Linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer released statistics showing that even when females star, males get more speaking time in Disney Princess movies. Quartz reports:
Even Frozen, the 2013 mega blockbuster starring two princess sisters, gives women only 41% of the dialogue. The only exceptions to the female-minority rule are Tangled and Brave, whose female characters speak 52% and 74% of the lines.
Olaf was also the major character in the previews my kids and I saw.
Now Fought and Eisenhauer have published a study to show that even when females star in movies, males get more lines. This particular kind of sly sexism found in contemporary kids’s media is a version of what I call the Minority Feisty.
What is the Minority Feisty? If you see an animated film today, it will usually include a strong female character. Or two. Or maybe even three. But however many females there are, there will always be more males. Females, half of the human population, will be depicted as a minority. Females will get less lines and less screen time. The token strong female character (or two or three, you get the point) who shows up in the film, 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.
“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 Quartz article I link to in this post refers to these characters as “sassy” and “plucky.” Same idea– strong for a girl.)
In this century, Katha Pollitt’s Smurfette Principle has evolved into the Minority Feisty. There are a few more females than there used to be, but imagine if the gender ratio presented in kids’s movies was reflected in the real world. Is that a world that you want your kids to live in? Parents, be on the look out for the Minority Feisty. Teach your kids how to identify her. Don’t let the sexism fool you or them. Don’t let a new generation of kids experience sexism as normal and grow up to expect and accept a world where girls go missing. And don’t forget to ask your kids this: Why does the imaginary world have to be sexist at all? If rats can cook, unicorns prance around, and lions befriend warthogs, can’t we picture gender equality?
Yesterday, when my three daughters and I went to see “Minions,” two lingering questions I’ve had– are they really all male and if so, how did they come into being– were answered.
So, yes, now I know: the minions are all boys. When I’ve complained in the past about the utter lack of female minions, commenters responded that they’re “genderless.” In kidworld, where everything from robots to cars to planes are assigned a gender, I doubted this was the case, but I watched the new movie carefully just in case I was mistaken, that the minions were an exception to this rule. Guess what? Not only does every minion mentioned have a male name, but they are also repeatedly referred to as boys with lines delivered like: “Growing boy creatures need their strength” or “Good luck in there, boys!” or “Buckle up, boys!” So, please don’t waste your time emailing me that a 6 year old kid won’t notice what gender these creatures are.
Now, for question #2. The movie opens with a scene where the minions seem to evolve from amoeba like creatures that come out of the sea. Clearly, no female is involved in their reproduction. A male narrator describes their creation story and also how and why minions came to be: to serve an evil master. As evolution continues on the screen, we hear the narrator introduce “man.” We then see a caveman, followed by a series of other male leaders including a pharaoh and Napoleon. Around this point in the movie one of the minions, I think it was Bob, emerges from the sea wearing a pair of starfish on his chest in the first of several breast/ female jokes. Another minion sees Bob and quips: “He’s an idiot.”
Right after the narrator assures us this is going to be the same old, same old narrative we always see where one male saves the world, announcing: “One minion had a plan and his name was Kevin” I turned to my oldest daughter, who is 11. I told her I had to take a bathroom break and to watch for any female character who speaks, as none had come into the movie yet at all. My daughter responded, “Mama, the villain is a girl.” She was referring to Scarlet Overkill who she was familiar with from the many, many previews we saw of the movie. I, too, had high hopes for Scarlett even though as the only main female character in the movie, I was pretty sure she would be limited by the narrative to a Minority Feisty role.
For those who aren’t familiar with Reel Girl, Minority Feisty is the term I’ve assigned female characters in children’s movies. These females are “strong” and therefore often referred to as “feisty” by reviewers. “Feisty” is a sexist adjective. A reviewer would not label a male character, such as Superman “feisty.” “Feisty” refers to someone who isn’t really strong but plays at being strong. “Feisty” isn’t a real threat to any power structure. The Minority Feisty can refer to one or more female characters in a movie, the point being that though there can be more than one, females are shown as a minority population. The Minority Feisty represents our slow, slow, slow progress from the Smurfette Principle, a term coined by feminist writer Katha Pollitt. The Minority Feisty serves to pacify parents, so we can sigh in relief and say to ourselves: “There’s a strong female or two, this movie is feminist!” And thus, we’re all supposed to ignore and forget that girls– half of the kid population– are reduced to a tiny minority in the movie and almost never represent the protagonist.
