Not only will a record 20 women hold U.S. Senate seats next year, but women voters also greatly influenced the 2012 election, making an impact in swing states such as Ohio.
As founder of reelgirl.com Margot Magowan says, Hollywood needs to catch up.
The sheer increase of strong female characters isn’t enough, Magowan said, noting that role models such as “Wreck-It Ralph’s” Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman) are often secondary characters.
“It’s important for the female to be the star of the movie,” the mom of three girls said. ” ‘Harry Potter’ has Hermione, but her role is to help Harry on his quest. … You can be the first lady, but you can’t be the president. … If you can’t imagine it, you can’t be it.”
My favorite quote is from Joss Whedon:
In 2006, while accepting an award from Equality Now (an organization promoting the human rights of women), Joss Whedon (“The Avengers,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) said he’s often asked why he creates such strong women characters.
His response: “Why aren’t you asking 100 other guys why they don’t write strong women characters?”
I’ve been avoiding writing this post. I knew that female characters in children’s movies were not faring well in 2012. Not in number and not in stature. But I kept hoping. Hoping that somehow, before January, something would change, a slew of movies were going to appear from nowhere, stats would magically shift.
Yes, we got “Brave” this year. Thank you director Brenda Chapman for making Pixar’s first movie ever with a female protagonist. I’m sorry that you, one of the only women to direct animated movies produced by a major studio, were fired half way through production and replaced with a male director.
But “Brave” is just one movie. The exception proves the rule. It’s December now, and sadly, it’s time for me to admit that once again, in the movies made for children in 2012, girls go missing. In staggering proportions, males are consistently front and center; females are mostly sidelined or not there at all.
If you look at the gender placement in the images on the movie posters below, the meaning of “marginalized” couldn’t be more clear. Remember, these are movie for kids. So when your children go to the movies, they are learning, time and time again, that boys are more important than girls.
For those of you who say there are alternative posters that I didn’t put in Reel Girl’s Gallery, you may find them on Google images, but these are the ones I saw all around San Francisco. Even if you find a poster on Google featuring, say, Tooth, the one female Guardian out of five (a typical gender ratio, by the way) that’s a pretty pathetic argument for her relevance.
For those of you who say the posters below do not reflect the movie, that the movie has a strong female in it, maybe even two, maybe three, you are, most likely, referring to the Minority Feisty. No matter how many Minority Feisty there are in an animated film, they are represented as a minority. The irony is, of course, that females are not a minority, not a special interest, not even a fringe group. Females are, in fact, half of the population. Girls are half of the kid population. Why aren’t they represented that way in movies made for children?
I call the Minority Feisty “Feisty” because that is, invariably, the adjective reviewers use to describe the “strong” female character in an animated film. “Feisty” is diminutive. It is what you call someone who plays at being powerful, not someone who is actually powerful. Would you ever call Superman “feisty?” How would he feel if you did?
The role of the Minority Feisty, like a cheerleader or First Lady, is to help the male star along on his important quest. Children need to see females front and center, as protagonists, as the heroes of their own stories.
Finally, even apart from the movie, these posters– and ads– are their own media. Whether or not your kid goes to the movie, she sees these posters everywhere. The movie poster is one of the reasons that I was so thrilled about “Brave.” Finally, San Francisco was papered with an image a daring girl, an image marketed to kids. Obviously, the biggest impact of a narrative is made when kids get to know the character through the movie and then see that character on clothing, food packaging, and toys.
As you look at these posters, imagine the reverse, the gender ratio and the character placement, switched; the movie’s title reflecting the female star. Would you do a double take? How many of us grown-ups don’t even notice the dominance of male characters anymore? How many of us experience the annihilation of females as totally normal, not to mention adorable and child-appropriate?
There is no good reason for the imaginary world to be sexist. Or is there?
Only 16% of protagonists in movies are female; only 16% of women make it into power positions in almost all professions across America. Children’s movie posters, and of course the movies themselves, are an effective way that we acclimate a new generation to expect and accept a world where females go missing.
Out of the 16 posters for children’s movies in 2012 pictured below, just 4 represent movies starring females: “Mirror, Mirror,” “Brave,” “Secret World of Arietty” and “Big Miracle.” The “Big Miracle” poster diminishes Drew Barrymore pretty effectively. I loved “Arrietty,” as I love every Studio Ghibli film, but was surprised to see the boy so big on the poster.
There is a lot to love and admire about “Wreck-It Ralph.” In many ways, both conspicuously and more subversively, the movie challenges gender stereotypes. That said, the gender matrix– a sexist framework that dominates animated films made for children– remains intact. Watching “Wreck-It Ralph,” for me, is like reading the Greek Myths; there are strong, complex females to admire but they are only permitted to demonstrate their power within a firmly established patriarchy.
