Carrying On: “I’ll make a man out of you”

March 1, 2012

Princesses, distressed damsels, and sidekicks—for years these roles have composed the majority of female roles in children’s literature and film. Even Pixar, with twelve animated major productions since 1995, has yet to produce a film with a female protagonist. This comes as no surprise, given Joel Stein’s recent description in Time magazine of Pixar as a corporation run “by 12-year-old-boys” who sword fight, play dress up, and ride around the halls on scooters.
This June, however, Pixar plans to remedy this imbalance with their first ever female leading lady in the film Brave.  The movie, produced by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, features a skilled archer named Merida who unleashes chaos in a kingdom when she defies her parents and custom.  The storyline, though currently vague, promises an independent woman seeking to carve her own path on screen while remedying the gender imbalance off-screen.
Like many little girls in the nineties, my earliest idols were Cinderella, Snow White, and Kimberly, the pink Power Ranger.  For hours, my friends and I would play house or lie in a bed of makeshift roses waiting for our respective Prince Charmings to awaken us. With few exceptions, the idols of our youth encouraged us to wait for a man to propel us into our futures.
In spite of Pixar and Disney’s efforts to equalize the playing field, the overall presence of strong female character in children’s film is scarce. In part, this is because girls tend to be less discriminatory with regard to the gender of the main character, likely due to the abundance of young girls have grown accustomed to books with male protagonists.  In a recent study, sociology Professor Janice McCabe discovered that “males are central characters in 57 percent of children’s books published each year, with just 31 percent having female central characters.” Though it seems that few young boys want to watch girl heroes save the day, it’s also clear that we’re not requiring much flexibility of our young viewers. Producers and writers have constructed and played for years into the same stereotypes they are now attempting to debunk.
Male protagonists, in fact, suffer from much of the same stereotyping as female protagonists in children’s film and literature; they often appear as action figures or delinquents, and display “typical” male behaviors.  Even Pixar’s breakthrough “chick flick” features a Merida as a master archer and fight scenes to entice young male viewers. In fact, when production of Brave came to a standstill, Pixar Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter fired Brenda Chapman, his first female director, and hired Mark Andrews.
Andrews, who is a bit of a character himself and known for, among other shenanigans, challenging co-workers to swordfights, added more action to the film.  When asked why boys would come see the film, Lasseter responded with “Because it’s awesome! It’s got awesomeness in it! It’s got bear fighting in it!” And he’s right—I know few grown men who could argue with the awesomeness of a bear fight. In breaking with the conventional submissive female character, Pixar opens both its characters and its viewers to new possibility outside the confines of typical female and male roles of the past, while aiming to please both girl and boy demographics.
Nonetheless, children’s film is far from overcoming the gender imbalance. Though it is becoming increasingly more common for producers and authors to push the envelope, it has also become common for the strong female character to be the token strong female character. The strong female character is the exception, rather than the rule, in children’s film.  Roberta Trites, an English professor at Illinois State University, criticizes the progress of studios like Pixar, which “undercut those characters’ efficacy by having one per movie, as if having one strong woman makes it OK to depict all other women in the movie as nincompoops.”
The culture we construct defines the roles our children will attempt to fill. The presence of strong female politicians, activists, and athletes does nothing if that influence doesn’t trickle down to our child’s first introduction to society—stories. And it isn’t just female characters that need to break out of their molds. Male characters need to do it as well, as our society is far more dynamic than many films and books depict. More often than not, people blur the lines of the traditional molds they attempted to fill. We’re no longer jocks or cheerleaders or nerds or tomboys; we’re a little bit of everything. It’s about time that children’s literature and film reflect this dynamism in more than just a few token characters.

Read More

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments