Megamind-washing

Last night ManFriend, SuperDik and I watched Megamind. I sure know how to party after winning at the internet, huh? The movie was amusing, but it made me feel increasingly uncomfortable. Apart from reporter Roxanne Ritchie (who, despite it being a movie for children, is sexy and goes to work in an off-the-shoulder dress with heaving bosom), the only other female characters are Megamind’s mother (only in the movie for a few seconds) and two (silent) women holding babies in a crowd scene.

SuperDik’s beautiful little daughter Fraggle was asleep, but had she been older she would have been watching with us. And what would she have seen? A movie in which women are generally invisible but the few who are seen are either sexy or silent. A movie in which the way to show a woman you care is by kidnapping her. A movie in which love for a woman is used to justify evil actions. A movie in which all of this happens and still the smart sexy woman kisses the ugly evil guy at the end because he was just misunderstood.

I know it’s just a children’s movie, but growing up on a diet of this stuff can’t be good for girls or boys. How many female characters do you see in Pixar films? How many do you see in animated Disney films? Tinkerbell, Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella. Sure, there’s Pocahontas, but her life was all about falling in love. The lesson that children learn when watching these movies has to be that girls are either sexy or invisible, and the only thing that women should aim for is to fall in love.

And then when they watch ads on TV, they learn that women clean bathrooms, cook dinner, go grocery shopping, and do the laundry; that girlfriends will ruin all your man fun by wanting to spend quality time sitting on the couch doing nothing; that men are useless when it comes to looking after kids; and that all men, regardless of what they look like and how immature they are, get really good looking girlfriends. How on earth do you raise boys to respect women when they are surrounded by a culture that tells them over and over again that women are either sexy or invisible, but either way they’ll clean up after you?

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is a great research project on gender in children’s entertainment. One study looked at the top 101 G-rated films between 1990 and Jan 2005 and found:

Fewer than one out of three (28%) of the speaking characters (both real and animated) are female.

More than four out of five (83%) of the films’ narrators are male.

85.5% of the characters in G-rated films are white, 4.8% are black, and 9.7% are from “other” ethnicities.

Another study (same link) looked at the 400 top-grossing G, PG, PG-13 and R (parent/guardian needed for under 17s, so somewhere between our MA15+ and R) films in the US between 1990 and 2006. It found that 73 per cent of the characters were male, and there were only two types of females: traditional and hypersexual. That study also found:

Females were over five times as likely as males to be shown in sexually revealing clothing.

Females were nearly three times as likely as males to be shown with a thin figure.

Animated females are more likely to be shown in a thin and sexy light than are live action females.

Another study of 122 family films released between 2006 and 2009 found:

Of all speaking characters, 32.4% are female in G-rated films, 30% are female in PG-rated films, and 27.7% are female in PG13-rated films.

So as girls get older, popular culture takes their voices away.

I don’t have children so I can only talk about this in a detached manner. I don’t have to try and tell a four-year-old that they can’t watch Toy Story because the only female toy in it is the impossibly-small-waisted Bo Peep, who doesn’t say very much anyway. IMDB tells me that Mrs Potato Head and Jessie the Cowgirl are in Toy Story 2 and 3, but that’s still a grand total of three female toys in three animated films in which there is no reason why the talking car toys and talking dinosaur toys can’t be girls because it’s fucking make believe.

65 responses to “Megamind-washing

  1. This is why I make my kids watch Buffy episodes with me instead. Well, that and the fact that I mostly can’t stand kids’ animated films.

  2. Rhiannon Saxon

    Hmm, I lived in a share house full of Buffy addicts and was one myself, and I seem to recall much more interest in Alyson Hannigan, which was more acceptable.

    • Rhiannon Saxon

      (Except from me who was far more interested in Giles. Ahhhh Anthony Head, how sad I was when I finally saw your rather disappointing chest on Little Britain.)

  3. Rhiannon Saxon

    I suppose one reason I haven’t really noticed is that my kids watch ABC kids more than Disney (and dvds of ABC kids shows) and I think there is more gender balance. From the sounds of it, MUCH more.

  4. Rhiannon Saxon

    I don’t know. The movies they watch with any sort of regularity are ‘pinnoccio’, (so…not much balance there, no), ‘Cars’, and the Wallace And Grommitt movies. And Ice Age, in which as far as I recall, ALL the characters are male. (I admit to not watching the stuff my kids watch.)
    But in the kids shows they watch the main character is as likely to be a girl as not. And as likely to engage in being a responsible truck or car, or builder, or dancer as the male characters.

    • Rhiannon Saxon

      (There are the amazingly old-fashioned types of shows like ‘Postman Pat’ but even those shows that have a husbands-and-wives kind of theme have both single men and single women engaging with the community, there are Pakistani and of-West-Indian-background characters, and the doctor and vet are both women.)

