Where Are All the Strong Female Characters in Children's Films?


The poster for the new animated action film, Megamind, features five characters: some are alien, some are men. Oh wait, they are all men except for Roxanne Ritchi (voiced by Tina Fey). She's a quirky news reporter who has two duties—narrating what the guys do, and getting kidnapped. She's like a prop that needs to be rescued by Brad Pitt. This got us thinking: where are the strong women in children's films? For decades, the majority of female characters in cartoons and family films have been mostly stuck behind the macho lead, baring their midriffs and looking like Barbie dolls. At NEWSWEEK's third annual Women and Leadership conference this year, the actress Geena Davis talked about the latest findings from her Institute on Gender in the Media, which was founded to reduce gender stereotyping in media aimed at kids 11 and under. Davis's research shows that for every female character in a kids' movie, there are three male characters. Roughly 25 percent of the female characters are shown in sexy, tight, alluring clothes (usually with exposed skin between mid-chest and upper thigh). Their most common occupation is being a royal, and their aspirations are limited almost exclusively to finding romance. Let's explore some of Hollywood's biggest perpetrators, shall we?

Who says women can't be supervillains? The exploits of the über male Megamind and Metro Man are followed by reporter Roxanne Ritchi (relegated, typically, to the "waiting in the wings" role) until she's taken hostage by Megamind. (Isn't the damsel-in-distress ploy getting a little tired by now?) At one point, Megamind even turns Roxanne's cameraman into a superhero, but she remains helpless. Overlooked and subservient: is that what we want little girls to aspire to be?

Let's call Disney's upcoming 3D animated film (Nov. 24) an example of wasted opportunity: the traditional Rapunzel story, with more in-your-face marginalization. Rapunzel, she of long blonde locks that no amount of real-world extensions could achieve, ventures from her tower only to pursue a man. Why didn't the writers take a leap of faith, à la 2009's The Princess and the Frog, and breathe some new life into the timeworn story line? Curly red or brown hair would've been a nice start. Our heroine opting to lop it all off and donate it to Locks of Love would have been even better.

Neil Gaiman's creepy but charming 2002 novella introduces readers to curious, saucy, savvy Coraline Jones—an inspiring young female protagonist. Curiously, the culmination of Coraline's adventure wasn't accurately translated to the big screen. In the book, our fearless character rescues herself, while in the movie version, Wybie—her landlady's grandson—swoops in to save the day, on a bicycle (and don't think we didn't recognize the lame modern update of the traditional white horse). It wasn't broke in the first place, so why fix it with a fella?

For all those young, impressionable kids who couldn't get into the previous year's Die Another Day, Cody Banks plays out the James Bond story line at a PG-rated level. Because you're never too young to learn that action heroes are male, arm candy is a blonde, and adult bosses are gorgeous women who don, exclusively, colorful, skintight pantsuits.

Freddie, Shaggy, and Scooby are joined by two archetypal Hollywood females: Daphne, a cute and ditzy redhead, and Velma, an unattractive-yet-intelligent brunette. Daphne generally flits about, contributing the least to the mystery-solving group's cases, while Velma consistently wields her smarts to come to the crew's rescue. The live-action update of the popular 1970s-era television cartoon could've upended these traditions by modernizing the women's roles. But no. The very attractive Linda Cardellini was cast as Velma and "uglied up" for the part. Apparently, smart, pretty girls are scarier than any ghoul or zombie.

This Paleolithic mammal buddy adventure touts the slogan "Sub-zero Heroes," a sentiment that aptly describes the film's portrayal of female characters. Basically: zilch, unless you count a short interlude featuring two sloths. Just because the setting is prehistoric, doesn't mean the casting philosophy should follow suit.

Mia Thermopolis—a nerdy, frizzy-haired, bespectacled, unpopular teen—receives a visit from the grandmother she's never met, who turns out to be a queen. Which, by default, makes Mia a princess. And what have we learned at this point? Princesses need to be pretty. An epic image makeover (and disheartening personality make-under) ensues, and New Improved Mia's fate is even sealed with a kiss, scored from some dude who totally ignored her before she got Vidal Sassooned.

On the plus side, Princess Jasmine is one of the first characters of ethnicity to appear in a Disney movie. Sadly, the step forward is overshadowed by countless steps back. Jasmine's body shape, her position of royalty, her clothing options (belly shirts galore) and her lack of control over her future all qualify her as the patron saint of misrepresented females in a family film. To make matters worse, she falls in love with a commoner who—by royal decree of her father, the sultan—she is not allowed to marry. Her revolt against dad's insistence on an arranged marriage consists of heavy pouting, endless whining, and an attempt to run away from home, tactics generally employed by 5-year-olds, not adult role models.

While this movie deserves props for introducing the traditional film noir genre to a nontraditional audience, it grossly overshoots the "screen siren" aspect of the story. Jessica Rabbit—presumably based on classic noir femme fatales like Barbara Stanwyck, Veronica Lake, and Lana Turner—is marginalized to an absurd degree beyond her smart, savvy predecessors. Consider Jessica's introduction to the viewer: dancing and crooning seductively to a nightclub audience of mostly men, a tight-fitting sequined dress barely covering her body's substantial (and strategically emphasized) curves. Aside from her genetically inconceivable physique (no real-life woman with such a tiny core could support those buxom assets), Jessica's presumed infidelity and victimization are the inciting incidents behind the movie's main plot movements, making her a hypersexualized, sidelined pawn. At least we know who framed Jessica Rabbit: male execs.

Oh, hey, Miss White—congratulations! You're not only the star of Disney's first animated feature, but you embody the launch of a not-so-grand tradition. Snow White is the all-encompassing picture about a stereotypical female children's character: beautiful, impossibly proportioned, having no major aspirations (aside from finding love, naturally), ushered through the narrative by a cast of men and—eventually—rescued from peril by a dashing prince. Gag us with a poison apple! The only other notable woman who joins her in the plot is an evil queen who targets her for, literally, being too attractive. What's a girl to do? Apparently, clean up after seven vertically challenged, thoroughly unhelpful bachelors.