Gendered Protagonists: Who Cares?

I’ve now posted three entries in a row on this blog talking about female role models in fiction, so I figured it would be appropriate to do one more and make it an even two weeks. This is a fact: the vast majority of children’s movies feature male protagonists. In 2011 alone, we were offered these options (I’m sticking with animated movies for the sake of brevity, but I assure you it’s true for live-action as well):

  1. Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked
  2. Happy Feet 2
  3. The Smurfs
  4. Hugo
  5. Rango
  6. The Adventures of TinTin
  7. Arthur Christmas
  8. Puss In Boots
  9. Kung Fu Panda 2
  10. Rio
  11. Mars Needs Moms
  12. HOP
  13. Winnie the Pooh
  14. Cars 2

Meanwhile, there was one film with arguably equal time (Gnomeo and Juliet), and one with a female protagonist: Tangled (it’s also worth noting that the vast majority of those are spin-offs, sequels or adaptations, but that’s a topic for another time).

When presented with this disparity, most people are horrified. What does this say about gender equality in our society? Who are little girls suppose to look up to if they aren’t represented in the media? How can Disney sleep at night with so much patriarchal favoritism screeching through their brains? Quick, everybody–let’s make some signs!

Alright, so most people don’t react that strongly. But there are a lot of people very angry about this phenomenon, who argue that allowing female protagonists to disappear from movies teaches little girls that they aren’t as important as boys. They blame it on Disney, because the way they see it, Disney is just doing it because they like boys better.

This couldn’t be further from the truth, on both counts. For one thing, Disney (and other children’s movie studios) don’t favor male characters because they hate girls. They do it for the same reason they won’t include parents and they don’t kill off dogs: it effects the bottom line. Boys will not go see movies starring girls. Girls will go see movies starring boys–and they’ll be happy about it. Ipso facto, films with male protagonists get twice the viewership, because they attract both genders. The only way to change this is to encourage little boys to identify with female characters, which people seem hesitant to do because they think it will encourage feminine tendencies and disconnect the boys from their own gender (and there’s a whole other can of worms I’m not prepared to touch at the moment).

So that’s why Disney does it. But what impact is it having on little girls? Shouldn’t giving them someone to relate to be more important than the bottom line anyway?

Well, yes, it should, but here’s the thing: gender is not a personality trait. A character being male doesn’t exclude female viewers from relating to him. When I was a kid, the fictional character I related to best was Mowgli, from the Jungle Book. Mowgli was a boy, so traditional thinking indicates that I should have regarded him as something apart from myself, and therefore been unable to relate to his character in any way. But I didn’t. As far as I was concerned, I was Mowgli. I liked to run around half-naked and barefoot, climbing trees. I loved animals. I had dark-ish skin and I liked to dance and I wanted nothing more than to live in the forest with a bear and a monkey. My parents even took to calling me Mowgli for a while, and I loved it. The fact that he was a boy and I was a girl never even occurred to me as something I should be worried about, so I went quite happily on my way, wishing I had a vulture or two to befriend.

Did you catch it? The key to my obnoxiously secure gender identity? It’s my parents. When I latched on to Mowgli as my role model, they didn’t point out that he was a boy. They didn’t say a word about it. Instead, they pointed to the similarities and encouraged my interest.

And that’s what we should be doing with kids: stop talking about gender, and instead focus on actual personality. Who cares that Mowgli is a boy and I’m a girl? He likes to climb trees and so do I, and that’s what’s really important.

Oppressively yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“You see, it’s true: an ape like me can learn to be human, too.” -the Jungle Book

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