  5. Really important topic. I think they are trying; the newer Disney movies do have better female characters (Lilo & Stitch is the absolute standout, with the main characters being a little girl and her older sister); Tinkerbell is mainly about female friendships (http://blog.pigtailpals.com/2011/05/tinkerbell-and-the-great-ish-fairy-rescue/); Rapunzel (in Tangled) was apparently pretty fiesty (I didn’t see that one). Toy Story 3 introduces a little girl and her toys so there are more female characters there too, although they’re not major characters.

    Still, they don’t really represent women as independent, thinking people. There are apparently better movies out there but my main strategy with my daughter is to limit movies to roughly once-a-year activities; there are better choices among the TV shows, as Rhiannon mentioned.

    • Rivqa, welcome to the News with Nipples. What’s the last movie you saw with your daughter?

      • Thanks, I’m a longtime lurker!

        As I said, she really watches very few movies. The most recent movies I’ve seen with her were on DVD, the aforementioned Lilo & Stitch and Tinkerbell. She finds a lot of the Disney movies really scary actually — she saw Toy Story 3 and Tangled in the cinema (not with me) and was terrified by both.

        I’m not going to defend Disney re the other comments, but there’s variation in experiences. The boys at my daughter’s old preschool loved Dora. They might have dressed up as Spiderman and Batman, but Dora was what they actually watched.

    • I dont think they’re trying to improve, they are doing the opposite! See this great post:http://margotmagowan.wordpress.com/2010/11/23/disney-male-execs-stop-movies-starring-girls/
      As she says, Tangled is called Tangled because they want it to be ‘gender neutral’ rather than focusing on rapunzel. Well, gender neutral of course actually means male focused, male identified.
      I also read a great feminist analysis about Toy Story and all the gender stereotypes in it. And it’s exactly *because* the female characters aren’t characters that it’s a problem

      • Rhiannon Saxon

        That was a good post, thanks for sharing.

      • Two excellent (rhetorical) questions from that post: Can you imagine if Disney decided to shut down a genre because it only appealed to little boys? Or if they switched a movie title so it wouldn’t risk highlighting a male star?

      • Disney changed Rapunzel mid-way after ” The Princess and the frog” didn’t give them high enough returns. They came to the conclusion that little boys don’t want to watch movies about girls: and since girls will watch movies about boys, they changed the focus from Rapunzel to Flynn. Rapunzel became the side kick in her own story.

        Children start constructing restrictive gender roles at about three. They are trying to establish how the world works, and they have relatively little information they can process to go on. They divide “things girls do ” and “things boys do” into categories. Media offers them information that boys do action, girls do pink. Little boys socialise that being a girl is bad. I have had boys of four reject a Dora (the Explorer) bandaid, because Dora is for girls.
        We desperately need more images of girls doing fun stuff.

        • Disney made one film with a female main character which was very successful. The character fought against invaders and saved China.
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mulan
          For some reason, Disney continues to insist that no-one wants to see movies with girls in them.

        • It’s the same with movies for teens and adults – it’s assumed that women will watch “dick flicks” but men will only watch “chick flicks” under extreme duress.

        • eilish, my little boy is exactly at the stage you describe, that is, three years old, and just starting to register that people divide things into girl stuff and boy stuff. Fortunately, the way he’s handling it so far is simply to decide to be a girl sometimes.

  6. Animated movies are, broadly speaking, a rage-inducing catastrophe for a parent hoping to raise a child without gender-role indoctrination. Been thinking a lot about it lately because of boy squib just getting old enough to watch, though not to pick up everything. Most of them don’t even pass the Bechdel test.

    I have a great deal to say about this, but will limit myself to two points:
    1. the animation industry is entirely led by men with residual childhood hangups about being desperate to hear their dad say “son, I’m proud of you just as you are”.
    2. Three cheers for Chicken Run!

    • Orlando, I think the male to female ratio behind the camera in the entire US film industry is about 5 to 1, whether it’s directors, writers, sound, lighting, editing etc.

      • I don’t think it’s getting much better, either. Not because women don’t want to do it, but because projects headed up by women simply don’t get funded at the same rate, and that holds all women in the industry back.

  7. Rhiannon Saxon

    I mentioned this post to my husband, saying, ‘There is a NWN post about sexism in animated children’s movies – of which there is a LOT.”
    And he nodded and said, ‘Well, they had to replace the racism with SOMETHING.”

