So yeah, kid’s movies.

I had been thinking of writing a post on kids movies since watching a heap of them over the holidays. These two excellent(links to Reel Girl) discussions (link is to Jezebel)* of kid’s movies made me finally put fingertip to keyboard.

ETA: I haven’t read all of this excellent takedown of ParaNorman by Lynley Stace yet, but I will (children allowing). Contains spoilers.

Before December last year I could have counted on the fingers of one hand how many movies I had watched since my children were born. Now that they are older and able to sit through a movie I have been to several. It was while watching ‘Brave’ that I wondered about how many other kid’s movies actually passed the Bechdel test. This December/January holiday season I actually watched the kid’s movies we went to with this in mind.

So here is a little rundown of what we saw (warning will contain spoilers for the movies):

1. Wreck it Ralph
WiR is a movie about a video game character whose purpose in life is to destroy a building which is then magically fixed up again by Fix-it-Felix. Inside the game WiR sleeps on a pile of discarded bricks while FiF and the occupants of the building that he wrecks during the game live in the newly fixed up building. WiR desperately wants to be part of the family and to win the gold medal FiF is rewarded with each time he fixes the building, but no one wants to be friends with him because he wrecks everything. So he goes adventuring in other games and has various adventures, everyone overcomes adversity etc etc happy ending.

Main character: Male
So does it pass the Bechdel test: yes, just. By this I mean the tiniest bit by having two female characters talk to each other, once, about something that isn’t a man. ETA: got this one wrong, the girls do actually chat to each other quite a bit about racing. (thanks to all the commenters who pointed this out)
Does it have any strong female characters: yes, but the strongest female character, Calhoun, is very much a stereotypical female prototype from a certain style of video game. [ETA: by this I mean in her physical appearance, sorry should have made this clearer]
Does it show any characters of colour: yes, but I don’t think they ever talk to each other.
What about relationships? WiR and Vanellope develop almost an Uncle/Niece relationship; the other relationships shown are heteronormative. WiR could be read as asexual possibly – would need an opinion from someone who is asexual though.
Characters with disabilities: WiR could be read as socially awkward but not necessarily as having a disability. Some kids might be able to identify with him.

Overall feminist rating: okay, certainly an enjoyable movie for both my son and daughter, but disappointing for me because it could easily have been better without too much effort.
Overall kids rating: it was fun, there weren’t too many scary bits but there was some video game violence, and good for adults just wanting a movie that isn’t going to make their brains drip out their ears through tedium.

2. Hotel Transylvania
Dracula has built a hotel specifically to cater to monsters. On the occassion of his daughter’s 118th birthday he invites a range of them to celebrate at the hotel. During the celebrations a backpacker inadvertently wanders in and Dracula does his best to ensure that his guests don’t realise that there is a human amongst them, and that his daughter doesn’t meet this young man and want to leave the hotel.

Main Character: Male
Does it pass the Bechdel test: No. Despite having several female characters, including the daughter Mavis, I don’t think any of them ever speak to one another. Not even to wish her happy birthday. All conversation goes through Dracula, even when Mavis is standing right next to him.
Does it have any strong female characters: Mavis tries to be, but the movie doesn’t really centre on her.
Does it show any characters of colour: The backpacker comes across as a white American guy, everyone else is pretty much a monster. There may be variety in the crowd scene at the end, but those characters only got a few seconds of screen time and many were in fancy dress anyway.
Relationships: Dracula and Mavis with a father daughter power imbalance (he’s ‘protecting’ her until he gives her over to her new boyfriend), some husband and wife couples.
Characters with disabilities: no.

Overall feminist rating: really disappointing. Would it really have been so hard to have at least one of the female characters talk to Mavis just once. Maybe even to tell her something about her mother (who died when Mavis was a baby, hence overprotective father).
Overall kids rating: my kids watched this several times and seemed to enjoy it. Lots of silliness, not too much scary stuff or overt violence. Watchable for adults.

3. Rise of the Guardians
Jack Frost is taken into the inner sanctum of Guardians: Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, and Sandy (Sandman) to help protect children from the Bogey Man. This is Jack’s coming of age story as he helps battle the Bogey Man, learns about his purpose and remembers where he came from.

Main Character: Male
Does it pass the Bechdel test: I don’t think so. The tooth fairy does talk to some of her little fairy helpers, but they only tinkle in response they don’t have voices.
Does it have any strong female characters: Not really.
Does it show any characters of colour: There are a couple of children, but none of the main characters.
Relationships: Sibling relationships.
Characters with disabilities: no.

Overall feminist rating: This was just another in a long line that had a few women/girls in the mix but nothing much really.
Overall kids rating: This one had some more scary stuff in it, the kids liked it but didn’t rave about it. Lots of stylised violence.

