Classic Minority Feisty in ParaNorman

I got this comment from Stace:

I’m grateful to you for giving me the term ‘Minority Feisty’, because indeed, there is a girl character (a nerdy, excluded type with a monobrow who plays the witch in a play) in Paranormal who has very few lines, but one of those lines is a feminist piece about the mistreatment of witches throughout history, or something similar.

Plotwise, it’s up to Norman to save the world (or community, at least) from a witch. Which he does.

I haven’t seen “ParaNorman” but from Stace’s description, the female character is classic Minority Feisty. As with Colette in “Ratatouille,” she delivers a feminist line or two. Her place in the narrative allows parents to breathe a sigh of relief and think: OK, this movie is about a boy, there are more males than females in it, but it’s still feminist.

It’s not.

In a fantasy world, an animated movie for little kids, it’s hardly feminist to illustrate sexism. It is far more feminist and inspiring to show kids images and narratives of females being strong and brave, making choices and taking risks. Fore example, it would have been much better for girls– and boys– to see Colette be the star of the movie instead of listening to her recite a monologue on sexism in French kitchens.

And one more thing about the word “feisty” so often used to describe strong female characters in children’s films. “Feisty” doesn’t imply strong, it implies playing at being strong in a cute way. Think about this: Would you call Superman feisty? How would he feel if you did?

Girl characters lacking in animation movies

I wrote this for The San Jose Mercury news in 2007 when “Ratatouille” opened. The movie’s hypocritical reference to sexism helped to inspire my blog, ReelGirl. Please read and let me know what you think.

Phooey on `Ratatouille’: Female leads lacking in kid films

STUDIOS ACKNOWLEDGE, ACCEPT SEXISM

By Margot Magowan

Article Launched: 07/06/2007 01:32:35 AM PDT

“Ratatouille” made $47 million opening weekend, but as I watched the

film with my 4-year-old daughter, I felt depressed. There was nary a

female rat in sight. I’d forked over $9 so my daughter could get yet

another lesson in sexism direct from Pixar or Disney: No matter if

you’re a rodent, car, or fish – boys are the ones with the starring

roles while girls are relegated to sidekicks.

“Cars,” “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo,” “The Lion King,” “Monsters Inc.”

each features a male hero and multiple male characters; often a token

female is around to help propel one of the guys to greatness.

“Ratatouille” faithfully follows suit. Colette, a female human sous

chef, even justifies her secondary role in the film with a brief

monologue on misogyny: “Do you know how hard I had to work to get

ahead in this male-dominated kitchen?” she yells at our hero.

The speech is there to throw girls a bone, and you can find this

gesture in most modern day motion picture cartoons. It’s that nod to

the audience: unlike all those cartoons of yesteryear, we know this is

sexist, but there’s nothing we can do about it.

When I complained to my mom and sister: “Why couldn’t Ratatouille have

been female? Why no girls – again?” They said, “Didn’t you hear

Colette’s talk? That’s how it is in the real world.” OK, let me get

this straight: It’s just fine to stretch our imaginations to believe

in a talking rat who can cook, but when it comes to gender

roles, we admire realism and authenticity?

When my daughter goes to the movies, she sees animals talk, fairies or

unicorns prance around, witches cast evil spells, but she’s never

shown a magical land where boys and girls are treated equally, where

gender doesn’t matter. Why can’t Pixar or Disney allow her the fantasy

of equality?

After I saw “The Lion King,” I wanted to know: Why couldn’t the

lionesses have attacked weak, old Scar? Why did they have to wait

around for Simba to come back to Pride Rock to help them? I was told:

that’s how it is in nature – lionesses need a male to lead the pride.

So a lion can be best friends with a warthog and a meerkat without

gobbling them up, but a lioness heading a pride? That could never

happen in the animal kingdom!

Pixar has yet to allow girls any starring roles, but Disney permits it

if she’s a princess. Audiences can count on the contemporary princess

movie to throw girls their bone: Unlike princesses of the past who

happily went off with the first guy who kissed them out of

unconsciousness, these modern girls get to choose whom they marry.

Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine put up a huge stink, stubbornly refusing

betrothal to the obvious choice. But these elaborate shows of

independence are bases for entire plot lines, keeping the princesses

stories almost entirely focused on marriage: rebellion within the

safest possible framework.

When my daughter was watching “Mulan” – probably the most feminist of

all the motion picture cartoons – dress up as a boy to fight in a war,

she asked me, “Why can’t girls fight?” Before she can even understand

how Mulan is empowering, first she has to understand sexism. But does

she need to know, at age 4, about sexism? Does she need to know people

still believe girls can’t do so many things, like cook in a top-tier

French kitchen? Why can’t she just see a girl chef making great food,

receiving acclaim for her talent, being helped along by a girl rat or

sous chef boy?

