Best movies for kids? Five new releases rated for gender stereotyping

I’ve been MIA finishing up my book. Though my time blogging is currently reduced, my time spent watching movies with my 3 daughters ages 5, 8, and 11, is not. I’ve consolidated my recent reviews into one post.

Please remember that showing your children media where powerful, complex females are front and center is important for both girls and boys to see. (If you don’t know why, please read this.)

Reel Girl attributes 1 – 3 S’s for gender stereotyping or 1 – 3 H’s for heroines.

“Strange Magic”

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I hated “Strange Magic” so much, that I felt compelled to post here even though I have negative time. As I watched the trailer, at first I was excited for this movie. The preview features a female saving the world. What could be better than that? I started to get suspicious when the trailer announced in giant block letters: FROM THE MIND OF GEORGE LUCAS. In the mind of Margot Magowan, the creator of this blog, George Lucas is more known for gender stereotyping than genius. I’ve written extensively about male domination and “Star Wars” from the tiny minority of female characters in the movies, to how my daughter was teased by her gender police peers in pre-school for wearing “Star Wars” shoes for boys to the prevalence of kids’ toys and books showing Leia in her slave costume. I became even less hopeful about “Strange Magic” when, on the way to the movie theater, my daughter told me Lucas said that “Strange Magic is ‘Star Wars’ for girls.” How condescending is that? He compares this shitty, little movie about a love potion to an epic? At even if “Strange Magic” were good, why bifurcate of children’s media into “for boys” or “for girls?” All that duality accomplishes is to create further gender splits and stereotyping on what girls are supposedly like versus what boys are supposedly like. Even in the girl empowerment movement, too often, movies that star girls are recommended as great movies for girls. Children get trained that stories about girls are at best, special interest and at worst, don’t matter much. Then, in the grown up world we then see something like the Academy Awards nominee list for 2015 where movies about females are, once again, not considered important at all.

Beyond all of these initial feelings I had about the movie, it sucked. Totally. I can’t be more clear. It is all about love, because you know, girls they love to love. Everyone is singing about love in a cheesey medley that lasts for the entire movie. I felt like I was watching a bad video that wouldn’t stop. I almost never get bored in movies, and I was bored out of my mind. “Strange Magic” is basically another– yet another— beauty and the beast story. It’s not creative, a stereotype, and a rip off. The best part was the mushrooms playing telephone. I’m not giving “Strange Magic” a Triple S because the protagonist is female (though you can’t tell that from the poster she’s gone missing from) and she has moments of bravery.

Reel Girl rates “Strange Magic” ***SS ***

“Paddington”

Part of the reason it’s so challenging to recognize sexism in stories for children is because we grew up with these narratives. We’re attached. I feel this way about Paddington. I loved him when I was a kid. I had several plush versions of him, and I read all the books about him. I wanted to love marmalade because Paddington did. I was devastated when I finally tired it and had to run to the garbage to spit it out. (I still don’t get the love, it’s orange rind, right? Who would like orange rind besides a bear and maybe the British?)

I liked the movie. I thought it was true to the book. I would’ve called “darkest Peru” just Peru. But in a nutshell, the movie made me laugh. My 5 year old was in stitches. Nicole Kidman is good as the villain. Her role is similar to the evil woman she played in “The Golden Compass.” Unfortunately, her character uses her womanly wiles to manipulate; she is called “Honeypot” while her ga-ga male partner is has the code name “Fierce Eagle.” The dad in the movie dresses as a woman (ha ha.) A maid. A male goes ga-ga over him (ha ha ha). And of course, Paddington is the main character in his eponymous movie. The mom and the sister have pretty big parts for supporting roles but these roles are, of course relegated to supporting.

Besides the humor, the main reason I liked “Paddington” is because it’s well plotted. There is foreshadow, climax, and transitions for all the characters. Perhaps I was so impressed with the structure because I’m currently writing a book and studying these phases. And perhaps, the other reason I liked Paddington is nostalgia. So, I’ll leave you with this: If you’re choosing between “Strange Magic” and “Paddington,” see “Paddington.”