    • Rhiannon Saxon

      SO I read him those stats about white character over-representation, and he said, ‘Black characters were WELL represented in cartoons of the 30s, 40s and 50s….mostly as cannibals or black-and-white minstrels…”

      • I was thinking about representations of race in popular culture this afternoon (gee, I lead an interesting life) because I’m watching the third season of True Blood and there are still only two black main characters. According to the US Census Bureau, the population of Louisiana is 64.6 per cent white and 32.1 per cent black.

  8. Rhiannon Saxon

    Oh also I agree with you about ads featuring women – they are hell-bent on reinforcing gender stereotypes. Craig and I stopped watching commercial tv years ago. (Except for a total addiction some years ago to one of the more stereotyping shows out there – ‘Queer Eye’.)

    • I’m an old fuddy duddy who only watches ABC and SBS, but the few times I do watch one of the other stations I end up yelling at the sexism in the ads. SBS doesn’t seem to run as many ads for cleaning products when I’m watching.

      • Rhiannon Saxon

        No but my god I could quote every word of that freakin’ ‘Shannon’s Insurance’ ad. *grits teeth and wishes for ‘mute’ button*

        Like on ABC in which they play the same promo ads for weeks until you know the damn punch line of every scene by heart.

        Ok, I’m putting my hand up for young-fogey-dom right here and now.

  9. Rhiannon Saxon

    One of my favourite children’s author’s, Geoffrey Trease, published his first book (an incredibly commie-inspired ‘Robin Hood’ story) in the 20s, and throughout his career, wrote over 100 books, the vast majority of them children’s historical adventure stories, all with strong female characters doing the same stuff as their male counterparts.
    Sometimes he had to fight with publishers who were obsessed with ‘gender-specific’ books that they could classify as ‘books for boys’ and ‘books for girls’.
    Sometimes in order to be as historically accurate as he wanted to make them, the girls had to cross dress and act as boys for most of the story, but they were there! He also wrote a very good one about suffragists and journalists and Emmeline Pankhurst, and the hunger-strikers, called ‘Bring Out the Banners’.

  10. As a mum and a primary teacher (who went to see Megamind with hundreds of students from grade 2-4 when it was in the cinema) this post offered me an awesome insight, so thank you!! My hubby is a mad keen “Rage” watcher, and I’m forever switching the film clips off with my 2yo daughter enters the room…. yet the Pixar (and such) animations totally flew under my radar.

    Got to say that it’s generally ABC2 in my house, which I’ll be looking closer at from now on. But here’s the Dirtgirl.. she rocks 🙂

    • Hi Peita, welcome to the News with Nipples. What’s Dirtgirl? She sounds pretty cool.

      • Rhiannon Saxon

        Dirtgirl is a girl who wears gumboots and has an enormous self-sufficient garden in almost certainly the far north coast/hinterland of NSW or similar (ok, so it’s animated. So I am over-interpreting. Nyer.)
        She makes compost and has chooks and has a friend called scrap boy who recycles stuff.
        She also has a scarecrow who can say nothing but ‘Hay’ (Which makes me wonder why the other characters don’t just say ‘meat!’ all the time) so he is called Hayman.
        Anyway. It’s pretty much a show about Bellingen Hippies or something similar.

  11. Thanks for the Geena Davis link, NwN.

    I’d read passing comments from time to time about GD’s dedication to raising awareness about the ‘invisible female’ in cinema, but I didn’t know she had her own full-fledged institute. Great stuff!

    One blog website that I can’t recommend highly enough is Melissa Silverstein’s ‘Women and Hollywood’:
    http://blogs.indiewire.com/womenandhollywood/

    Not only does it bring a highly readable feminist critique to all things cinematic (not just Hollywood), it’s a great source for checking out all the latest cinema news and information – from a women’s perspective.

    Also, on the subject of children’s TV treating girl characters with equal weighting and worthiness to boy characters … I recommend ABC’s ‘My Place’ (if you haven’t caught up with it yet, please do) and a brilliant New Zealand production, Kaitangata Twitch – a kind of cross between Home and Away and Whale Rider.

    • Oh, that’s a great blog, thanks for the link.

      From what I’ve seen, NZ tv is great in terms of strong female characters. Look at Outrageous Fortune – strong women and lots of male nudity. Plus, the character who repeatedly treats women like shit – Jethro – is the one whose life is shit.

  12. lovepeaceohana

    I never know what to do about things like this, because I usually love the movies anyway. Am kind of hoping that the many real-life counter-examples will even out the influence on my kids, although that carries its own problems of leaving the fantasy-pretend space to be predominantly dominated by cis het men in all their stereotypical masculine glory.

    Although, Tangled does pass Bechdel. It still loses for other reasons (getting old is the worst thing EVAAAAAR), but … it could be worse?