4. ParaNorman
Norman sees dead people and speaks to his dead Grandmother regularly as she sits in her usual spot on the couch knitting. Norman is also able to see other ghosts around town. No one believes in Norman’s ability and he is bullied at school. His estranged uncle gives him a warning that he must take over the uncle’s work as the uncle does not have long to live. The uncle dies unexpectedly leaving Norman to try and puzzle out what he must do by himself. There are zombies and a vengeful witch to deal with.

Main character: Male
Does it pass the Bechdel test: Yes
Does it have any strong female characters: Yes
Does it have any characters of colour: yes and from memory they even speak to each other about something other than a white person.
Relationships: Norman has both a mother and a father. There are other relationships but I won’t say any more because ‘spoiler’.
Characters with disabilities: not unless you count Norman’s uncle who is treated as if he has a mental illness.

Overall feminist rating: *spoilers* Oh this one was going so well. I so liked this one up until the last half hour. The minor characters were well realised, there were all sorts of bodyshapes, Norman’s best friend is fat but doesn’t care he’s too busy enjoying life to worry about his bodyshape, the stop motion animation was fantastic. It was all going so well until Norman speaks to the ‘witch’ who was actually an 11 year old girl who was executed for witchcraft because she could speak to the dead too. Norman solves the problem of her raining down destruction on the town built around tourism based on her legend by insisting to her that she must forgive and forget. He gets really up in her face about it. Forget that this jury of mainly men (one woman) killed an innocent child for being a witch, that she as an 11 year old must understand that the adults made a mistake because they were scared, that it is her duty to forgive them and go to the grave. This really riled me: sure I get that he’s a kid too trying to save his family and town but really does it have to come down to the old trope of girl forgives people who brutally murdered her because it is best for everyone else? Really disappointed in this ending. Ruined an otherwise good film for me.

Overall kid rating: the six yr old found bits of this a bit frightening, so I wouldn’t take any younger kids to see this. As a parent I enjoyed it up until the last bit, as explained above. Lots of stylised violence.

So to sum up: a dearth of female characters in general, very few who actually speak to one another, and not much in the way of people with disabilities, characters of colour or non-heteronormative relationships and no trans people at all. This is kids movies today. Pretty crap really.

SotBO: I might have forgotten some things in the movies, or not noticed them. If you did notice them please point this out in comments. I would love to learn that these movies did better than I thought.

*I know some people don’t like some Jezebel stuff, so didn’t want to send you there without warning.

Categories: arts & entertainment, fun & hobbies

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14 replies

  1. My daughter has only seen Wreck It Ralph and interestingly enough, a month afterwards when we saw an ad, she couldn’t tell me Vanellope’s name, or Sgt Calhoun’s, but she could tell me who Ralph and Felix were. BUT she told me that Sgt Calhoun was the hero and Vanellope was the one who helped Ralph be good and drove fast. So I am kinda torn about it, but I’m just glad she saw a movie where there was a little girl character AND the adult women characters weren’t overtly sexualised. And there was more than one female (hi pretty much every other kid’s movie).

  2. My eldest daughter saw Wreck it Ralph twice and it’s her favourite movie over the holidays. What she liked about it is the overall moral in that people shouldn’t judge others and stereotype them. She could relate to it because she hates it when people stereotype her because she’s an autistic teenager and it makes her “shit crazy” when people want her to be what she’s not!

  3. In Wreck-it Ralph, I remember the racers – all girls, all with names – talked to each several times in different scenes, some of it confrontational but most if it definitely Bechdel passing because they were talking about racing and each other. I enjoyed it a lot because there were so many female characters, quite a difference from most animated films these days. But Wreck-it Ralph went beyond a simple Bechdel measure. I also loved that the arcade gamer POV character was a girl. I picked Vanellope as the lead female character because of her major part in both the problem and the resolution, and her relationship with Ralph. Calhoun was more exposition, muscle and romantic B story, the grizzled vet with a heart of gold, a big gun, a good line in snappy insults and a tragic past. Which is usually a role given to a male character so yay!
    Wreck-it Ralph was pretty amazing for the number and breadth of female roles. The only set that, as far as I could tell, never had a female character, the was Bad Guys Anon meeting room.

  4. I’ve only seen Hotel Transylvannia and have no kids, but I also thought it was poor because the story plot was just so tired – over protective father, doesn’t like boyfriend, comes to accept daughter as adult thus allowing her to have boyfriend. WOW. That’s original. And it wasn’t that funny – none of the side characters were really given any space to develop into anything, not even side gags.

  5. @Loup: looking at the information your kid retains from the movie is actually a super interesting idea. And I love, love, love that your daughter decided to pick a female as the main character from her perspective. Alternative readings of media FTW! Hopefully name memory issues have to do with the female characters having less common (i.e. harder to remember) names, rather than the actual impact the characters had on her? It does kind of seem like that might be the case.

