Ruining Your Favorite Movies: part II

Female characters in movies are rare enough. What’s worse is that the female characters we do have so often communicate such terrible messages that it’s almost better not to have them at all. Disney princess movies are an especially easy target for such criticism. Even Belle, the bookish uppity woman who rebuffed Gaston, lives out the dangerous mantra that too many battered women recite to themselves- “If I love him enough he will change!” Yikes.

But then, Mulan! She is perfect right? She is a Strong Female Character! Initially the victim of a patriarchal society, she takes action on behalf of the people she loves. The movie shows us how girls are only valued for being pretty and having babies- and intimates that this is a Bad Thing. What’s more is Mulan actually does pretty well at taking action. Even when her charade is revealed, she keeps on keeping on. The movie eventually has the characters make use of the society’s sexism against the bad guys (see where the guys dress up as concubines to get past the guards at the palace). What’s more is that for as often as Mulan is saved by someone else, she turns around and does some saving herself.

Great! Right?


There are a few unsavory things about Mulan, and the primary one is said under the guise of praise for her by the Emperor right there in the movie itself: “You only meet a girl like that once every dynasty.” In other words Mulan succeeded because she was a special special snowflake. All the other girls? They’re good for looking pretty and having babies. Mulan could do all the things the guys could do because she was an exceptional woman. The unspoken message there is that women have a place, and only a few exceptional women are allowed to leave it.

Another unsavory message is that patriarchy, and stuffing women into boxes, is something Other People do. It is not coincidental to me that the Disney movies which are most forthright about condemning institutional sexism are also the Disney movies which take place in non-Anglo/European settings (Aladdin, and Mulan). The only condemnable forms of sexism are comfortably wrapped up in a culture that looks little to nothing like what the presumed audience lives with daily, and/or closely identifies with. This way we can feel good about promoting Girl Power! while not having to worry about our kids** rejecting our own cultural mores.

Lastly, the movie just could not leave well enough alone. Mulan saved China, defeated the Huns, earned the praise of the Emperor, and learned that her Dad loved her even though she was bad at being a girl. But it just couldn’t end until she had a man too. Every so often there is a movie or book that has both male and female leads that don’t end up paired off by the end of it. Those are rare gems that will help boys and girls see each other as peers and friends rather than strictly as potential mates.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather plunk a little kid down in front of Mulan than in front of, say, Sleeping Beauty. But that said, I’d rather plunk a kid down in front of My Neighbor Totoro than Mulan. So what are we to do when even the rare and elusive strong female characters fall prey to reinforcing sexism? My personal sentiments are to “enjoy the entertainment, but chew before you swallow,” which is to say that one can enjoy a movie, or book or whatever, but be sure to critically examine it and the messages it promotes.

* Part I was my first post here over a year ago.

** I say kids specifically, rather than just daughters. We all seem alert to the damage some things can have to girls, but many of us over look the damage observing sexism can have on boys too. Restricting this message to girls is fighting only half the battle.


Starfoxy is a fulltime caretaker for her two children.

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11 Responses

  1. Kim says:

    🙂 Not so related, but you mentioned totoro and I think you’re totally right. Ghibli films really show such stronger women and rarely do they have a love twist at the end (and even if they do it’s very subtle). I’d plunk a kid down in front of Mononoke Hime, Nausicaa or Sprited Away before any disney movie.

    • miles says:

      My kids love Ghibli films. They also love to watch extras and on one they had an interview with Hayao Miyazaki. In it the narrator was describing part of the studio and talked about how Miyazaki is a feminist. It was awesome.

  2. Megan B. says:

    The same thing is happening to me. It started when I took a Gender Studies class two years ago, and has only gotten worse since I became a parent. I read your first post too and I also think about that test when I’m watching movies sometimes. I’ll have to look into those other movies you and the previous commenter mentioned.

  3. Corktree says:

    We love Miyazaki around here! They are much preferred to any of the princess movies that the grandparents send, but I never really thought about the difference in the messages. I noticed how untraditional the endings were, but didn’t really think much past it (in fact, I’d say it always bothered me that I couldn’t put my finger on what was so different, not exactly unresolved, just unexpected?)

    I don’t worry *too*much about what my girls (and son) see on screen. I figure, I’m well versed in Disney and it didn’t have any lasting detrimental effects. I don’t push it and we don’t do a lot of movie themed merchandise, but I think the entertainment (and musical) value is as far as they will take it ( I hope). I’ve been focusing more on what they read, now that my oldest is into chapter books. I think it’s easier to internalize what you read, especially once you’re at the point of creating the visuals for yourself and becoming more immersed in the story.

  4. jks says:

    I completely agree!

  5. Deborah says:

    Just don’t ruin Annie for me. It’s preserved in my heart (from 100 viewings as a kid) as the perfect power-girl movie — the way she fights those bullies to save the dog! The duet with Franklin and Eleanor! It’s a hard-knock life . . . .

  6. Caroline says:

    Great points, Starfoxy. I think you hit the nail on the head, here.

    Any other kids’ movies that send healthy messages about girls? (other than the Miyazaki – sorry, I couldn’t really get into Spirited Away…)

  7. Jessawhy says:

    I really liked Monsters V Aliens. It was empowering for women and she didn’t need a man at the end. What I liked most was that she saw her superpowers (and size) as being a punishment at first, but later she was proud of her strength and what she could do. Then at the end she had the option to stay normal and small, but she chose to go back to being super Ginormica.
    I loved it.

  8. jddaughter says:

    I was just thinking this today at a party watching Jurassic Park. Despite the pressence of what appears to be an overtly feminist woman in the film, the teenage girl is still portrayed as an overemotional incompetent while her little brother seems perfectly stable.

  9. Jesse says:

    I have a 5-year old who is very interested in all things Disney thanks to the influence of friends. As a result, we’ve recently watched the new Tinkerbell movies put out by Disney. I was pleasantly surprised that the characters seemed to deal with real issues (meanness, forgiveness, friendship, desire to fit in, loyalty) and that the girl and boy fairies seemed to work well together. Although, as you mentioned, it was all packaged up and delivered in a completely foreign package: fairyland.

  10. Two of Three says:

    One of my favorite kids stories is a storybook, not a movie. Find “Paperbag Princess” by Robert Munsch. The princess defeats the dragon by cleverness and cunning, saves the prince who she then decides isn’t really worth the trouble and ends up skipping away by herself. I read that one to my girls over and over and hoped they absorbed that powerful message!

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