Scarlet Overkill is one of the WORST EVER representations of the Minority Feisty. The male narrator introduces her at Villain Con: “There’s a new bad man in town and that man is a woman.” Then Scarlet is on the stage in her red dress and stilettos, saying: “Hey, a girl’s got to make a living.” She is the keynote speaker at the conference, defined as “the world’s first female supervillain.” Before Overkill came to town, she tells us, it was believed that “a woman could never rob a bank as well as a man.” Overkill proves them wrong, so YAY feminism, right? Let me remind you that the minions represent a fantasy world where little, yellow pill shaped creatures have sprouted from the sea. Why, why, why in “Minions,” and most other children’s movies, do we recycle sexism into so many stories that are otherwise imaginative and creative, because “that’s just the way it is in the real world?” Why does Scarlett Overkill have to be represented as an exception to her gender? Why can’t we show children a fantasy world where gender equality exists? “Minions” does the opposite, reproducing and in fact, managing to exaggerate sexism so that females have hardly any place or representation in the world at all.
You wouldn’t think it possible, but things get even worse for sexism and Overkill’s character. She wants the minions to steal the crown for her because she wants to be a princess– not a queen!– “because everyone loves princesses.” Is any kid watching this movie going to get a message of female empowerment from this single, sexist character? If you still have doubt, at the end of the movie, this first female greatest villain of all time, cedes her status to Gru who you know from the “Despicable Me” movies. It is he who is the real greatest villain of all time, Overkill’s 15 minutes are up.
I’m appalled and disgusted that movies like “Minions” are allowed to be made in 2015 and shown to little kids, teaching a new generation to expect and accept a world where girls go missing. If you think I’m overreacting, imagine the reverse: A movie about three female characters– Kara, Stella, and Becky, who lead an all female tribe. They defeat the first male super villain ever, while pursued in a world populated by hundreds of female villains, groups of all female police officers, troops of all female guards, and visit English pubs where almost everyone– except for the pink suited king– is also female. Would you notice the sexism? Would your kids? The fact that the lack of females in children’s movies– from protagonists to crowd scenes, from heroes to villains– isn’t glaringly obvious to us and our children shows how sexist the world is. In the fantasy world, anything is possible, even gender equality. If we can’t even imagine it, we can’t create it. Unfortunately, “Minions” teaches kids, one more time, that females don’t matter much at all.
Reel Girl rates “Minions” ***SSS*** for gender stereotyping
In the 5 years since I started Reel Girl, I’ve never done this before but comments on this post are now closed. Generally, I let most commenters post because the imbeciles inadvertently prove all of my points. But I’ve reached a point where there are too many trolls who repeat the same comments over and over and over, the same arguments (if they can be called that) which I’ve already rebutted numerous times. My energy needs to be focused on writing and creating, not reacting and responding.
After reading my post ‘Book of Life’ ticks off tropes in most sexist kids’ movie of the year’ a member of the movie’s crew, Romney Marino, defended the movie, debating with me on Reel Girl’s Facebook page. While I appreciate the passion and intelligence of Romney’s arguments, I can’t see “Book of Life” as feminist given the structural sexism of the plot. I started my blog, Reel Girl, because I wanted children to experience fantasy worlds where gender equality exists. Still, reading Marino’s comments, I was struck by how much not only she cares about gender equality but also, as you will see when you read her post, so does the director of the movie, Jorge Gutierrez. On Reel Girl’s about page, explaining why I started Reel Girl, I wrote:
Most of the time, I don’t think there’s a conscious sexist conspiracy going on. I just think that for thousands of years women have been living in stories written by men.
While I don’t believe Guiterrez intended sexism, his efforts at equality are confined to a sexist framework. As far as the arguments “that’s just how it is,” in children’s movies we see magic, animals talk, lions befriend warthogs etc, yet when it comes to historical sexism or the lack of females, suddenly we become sticklers for “reality.” It’s believable that a talking rat can cook, but a female led french kitchen? Now way! Besides magic, “Book of Life” has performances of contemporary music ( Radiohead’s “Creep” was one of my favorite parts of he movie.)
In the hope that we have the same goal, to create fantasy worlds– and ultimately a real world– where gender equality exists, I’m posting a blog written for Reel Girl by “Book of Life” crew member Romney T. Marino.
“The Book of Life” from another feminist’s perspective…
The reason for my writing this is in direct response to ReelGirl’s blog post calling The Book of Life ‘the most sexist kids film’ of the year along with linking it to her Facebok page with the comment: “please don’t take your children.” ReelGirl classified this film as another “Minority Feisty” or ‘MF’ film, defined when females in the cast are the in minority and only used as a tool to help the male protagonist achieve his goal. I will concede that The Book of Life is yet another animated children’s film whose protagonist is a male. Point made, ReelGirl, one more for the statistics. However, I think that is where the perceived sexism ends, and in fact, I’d go so far as saying Maria and La Muerte in The Book of Life are among two of the strongest written female animated characters I’ve seen in a long time, because they are played as equals to their male counterparts, Manolo and Xiabalba.
ReelGirls’ post missed this and so many other positive things about the female characters in The Book of Life and the movie as a whole, because all she focused on was that it was an ‘MF’ film. That classification flattens out the fully realized and dimensional characters of Maria and La Muerte, and minimizes their actions as taken only to forward the male protagonist and his goals. Do not forget, at it’s core The Book of Life is a *love story* set during Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, and both couples (Maria-Manolo and LaMuerte-Xiabalba) have their own unique dynamic. One where the women hold their own and at times best their men. I would venture to say that the women from the village of San Angel are “minority equals”.
When discussing Maria’s strong, independent character, director Jorge Gutierrez said, “If feminism means men and women are equal, then, yes, this is a feminist movie. And besides, romance is the new punk. It’s OK to be emotional. It’s OK to care.” 
I hope to defend the female characters in The Book of Life not only from the story told, how they are presented and their actions in the film, but also with some perspective from those whose passion brought those animated characters to life. I had a small part working with the Animation team in Production on the film, and know the film’s director Jorge and his wife Sandra, who designed all the female characters. Every step of the way, Maria and La Muerte, not to mention Manolo’s Grandma, his Mother Carmen, and his Cousins in the Land of the Remembered, are all strong female characters and positive role models for girls. From the beginning they were conceived to be that way, from the symbolism incorporated into their design, to their actions on screen.
However, I want to emphasize that at the end of the day, ReelGirl and I share the same goal, to get more female protagonists in children’s content, animated and otherwise. We just disagree about The Book of Life. So I say, ignore ReelGirl’s blog post, and watch the movie for yourself and make your own judgement. Below are some of the reasons why I believe this is the truth, or so help me La Muerte.
[WARNING: Spoilers ahead]
THE WOMEN OF SAN ANGEL:
LA MUERTE – The beautiful, majestic ruler of the Land of the Remembered, La Muerte is a fierce goddess who goes toe-to-toe with Xiabalba, the ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, in their wager over which boy will win the heart of Maria. La Muerte choses her champion, Manolo, and blesses him to always be pure of heart.
La Muerte herself, is an important icon in the Latino community . Designed by Sandra Equina, the director’s wife and “muse”, she has created an new modern image of the Latino cultural icon of Death, and brought her to the screen as a beautiful sugar-skulled goddess. She is graceful, imposing, wise, fallible, and sexy. Her design uses marigolds around her waist and bodice signify the feminine power using the flower that is a symbol of Dia de los Muertos said to help guide the spirits. She is a character that both women and girls alike are drawn to because of her power and beauty, and they want to be her for Halloween, Dia de los Muertos, and in Cosplay . I for one would rather see little girls dressing up as more goddesses and less princesses, or ‘sexy’ whatevers.
MARIA – Does not just say she is strong, but her actions prove it every step of the way. Throughout the story she is no damsel in distress, and in fact she’s always been the leader of the 3 amigos. Both she and Manolo struggle to fight the patriarchy within their own family and be true to their own heart, (but more on that to come).
Maria’s costume is a “nod to Frida Kahlo who wore folkloric clothing as a statement of her rebellion and an embrace of the people’s culture in Mexico.”* Maria’s clothing as a child and as an adult symbolizes Maria’s strength of character. In the Director’s own words: “I asked Sandra to design young Maria’s outfit to be an exact kid version of what she wears as an adult. Unlike young Manolo and Joaquin when we first meet all three kids in the cemetery, young Maria has already formed who she is.”*
And who is Maria?
She’s an animal rights activist and freedom fighter. Young Maria decides that she must save the pigs because they can’t be butchered, “not on my watch.” It is Maria who initiates the action, and Maria who the boys try to catch up to. She is riding the pig at the head of the stampede with her sword held high chanting for freedom, while Manolo gleefully hangs on for the ride and Joaquin tries to stop her. Later in the film during Manolo’s first bullfight, she visibly sneers when Manolo dedicates the bullfight to her, but then she is the only one cheering in the audience when he does not ‘finish the bull’ (or kill it, for those not up on the brutality of bullfighting, which Manolo fights against). She is not afraid to take the action that she believes in, and to stand up for those beliefs even in the face of opposition from the entire town.
