Don’t Forget Your Family Friendly Dose Of Sexism At The Movies This Holiday Season

Almost 81% of speaking roles in G-rated movies are male. That’s not exactly what Soraya Chemaly would categorize as “family friendly.”

It’s holiday movie season! Families all over the country will contort themselves into odd configurations trying to find movies that everyone can enjoy.

Here is this year’s list of December-released blockbuster films that kids and teens can see from Common Sense Media:

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Peter Jackson’s second half of The Hobbit, starring Martin Freeman as Bilbo, Ian McKellen as Gandalf, and 13 other men as dwarves. I made the mistake of taking 13 girls to see the first half and by the end of the film I, a hardcore Tolkien fan, was alone in the theater. Desolation indeed.

Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas: The seventh Madea movie by Perry, who plays Madea. As Womanist Musings put it in an earlier round, is there any reason to think that we’re not in for “another treat that involves hueism, sexism, Christian fundamentalism, and my favorite, racialized drag?”

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues: Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, and Steve Carell. No words necessary.

Saving Mr. Banks: Tom Hanks as Walt Disney convinces Mary Poppins author, P.L. Travers, played by Emma Thompson, to let him make a movie of her book. It’s called “Saving Mr. Banks.” Seriously.

Walking with Dinosaurs: The Movie: 3-D computer-animated dinosaurs, 3/4 of their voices are male. 

Justin Bieber’s Believe: A concert documentary about a teen boy idol.

47 Ronin: Keanu Reeves is a famous samurai who fights. With 47 other men. And some beautiful women. Frankly, it looks visually stunning.

Grudge Match: Sylvester Stallone (Rocky) and Robert De Niro age, fight, and then don’t.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: Ben Stiller plays the eponymous Walter. Kristen Wiig plays a love interest in this story about a man’s dreams.

We need to stop calling these “family friendly” films.

As NPR’s Linda Holmes pointed out during the summer in a piece called At The Movies, The Women Are Gone: “90% are stories about men or groups of men, where women play supporting roles or fill out ensembles primarily focused on men.” Every single day. Every single week. Even crowd scenes are unbalanced: Women make up only 17% of hired extras.

When I looked at my neighborhood multiplex theaters today, there were 16 films, three of which have female protagonists (none actually passes the Bechdel), nine of which feature male protagonists, and four of which have ensemble casts with a measure of quantitative gender balance. It’s really too bad The Athena Film Festival doesn’t yet have a road show.

No one person is being a sexist or a racist when they write, produce, cast, and film these stories, most of which look very entertaining. The results, however, are decidedly not good when it comes to diversity and representation. And definitely bad when it comes to the messages they’re sending to children.

This year, there are three huge successes with female leads and “girl stories” that belie Hollywood mythologies about who they have to cater to: Gravity, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and Frozen.

Frozen, a story about two princesses, is notable because 43% of its viewers have been male, even though it’s about the princesses’ love for one another. This is a very rare story. Gravity is particularly interesting if you consider it, in contrast to Captain Phillips, as a metaphor: [SPOILER ALERT] One survives, in complete isolation, with no help from anyone, by using her wits. The woman actually lives in a vacuum and survives a fiery plunge through the atmosphere before almost drowning. Phillips, also facing certain death, is rescued by thousands of trained military people in super-sized, armed tankers. Resources are everything.

Gravity, Frozen, and Catching Fire are a welcome respite from characterization of women that pivot, literally, around poles of one kind or another. Despite regular successes like these, every time a movie with women or a movie with “black stories” is successful, Hollywood is surprised.  

Hollywood’s risk-averse and conservative leadership is far more fixated on gender stereotypes than children are. So, when a film featuring girls and women is successful, we repeatedly hear about how hard executives have to work to “get boys to see girly movies.” Typically, they do this terribly hard work by changing the names of popular stories. After boys “recoiled”—yes, “recoiled,” as in disgust, according to The New York Times—from the movie The Princess and the Frog (because “Eww, a princess movie”), Disney decided to stick with more gender-neutral titles and changed Rapunzel to Tangled. Frozen is the name given to the movie loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen.”

