23 April 2009


Hayao Miyazaki is one of my favorite filmmakers. He makes beautiful, rich animated Japanese children's movies, but I'd watch them even if I didn't have kids, they're so wonderful. One of my favorites of his films is Nausicaa, the story of a young princess who is a warrior, pilot, pacifist, environmentalist heroine. The futuristic world she lives in is one where a toxic jungle flourishes, and enormous insects roam the earth, and Nausicaa attempts to bring harmony between people and their surroundings while trying to prevent a war in her peaceful valley. It's one of my favorite movies of all time (and one of Evan's favorites too).

A few years ago I loaned our DVD to a friend of mine to share with her children, as an alternative to the standard princess movies made in the US. She returned it after a week or two, and told me she thought it was okay, but she thought the environmental messages felt like propaganda and that really bothered her. I always thought the messages were obvious but not over-the-top -- they fit in with the context of the story and the passion of the main character. I wouldn't call them propaganda at all. (Bear in mind that I'm a dirty tree-hugger, though.)

But it occurred to me today that that's how I feel about most mainstream children's movies: propaganda, of the gendered variety. Most kids' movies completely reinforce traditional gender roles, and the narrative of Boy Saves Girl and Boys Have Adventures and Girls Want Romance. And most people, I think, don't question this at all.

Example: My kids and I recently watched Madagascar 2. Not the worst kids' movie I've ever seen -- it was mostly entertaining, not too gross or inappropriate, not objectionable in most ways. Even funny at times, and I don't usually find kids' movies very funny. (Those penguins, though! And the chimps!)

Of the four main characters in the Madagascar movies, there are three males and one female (That ratio is my first problem). The three male characters' storylines involved 1) a zebra's quest for individuality, 2) a lion's quest to prove himself to his father, and 3) a giraffe's quest to become a witch doctor. The female character's storyline? Dating. That's it. It's true that in the end (spoilers!) the female hippo ends up with the male giraffe after he confesses his love and attempts to sacrifice himself to save the other animals, so there is a male with a romance storyline -- but the romance is only a part of his storyline, whereas with the female hippo, it's basically all she gets.

There are so many children's movies where the only female characters function as love interests for the males without really contributing anything of substance to the plot, and it really is starting to seem like propaganda to me. Cultural propaganda that serves to convince little girls (and boys) that girls are there for decoration, ornaments, instead of being actual people who can solve problems and rescue people.

Luckily in the age of the internet it's pretty easy to find films that don't conform to this mold, and there are the occasional big-studio children's films that don't either -- the Pixar movies are generally pretty good about gender, and the recent film Coraline was completely wonderful (as is the book it's based on). And we're currently watching on DVD a television series that's the best kids' media I've ever seen in terms of gender stereotypes and roles (which I'm planning to write about in its own post once we're through the whole series).

It's hard to avoid the propaganda altogether, but I feel like my eyes have been opened to a new way of contradicting those messages now that I've identified them as a form of propaganda.


Ren said...

Well said!

kim said...

Do you really think the Pixar movies are good when it comes to gender? The Incredibles, yes, and Finding Nemo has Dorie, but I've been pretty disappointed with the Toy Story movies and Cars and Monsters Inc. weren't that great (there were female characters, but clearly second tier in importance). WALL-E does have Eve, but she's primarily the love interest. And although I haven't seen it, I believe I've heard that Ratatouille has zero girl rats. I love Pixar films, but I'd be thrilled if a quarter of the main characters in those movies were female.

But otherwise, I totally agree with everything you say. I can barely let Molly watch Veggie Tales (which she loves) because female characters are practically non-existant in those shows.

Heidi said...

Yeah, you have a point, Kim. I guess I'm considering it a point in their favor that most of their movies (certainly not all) have multiple female characters whose names I can remember, unlike some other kids' movies (the Madagascars, the Ice Ages, many of the Dreamworks movies, even Wallace and Gromit who I dearly love otherwise), even if those female characters are not central to the plot.

Interestingly, I just did some Googling and found that none of the top-grossing animated films in the US have a female lead character, and the only Oscar-nominated animated films that have a female lead character are either foreign (Miyazaki's films) or not made for children (i.e. Persepolis and Triplets of Belleville). Wow, that surprises even me and I was expecting it to be pretty bad.

So considering that, it's not unreasonable that I'm giving Pixar so much credit for actually creating female characters. But it does underscore the point that female characters are vastly under-represented and always secondary.