She is someone who not only fights against gender stereotypying, she wins in the end. One of the most important character arcs of the film is seen in the change in Maria’s father, General Posada. At the beginning of the film he is exactly the image of the overpowering father and cultural machismo that she must fight. After the pig stampede, the General sends Maria away to be taught by the nuns to “learn to be a proper lady” because “I said so!” and he embraces Joaquin as the masculine “Son I never had.” However, at the film’s end, Joaquin runs off to get his magical medal (which gave him his false strength) and it is Maria who is left behind to rally the village into defending themselves. General Posada finally sees the true strength in his own daughter, and says “You are like the son I never had, only prettier.” Posada follows his daughter into battle to save their town. When discussing Maria, this B-character’s arc can not be ignored.
THE ADELITA COUSINS – A brief moment that for most may go unnoticed, but is a huge feminist shout-out, are Manolo’s Adelita cousins. When Manolo reaches the Land of the Remembered, he meets a whole barrage of his ancestors. Two of which are tall women with sombreros and bandoliers, he is introduced to them,
“These are your cousins, they fought in the Revolution.”
“And we won.” they say.
These two minor characters are a tribute to the women, or soldaderas who fought in the Mexican Revolution. La Adelita was a folk song from that era about a soldadera, and her name came to symbolize the archetype of a female warrior in Mexico, a woman who fights for what she believes. 
I would go into the characters of Carmen, Manolo’s mother, who plays a significant and pro-active part in his journey through the lands of the dead, or his Grandmother who is a stoic voice of wisdom, and who used to be “a beast in the arena,” but I think I’ve made my point. The women in The Book of Life may not be the protagonists of the film, but for a modern day romance set in Revolutionary Mexico, I think both Maria and LaMuerte, and the rest of the women of San Angel are unforgettable and to be admired.
Maria is ALWAYS her own woman, as a little girl and even after she gets married.
I specifically want to address a comment that “Maria says she is strong, but never shows it.” Absolutely false, she shows it time and time again in what she stands up for and the actions she takes. I also want to address my point that Maria is more of an equal to Manolo in both their actions in the film. I’ll try to be brief, but here are some specific moments from the film:
IN THE CEMETERY, the boy children, Manolo and Joaquin, are already play acting their future battle for Maria. Young Maria jumps in and declares, “I belong to no one.” The three friends laugh together and then both Maria and Manolo get called home by their fathers.
THE PIG STAMPEDE, is all Maria’s idea. When the three amigos run into the square she leads them, this was by design. She knows the future for the pigs in the butcher’s pen, “not on my watch,” she says. Then she breaks the lock on the pen liberating them. In the chaos of the stampede she is riding the lead pig, sword held high declaring “Freedom is coming through!” Manolo is just happily along for the ride, while Joaquin is trying to stop it all.
GENERAL POSADA, Maria’s Father comes to having missed most of the action, but attributes the solution all to Joaquin, who is “So like [his] Father.” When Maria faces her father’s anger, the first thing she notices is Manolo’s broken guitar for which she feels guilty. The General declares that she will be sent to the convent so the nuns can straighten out her “rebellious nonsense” just because “I said so!” He then embraces Joaquin as “The son I never had.” When Manolo protests sending Maria away, his own father reminds him that “Fathers do what’s best for their children.” Both Manolo and Maria fight their father’s ideas for their own future the entire film.
SAYING GOODBYE, when finally “the three amigos would be no more” Maria does more than simply face her exile to boarding school bravely. First of all she takes responsibility for breaking Manolo’s guitar by replacing it. Manolo in turn gives her the little pig she saved, Chuy, to remind her of home. Second of all she parts by giving each of the boys sage advice knowing their true spirit, and then runs to the train hiding her tears. Manolo’s future mantra is inscribed on the guitar she gave him “Always play from the heart. – Maria”
DIFFERENT FROM THE CROWD, In Manolo’s bullfight celbrating Maria’s return, Manolo dedicates the bullfight to her. Maria, still the animal lover, visibly sneers in disgust. At the moment that Manolo must make the critical decision it is Maria’s reflection in his sword that he sees, and he decides not to finish the bull. Maria stands up and applauds Manolo, while the rest of the crowd boos him. She is not afraid to stand up for what she believes in, even against the entire arena.
LA MUERTE’S WISDOM, After Manolo’s defeat Xiabalba thinks he’s won, but La Muerte knows better, “it’s not over,” she says. Thinking he is alone, Manolo proceeds to sing from his heart, but Maria returns to retrieve her fan and sees his true self. Manolo, singing his heart out in the ring and not fighting a bull. It might be said that it is here that she falls for him. Even Xiabalba asks, “What just happened?!” and LaMuerte remarks, “You don’t know women, my love.”