Reel Girl rates “Paddington ***S***

“Selma”

I loved Selma. I cannot fucking believe it was not nominated for an Academy Award and that the director, Ana DuVernay, was also overlooked. In 2015, a black female has never been nominated for a Best Director Academy Award.

Yes, the movie is about a legendary man, Martin Luther King Jr., but the narrative focuses on this particular time in his life and the people around him. It’s always annoyed me how biographies of MLK (and Ghandi) leave out the disrespect these men showed for the women around them. “Selma” addresses King’s philandering and the effects of his behavior on his wife. The movie also addresses female leaders in the movement, and the stories of the women who were around King.

There is violence in “Selma.” After checking Common Sense Media, which is a great resource for specific examples of sex/ violence in movies (but pretty negligent about gender stereotyping) I decided to take my 8 year old along with the 11 year old. At one point when an officer hit a protester,  perhaps because I gasped, my younger daughter, who always studies my reactions, said: “Why did you take me to this?” She covered her face. I told her. “This really happened. It’s part of history. People were beat up and killed just because of their skin color.” The movie also includes the scene where the 4 girls are burned in their church, also a horrific moment in history. If you read this blog, you know I believe in protecting children from stories they are not ready for. Kids need to feel strong and secure so they can be healthy, grow, and take risks. Dumping adult narratives and adult problems on young children can be abusive. Taking all this seriously, thinking about it, witnessing my daughter’s reaction, I’m glad I took her to see “Selma.” At the end of the movie, she said she liked it and asked me a ton of questions about MLK. I recommend the movie for children 8 and up, but it’s a choice that depends on you and your kid.

Reel Girl rates “Selma” ***H***

“Into the Woods”

You should see this movie with your kids just for the Red Riding Hood character. She is well acted, a great singer, and she cracked me up. Emily Blunt  is also excellent playing a baker’s wife who is desperate for a child. After the witch (played by Meryl Streep,) gives the baker and his wife a list of tasks, Blunt seems like she’s ready to take them on. For a split second, I thought she might be the protagonist of the movie. But the baker steps in (of course he did, she’s the baker’s wife) and tells her its too dangerous. He will go into the woods. (I’ve got to add here that over Christmas, my daughters and I saw Rudolph’s dad say the same thing to Rudolph’s mom when he goes off to search for his son. This scene happens all the time in movies for kids, years ago and now. We re-interpret and change fairy tales, but we can’t change this?) Not only is Blunt not the hero, she dies after she kisses another man who is not her husband. Meryl Streep, as always, is fantastic but her character is obsessed with being young and “beautiful.” I enjoyed “Into the Woods” and it’s scattered moments of female empowerment, but it’s not feminist.

Reel Girl rates “Into the Woods” ***H***

“Mockingjay”

I was really annoyed that “Mockingjay” was split into two parts. Unlike the final Harry Potter book which was also divided in two, the “Mockingjay” narrative could easily have fit into one movie. While I saw the two earlier movies in the series on opening day, for this one, I took my time. My 11 year old and I saw “Interstellar” and “Beyond the Lights” before we went to “Mockingjay.” My expectations were low, and I was pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t bored for a second. I didn’t think the movie was slow. I loved seeing Julianne Moore as the president, and I also appreciated in a bittersweet way, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Jennifer Lawrence playing the incredible Katniss, as always, is amazing. Because the movie was slowed down, I got an interesting perspective on how a revolution is planned and a movement is built.

Down to the last scene, “Mockingjay” is a manipulative money grab designed to pull us in, to get us to fork out money for two movies instead of one. I think a lot of fans feel like the same way, and that’s why the third movie didn’t make as much money as the first and second. That said, I’m hooked. I can’t help it. I’ll be first in line to pay for Part 2.

