Thelma Adams Takes on the Sexism in ‘Mars Needs Moms’

Posted on March 13, 2011 at 8:00 am

I was delighted to see US movie critic Thelma Adams go after “Mars Needs Moms” for the retro sexism of its plot. As she notes in a comment following my review, she wrote on her blog about the weirdness of a movie for kids in 2011 about a planet where the females have no feelings, the children are raised by robots whose feelings are extracted from earth mothers (selected for their willingness to be disciplinarians), and the males are “dumb as a bag of rocks,” incapable of even the most rudimentary comprehension or achievement.
She says:

ere’s the takeaway: the working mothers of Mars have lost their ability as women to love and nurture. They have to import an earth breeder to take care of that one chip necessary to continue the race. And the poor oppressed men, who live in substandard conditions, without a vote, without power, have been totally squelched to the detriment of Martian society.

The answer, my friends, is blowing in the hot air: The reinstitution of the nuclear family – happy mommy, happy daddy, happy baby of either sex — and the annihilation of the cranky crone. If sci fi plots allow their creators to work out real-life issues, then here we see a bunch of angry Hollywood males crying out against their feelings of emasculation with nostalgia for a reinstatement of the nuclear fifties family. Hmmm.

The weirdest part is that it just doesn’t make any sense. Forget the part about how Martian babies are produced by popping out of the ground, without any involvement by parents of any gender. How exactly does this planet work? The shrewish female leader is a totalitarian who thinks she can protect herself and the other females from feelings. So, why program the robots with the memories and views of an earth mother who may be stern but is also affectionate and supportive? What is it that all these working females do, other than march around? I am surprised that the few good reviews this movie got emphasize its lessons about family; I’m glad Milo learns to appreciate his mother, but it would have been nice to show her as capable of more than sending him to bed without television and being willing to sacrifice herself to save his life.

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28 Replies to “Thelma Adams Takes on the Sexism in ‘Mars Needs Moms’”

  1. After having read this article I have two questions: 1. What exactly is “retro sexism?” 2. Is Thelma Adams saying that there is something wrong with males stating they have been emasculated and want that to change ? I also wonder if the females were portrayed as females of today and the males were still portrayed as “dumb as rocks” would she have been as concerned and wrote an article about it ? I don’t know anything about Thelma Adams, but I hope she would have.

  2. 1. Retro sexism is a wish to return to an era of rigid gender stereotypes.
    2. No, that has nothing to do with her point and there is no reason to infer it from her comment. I trust you are not implying any suggestion that for men to feel better about themselves women must return to a time when they did not have equal rights to education, work, and property? Your repeated references to equal rights suggest that you are not.
    3. Her point is that the Mars creatures were supposed to be or should be considered to be a portrayal of gender issues today, so yes.

  3. First, thank you for explaining what “retro sexism” means. Second, you are completely correct. I would not want to see a return to a time where women would lack equal rights. I did read Thelma Adams’s article that you listed in your review of the film. It appears that the issues facing females and males in today’s society is quite complicated. I would find it troubling to think, though, that it is realistic to believe that in the quest for equal rights for females, that males have become emasculated and females heartless. I want to believe that the people of society will not let that occur.

  4. Thanks, Nell, for succinctly explaining what I meant. I appreciate it. I’ve just written a novel about a stay-at-home dad called PLAYDATE — an excerpt is here
    One theme of that book is that as womens’ roles change, so do those of men. The point is absolutely not to emasculate men. I would hope that as responsibilities change, nurturers would be appreciated, whatever their gender.
    In the book, I try to address gender roles in flux by seeing parenthood through the eyes of a stay-at-home dad — and also make readers laugh, feel, think, and appreciate the bonds between men and women and children. I encourage readers to come to their own conclusions, which is also some thing as a movie critic I appreciate in movies, being allowed to reach my own conclusions.
    Thanks, Nell, for continuing the debate.

  5. Thanks Thelma for coming by and explaining your side. I think I would find your novel of interest to me. I think it is important for both genders to get a chance to experience as many different roles as possible to grasp a better understanding of what your partner goes through while while taking on a specific role. I would think it should lead to an understanding that all roles are important and significant in a child’s development. My situation is a bit different in that I am a single parent who assumes both Mom and Dad roles to my four daughters. Maybe in time, the term “gender roles” will be replaced with just “parent roles” and thus appreciating each gender for what they bring to their family situation.
    Also, I was wondering, if there Is any research which you are aware of, how females, having been raised by a single male parent, or how males, raised by a single female parent , view gender roles or gender equality ?

