Are family films sexist?

They have all been smash hits: Finding Nemo, Madagascar, Ice Age, Toy Story. Fish, penguins, rats, stuffed animals, talking toys. All good innocent family fun, right? Sure, except there are few female characters in those films. There are certainly few doing anything meaningful or heroic—and no, Bo Peep doesn’t count. I know, there’s the ditzy, amnesiac Dory in Nemo, and the cute cowgirl in Toy Story, but these are sidekicks and exceptions. It’s weird, isn’t it? It was one area in which I optimistically thought progress must have been made—the realm of children’s films, of fantasy, slapstick, cute animals, and moral tales. Haven’t we just finally seen a black heroine in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog? It was startling to discover that a new study has found that there is only one female character to every three male characters in family movies. Even creepier is the fact that many of the female characters are scantily clad, and hot (the Little Mermaid wasn’t always depicted popping out of a tiny bikini top).

In the comic business, there is (or was, but probably still is) an ongoing debate on the subject. Why so few female heroines? Even accounting for the fact that comic book fandom is predominately male, female leads are dramatically unrepresented even when compared to said fandom. At some point in one of the conversation, someone came forward with a study that demonstrated one pretty big reason: males, and young boys in particular, are far less likely to read a book with a female lead than vice-versa. The girls rally behind Superman far more readily than do the boys around Wonder Woman. In comic books, this is far from the only reason. Comics are generally written by men and people veer towards writing their own gender. Further, the lack of female characters makes it so that female characters run the risk of being The Female Character. It’s not enough that Wonder Woman is female, for instance, but she must embody feminism or femininity. She must come from a culture of women. She must represent women everywhere. It’s not so surprising that the character would be unappealing to men. And so it becomes a sort of cycle that female characters are few and therefore their femininity must be enhanced and so guys don’t buy the comic book and so fewer comic books with female leads get put out. And to add on top of that, men have their choices of comics with male leads and can ignore the female leads altogether while women, if they’re interested in comics, have to collect those with male leads.

Some, but not all, of this apply to family movies. I don’t know the demographics of family movie writers, so I don’t know what that role plays. Unlike comics, family movie consumers are not predominantly male to my knowledge (and it’s more likely to be women that select the movies their kids are going to see). However, the fact that male leads are common does allow boys to avoid leaving the comfort zone of lead characters that share their gender (if not their species!). And it’s possible that there is something inherent in boys (either biologically or in terms of social conditioning) that make them less likely to see themselves in female characters.

But the study about male characters versus female ones does ring true to me. And I think that these things do matter. One of my favorite comic book characters of all time, Helena (Huntress) Bertinelli is female*. Another one of them, Ted (Blue Beetle) Kord, is male. While I love both of these characters, Kord was more of an idol to me. Partially because of the peculiarities of his character (his battle with his weight, for instance), but in part because it’s easier to see myself in Ted than in Helena even though, at the time, my personality was far more aligned with the latter. Having icons to look up to is important even if they’re bears or attendees of a wizarding academy.

* – The Huntress managed to avoid what befell Wonder Woman by virtue of the fact that she started out as a supporting character. Batman’s daughter, in her original iteration. When they brought the character back after a re-sorting of the internal history of DC Comics, they severed the familial relationship and she did actually start off in her own series. It failed, in part due to the comparative unattractiveness of the character (they intentionally made her plain looking at the outset), and she became a supporting character in the Batman line. Her character grew mostly in the context of her being a supporting character, though. A really good comic book series, Birds of Prey (which included the Huntress, among other), featured some of the most interesting female characters in comics. All of them got their start or became well-known primarily due to their association with male characters (Black Canary as Green Arrow’s ex-girlfriend, Oracle as the former Batgirl, Huntress as a rival to Batman, Lady Shiva as a villain, Hawkgirl as Hawkman’s partner, Big Barda as Mister Miracle’s wife, and Power Girl as an exception). It is positive, I suppose, that female characters can become quite dynamic and well-developed over the course of a male-dominated series, but in another sense it’s depressing when that’s the only real way it seems to happen.

Category: Theater

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4 Responses to Keeping Women As Second String

  1. Peter says:

    However poorly women may be treated in movies, it’s more than canceled out by the humiliating way men are treated in TV commercials and sitcoms.

  2. Abel says:

    Why doesn’t Julia Baird write her own screenplay and/or finance a family film with strong female leads. It’s one thing to complain about the work of others. It’s another to actually try and change it. I’d like to see less complaining and more action.

  3. Nanani says:

    It’s quite likely that any character written -just for the sake of being X-, whether X is “female” or any other category, is doomed to fail.

    A character has to be a good character first before they can get fans.

    Also when it comes to family/children’s entertainment, I don’t think most kids really think “OH COOL this hero is like me”, but more like “OH COOL Batman* is awesome”.
    *or whoever

    So, make awesome characters, and the fans will come.

  4. Maria says:

    2.Why doesn’t Julia Baird write her own screenplay and/or finance a family film with strong female leads. It’s one thing to complain about the work of others. It’s another to actually try and change it. I’d like to see less complaining and more action.

    Agree with this wholeheartedly. I’m sick of this type of whining.

    There are actually a lot of female heroines in classic English-language children’s literature:

    –Velvet Brown in National Velvet
    –Anne of Green Gables and all the books in that series
    –The Native American girl in The Island of the Blue Dolphins (a perennial children’s favorite)
    –Caddie Woodlawn in all the Caddie Woodlawn books
    –Kit in The Witch of Blackbird Pond
    –The March Girls in Little Women
    –Nancy Drew (another perennial favorite)
    –The sisters in the Little House on the Prairie books

    These characters and books aren’t popular today amongst the glitterati because they aren’t “hip” enough — or else because they harken back to our older, “non-diverse” culture — but the characters are very good female role models, and the stories are good.

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