As part of She’s Right’s participation in 16 days of activism to end violence against women, each article will be dedicated to a New Zealand woman who has lost her life due to gender-based violence. This article is dedicated to Agnes Ali’iva’a, killed on 13 February 1992, at the age of 12.
This is part one in a series about women’s portrayal in the media, the good, the great, the bad, and the horrific. You may note that there were either positive or negative responses listed, nothing neutral. Sharp eye, good job. I believe if you ignore women and/or make them “neutral” in the movie, this is as harmful as actively sexist movies, because you are destroying their relevance in our society. Women are half of our society – they are extremely relevant!
By Patrick McTague.
Edited by Jessica Sutton.
From a young age I was taught to identify with and look up to male role models. I was, and still am, a straight white male, and so I could most easily identify with the straight white males on my TV and in my movies and I was never taught that there were other options. Of course, when I was growing up, other options were very limited – almost every protagonist on my TV and in my movies were straight, white males.
I’m a 90s kid and The Mighty Ducks movies were some of my favourite of all time. The film is set in Minnesota and centres on a rag-tag youth hockey team, it just so happens that the team are almost completely white, with the main characters being so, the coach protagonist is white, and there are maybe three women in the entire film that say anything. Clearly a bastion of representation for my young developing mind.
The biggest movie of the 90s for children was probably Pixar’s darling, Toy Story. It’s undeniable that this is an absolutely brilliant movie, well written, performed, and animated, it really was the peak of children’s entertainment. But when you look for representation for little girls, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. One of, if not the best children’s movie of all time, has a total of four female characters, only one is involved in the central plot, being Bo Peep. And she is only of note, in this movie, for being a protagonist’s love interest.
Now this may cause a little tension between us, reader, as statistically speaking you probably love Toy Story! You may be yelling at your computer or phone saying, “They’re TOYS! They can’t be representative! They aren’t men or women, they’re TOYS!” To which I would show you the photo of my nephew in his Buzz Lightyear costume, very clearly wanting to be like Buzz, identifying with Buzz. Like it or not, children look up to animated characters, even toys, the same as they do live-action characters, that’s the beauty of childhood.
Of the top 25 movies in the Best Kid Movies from the 90’s list on IMDb, only five feature female characters on the cover. And only two are specifically about female characters. It seems to me that producers and creators in the 90s had a responsibility that they were ignoring; providing little girls with strong female characters to look up to and model themselves after. I’m not arguing that there were none of these characters, I have fleeting memories of watching girls on my TV with as much enjoyment as the boys on my movie screens. But why is it that little boys have all the characters they could possibly want, and little girls have mostly Disney princesses, side characters, and the occasional Matilda?
One last thing I noticed, looking back on those wonderful 90s movies and TV shows, was that whenever a movie or TV show has a strong female character that girls can look up to, there is typically a male character right alongside her that the little boy can identify with as well. So where were the female characters when the movie was about boys and men?
All of these seemingly inconsequential “oversights” (or deliberate choices) to represent men and boys to a much higher degree than women and girls, teaches children that men are the default or primary gender and that women are the “other”. Men are the rule, women are the exception. If you’re a boy or a man who grew up watching a lot of television and movies, you most likely think this, whether you know it or not. I know that it’s ingrained in me and I am working very hard to move past this. If you are a girl or a woman who grew up in this era, it’s entirely possible that it’s ingrained in you too. This is how little girls are taught to identify with anyone, including men, but little boys cannot identify with women for fear of ridicule; they’re taught that it’s sissy and they’re weak.
TV and movies are, of course, not the only place that children are taught these lessons, and most of the time these are not intended lessons. It’s ignorance of the need for positive female representation, and the consequences of not providing this, by the predominantly male creators, that is harming us all. It’s not that they are setting out to perpetuate stereotypes and imbalances, feed toxic masculinity, or prop up the patriarchy; it’s that they don’t think about the girls and boys their actions affect, because ingrained in them is a male default and a female “other”, as well.
I love movies. And I love TV shows. But we have to get more variety for ourselves, and more importantly, for our children. Because that’s where it all starts. That’s where children begin to learn, on some level, that one gender is more relevant to society than the other, that one gender is better than the other. I’m not a father, I don’t typically spend a lot of time watching children’s movies anymore, and maybe it’s already much better and nobody thought to inform me (if the new Toy Story is anything to go by then that might be the case!). And if it is, I’m so glad, and hope that the trend continues on to films made for teenagers and finally adults. That way all we have to worry about is undoing the damage already done to previous generations. But if it’s not, then now is the time to demand better and to do better, so that every little girl can see herself as the hero of the story.