In general, we still see girls and women, as the documentary Miss Representation showed so clearly, as prizes and pawns and so many boys and men as killing machines. (And this from a woman who loves every second of both Thor movies.) The Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media had conducted extensive research, updated every year, documenting decades of imbalance with very little change. Davis recently suggested ways that film makers could change these gender ratios in two easy steps

As I pointed out last year, it’s not just our movies, but the way we rate them, that perpetuate outdated gender stereotypes. The MPAA continues to be notoriously retrograde and sexist in its evaluations, a situation most recently in the spotlight by Rachel Evan Wood’s righteous Twitter screed. Except for Sweden’s recently announced rating system, based on the Bechdel Test, there is no rating system that grades misrepresentation, bias, or their effects on culture.

The thing is, we gobble up these movies like rich chocolate. Most of the ones my family sees together are fun, thrilling, beautiful to watch and, if we’re lucky, well written. The fact that most stories are told from a male perspective (for example, 75% of speaking roles are held by males) and that my children are girls is irrelevant. Like most girls and women, they have grown up empathizing with male heroes and stories and learning to ignore the marginalization of their sex. If they refused to see “a boy’s movie” with the same disdain and scorn that people worry boys feel for “girls’ movies” we would rarely walk into a theater. Anecdotally, among their male friends, they don’t have problems seeing “girl” movies. The adults around them do.

It’s impossible to separate the marginalization of women, from the marginalization of gay, lesbian, bi, transsexual, and intersex people. Same with “niche” movies featuring people of color. While slowly improving, the situation is pretty deplorable and continues to be self-fulfilling.

But, hey, it’s so fun! Besides, who wants to go to the movies irked about social injustice. The time to talk to children isn’t when you are in the theater, but every day in casual, interesting ways. I’ve updated these five ideas (first published in 2011) about teaching kids how to be conscious of this dynamic so that they don’t repeat it themselves.

1. Before even talking about a particular movie, game, or TV show, explain stereotypes, gender, sexual, and racial bias in age-appropriate ways that kids they can understand. The Media Awareness Network has good tips for doing this. Sexism includes representations of men and masculinity that are as harsh and limiting for boys as representations of women and femininity are for girls. There are lots of interesting discussions you can have regarding roles, characterizations, or, for example, clothing and hair.

2. Allow boys to empathize with girls, don’t penalize them when they do. Cross-gender empathy is a one-way street in our culture. It’s why “tom-boys” has no real male-to-female corollary. It’s why we have a word like “effeminate” but no female-to-male corollary. (“Emasculate”?…Both are negatives.) Instead of teaching boys to define their masculinity by rejecting anything feminine in order to be a man, consider using as the counterpoint rejecting “childish” things instead.

3. Teach kids about the Bechdel Test and make it a useful tool for evaluating a movie. It can be extended to explain stories told in books and games and adapted for other considerations, too. This isn’t even a test of feminism, just of the presence and role of girls and women. You’d be amazed, once you start thinking about it, how few movies pass this test. I’m pretty certain every one of the ones above fail.

4. Discuss the disconnect between real life and the representations of gender in media. In real life, there is an actual gender balance and not the 3-to-1, male-to-female ratio of films, or the closer to 10-to-1 of the Smurfette Principle. Most people would probably agree that men are not responsible for 75% of the talking being done in the world. Just like all women generally don’t spend 95% of their waking hours in pursuit of marriage. Some of them dream, exercise, do research, teach, coach, legislate, explore. They even work outside of the home. In a recent study of 333 speaking roles in G-rated movies, for example, 80.5% of working characters were male, versus 19.5% female. The same study revealed that every instance of a doctor, politician, lawyer, military or law enforcement official, or criminal was male. The report points out “on the positive side, six females [across 21 films] were shown in the hard science.” Likewise, note how few genuinely nurturing roles there are for boys and men that don’t somehow use irony to mock the effort as they represent it.

5. Keep a sense of humor. This can be depressing. It’s important to teach kids to be media-literate without demoralizing them. Sometimes, I get overwhelmed and frustrated by the sluggishness of culture in light of real, substantive change. There are no shortages of opportunities to laugh when evaluating gender bias in media, however.

Talking about gender isn’t focusing on “one thing” single-mindedly. It’s actually talking about everything single-mindedly. I know that lots of people are going to come out of the woodwork to point out that girls are doing better than boys in school and that movies have no effect on their success. I hope you are having a good day.

In the meantime, however, I think that the imbalance is relevant and has real consequences in how girls and boys learn about equality, ability, power, and fairness. Ignoring sexism doesn’t make it go away or make it any less unpleasant.

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role/Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.

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