  6. Thank you, Tim. There has not been a lot of research but there has been some, like this paper. As you carry a very heavy responsibility for modeling gender roles for your four daughters, I have even more reason to hope that you will get past the hyper-focus on one tangential issue to create a safe place for each of them to decide what is right for them. I like your idea of trying out a variety of roles; ultimately each of us will have to find what is right for us as individuals, far more important than trying to fit into anyone’s idea about what is appropriate.
    As for the idea of emasculation, I would apply Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous line: “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” People who know who they are and are comfortable with who they are cannot be bothered by anyone else’s narrow notion of what is appropriate.

  7. And thank you, Thelma! I will definitely get your book! A close friend is writing a non-fiction book about what happens to families when the woman makes more money than the man — so far, she has found that in most cases it works very well and the men are confident enough in their out masculinity that it does not diminish their sense of being a contributor to the family. I am lucky enough to be married to a man who grew up in a very egalitarian home (I still remember how shocked I was when I first saw his father cook and do grocery shopping). For him, as it should be, these are manly tasks. As I said to Tim, no one can emasculate you; you can only emasculate yourself with your own doubts. We are all so much bigger than the templates people try to force on us.

  8. This is sad. Really sad.
    Thelma: A fictional movie about Martian life doesn’t make sense? She would, what?, prefer it be more accurate to actual Martian families?
    “The reinstitution of the nuclear family”? Newsflash: the nuclear family has not left, no matter how badly gender police need to denigrate it to win Womyn’s studies street cred. I knew when I saw the pictograph of the happy family in Mars Needs Mom that some feminists heads would explode. Hey, they can’t all be “The Kids are All Right”, now can they.
    Retro Sexism? Sad.
    It’s a fictional animated movie. Entertainment. A good one at that. Why so serious?

  9. I’m the one who said it didn’t make sense, Randy, don’t blame Thelma for that. Any movie critic will tell you we are always glad to be on board with whatever world the movie wants to create for us, but within its own construct, yes, it has to make sense. You can’t say that Superman is invulnerable to everything but Kryptonite in one scene and then have him get a papercut in another. Otherwise the movie is just fighting you too hard, and showing a lack of respect for its audience.
    So you liked the movie? Maybe it didn’t bother you that the only male characters on Mars are incompetent doofuses, incapable of any form of communication or aspiration. Or that the female characters on Mars are all (but one) cold-hearted soldiers, powerless to rebel against a shrewish commander. But give kids credit for having enough intelligence to tell when a story has some validity.
    And please do not insult those who object to the movie by suggesting that anyone has a problem with a happy, loving family. And please be more careful about throwing around terms like “feminist” and “gender police” or “womyn’s studies” per my rules of engagement re-post today. You are more than welcome to express your views in a respectful and constructive manner and you will do so with much more clarity and power if you avoid name-calling. I know you can do better than that — or else you will show us that this movie had just the pernicious effect on you its fiercest critics predict.

  10. She posted a feminist critique of a movie, with the predictable denigration of the nuclear family – twice. I critiqued the feminist viewpoint represented there.
    So, my terms are inappropriate but Thelma’s feminist shot at “a bunch of angry Hollywood males” resonated with you enough to feature it in your praise of her review? Thelma’s review was straight up sexism, not of the retro variety.
    Yes. I liked the movie. It moved a plot along well. Incredible motion-capture animation. (Wow, those fleshtones). Loved the 70’s references.
    The movie is about a core group of characters (Milo, Gribble, Ki, Supervisor, Mom). Everyone else is an extra, like the storm troopers and clome army in Star Wars. Works for me.

  11. Nell, my comments express my viewpoint. They are passionate, but civil.
    Yet, each one seems to draw a chastisement about civility and rules of conduct. (I read the rules of conduct, and don’t see how I violated them.)
    Comments from the left not only don’t draw a similar rebuke, but get celebrated and retweeted and blogged about. “A bunch of angry Hollywood males” is fine, and featured. But my reference to “Womyn’s studies” – entirely relevant to a feminist post about sexism, is somehow over the line. Why?

  12. I do not agree, Randy, and I am sorry that you do not see the difference in your use of those terms or appreciate how your language comes across in a comment. But I will allow your comment to stand as written as I believe your approach and use of language is its own best rebuttal, and will be so evaluated by the readers of all political views.