THE DINNER PARTY, is thrown by General Posada in honor of Maria’s return, though he is scheming to connect Joaquin and Maria. At the dinner table when Joaquin compliments her beauty and says one day she’ll make a man very happy, Maria mockingly says how she’d love to cook and clean for him. When he clearly doesn’t get the joke, she immediately puts him in his place, “Are you kidding me? Is that how you see women? That we’re only here to make men happy?” She then dismisses herself from the table, in order to be surrounded by someone “more civilized,” her pig, Chuy. She insults Joaquin, and walks out on the entire affair with her head held high.
MARIA IS NOT THAT EASY, up in her room alone, Maria hears Manolo and the mariachis’ attempt to serenade her. More than one thrown vase discourages the 3 mariachis, leaving Manolo alone to serenade her from the heart. At the song’s romantic climax when everyone from Manolo to the audience is expecting them to seal it with a kiss, Maria lays a finger on Manolo’s lips, “Did you think it was going to be that easy?” and playfully pushes him over.
MARIA IS MORE THAN JUST A PRETTY FACE, she goes down stairs to help Manolo, but is surprised by the General and Joaquin who pops the question to her just as a dazed Manolo stumbles in. The two men begin to fight over her, and she yells “you two are acting like fools” before she takes her own sword, disarms them both and breaks up the fight, letting everyone know that she “also studied fencing.”
A PROPOSAL BETWEEN EQUALS, When Manolo proposes to Maria, notice that she also goes down on one knee when she responds to him. When the snake comes out Maria pushes Manolo out of harm’s way and is herself bitten. She acted to bravely and instinctively to save her love from harm, and she took the hit.
A PROPOSAL TO SAVE HER TOWN, When Maria wakes up and finds that in fact Manolo is the one who has died, her Father the General pleads with her to marry Joaquin so he will stay to defend the town. Joaquin knows where her heart truly is and even he protests, but she finds the strength within and accepts the proposal solely to help save her village. Even Joaquin can see she is putting duty before herself.
THE SON HE ALWAYS WANTED, at the wedding ceremony with Maria and Joaquin, the banditos attack. Joaquin realizes his magic medal is on his other coat and bolts leaving everyone behind. Maria does not miss a beat, and it is she who makes the rallying speech to the village. It is she that convinces them to fight for themselves, and it is she who opens her father’s eyes to the strength that has always been within his own daughter, “We can fight them together, Papa.” The General recognizes this in his own way, “You are like the son I never had, only prettier.”
SHE IS RIGHT THERE IN THE FIGHT, its the third act climax, Manolo has just returned from the dead, Joaquin is back, but is Maria who gives their familiar rally cry, “No Retreat!” and Manolo and Joaquin return “No Surrender!” And the 3 amigos go into battle. At one point, Chakal has Manolo on one arm and Joaquin on the other and each guy is telling the other, “I got this.” Maria comes in with a flying kick to Chakal’s face, which lets them regroup and lets us know she also studied kung-fu. In the bell tower, she and Manolo fight together in a dance that is both beautiful and painful for Chakal. At one point, she takes the lead and says to Manolo, “Pretty good, guitarista, now it’s your turn,” and she pushes him into the fray.
SHE KISSES HIM, when Manolo returned from the land of the dead, he swoops Maria in a passionate kiss. When they are married SHE swoops HIM up in a kiss. Their final song is a duet from Us the Duo, that is all about supporting each other as equals. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S6_-JoC8jpw
ONE LAST THING: You would never know this unless you worked on the film, but Jorge Gutierrez, the film’s director valued the female perspective so much that he insisted that all female characters have female Animation leads. This might not seem like a big deal, but in my years experience in feature animation, I’ve never known a director to care, let alone insist on female artists for more of the female perspective in the female characters. So I say, hats off to The Book of Life and especially its creator Jorge Gutierrez and his wife Sandra Equihua. They are an incredibly talented team, and I hope we will see more from in the future.
Please note my opinion does not represent that of the film makers, or any studios associated with the film. I simply had a small part in it’s production, and now The Book of Life has a big place in my heart.
Romney T. Marino is a is a Director of Development and Associate Producer at Powerhouse Animation. She has worked in animation production for over 15 years at both independent and major animation studios across CG Features, VFX, and Television. A long time member of Women in Animation, Romney hopes to bring more women to the table and on the screen in animation, and more amazing cartoons and memorable characters to audiences. You can follow her on Twitter @RomneyTM
Before I saw “Rio 2,” I was holding out hope that Jewel, the bird played by Anne Hathaway, and her husband, Blu, played by Jesse Eisenberg, would be equals in the movie, meaning actual costars. I stuck with this possibility partly based on what I saw in the movie poster.