    • Lovepeaceohana, welcome to the News with Nipples. I know what you mean – just because the speaking roles in a movie are given to male characters doesn’t stop it being funny, or interesting, or frightening, or sad. And I don’t think it’s right to demand that every movie has equal numbers of men and women in roles in front of the camera and behind the camera, but many stories don’t involve equal gender split. The issue is when all the movies are like this, and for no real reason.

  13. Its all well and good to slam movies for a lack of strong role models for girls but I think that you are all seeing movies as first and foremost some form of high art when their primary purpose is to make a quid fro their backers. As the father of a nearly twelve year old girl I am very keenly aware of what she likes to watch and what is on offer. Frankly I don’t think that its as bad as you think.
    For instance what about Shrek? The Fiona character is no shrinking violet and one of the chief villains is also female, Classics like “the wizard of Oz” has a female lead. In the Narnia films the female characters are strong and in no sense constrained by their gender , Alice in Wonderland likewise.
    For older girls there are are heaps of young adult genre programs that give good messages ( that they can do anything if they want to) What about the Simpsons or Futurama? Both have very strong female characters Marge may be a “housewife” but she takes no shit from anyone and Lisa is smart as a tac. Leela literally kicks ass in Futurama.
    The Aussie made series “Mortified” is worthy of note as well its main protagonist Taylor is smart and not just a “girly” girl either. There are others too but that should give you something to think about.

    • Iain, I’m not suggesting movies are high art at all. They are simply popular culture, and that’s why it’s such a problem that there are so few female leads and female speaking characters. Yes, those movies you point out do have good female characters, but they are in the minority. But you’re right about TV offering better female characters, as Rhiannon, Peita and Kellsy pointed out.

      • What about the Harry Potter movies? Hermione Granger is a great role model for girls; strong smart and unfazed by any thing.
        In the most recent versions Doctor Who all of the doctors companions have been strong as well.

        • Doctor Who does have strong female characters, but that’s on television and we’re talking about movies. Also, I found a really good blog post a while ago (sorry, can’t find it again so if someone knows the link, please post it) that looked at how, way more often than not, if there’s going to be a human who behaves badly, it’ll be a woman. And most of the companions are in love with the Doctor.

          As for Harry Potter, sure, Hermione is a strong, smart character, but how many other female characters are there? Going through the movies on IMDB (because I haven’t seen them), there’s an aunt, a sister, a witch, a professor, and a love interest, amid all the other speaking male roles across all eight movies. Which is the point the research is making – that speaking roles are overwhelmingly male.

        • Iain

          A film may have a strong female in it, but if she is about the only significant female character, and/or if about all she does is provide a supportive or love-interest role for one or more male protagonists, then the strong-woman message gets subliminally diluted to: Yes, women can be strong and kick ass, but they’re still not as important as men.

          Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of films fit this paradigm.

          And I don’t know what you mean by Marge Simpson not taking shit from anyone! Virtually every episode reinforces her blind loyalty and devotion to a slobby, ugly, self-absorbed, bigotted, irresponsible husband. The show constantly reinforces the cultural mindset that it’s OK for men and boys to behave badly, because women will always stand by their man.

          I could happily nitpick all your other examples for their patriarchal mixed-message value, but the post would be way too long.

  14. Timing win. Partner and I just went to see Sucker Punch, because we’re currently living on a very small pacific island and it was that or a movie about the easter bunny.

    Yet another incredibly misogynist, rant-inducing, t&a fest, with overtones of sexual slavery and abuse of the mentally ill. The only redeeming part is that most of the main characters are women, and they are at least semi-professional looking when they are being “tough” (don’t want to spoil it if anyone really wants to go), even if they are wearing stupid costumes and you see upskirt shots every time someone jumps to do something ninja.

    Lead to long discussions about all the ways in which the media sucks.

    Partner is still learning feminism (but progressing rapidly) and your post was a good read to back up the recent experience 🙂

    • Keira, that is a great timing win. I saw the ads for Sucker Punch and figured it would be just like that. Because you can only fight the baddies if you’re wearing a mini skirt.

      • Yup. Especially when its in your own mind, and you invented most of the baddies. Sadly, we don’t have ads, or maybe we would have known not to go! (Not that I miss ads, really).

  15. Just throwing in a few standouts: coraline, Alice in wonderland, pans labyrinth. But NWW’s point is well taken. I will make sure Fraggle goes and sees lots of films with female leads!

  16. MJ from Chicago

    On feministfrequency.com you can find: “This is the first of a six part series created for Bitch Magazine. Tropes vs. Women explores the reoccurring stories, themes and representations of women in Hollywood films and TV shows.”
    The first three videos are “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”, “Women in Refrigerators”, and “The Smurfette Principle”.

  17. Rhiannon Saxon

    I just read this and thought it was funny.
    http://my.spill.com/profiles/blogs/disney-princess-syndrome-if

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