What Even Heroine-Led Films for Kids Get Wrong About Women

Posted on January 6, 2015 at 3:38 pm

 ©2011 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
©2011 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

I’m glad that we are seeing more spirited, strong female characters, especially in movies for kids, really I am. But we still have a long way to go, as discussed in an excellent analysis on Tor.com from Emily Asher-Perrin. She notes that even movies with central characters who are girls and women surround them with men in major and minor roles.

At the very least, some of the dignitaries who stay behind with Prince Hans once Elsa runs away could have been ladies. And in a kingdom like Arendelle—where none of the subjects seem to balk even slightly at the idea of accepting a female monarch without a husband—it would have been equally compelling to see some women in their army. Both Elsa and Anna are forces to be reckoned with; we should know that the rest of the women in their kingdom are too. Otherwise the message boils down to princesses are special! Only princesses. So you better want to be a princess.

For Tangled’s part, it would have been pretty adorable if Pascal—or Maximus the war horse!—had been lady animals. Or even better, that band of gruff ruffians at the tavern? Women. Just, the whole lot of them. Why not? Or if Flynn had been pulling his heist with twin sisters. And I’m sure someone is saying “But if they were ladies, he would have flirted with them!” But you know, he could have just… not. He doesn’t have to be interested in every age-appropriate female with a pulse just because he’s a scamp.

All three of these films feature specific and wonderfully complicated relationships between women. From the misunderstandings and mutual hurt between Merida and Elinor to the emotional manipulation and continual backhanding that Mother Gothel inflicts on Rapunzel to the deep abiding bond and need that exists between Anna and Elsa—these are all relationships that we should find on screen. Not just for young girls, for all children. But when you omit other women from these worlds, you rob the entire story of its credibility. Other stories have reason built in; Mulan goes off to war to fight in place of her father, so she was never going to be training amidst an army of women. In Mulan, the reason for making that critical choice is a logical one that is explained within the context of the narrative. But Tangled, Brave, and Frozen have no narrative reasons for the absence of women. What’s Arendelle’s excuse?

When Indiewire asked me to make New Year’s Resolutions for 2015, I suggested the two steps recommended by Geena Davis:

Step 1: Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names. With one stroke you’ve created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women — and it’s not a big deal?

Step 2: When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, “A crowd gathers, which is half female.” That may seem weird, but I promise you, somehow or other on the set that day the crowd will turn out to be 17 percent female otherwise. Maybe first ADs think women don’t gather, I don’t know.

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Commentary Gender and Diversity
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