  13. After Mr. Masters’ opinion, I find it pertinent to ask– what part of this review was perceived as an attack on the nuclear family, exactly?
    “Nuclear family” means a father, mother, and kids. It in no way insinuates the mother has to be a housewife, or the father has to be a dumb oaf. Isn’t a family where the mother works, the father takes care of their children, and both are smart and capable no less of a nuclear family than the “50’s” version?
    At no point did I read anything by the author that suggested mothers should abandon their children, divorce their husbands, or break the nuclear bonds. I see no attack whatsoever. If you were to take offense to anything, I would assume it would be the movie’s role in promoting the father (and all males apparently) as unintelligent and incapable of parenting their children. Perhaps there was something I missed?
    Please enlighten me. Thanks.

  14. Thanks, Ariel. I appreciate comments like yours that address ideas rather than labels. I am sure everyone endorses the idea that children should be raised by loving parents rather than robots, and that each family has to find its own best way for its members to contribute and flourish, but the film’s own conflicted signals about gender undermine its effort to deliver that message. And, as I’ve said, even children are entitled to entertainment that shows some respect for their minds as well as their ability to put on 3D glasses.

  15. Hi Ariel.
    To answer your question, the attack on (or denigration of) the nuclear family is apparent to me in the 2nd paragraph quoted here of Thelma Adams’s “takeaway”.
    She equates the “answer” of the reinstitution of the nuclear family –
    “happy mommy, happy daddy, happy baby of either sex” – as being the product of a bunch of angry Hollywood males. This is the “retro sexism” to happily “go after” in the movie.
    If no one is denigrating the nuclear family, then what is the “retro sexism” to be decried in the review?
    What makes the sexism retro?
    Well, the bunch of angry Hollywood males denigrated in the review have a “nostalgia for a reinstatement of the nuclear fifties family”. Nostalgia makes it retro. Nuclear family makes it sexism. That is what is being decried in Thelma’s review, from apparently a feminist point of view. That’s what she’s being cheered for going after.
    That’s pretty clear in the plain language of the review, isn’t it?
    It’s political correctness, pure and simple. In the PC world, it’s okay – cheered even – to denigrate males. (“bunch of angry Hollywood males crying out…”) It gets cheered even.
    I thought it was a fun movie. I liked Milo, Gribble, and Ki and the dancing.

  16. Thelma refers to the movie’s apparent endorsement of re-institution of the “nuclear 50’s family.” She never objects to promoting the idea of nuclear families, only the rigid notion of the “Leave it to Beaver”/”Ozzie and Harriet” stereotype of the at-home mom bringing pipe and slippers to the breadwinner dad. The idea that the working females of Mars are incapable of feeling and that a planet ruled by females will have men who are incompetent is what she is objecting to. Your suggestion that feminism equates with or promotes rejection of love, families — nuclear or otherwise, taking care of children, or supporting stay at home mothers is not supported by what she wrote or by any feminist theory or practice I know of.
    What bothers me, Randy, is your frequent practice of assigning labels and beliefs beyond the evidence and scope of the discussion. Again, this undermines the point you are trying to make. I sense your frustration but I also sense that it makes you bring a context to these issues beyond what is actually on the table. I notice that you are not trying to argue that the movie’s message is well-thought-out. Or that it makes important and meaningful points about the way society should be organized. You just said that you thought the flesh tones were impressively accurate and you liked the comedy and dancing. That’s fine and I am always happy when someone enjoys a movie, but it does not address the concerns we have raised. I’m sure we agree, as I said in my review, that it is nice that Milo learns what it means to have to take care of someone and he appreciates his mother’s willingness to sacrifice herself for him. It’s nice that the movie comes down on the side of babies not being raised by robots. Those are good lessons. But that just makes the movie’s sloppy choices in other areas more obvious.
    I don’t put labels on you and I don’t hold you responsible for extremists who may agree with some of your positions or assume any arguments you haven’t made. I ask you not to attribute to me or to Thelma or any of the commenters any positions we have not taken by extrapolating what you think you know about feminists or any other group you think we represent or you think you do not agree with. If you care to quote some statements from others and ask us to react, I’m sure we will do our best, but it will be far more useful to stick with the points we are explicitly making. I always assume you have the best intentions and I think it is fair to expect the same from you.