The hyper-concern for gender accuracy in the fantasy world extends to

things like plush toys – when I refer to my kid’s animals as “she,”

adults invariably do a double take, checking for manes or tusks: even

female toys must stay in their place. And of course, toys are a big

part of the problem. With today’s mass marketing, all these movie

characters live on as action figures, dolls, games, on T-shirts and

cereal boxes. On my daughter’s kite, her beach ball, her pull-ups, the

trifecta of Jasmine, Belle and Ariel smile shyly. My daughter wasn’t

born with this fairy tale-princess fantasy embedded in her brain, but

like any kid, she’s self-centered. She likes the movies that are all

about her. Females are half of the population. We pay our $10 just

like everyone else. When can we get more representation in our movies?

How long do we have to wait?

Pixar is made up of a bunch of guy geeks. Disney’s top brass is

practically all male. Maybe when we get more female studio heads, more

female directors and producers and writers, we’ll see groups of girls

having adventures; girl heroes doing cool, brave things in starring

roles where marriage may never be mentioned at all. Maybe then people

will wake up, finally recognize the radical lack of imagination going

on in our make believe worlds; Princess Charming finally rescues

Sleeping Hunk.

“How to Train Your Daughter” from DreamWorks

“How to Train Your Dragon” is a great movie; I was riveted from start to finish. The story is compelling and the animation is wonderful. A misfit boy, Hiccup, refuses to kill the dragons who relentlessly attack his Viking village, even as everyone around him, who he loves and respects, viciously slaughters them. Hiccup, instead, befriends and trains the creatures, ultimately bringing peace to his people.

Viking  leaders

But why couldn’t Hiccup have been a girl? Why couldn’t the dragon in the title have been female?

This movie, like most modern day animation blockbusters, does throw girls a few bones. There are two main characters that are girls; Astrid and Ruffnut are both good fighters, but they are clearly in supporting roles. Their job in the movie, as for most girls in most movies, is to help propel the guy, in this case, Hiccup, to greatness. Astrid and Ruffnut preform their archetypal tasks as helpmeets very well. Rah rah.

There are a few minor, minor roles for adult female Vikings, drawn as fat rather than strong, shown mostly in crowd scenes, never getting more than one line at a time. Hiccup’s father is a main character; he’s the leader of the tribe. His mother– surprise, surprise– is dead, so unusual for the mom to be killed off in a kids’ movie. She’s mentioned just once, when Hiccup’s dad hands his son a helmet which he tells his son used to be half of his mother’s breast plate. Ha ha.

Astrid

The repetitive gender dynamic of boy-leader/ girl-follower is troubling because, like it or not, Hollywood provides our kids with some of their earliest leadership training. The star of the movie is the leader of the movie. Hiccup demonstrates all the skills of a truly visionary and effective leader: he’s smart, compassionate, creative, listens to his own truth, advocates for causes he believes in, builds constituencies, and trains his team. The girls’ critical choice in the movie is whether or not to follow him.

What gets me about “How to Train your Dragon” is here was a prefect opportunity to put a girl in the star role, even without messing too much with Hollywood’s beloved gender stereotypes.

Usually, when I complain about the lack of girl characters, people respond with something like “But in real life, lionesses never lead a pride” (Lion King) or “There aren’t really female chefs in top tier French kitchens” (Ratatouille)– temporarily forgetting while this may be true, it’s also true that rats can’t cook or even speak, and that lions don’t pal around with warthogs and meerkats or sing songs either. Why can’t DreamWorks create a magical world where girl and boys are equally important?

In “How to Train Your Dragon” Hiccup was already stretching the bounds of accepted masculinity by being so skinny and sweet compared with the muscley, hairy, slow-thinking, Popeye-on-steroids Vikings. Hiccup redefined bravery by refusing to kill. Why not go just a little further and make the character a girl? Apparently, DreamWorks is still too afraid, or too unimaginative, to come out with a movie starring a female, so I guess a skinny, weak boy is the next best thing.

How is Astrid finally convinced to put her trust in Hiccup instead of in his father, the tribe’s real leader? Hiccup takes her for a ride on his trained dragon, Toothless. As she dares to climb behind him on the saddle, grinning and clinging to his back, she reminded me of watching “Superman” as a kid, seeing Lois Lane dazzled by handsome Christopher Reeve as he flew her through the starry night or myself, cruising down a freeway in Austin, on the back of my boyfriend’s motorcycle, in awe at the sunset in the giant Texas sky. Yeah, it’s seductive and all, but why can’t Hollywood give girls the chance to be the hotties in the driver’s seat?

Toothless, Hiccup, and Astrid

There’s one more female in this movie, blink and you’ll miss they call her a she. Spoiler alert: it turns out all the dragons are stealing food to feed a secret, hidden, giant, boss dragon, “like worker bees to a queen,” Hiccup discovers. I’m going to look at this paradoxically minor/ major female role as subversively feminist, and awarding the movie an extra G for it, though I don’t know how many people who see the movie will get that part is a female one.

