wife who can just cook and clean.” She walks away in a huff. At this point, Joaquin’s buddy comments: “Oh, she’s a feisty one!” If you read Reel Girl, you know I use the term “Minority Feisty” to describe the fake feminism that crops up in almost every animated movie made for kids:
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?
At the end of the movie, there is a wedding. I’m not going to call that information a spoiler. After the ceremony, Maria is referred to as “Mrs Sanchez.” She has no quest. Instead, “Book of Life” ticks off gender tropes to become the most sexist children’s movie of 2014.
Reel Girl rates “Book of Life” ***SS***