Vanellope von Schweetz is such a cool Minority Feisty. She is smart, funny, daring, talented, compassionate, and vulnerable. She kicks ass but also has a huge heart. Vanellope is voiced by one of my favorite comedians, Sarah Silverman, and let’s just say, those two have a lot in common. Icing on the cake: Vanellope saves Ralph’s life with her speed and smarts. The cross-gender friendship between Vanellope and Ralph is the heart of the movie.
Vanellope is not the only Minority Feisty to love in “Ralph.” Sargeant Calhoun, voiced by Jane Lynch, also plays a complex and cool role. She is a fierce military woman but also passionate with a strong moral fiber.
A third Minority Feisty is Moppet Girl who hangs out at the arcade. Though her gender is a minority in the arcade crowd (I know, I know, that’s how it is is the “real world”) she is there and delivers the key line in the plot. Moppet Girl tells the arcade owner that the Fix-It Felix game is broken. She is also the character who provides the plot bookend, giving a fist bump to Vanellope at the end of the movie when she returns to her rightful position as ruler. It is a rare scene in animation to see two females interacting with each other, expressing power and victory. To put that scene in perspective, the awesome Minority Feisty of “Puss in Boots,” Kitty Softpaws, never meets any of the other 4 females in the movie.
More coolness: One of the crowd scenes– in Vanellope’s game, Sugar Rush– is female dominated. The trio of girls who actually get to speak in that crowd are a stereotype, the trifecta, of mean girls: one bitchy leader flanked by a pair of followers (as seen in “Mean Girls,” “Heathers” “Never Been Kissed,” and many more “chick flicks”.)
But still, females dominating a crowd scene– a crowd scene of race car drivers, no less– is nothing to sneeze at. Those cars may be made out of cookies and candy, the drivers may have names like Taffyta, reminiscent of “My Little Pony” but, still, progress noted.
There are still more depictions of female power in “Ralph.” A few weeks ago, I posted about “riding bitch:” how whether a female in kidworld is on a magic carpet (“Aladdin”) a dragon (“How to Train Your Dragon”) or a hippogriff (Harry Potter), she’s is almost always found behind the male. The message is: the boy leads, the girl is along for the ride. Not in this movie. In “Wreck-It Ralph” Sargeant Calhoun piloted some kind of motorized, flying surfboard and a space ship while Fix-it Felix rode shotgun. Not only was Felix in the passenger seat, but he gazed, admiringly at Calhoun as he watched her do her stuff. Calhoun was shown as attractive and powerful simultaneously. That, my friend, is almost never depicted. Vanellope, herself, becomes a race car driver. She is also shown in the driver’s seat with Ralph behind her. Ralph does teach her how to drive (when he doesn’t know how either) but her skills surpass his and he is shown admiring her for her talent. (I cannot find images on the web of Calhoun piloting with Fix-It Felix by her side or Vanellope driving with Ralph in the back. If you do, please send me the link.)
But here’s the gender matrix. Even breaking all these sexist barriers, Ralph is clearly the protagonist. The movie is named for him. He’s the hero. Fix-It Felix is the “good guy” to Ralph’s “bad guy.” The real bad guy, the villain of the movie, Turbo, is also male. Turbo masquerades as King Candy but when Vanellope is restored to her rightful role as ruler, she is “princess,” not “queen.” In an often used cliche in children’s movies trying to straddle the princess-empowerment image, Vanellope tears off her puffy, pink dress. Later, in the movie, when she has to wear the dress to attend a wedding, she is uncomfortable and scratches her neck. (I actually appreciated that detail much more than the overused “rip off your princess-dress/ corset” cliche. Another awesome factor: the toys from the movie. As far as I can see, the Vanellope figure is shown in her regular clothes or driving her car, not wearing the princess outfit she hates in the movie, which is, unfortunately, how Disney sells Mulan.)
The Bad Guy Anon meetings were hilarious and creative. I was cracking up watching them but these scenes fortify the sexist matrix.
The whole thesis of the movie is about being a bad “guy.” There was only one female in the bad “guy” group and she didn’t get a single line. It is mostly that cast of characters that made the poster that is all over San Francisco.
The bad female is not on this poster, nor is Vanellope, Calhoun, and Moppet Girl. When I posted earlier about the sexist poster, “Wreck-It Ralph” fans responded with hundreds of angry comments on Reel Girl and all over the web. Their first complaint was that the movie features strong female characters. It does. But the male is still the lead. That is what this poster clearly shows. That is why the poster was created to look this way and why the film is titled for Ralph.
