Girls on Film
By Emily Maguire
Originally published in SMH
WHEN my niece was three years old her favourite film wasJurassic Park. Of course, she should never have been allowed to see that film at her tender age, but let’s leave that conversation and its associated allegations of irresponsible babysitting aunties out of it. The point is, she saw the film and was immediately enthralled. She would beg to watch it and then sit silent and wide-eyed for two hours, before begging to watch it over again as soon as the credits began to roll. We adults tried to break her addiction with age-appropriate dinosaur books and cartoons, but she wasn’t interested. It had to be Jurassic Park.
She was almost five before she revealed what it was she loved about the movie: ‘’Lex. She’s a little girl, but she climbed the fence and fixed the computer and saved everyone.’‘ It suddenly made perfect sense. Books and films for kids her age were either adventure stories about boys or princess stories about girls. My niece enjoyed both of these genres, but in Jurassic Park she found what so many children crave: a character she could both look up to and imagine becoming.
A decade later, I was reminded of my niece’s ability to see a powerful girl hero when all around her saw only dinosaurs, when an eight-year-old girl in one of my kids’ creative writing workshops wrote a story about a fierce but heroic pirate called Jessica. ‘’Pirates aren’t girls,’‘ one of her classmates protested, and several others agreed.
‘What about Anamaria in Pirates of the Caribbean?’‘ the writer shot back. ’‘She’s not a main one,’‘ came the reply. ’‘The main pirates are all boys.’‘ The main pirates are all boys. So are the main robots, monsters, bugs, soldiers, toys, cars, trains, rats and lions.
According to the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media, founded by the actress in 2004 after she noticed a lack of female characters in children’s films and TV shows, only 29.2 per cent of characters in G and PG-rated films released between 2006 and 2009 were female.
It’s not only about numbers though; it’s about how those minority characters are portrayed. Across all the films analysed, one in four female characters (as compared to one in 25 male characters) was depicted in ‘’sexy, tight, or alluring attire’‘ and many female characters had no function at all except, as Davis puts it, ’‘as eye candy’‘.
A common protest at this point is that children’s films are there to entertain and those who worry about gender stereotypes are projecting adult concerns onto innocent children. This is naive. Unlike adults, who choose and assess media based on their existing preferences and value systems, children are developing preferences and value systems as they watch.
Fiction plays an important role in children’s social and moral development because it prompts them to imagine what it feels like to be someone else living a different kind of life. It encourages them to ask questions about how the world works and to philosophise about friendship and courage and compassion, to determine what’s right and wrong, what’s normal, and – most thrillingly – what is possible.
The best children’s films do all this not through providing neat morality plays that end with the presentation of worthy messages, but through stories so gripping and vivid that children can’t help but spend hours talking about and re-enacting their key moments. Anyone who has spent much time with small children would have seen the intensity with which they engage with certain films. They stretch their parents to the absolute limits of tolerance with their insistence on watching the same thing over and over and over. They mimic the speech and clothing of their favourite character, sometimes insist on being called by the character’s name, will go to war with a sibling over the right to ‘’be’‘ the character.
Given the joyful seriousness with which children treat their favourite movies, filmmakers have a responsibility to at least think about the message they are sending when they repeatedly choose to make most of their characters male. After all, writers and producers make thousands of choices concerning every aspect of the story including, consciously or not, the gender of the main and supporting characters.
Sometimes the choice is obvious – Finding Nemo, for example is about father/son relationships – but often it’s not. Often, it seems, most of the characters are male because the writers consider male the default. Female characters are added for diversity or to please the feminist in the writing room or because the story needs a nurturer or, ridiculously – given we’re talking about children’s films here – some eye candy.
Almost 20 years ago, in an essay about under-representation of girls in kid’s programming, the American writer Katha Pollitt coined the term ‘’the Smurfette principle’‘. As those raised on ’80s TV will recall, Smurfette was the only female Smurf in the entire Smurf universe. The male Smurfs had individual characteristics and personalities; Smurfette was characterised by her long hair and eyelashes. But, hey, who needs a personality when you’re literally the only girl in the world?