Reel Girl rates “Mockingjay” ***HHH***

More Reel Girl posts on new releases for kids and gender stereotyping:

Beyond the Lights ***HHH***

Annie  ***HHH***

Interstellar **HH**

13 thoughts on “Best movies for kids? Five new releases rated for gender stereotyping

  1. Margot, my daughter Callie also disagreed with your review of Strange Magic. Here’s her response:

    Dear ReelGirl,

    I really do like the movie Strange Magic, despite George Lucas’s explanation for why the film was made, which I agree is both offensive and ridiculous. However, I think the film itself is, possibly unintentionally on Lucas’s part, a wonderful film to show young girls, and a good model on how a movie about love should be treated. I’ll admit, the movie is mostly centered on the love stories but there are many other aspects to it, and even though there are too many of these types of movies aimed to girls, that doesn’t mean it should be immediately dismissed.

    The main character, Marianne, is the typical feisty girl, a trope often seen as part of a male dominated group and shown as one-dimensional, eventually either falling in love with the main character, or just exists for the sake of jokes, and as the only piece of evidence that the story isn’t sexist. However, this woman is different in two very important ways. Number one: she is the movie’s main character and focus, she is given many aspects to her character, has true relationships with her sister and father, and takes charge without being seen as “too controlling” or “bossy”. Number two, she never has a transformation back into a “pretty girl”. She has the classic resentful transformation after she is jilted by her fiance, but she keeps that change and doesn’t need to give it up for the Bog King to fall in love with her. This way of life: strong, combat-ready and completely un-girly, is perfect for her and the only people who have a problem with it are her father (someone the audience is not supposed to agree with) and Roland (the villain). The Bog-King first begins to appreciate her when they are fencing, and not just, in the “oh, she’s different from other girls” way, but he truly is impressed by her fighting style.

    The two most romantic, over the top songs (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch and I Can’t Help Falling in Love) are sung either as a sign that the character is under a love potion (something mentioned frequently not to be real love) or sung before a huge betrayal of love, demonstrating how that kind of gooey feelings never end well, and that you don’t have to be over-the-top to be in love. Marianne’s younger sister, Dawn, is shown to be far too boy-crazy and is admonished for this by her sister. In fact, Dawn choses Sunny, a dwarf to marry, instead of any of the handsome princes she meets at the ball. The song Marianne sings to show her affection for the Bog King is Wild Thing, during which she plays rock and roll style bass. Wild Thing is not at all a typical love song and reflects Marianne’s personality. The Bog King begins to sing a gooey song but Marianne stops him and sings this instead which he, in turn sings too, happy with her choice.

    The issue of beauty in this movie is also not at all typical. Roland is blond, blue-eyed and has an Elvis style sort of charm. He is also a jerk and the villain of the film, and when he tries to win back Marianne, she sets him straight and throws him out, despite the social pressures. The Bog King, the one she eventually falls in love with, is hideous and it is never shown as a problem, there is not even a mention of him having “inner beauty”. I see that you said that this demonstrates how men are judged by deeds and not looks, but I would like point out again that the Bog King first begins to like Marianne after she shows great prowess at fighting. Dawn is beautiful but chooses Sunny, a man criticized greatly by many characters as being ugly, and he in turn learns not to use force to get love. The two lands of the story, the Dark Forest and the Fairy Land are first shown traditionally: the bright, spring-y lily pond land and the dark, dirty and full of weird roots land. But then as Marianne begins to explore the Dark Forest, she begins to see how her perception is wrong, and love it as much as her old home. I know this movie isn’t an ideal way to demonstrate how girls and boys can live interchangeable lives, but it’s is a start, and I think this really could teach people, maybe just unconsciously, how things can change.

  2. I have a book your 11 yo should read. It’s called The Girl Who Could Fly. It is a children’s book about a 9 year old girl, she has a special power, she can fly without wings. People say she’s evil and lock her up. Her parents keep her cooped up, when she does go out, everyone makes fun of her. She is strong, talkative and not pretty at the least, nor the smartest. Then she is took to a place with other people, a gil with super strength, a genius boy, a girl faster then the speed of light. But the school isn’t all that it seems. It is a prison. So with the help of her friends she breaks out.
    Then, finally all the people with powers get to go help people in the world.
    The male characters only help the females and are in a Minority. It’s all about a girl who can fly. The villain is female and can also fly. I LOVED IT!