Also, the poster is its own media. Even if you don’t see the movie, your kids see the poster on buses and looming over them on the sides of buildings. And again, if 50% of posters around town featured females, there would be no problem with “Wreck-It Ralph.” But, “Wreck it Ralph” fits a pattern, echoed and repeated, where males star and females are sidelined or missing.
Commenters on that blog post also told me the movie is called “Sugar Rush” in Japan. I think that’s pretty cool, but it’s still not called “The Racer, Vanellope” and it’s the U.S. version that sets the cultural standards here. Also, once again, Ralph narrates, the movie is Ralph’s story. Vanellope is his friend.
Why is the gender of the protagonist so crucial? We are all the heroes in our own lives. Again and again, with these films, girls see that there is a limit, a ceiling, to their potential, and it is marked with a male. No matter how important they are or how big a role they get to play, there is a guy who gets more.
Reel Girl rates “Wreck-It Ralph ***HH*** Take your kids to see this movie!
Update: A commenter tells me one of the 3 mean girls is, in fact, a boy. The one on the left. Beggars can’t be choosers, and I claimed claimed RF in spite of evil ways, but she is a he.
Last night on TV, while watching World Series Game 2 with my three young daughters, we all saw a commercial for “Rise of the Guardians,” the Christmas-themed animated movie coming out November 21. Guess who was missing from the multitude of characters in the preview?
Females. Not one damn female voice. Seriously.
A Google search tells me there is, in fact, a Minority Feisty (the tiny minority representation of strong females you can usually find in animated films for kids): the Tooth Fairy.
I know, I know, “Rise of the Guardians” is derivative. Mythical characters throughout history are males. “Rise of the Guardians” features the Easter Bunny and Jack Frost, just like “Hotel Transylvania” features famous monsters like Dracula and Frakenstein or the bad guys of “Wreck-It Ralph” are based on pre-existing video games. What can Hollywood do about that?
Hmmm..what about not being so lazy and using a little imagination? Why not conceive of previously male characters as female? Or what about creating some brand new female characters? Ever heard of Santa Claus’s evil sister? If that use of imagination is too challenging for Hollywood, why not make the Tooth Fairy the star of the movie instead of Jack Frost?
But come on Hollywood, aren’t stories for children supposed to be imaginative?
When an evil spirit known as Pitch lays down the gauntlet to take over the world, the immortal Guardians must join forces for the first time to protect the hopes, beliefs and imagination of children all over the world.
Protecting the imaginations of kids is the whole reason I started this blog, Reel Girl. After having my three daughters, I was blown away by the gender stereotypes marketed to my kids through animated movies. These images and narratives in children’s movies repeatedly teach little kids that males are the adventurers, the risk-takers, and the stars, while females– half of the kid population– are continually limited to a sidelined minority.
Anyone remember 2011’s holiday movie, “Arthur Christmas?” Can you find the lone female here?
I honestly don’t know if you can even say that “Mrs. Claus” qualifies as a Minority Feisty.
And by the way, if you scoffed at my reference to Santa’s evil sister above, isn’t Santa’s son Arthur, the star of this movie, a newly made-up character? Why not put Santa’s daughter at the top of an elf-girl pyramid?
Can you imagine that? Try hard to think up a poster for an animated movie in 2012 that shows this gender ratio here but reversed. Would you do a double take? Would parents think “Fantastic Ms. Fox” was some crazy lesbian movie? Is that the concern here?
There is no good reason for the imaginary world to be sexist like this. It’s the imaginary world! Anything should be possible, even equality.
How do you think seeing these stereotyped gender roles repeated again and again is affecting your child’s imagination? Her aspirations?
Here’s an interesting “coincidence:” 16% of characters in movies for kids are female; in 2012, in top positions in professions all across America, women rarely make it past 16%.
Tell your kids that it shouldn’t be normal for females to go missing, either in movie poster after movie poster or in a boardroom.
Looking at my last two posts, the representation of masculinity and femininity marketed to kids is radical. I wish these images were unusual. Kids brains are being wired up. Are these kinds of repetitive images the ones we want to be molding their minds?
Another day of driving my three year old daughter to school, another day she gets to see, and point at, a giant animated sexist ad go past her plastered on the side of a bus. Another day that my daughter gets to learn, along with the rest of the kids in America, that boys are more important than girls.
Do you know that in 2012 Hollywood won’t allow females to be in the title of movies for children? Yet, after “ParaNorman” and “Frankenweenie,” we get “Wreck-It Ralph” making three in a row of animated movies named for their male stars? In fantasy world, children are supposed to dream big, let their imaginations go wild, and anything should be possible, unless, of course, you happen to be female.