Lack of representation in media is a big problem for women, and it might be an even bigger problem for girls. With so much of today's children's media aimed at boys, it can be hard for girls to know where they belong in the equation. Many mainstream kid's movies go out of their way to hide or obscure their female protagonists — if they even exist in the first place. Stories that do show strong girls and women are often marketed with a strong "girl power!" angle, which often excludes boys from watching (girl power = girl movie) and thereby learning to recognize and respect how great girls are. Even worse, many of the most famous female-centric stories feature the same tired characters and tropes — damsels in distress or an icy bitch queen. These stories go out of their way to make their female characters either unremittingly holy or unquestionably evil. It brings to mind a quote from Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own: "If woman has no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person…infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme…But this is a woman in fiction."
All in all, not a great message for girls.
Margot Magowan writes about the "girl gone missing" topic quite often, and recently tackled a slew of children's movie posters from 2013.
Of the 21 movie posters for young kids, only 4 appear to feature a female protagonist; 16 appear to feature a male protagonist and 10 of those movies are named for the male star. In one case, "Peabody and Mr. Sherman," the movie is titled for its 2 male protagonists.
That's quite a gap. One that makes no sense, especially considering so many of the characters are CARTOONS. Cartoons that could easily adapt to feature a strong girl story, but instead rely on the same bullshit as adult movies. Very creative, everyone. Great job.
Of course, Magowan recognizes that she can't judge these movies because she hasn't seen them yet — but she makes a strong argument for movie posters as their own media. "Even if a kid doesn't see the movie, she sees the ads everywhere. She hears the movie titles," she writes.
Of the 4 starring females, just two are titled for that star. It's the small budget 7 million film from Moscow, "Snow Queen", that was brave enough to name its film after a female. "Frozen" is the title chosen for Disney's version, the same movie studio that changed "Rapunzel" to "Tangled," to obscure its female star. Fittingly, in the poster for "Frozen," the woman's image also fades into the background.
Both "Dorothy" and "Epic," buffer the female on the poster with males, Epic with a constellation of them and "Dorothy" by listing no less than 7 males at the top of the poster.
Of course, not only is the amount of featured women small, but the ones who do make the cut are not always the strongest characters. There are the obvious problems with prejudice, but there's also the character who Magowan refers to as "Minority Feisty."
I'll let her explain:
No matter how many Minority Feisty there are in an animated film, they are represented as a minority. The irony is, of course, that females are not a minority, not a special interest, not even a fringe group. Females are, in fact, half of the population. Girls are half of the kid population. Why aren't they represented that way in movies made for children?
I call the Minority Feisty "Feisty" because that is, invariably, the adjective reviewers use to describe the "strong" female character in an animated film. "Feisty" is diminutive. It is what you call someone who plays at being powerful, not someone who is actually powerful. Would you ever call Superman "feisty?" How would he feel if you did?
The role of the Minority Feisty, like a cheerleader or First Lady, is to help the male star along on his important quest. Children need to see females front and center, as protagonists, as the heroes of their own stories.
This character is particularly troubling because there's often no boy feisty version in programs targeted at girls — most likely because it's assumed boys don't watch girls shows. So, Minority Feisty is added to boy movies to give girls something, and everyone's happy. Except boys are very rarely afforded the opportunity of seeing positive portrayals of strong girls. The girls they know are always along for the (boy's) ride.
You might even add to this and say that by showing boys these female portrayals, you are building a very disturbed image of who and what women are. Since young kids are forming their first opinions around much of the media they consume, what message does that send boys? If the only representations of women they see plastered all over town are pristine princesses, untouchable crazies, or obliging cheerleaders — what are they supposed to think?
No, movies, TV, and their surrounding media — not only posters but fast and packaged foods, diapers, clothing, toys, etc. — cannot make up for shitty parenting, but it can make it more difficult to raise boys who view girls as fellow human beings.
As for how it leaves girls feeling, this is probably something many of us can relate to. As a child, I strived for the perfection of a Disney Princess, perhaps subconsciously knowing I'd never achieve that, I started imagining myself in the shoes of more adventurous male characters. I've talked to many women who've had similar experiences, this sort of transference. Lacking decent female role models, it's not surprising many girls live stories through the eyes of boys and men.
There's a passage in Margaret Cho's hilarious 2002 autobiography I'm the One That I Want that talks about this in terms of race. This is paraphrased, but she basically says that, as a young girls, she couldn't wait to grow up and become white like everyone on TV. Heartbreaking, and I think this experience resonates with many people. When you don't see yourself reflected in media, you push yourself into it.
Now, a personal anecdote. I have a friend who's a writer working in children's TV. She's constantly taking meetings and pitching stories, and she told me when she first started in the business, she pitched stories with girl leads. However, after being told to change the protagonist to a male character more than a few times — and once being told to actually turn the movie into a live action rom com for adult women!? — she now pitches almost entirely male-driven stories. And guess what? She's selling.
This can probably best be explained by demographic expectations — we know girls will watch movies with boys in them, but are told boys don't want to watch the girlie stuff. That might be true, but only because of the strict rules for girl's characters and stories. They have no agency within this world. Until we get more girls as strong leads in stories that cater to all kids, how can things change? This is a serious question, it's not rhetorical.
Magowan powerfully concludes:
As you look at the posters below, ask yourself: Who looks like the star/ leader/ protagonist of this movie? What would this poster look like if the positions, number of male characters, and title references were switched to female characters? Why are females, half of the kid population, presented as a minority in children's films? Why is the imaginary world, a place where anything should be possible, sexist at all?
These are all good, fair questions in need of answers and accountability.