While Jewel is posed coyly with a submissive head tilt and a pink flower on her head, she’s still front and center, right there with Blu. (All the other characters pictured on this poster are male.) I checked the synopsis for “Rio 2” on imdb.com:
It’s a jungle out there for Blu, Jewel and their three kids in RIO 2, after they’re hurtled from that magical city to the wilds of the Amazon. As Blu tries to fit in, he goes beak-to-beak with the vengeful Nigel, and meets the most fearsome adversary of all – his father-in-law.
Well, I’m sorry to report that I’ve seen the movie with my kids and “Rio 2” is Blu’s story. He’s clearly the star with all the screen time, he goes through the transition, and it’s his wits that save the world. So make that 19 children’s movies in 2014 that star males.
I have three daughters, ages 5, 7, and 10, and they’ve seen 5 movies so far this year: The Nut Job,The Lego Movie,Mr. Peabody and Sherman, Muppets Most Wanted, and Rio 2– Every single one features a male protagonist. Just in case you were wondering, only 5 children’s movies have come out so far this year. So once again, when our children go to the movies, they’re learning that males star while females belong in supporting roles. And — surprise, surprise– each children’s movie so far this year features Minority Feisty: female characters whose number are in the minority compared to males, but they’re allowed to be “strong” in these supporting roles. Usually, that means the females play a crucial part in helping the male complete his quest. That is, in kidworld, females are permitted power as long as its circumscribed. If you read Reel Girl, you know I call these female characters Minority Feisty because not only are they in the minority, but they are always referred to by critics as “feisty,” a seriously diminutive adjective. “Feisty” doesn’t describe anyone who is really strong but someone who plays at being strong. Would you ever call Superman feisty? How would he feel if you did?
To wit, in an article about Anne Hathaway in last week’s people magazine, the journalist writes:
There have been other big changes as well for the actress who reprises her role as the feisty macaw Jewel in the new animated film ‘Rio 2.’
Here it is in black and white.
I make this point because the sexism in children’s movies is a ridiculously repetitive pattern, yet hardly anyone calls it out. The sexism is so obvious that paradoxically, it’s become invisible, the pink elephant of kidworld that gets ignored. If males starring and females supporting happened just sometimes, or even half the time, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but this sexism is relentless in narratives are created for kids.
Once again, I ask: In the imaginary world, anything is possible, so why is it so sexist? Why can’t we show children a magical world where there’s gender equality?
Reel Girl rates “Rio 2” ***H***
See Reel Girl’s Galleries of Girls Gone Missing From Children’s Movies:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
My expectations were low but “Smurfs 2” surpassed them.
Not only does “Smurfs 2” feature the famous posse of too many to count males accompanied by just one female, but this movie is all about fathers. A movie for kids centered on fatherhood could be great, but when the Smurfs are already so creepily male dominated, the erasure of mothers is alarming and disturbing. The good, golden-haired female pitted against the evil, dark-haired female trope, central to “Smurfs 2,” is so tired in kid fantasy world (not to mention the grown-up world) that I was slack jawed to see it again, even though, of course, I shouldn’t have been. That’s why it’s a trope, right?
Did you know that evil Gargamel created Smurfette as a ploy to infiltrate the Smurfs? That’s right, Smurfette, the only female Smurf, isn’t even a real Smurf. It’s only when Papa Smurf comes to care for Smurfette as a daughter that he uses a magic potion to transform her. At that point, not only does he change her skin to blue but her hair to blonde, thus becoming Smurfette’s true father.
“Smurfs 2” opens with that backstory and then brings us to present day with a scene showing the Smurfs gawk at Smurfette as she swishes her blonde locks around in slow-mo. But there’s trouble in paradise: every year on her birthday, Smurfette is haunted by a dream in which she once again turns evil, and her hair, once again, turns brown.
Cut to Gargamel who has created/ fathered a new race: the Naughties. Evil, dark-haired Vexy has a similar mission to Smurfette’s years ago. Gargamel sends to Vexy to infiltrate Smurfville to recover his “daughter,” hoping that Smurfette will reveal to him the secret potion Papa Smurf used to turn her into a Smurf, thus Gargamel can create Smurfs himself.
