‘Wow! Am I so ready for this change?’

When I first watched Frozen I was pleasantly surprised. At least, it’s the women who sort their crisis: Sven doesn’t get there in time, not that he could do anything if he did. And Anna is after all pretty plucky, despite her stupidity over evil Prince Hans. And the whole Frozen story is about how we deal with fear and how love and acceptance can resolve this – positive and hopeful, if naive. So, I’m not a Frozen hater (well, I am in that – If I see one more bit of merchandise….hear that song…. Argh! kind of way), but something I read this week made me think some more and question whether the films our girls are watching are really moving forward in terms of their portrayal of women.

Linguists (Fought and Eisenhauer) have completed a study which reveals that increasingly – with the exceptions of Tangled and Brave – Disney films over the last 30 years have seen women speaking for considerably less time than men; Frozen sees men speak for 59% of the time and The Little Mermaid, a staggering 71%. Yet, back in the days when Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty hit the celluloid – in spite of their subservient roles and appearance-motived plots – it was the reverse, with female characters speaking the vast majority (71% in Sleeping Beauty, 60% Cinderella) of the lines.

Now, part of me immediately recoils from this conclusion that the proportion of lines given to women is critical in this debate for several reasons: it’s obviously down to the story – the three good and one wicked fairy in Sleeping Beauty are all women. Looked at from the male perspective, Cinderella doesn’t have step-brothers for instance (although it is interesting that Cinderella’s father is cut out of the plot which doesn’t help the gender imbalance). It’s obviously the case that what the genders say and how characters evolve is the critical factor in how roles are being defined. And these stories are set in the “olden days” where people didn’t have women diplomats and women  administrators.

We can’t make the past a Feminist idyll. And the beauty and romance of enjoying stories from the enchanted age of castles and frilly ball gowns is still one to watch even if there aren’t men changing nappies and women changing tyres.

Linguist Karen Eisenhauer, who co-wrote the report thinks Disney has shown a tendency of seeing men as “the norm” (great line!) but the serious point being made was that when Disney go about choosing more incidental speaking characters – shop keepers, fishermen, diplomats or just funny characters – these are usually men. So you may well have strong female leads, but women have the crises, they don’t just live; they don’t have small, comic parts; they are not simply there.

I think it’s fair to say that Disney should be on guard against immediately chucking a man into a role which could be filled by either sex.  Report co-author Professor Carmen Fought continues:

“We don’t believe that little girls naturally play a certain way or speak a certain way….. “They’re not born liking a pink dress. At some point we teach them. So a big question is where girls get their ideas about being girls.”

Now, I seriously tried not to gender-stereotype my children. I don’t know about you, but I could not get my son interested in pushing a dolly in a pram, and his main interest with the plastic cooker was mending the doors with his Bob the Builder tool kit. And with my daughter, I resisted pink…honestly, but it was like squatting in front of the Niagra Falls – personally I think our children aren’t quite so easy to deter from the stereotypes and there seem to be some ingrained tendencies, much as it bemuses and faintly concerns me.

But that caveat aside, clearly what our children watch – especially as these days it dominates parties, toys and every little thing you buy – does influence them greatly. The study also shows how women are valued far more for their attitudes and abilities than their beauty in recent years, and to be honest that matters to me far, far more than how many lines they have.  Worth noting that the study shows that the two films in recent years which have bucked the trend for female lines – Brave (74% women) and Tangled  (52% women)- have both been written by women and Disney is clearly aware of the sensitivities.

Thinking about this study though, has left me drawing a slightly different conclusion about how to model inspirational women: it’s not so much about the predominance of a character (in so much as the lines) or the casting, it’s the choice of story made into a film which needs greater consideration.

I think we need more female writers and directors to generate the sorts of films that hold up for our children women of strength, passion and integrity. At the same time, I certainly don’t want a ‘Feminist agenda’: let’s also see men of strength and integrity and women and men working together – be great if that was “the norm”.

So what do you think? Does it matter how much women are on screen? What determines how children view gender?


You may well want to take a look article from The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/01/25/researchers-have-discovered-a-major-problem-with-the-little-mermaid-and-other-disney-movies/




1 thought on “‘Wow! Am I so ready for this change?’

  1. forestfleece

    All your usual ( and very welcome ) trenchancy – and a cascade of issues. I find it very hard to separate wheat from chaff in this one. I’m always wary of the artificial and of any policy that suggests intrusive tinkering with instinctive tendencies. The reply to that might well be that “instincts” are conditioned by environment. I very much doubt that that’s the whole story. Undeniably they can be. On the other hand, if you have made the strenuous efforts you claim to encourage your children to ‘buck’ the system and they have still remained stubbornly ‘stereotypical’, you may find yourself having either to re-define ‘stereotype’ or even to consider the possibility that an instinctive perversity in human nature has actually driven them to resist your attempts – has made them assume a ‘stereotypical’ tendency against their ‘natural’ inclinations.

    I dislike the word ‘stereotype’ I have to say. It’s one of a growing number of words used to suggest that no inherent and distinctive male / female predispositions exist, but that every inclination is a result of environmental conditioning. I don’t agree with that at all. It will lead eventually ( in fact we’re a considerable distance down that road already ) to a claim that there are no real differences between the sexes at all – or shouldn’t be; and that if there seem to be, we should seek strategies – both educational, social and, where necessary, surgical – to remove them. It will soon be claimed that a woman is a female ‘stereotype’ merely by virtue of being a woman! Sorry ( not really ): there are essential differences. I’m being serious. There are things / characteristics that ‘belong’ – are ‘proper’ – to the sexes*; and they derive from what each sex actually IS. If we start trying to adjust what’s genetically programmed in the belief that it results solely from social conditioning, we shall destroy natural diversity ( another word I dislike if only by association ) in human nature – and maybe even create monsters! Certainly boringly similar humanoids.

    [ Incidentally, I also dislike the word ‘gender’ when used as coterminous with ‘sex’. It isn’t. ]

    OK – so Prof. Fought doesn’t “believe that little girls naturally play a certain way or speak a certain way” and considers it a “big question…where girls get their ideas about being girls.” If she considers it a “big question”, does that mean she’s stuck for the answer? If so, it might be worth her while to consider my suggestion rather than forcing her own bald assertion down the question’s throat: ” At some point we teach them.” ( People like Carmen Fought are typical of many, who start with an answer and then try and work back to the question. )

    As for roles / scripts / films and all that, I’m not sure that different percentages of talk-time are really of much interest; as you rightly say, it’s how characters evolve or are defined that’s critical.

    It’s also about the nature and quality of what’s said. If female characters merely have more to say, it may as easily reinforce an opinion not uncommon among males that whereas men talk, women just chatter. You’re right in saying that “writers and directors” need “to generate the sorts of films that hold up…women of strength, passion and integrity”, but I’m not sure that that would be best ( or should only be ) done by women writers. A man’s and a woman idea of such a paragon would possibly be very different. And maybe both would need to think again. In the past ( as far as my experience goes ) the ideal counter-balance to the dominant-male role tends to be seen as a woman possessed of nothing more than the male qualities of speed, strength and ruthlessness. This is true in almost all cases I’ve encountered – from The Avengers onwards. Are there not examples of it in Frozen or at least in Star Wars? The only real departure I can think of comes with Dame Judy Dench’s arrival on the scene of James Bond; and that’s really a) a bit if a joke, and b) not really a children’s film.

    ( Keep them coming, Naomi. Your blog made me spend time I really hadn’t got writing this! )

    Liked by 1 person


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