“How to Train Your Dragon” gets a GG/S rating: some girlpower, some stereotyping.

For those of you who are going to comment boys will see movies about girls, girls will not see movies about boys, please see this post.

Phooey on Ratatouille

I wrote this for The San Jose Mercury news in 2007. It inspired my blog ReelGirl.

Phooey on `Ratatouille’: Female leads lacking in kid films

STUDIOS ACKNOWLEDGE, ACCEPT SEXISM

By Margot Magowan

Article Launched: 07/06/2007 01:32:35 AM PDT

“Ratatouille” made $47 million opening weekend, but as I watched the

film with my 4-year-old daughter, I felt depressed. There was nary a

female rat in sight. I’d forked over $9 so my daughter could get yet

another lesson in sexism direct from Pixar or Disney: No matter if

you’re a rodent, car, or fish – boys are the ones with the starring

roles while girls are relegated to sidekicks.

“Cars,” “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo,” “The Lion King,” “Monsters Inc.”

each features a male hero and multiple male characters; often a token

female is around to help propel one of the guys to greatness.

“Ratatouille” faithfully follows suit. Colette, a female human sous

chef, even justifies her secondary role in the film with a brief

monologue on misogyny: “Do you know how hard I had to work to get

ahead in this male-dominated kitchen?” she yells at our hero.

The speech is there to throw girls a bone, and you can find this

gesture in most modern day motion picture cartoons. It’s that nod to

the audience: unlike all those cartoons of yesteryear, we know this is

sexist, but there’s nothing we can do about it.

When I complained to my mom and sister: “Why couldn’t Ratatouille have

been female? Why no girls – again?” They said, “Didn’t you hear

Colette’s talk? That’s how it is in the real world.” OK, let me get

this straight: It’s just fine to stretch our imaginations to believe

in a talking rat who can cook, but when it comes to gender

roles, we admire realism and authenticity?

When my daughter goes to the movies, she sees animals talk, fairies or

unicorns prance around, witches cast evil spells, but she’s never

shown a magical land where boys and girls are treated equally, where

gender doesn’t matter. Why can’t Pixar or Disney allow her the fantasy

of equality?

After I saw “The Lion King,” I wanted to know: Why couldn’t the

lionesses have attacked weak, old Scar? Why did they have to wait

around for Simba to come back to Pride Rock to help them? I was told:

that’s how it is in nature – lionesses need a male to lead the pride.

So a lion can be best friends with a warthog and a meerkat without

gobbling them up, but a lioness heading a pride? That could never

happen in the animal kingdom!

Pixar has yet to allow girls any starring roles, but Disney permits it

if she’s a princess. Audiences can count on the contemporary princess

movie to throw girls their bone: Unlike princesses of the past who

happily went off with the first guy who kissed them out of

unconsciousness, these modern girls get to choose whom they marry.

Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine put up a huge stink, stubbornly refusing

betrothal to the obvious choice. But these elaborate shows of

independence are bases for entire plot lines, keeping the princesses

stories almost entirely focused on marriage: rebellion within the

safest possible framework.

When my daughter was watching “Mulan” – probably the most feminist of

all the motion picture cartoons – dress up as a boy to fight in a war,

she asked me, “Why can’t girls fight?” Before she can even understand

how Mulan is empowering, first she has to understand sexism. But does

she need to know, at age 4, about sexism? Does she need to know people

still believe girls can’t do so many things, like cook in a top-tier

French kitchen? Why can’t she just see a girl chef making great food,

receiving acclaim for her talent, being helped along by a girl rat or

sous chef boy?

The hyper-concern for gender accuracy in the fantasy world extends to

things like plush toys – when I refer to my kid’s animals as “she,”

adults invariably do a double take, checking for manes or tusks: even

female toys must stay in their place. And of course, toys are a big

part of the problem. With today’s mass marketing, all these movie

characters live on as action figures, dolls, games, on T-shirts and

cereal boxes. On my daughter’s kite, her beach ball, her pull-ups, the

trifecta of Jasmine, Belle and Ariel smile shyly. My daughter wasn’t

born with this fairy tale-princess fantasy embedded in her brain, but

like any kid, she’s self-centered. She likes the movies that are all

about her. Females are half of the population. We pay our $10 just

like everyone else. When can we get more representation in our movies?

How long do we have to wait?

Pixar is made up of a bunch of guy geeks. Disney’s top brass is

practically all male. Maybe when we get more female studio heads, more

female directors and producers and writers, we’ll see groups of girls

having adventures; girl heroes doing cool, brave things in starring

roles where marriage may never be mentioned at all. Maybe then people

will wake up, finally recognize the radical lack of imagination going

on in our make believe worlds; Princess Charming finally rescues

Sleeping Hunk.