Cut to the human world where Patrick is having a birthday party for his son, Blue, to which his father, Victor, arrives. (Got that? Three generations of males.) Victor serves the kids corn dogs that happen to be fried in peanut oil. A young party guest has an allergic reaction, and the celebration is ruined. That’s the latest in a long line of events that lead to Patrick’s deep frustration with his loving but bumbling father. Turns out, Victor is not Patrick’s biological father, but his step father. Patrick’s “real” father walked out on him years ago. So you see, the conflict of true paternity experienced by Smurfette– wondering if her “real” father Papa Smurf or Gargamel– is mirrored by the Patrick’s own dilemma: can his step-father be his “real” father?
Both Papa Smurf and Gargamel essentially “give birth” without any need of females, kind of like our own Judeo-Christian creation myth and its independent and endlessly resourceful male God. While Smurfette has no mother at all, Patrick’s mother is hardly mentioned in the movie. I couldn’t even tell if she’s dead or alive.
Now, for the good news. There are threeMinority Feisty in this movie. This was my first Smurf movie so I don’t know if that’s a record, though the pathetic female to male ratio is of course where the term, the Smurfette Principle, originated from. In case you don’t know what Minority Feisty means here’s a cut and paste from Reel Girl’s review of “Planes.”
Today, if you see a movie for children, it will most often have a male protagonist, while females, who are, in fact, half of the kid population, are presented as if they were a minority. Within that minority, there will be a strong female or two who reviewers will invariably call “feisty.” I call these characters the “Minority Feisty.” The trope has evolved from the Smurfette principle in that there is often more than one, and she is presented as strong. But rarely is she the protagonist. Her power, lines, and screen time are carefully and consistently circumscribed to show that she is not as important as the male star. Still, the Minority Feisty is supposed to pacify parents, making them feel that, unlike those sexist films of yesteryear, this movie is contemporary and feminist.
Smurfette spends most of the movie as a captured damsel in distress who the male smurfs, and mostly male humans, must rescue, but like most Minority Feisty, she has her moments of courage and brilliance. Also, upon befriending her enemy, Vexy, while Smurfette never says, “I want to stay with you because I can’t stand being the only female in Smurfville,” she does express joy at having the sister she never did.
Grace is another Minority Feisty. She’s Patrick’s wife, Blue’s mom, and she’s cool and brave. But the central human, with the conflict and the transition, not to mention the lines and the screen time, is clearly Patrick.
Vexy is an okay Minority Feisty. I enjoyed her badness and watching her transition. Did you read that part about transition? We now have–are you ready– 2 female Smurfs! And Vexy stays brunette. Thus with “Smurfs 2,” the Smurfette principle truly evolves into the Minority Feisty: two females and one of them is a bad-ass. Is that progress or what? According to the Geena Davis Institute, at this rate, it will be only 700 years before we get gender equality in the fantasy world.
Reel Girl rates “Smurfs 2” ***SS*** for gender stereotyping
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
(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:
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.
My four year old daughter loves Cheerios, and last night, my husband brought home a new box. Excited for breakfast this morning, we got it out. Here’s what we saw on the front: Shrek, Puss In Boots, and Donkey, 3 male characters from “Shrek.”
Besides “Shrek,” there are 3 other Cheerios collectible DVDs where we can “catch up with all our favorite DreamWorks characters.”
Unlike other cereal brands that have their own mascots, a cast of no less than 100% male characters, Cheerios borrows its crew from DreamWorks. But, apparently, these favorites don’t privilege females either, to say the least. “How to Train Your Dragon” pictures a boy and his male dragon, the two stars. We do see a girl riding bitch. Then, there’s “Kung Fu Panda” starring…Kung Fu Panda! And finally, Madagascar showing 6 male characters: the zebra, lion, and 4 penguins. Where is the hippo, the Minority Feisty in that movie?
Hippo does show up in the “fame game” on the reverse side of the box.
See, there she is down on the left. There are 8 characters and she is the only female. The game your kids play is “match each character to what they are famous for.” While characters are known for “Training the Furious Five” or “Being the Dragon Warrior,” what’s the hippo known for? “Loving a Giraffe.” No joke. Incidentally, my six year old daughter told me that hippo’s feelings are not reciprocated; giraffe never wants to dance with her.
See that little box to the right with the Croods character? He’s one the males from that movie too.
I write this a lot, but if this Cheerios box were one of many images kids see, it would not be a big deal. But again and again, kids see females go missing. It’s totally normal in their world. They don’t think anything of it and neither do we. But females are half of the population, so why are they presented as a tiny minority in kidworld practically everywhere outside of the Pink Ghetto? It’s an annihilation that acclimates a whole new generation to expect and accept a world where females go missing. Hey, Cheerios, can you make at least half of the characters on your box female? There’s no reason for the imaginary world to be sexist.