  17. Hi Nell.
    Regarding points not in evidence, there is no endorsement of a “50’s” Leave it to Beaver nuclear family in the film. None. There is a pictograph of a family – mom, dad, child. There is a realization that that family structure does not exist anymore. There is movement at the end to pair up male and female and pick a child.
    Thelma imposed the 50’s Leave it to Beaver strawman – with the negative sexist connotation that you are ascribing to it – on the film, when it is not in evidence. I am asserting that it because it was seen with a feminist politically correct filter. That you two are seeing “retro sexism” that is not there. That Thelma denigrated males while decrying sexism.
    Yet, again, I am the one accused (chastised again!) of going beyond the scope of the evidence. I did not. The original review itself went beyond the scope of the evidence, mockingly, and I called it on that.
    Me personally, I watched a fun family film with an interesting core group of characters, a reasonably interesting plot, and a lot of militaristic extras in the model of a clone army. Didn’t see a need to impose socialogical orthodoxy on it. Or “go after it” on sexism that isn’t there.

  18. Randy, I appreciate that you did not see what we did, but I believe it was a valid interpretation of the movie’s gulf between the at-home coziness of the laundry-basket-carrying earth mother (in both senses of the word) and the harsh, unfeeling, caricatured anti-homey Martian females. You might be interested in this review by my friend Cynthia Fuchs.

  19. Hi Nell.
    I liked the review by Cynthia Fuchs. A lot. Very well written recap.
    I was thinking of Thelma Adams review again yesterday when I saw this line elsewhere on another topic: every patient a surgeon sees needs surgery. I’m thinking every film some feminists see has sexism.
    I appreciate your comment about the different mother representations – between Mom and the Supervisor and the Martian females. Valid. But that’s a different argument than she was making mocking the nuclear family (mom, dad, child) solution.
    Okay, last question – a direct one: do you see the irony of Thelma mockingly denigrating males (“a bunch of angry Hollywood males crying out about emasculation”) while getting credit for decrying sexism? 🙂

  20. I’m glad you liked Cynthia Fuchs’ review. I admire her greatly and am proud to call her a friend.
    I think your analogy is unjustified. I see about five or six movies a week and don’t see sexism in most of them. I don’t remember seeing Thelma make a point like this in the last year or so at least. And I have observed that you have a tendency to marginalize anyone whose views you don’t agree with by attributing their comments to politics or bias. I could try to make the same point about you — that you find “gender police” or “liberals” every time you disagree — but I won’t, for now.
    Once again, Thelma was not in any way mocking the nuclear family solution — it was idealizing only the 50’s stereotype she was critical of. And I think there is a world of difference between blaming males as a gender and blaming a specific, defined by two adjectives, group of males. Personally, I do not blame males for the failures of this film, now projected to be in the top 10 money-losing films of recent years, as, for one thing, the screenplay was written by a husband and wife team.

  21. Hi Nell.
    I watched Les Miserables 25th Anniversary Concert from London last night on PBS. Now that’s entertainment! (I’m a huge Les Miz fan.) I’ve have now already forgotten Mars Needs Moms. 🙂

  22. Love the confrontation song. I usually have to sing both parts to myself. Doesn’t go as well as that did on MM.

  23. Just curious, but if you object to “labeling” why must you mockingly label stay at home mom families as rigid, 1950’s, Leave it To Beaver, etc? You don’t denigrate stay at home dad families in that way. I think this proves the bias that was objected to. Perhaps you could be open to the possibility that sometimes it’s as valid and commendable for mothers to stay at home as feminists feel it is for fathers.

    Thelma: I assume her next book will feature a happy stay at home mom. Right?

    1. Ethra, I am so sorry that the point was not clear to you. No one is criticizing stay at home parents of either gender. The only criticism is of those who are rigid in their insistence that it is the only appropriate choice for women. As for Thelma’s next book — she can write whatever she likes but she will be more likely to get a publisher and sell books if she writes about something different from the norm. Please be reassured, however, that both Thelma and I are in favor of everyone making the decision about what is right for their families, even on Mars.

  24. So glad to read this — I’m watching the movie right now and I’m appalled. Add to that, few critics seem to recognize the sexist underpinning of the plot and I’m just downright insulted.

    1. Thanks so much, Jillian! It is beyond me how so many people completely missed the issue. TasBlue, I’m glad you enjoyed the film, but that does not mean that the concerns we raised were not valid. The important things going on that you refer to are no reason not to think about what this movie represents and how it may reflect deeper themes in the society that produced it or influence its young audience. It has become one of the biggest money-losers of all time, by the way, which itself merits further consideration.

  25. Why don’t you guy stop all this and chill out. It’s a movie, I enjoyed it. There are much more important things going on. You do realize how big the world is? Here you guys are debating over an animated film and there is so much more happening it makes this so tiny. Enjoy the film, I did. I took what was good about it, and now i’m moving onto the next.

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