  3. Strange Magic: I did not have high hopes for this. The animation looked pretty good in the trailer but recycling pop songs for the score? Pass. Was this another Epic? Oh, and I don’t mind romantic plot lines or retreading the Beauty and the Beast story but it has to be a good movie.

    Into the Woods: I’d describe a lot of Sondheim like that. Moments of female empowerment but not necessarily feminist. I think he’s certainly sympathetic. What I like about his work through a gender equality lens is that he allows complexity. There’s variety among his female characters. There might be infighting between female characters but it’s not a reflection of how women can’t get along. He generally acknowledges the oppressive influence of the male characters, especially in period musicals. The kids are probably too young for most of it but I’d encourage you to take another look at his work.

      • Ha! But really I meant another animated movie (that coincidentally takes place in the woods) with a female protagonist that you think is finally going to be one of the good ones that is instead still another fictional world dominated by male characters that doesn’t let the heroine be as heroic as she could be.

  4. I agree with you about the “Star Wars for girls” line: first of all it’s nothing like Star Wars and second, why can’t Star Wars be for girls? But on the flipside, why can’t a movie about love be for boys? And isn’t it great that the ugly make character gets to be a romantic hero even though he stays ugly? And aren’t we always saying girls shouldn’t have to choose between being heroic and enjoying romance? And c’mon, what about that kickass music, especially when Marianne tells off her slow-witted cheatin’ fiance to the tune of “Stronger”?

    Yes, the script isn’t that great, and I would admit that there are boring parts. But the protagonist, the smartest character, and the one who drives the action is female and in charge throughout the film, so I don’t think it deserves an S.

    • Hi Lesley,

      I got this great comment on Reel Girl’s Facebook page:

      “I remember watching Star Wars for Girls in the early ’80s, but we just called it Star Wars”

      Boys CAN like romance/ love, but that is not how the movie is marketed. No, I don’t think it’s great that the troll king stays romantic even though he’s “ugly.” This kin dof hook up is simply reality for men, where males are attactractive based on what they do, where females are attractive based on how they appear. The sexist quote from Lucas about strange magic being star wars for girls is just oart of the sexist post, here’s the whole graph:

      “George Lucas has three daughters. Like any loving father, he wanted to make them a movie; unlike many other fathers, he could do something about it. When he first started thinking about the prospect 15 years ago, he knew two things for sure: he wanted to tell a story about love…”

      A story about love, because you know, he has girls and that’s what girls need, more stories about love

      “and he wanted it to be a fairy tale. “One of the funniest love stories I’ve ever seen is A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” he says. Inspired by the love-potion hi jinx in Shakespeare’s comedy, Lucas began dreaming up a story about the chaos of a love potion…”

      All based on a love potion

      ” among the fairies and elves—as a musical. The result, Strange Magic, hits theaters today, and in Lucas’ eyes is the perfect love letter for his daughters.”

      Love letter to his daughters? What his daughters need is a 6 movie epic where there are thousands of women and creatures saving the universe.

      “Anyone’s daughters, really.”

      Not mine.

      “Just like Star Wars was designed for 12-year-old boys,” says Lucas, “Strange Magic was designed for 12-year-old girls.”

      So condescending.

    • Forgot to write about the music. The music bummed me out because it was mostly all about love. I didn’t like how it opened with the protag singing about love. LOVE LOVE LOVE. I am madly in love with husband, I have nothing against love, but I am sick and tired of narrative after narrative where girls get to star being based on romance. That this comes from George Lucas, the creator of “Star Wars” makes me so sad and angry, he does not get it.

      Margot

  5. I liked and hated Into The Woods. I thought almost every moment was sexist, yet I loved the stroryline.
    And why nothing bout Wild? I loved the book, and the movie. Could u do a update adding it?

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