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/