    In general: I love this way of breaking down/examining films (via the traditional and POC Bechdel tests, and checking for representations of relationships and disability. I really want there to be a database of movies that contains this kind of info in a quick-reference format.

  6. I agree with Vera that Wreck-It Ralph passed the Bechdel Test with flying colours because of the multiple girl racers, and that most of what they talked about was, well, RACING and each other.
    I also really appreciated that the ‘mean girls’ trope was revealed at the end to have been a symptom that there was something terribly wrong with the game, and that the girls were horrified they had been so mean to Vanellope, and that they had forgotten how important to them she was.
    Likewise, I think Sgt Calhoun was far more than a standard ‘strong female character’ trope – her competence and power was a big deal throughout the whole story, she was consistently proven right, and there was the occasional clever line that showed that the writers were aware of the traditions of this kind of character. I can forgive a LOT for the bit where she swaggers off, Felix says “Wow, she’s… intense,” and one of her men says “Yeah, she was given the most tragic backstory.”
    Plus OMG [spoiler spoiler] Vanellope is made a princess at the end and decides that a democracy would be far more awesome. I love that while she and her memory are more complete at the end of the story, she is not willing to give up the person she has become for a sparkly tiara.
    My daughter came out of the movie talking about nothing but Vanellope who is a kids hero for the ages. I am disappointed greatly by the lack of promotion of her and the girl racers in the toy/merch support of the film.

  7. The Lynley Stace article you link to is great, especially the way she tracked down a copy of the shooting script and showed the way the sexist material was embedded right in the core ideas for the movie. It sounds as if Paranorman operates very much on the Harry Potter model, where the only reason the girl isn’t the hero is that the boy is “chosen”.
    Oddly enough I’ve been brewing a kids’ flicks post, too. It must be the time of year. It will most likely include a rant about how much I am growing to loathe the bit where a girl gives a speech about how everyone needs to trust the hero, or a speech to the hero about how he needs to trust himself, because it gives everyone the message that all a girl can be is support crew.

  8. Stace really went into detail with ParaNorman, and I spent a lot of time reading her review thinking ‘oh yeah, I forgot about that, that did annoy me at the time’. It is a bit sad that I came away thinking that it was one of the better movies I saw. Shows how much crap I have internalised and don’t examine often enough anymore.

  9. I think the bit I loved most about the Vannellope becoming a princess then ditching it is that it really is an experience/decision my daughter can relate to. She LOVES playing princess and fairy and whatnot, with the shiny dresses and things, but she also loves playing knights and battles and superheroes. So I really liked that it wasn’t one note (and yay democracy!).
    Kasey Weird: Yeah, she still struggles to remember Vannellope (v-nenepolly? Vanenolly? Vaneneponey?) but she’s remembering Sgt Calhoun better. In the movie Sgt Calhoun isn’t named as much though, and certainly not in full.

  10. The best thing about WIR in my opinion was the the main human player of the games was a girl – in a computer games arcade, which are not exactly the territory of women. Growing up I always felt a little uncomfortable about going into game arcades because they were so heavily dominated by boys and men.
    The behaviour of the boys in the arcade when the girl wants to play Sgt Calhoun’s game was my typical experience of games arcades, “We’re boys, you’re not – go away!”.
    The fact that the writers made the human interaction point a girl speaks volumes to me about the fact that they know the stereotypes of girls and computer games and decided that they’d do their bit to make a difference.

  11. Rebecca: that’s such a great point, I hadn’t thought of that as she was a ‘framework’ character, but certainly considering what the character does in action, it could so easily have been a boy.
    Hooray for a movie that sneakily LOOKS like it’s all about Boy Stuff while pushing such a subversive message that girls are a) gamers, b) awesome and c) can make great, varied game characters.
    I’m sad that Brave has not received the level of critical attention it deserves, but not sorry at all that Wreck It Ralph seems to be the breakaway kids hit of the year. It is doing so many of the right things.

  12. Seems I have judged WIR harshly! I’m glad so many are finding lots of good things in it. I must re-watch it.

  13. I read a random comment somewhere in the greater onlineosphere complaining that Wreck It Ralph was too girly or words to that effect. I thought to myself “ah, that probably means it passes the Bechdel Test”. Sigh.
    So it’s not so much that women are supposed to be satisfied if they only have male characters to identify with, as that some men freak out if they might be expected to identify with a female character.

  14. @Aqua, the thing that makes me really cranky is people like that projecting it onto their kids. It’s complete nonsense, the notion that boys won’t watch a movie about a girl. What’s actually going on is that parents either won’t, or simply don’t think to, take their sons to movies with female protagonists. I have a friend who writes text for e-books and iPad apps for children, and he gets briefs like “for 18 month to 2-year old boys”, as if a child that age is capable of demanding a different kind of story about the alphabet depending on its gender.


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