My nine year old daughter is tearing through the Rick Riordan books for the third time. Third time. She’s obsessed. She reads them at breakfast and then in the car on the way to school. She’ll forget the book at school and beg me to go to the bookstore down the street and buy her another because she can’t imagine getting through the night without huddling under her covers, reading, with her flashlight. Of course, I refuse, so she calls up her seven year old cousin who is also addicted and asks to borrow it. She won’t give it up because she’s reading it.
Middle Grade experts recommended that I read Rick Riordan since I am writing an MG book and he has “perfect pacing.”
I read the first three and liked them very much. The characters and stories are compelling, and I’ve always loved Greek Mythology, though there is a challenge for female characters in a series based on legends of a patriarchy. That patriarchy is not something in the background but an integral part of the narrative. In the three books I read, there is a lot of talk about “the big three:” Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. When I blogged about Lightning Thief, I rated it ***H***.
There is a strong female character, Annabeth. It is striking how similar the gender ratio and relationships are to the Harry Potter series: two boys and a girl who are BFFs. This is the essence of the Minority Feisty set up: there is a girl and she is strong, so we can all sigh with relief, but she is not the protagonist. She helps the male on his quest.
I know, don’t judge a book by its cover, but but there are so many Riordan books, and so many covers. Let’s check them out and see what they have in common.
Next in the series is The Titan’s Curse and the cover shows a solo male astride a magical creature. It’s a beautiful, exciting image and a thrill females in the imaginary world rarely get to experience:
Battle of the Labyrinth:
The Last Olympian:
So that’s the first Riordan series: 5 books, 2 movies, male protag/ male star, male solo on 4 out of 5 books. Male’s name in the title every time. Once again, I am a fan of Riordan. These books are great. But just imagine your kids– girls and boys– getting the opportunity to read a fantasy series of 5 books with a female protag, her female BFF and male BFF helping her on her quest. And just to be clear, this series is the definition quest narrative.
Girls fare better in the Egypt series: The Red Pyramid is narrated by siblings Sadie and Carter. Though there are more males than females, there is another very cool female, Zia. I wish the book was all about her. The cover is good, too. Sadie makes it on, though behind Carter.
And now, my favorite Riordan cover: Throne of Fire.
The Serpent’s Shadow also has a pretty great cover:
The next Riordan series, Heroes of Olympus, goes back to the standard Minority Feisty imagery. Here’s the first cover. See those three on the cover? They are not Percy, Annabeth, and Gus. They are Jason, Piper, and Leo. Guess who the protag is?
In Son of Neptune, Percy is the protag again, and this time, his friends are Hazel and Frank. It’s remarkable how consistent, persistent, and repetitive the Minority Feisty model is in the imaginary world.
Are you ready for the next one, and this is the BEST one, really according to my daughter and her aunt: Mark of Athena. YAY. A female makes it into the title! There are 7 main characters in this one and 3 are female. Less than half, so still the Minority Feisty, but not a bad showing for the consistent sexism in fantasy kidworld, right? But check out the cover:
WTF? No girl riding a pegasus and the owl of Athena fading into the background. ARGH!
See that lone, blonde Smurfette surrounded by 5 male Smurfs?
This is a poster for just one of 21 children’s movie posters coming out in 2013. All but 4 movies for young kids feature male protagonists. Of the “female-centric” films, “Dorothy of Oz” lists 7 famous male actors at the top of its poster. “Epic” shows the female protagonist surrounded males. Only two movies with female protagonists are titled for the female while 10 of the 16 movies with male protagonists are titled for the male star. Please look at Reel Girl’s Gallery of Girls Gone Missing From Children’s Movies in 2013. It looks like this year will be the worst one for female characters in movies for young kids since I started Reel Girl.
Back in 1991, feminist critic Katha Pollitt wrote about the ‘Smurfette principle‘ for the New York Times: the idea that kids’ narratives too often allow just one lone female character to exist in a group of males.
Here is the “progress” 22 year later: girls are half of the kid population, but in movies for young children, females are presented as a minority. If you see an animated film today, it’s likely to include one or two strong female characters 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. She is the Minority Feisty.
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.
There can be 1, 2, or 3 Minority Feisty in a children’s film. (The term is like “fish,” it can be singular or plural.) Whatever the number, the gender ratio will heavily favor male characters.
Parents, the next time you watch a children’s movie, try not to let the “feminist” character(s) distract you. Except for the pink ghetto, in children’s films females are presented as a minority. This is the definition of marginalized. When your children go to the movies, they learn that boys are more important and get to do more things than girls.