Today’s supporting female characters (Toy Story 2’s fantastic yodelling cowgirl Jessie, for example) tend to be feisty, sassy, brainy or all of these, so that’s an improvement, but an awesome Smurfette is still a Smurfette. Singular. While the percentage of female characters in children’s movies is just under 30 per cent, the percentage of female characters in crowd or group scenes is an even more pathetic 17 per cent.
The gorgeous love-interest or selfless mother or adorably ditzy sidekick might be female, but the hero and most of his friends, the villain and his lackeys, the soldiers or townspeople or ant colony population are not.
Why would anyone want to keep boys from learning the truth about the world, which is that girls and women are as interesting and capable and courageous and adventurous (and sometimes as dull and cowardly and timid) as boys and men?
Yes, I know, most kids’ films are set in fantasy worlds which are not supposed to mirror reality. But the consistent year in, year out creation of fictional worlds where more than 70 per cent of the population is male and every member of the minority female population is exceptionally brainy/sassy/gorgeous? That’s not fantasy, it’s deeply ingrained and almost certainly unintentional sexism. (The unintentionality of it is why those who notice this stuff need to point it out.)
Of course, if it was a matter of a single gender-imbalanced film here and a TV show that reinforces stereotypes there, it wouldn’t be such of problem. It’s the repetition of sexist messages over time – especially when combined with a dearth of contradictory messages – that creates and reinforces norms.
When I run writing workshops for children, I see the pattern repeating: the girls write male protagonists about half the time, whereas the boys write male protagonists almost 100 per cent of the time.
The girls’ stories have a mixture of male and female characters; the boys’ stories usually feature all-male casts. It’s not surprising given that most child writers (at first) imitate the stories they love, and while girls tend to be equal-opportunity enthusiasts, boys – through no fault of their own – rarely become enthralled by stories about girls.
The most popular and influential children’s films of the last decade – the Toy Story and Harry Potter series, Cars, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc, Ratatouille, How to Train Your Dragon, Madagascar, Despicable Me – are largely considered to be non-gender-specific even though their main characters and most of the supporting characters are either boys or male-identified toys/beasts/robots.
Meanwhile, films with female main characters are labelled ‘’girl’‘ films and so they have half the audience of these ’‘non-gendered’‘ (but boy-centred) films.
I’ve heard many times that this is just how things are: boys won’t watch ‘’girl’‘ movies. But how do we know this? Maybe more boys would watch films with female main characters if they weren’t explicitly labelled and advertised as being for girls or if gender-policing of even very small children didn’t mean most boys think that girl = boring and/or embarrassing.
Consider: how would you feel about a little girl who wanted to be Buzz Lightyear? Cute, huh? Now what about a little boy who wanted to be Ariel the Little Mermaid? Most people I’ve put this to have – at the very least – cringed. ‘’But Ariel’s a sap. I wouldn’t want my son or daughter to look up to her’‘, one parent told me. OK, how about Hermione Granger or Princess Fiona or Dora or Matilda or Eloise? No?
That it’s not easy coming up with a list of awesome female characters from children’s films is the fault of the filmmakers. That most adults are uncomfortable with the idea of little boys wanting to emulate any of them is a societal shame.
If adults don’t infect them with a horror of femaleness, boys are as capable of enjoying stories about girls as girls are of enjoying stories about boys. And given that stories have such a big effect on children’s development, and that movies are one of the major means of story transmission for young children, we’re doing boys and girls a huge disservice by restricting boys to films about other boys or boy-like characters.
The reality is that girls and women make up half the population and media made for children should reflect that. Note that this is not a call for each individual film and TV show to meet a gender quota. It’s a call for the makers of children’s entertainment to think about why most of their characters default to male, and to parents and teachers to think about the stories they choose for girls and how and why they differ from the ones they choose for boys.
Why would anyone want to keep boys from learning the truth about the world, which is that girls and women are as interesting and capable and courageous and adventurous (and sometimes as dull and cowardly and timid) as boys and men? Girls already know they can be the main pirates; it’s the boys who aren’t getting the message.