What Movies Tell Girls

how movies affect girl's self-image, damaging effect of media on girls,

For years my daughter’s favorite movie was Just Visiting. This 2001 remake of a hit French comedy was packed with plenty for my little girl to adore. Magic, time travel, and plenty of humor. Some quotes from the film are still in rotation as favorite family sayings.

Although it didn’t lack for laughs, it was missing something more vital. Strong female roles. Sure, women star in the film. Passive, pretty characters who only gain a stronger sense of themselves through men. Well, there’s also a stereotypical witch. Don’t even get me started on that.

I’m not about to stomp my foot and decry one B movie because the women’s roles aren’t up to good-for-my-daughter standards. But when I take a look at movies available in theaters and on Netflix, foot stomping seems imperative.

In the real world girls and women have full, interesting lives. Their conversations are complex and rarely limited to shoes, hair styles, and attracting the “right” XY chromosomes. But in the entertainment world, females are often little more than gloss. Little more than women’s roles in the past.

sexualized roles in movies,

One way to gauge a female character’s presence in any movie is the Bechdel test. This method doesn’t imply that a particular movie has merit, it simply demonstrates character treatment based on gender. To pass the Bechdel test, a movie has to meet all of the following three qualifications:

  1. Have at least two female characters (with names known to the audience)
  2. who have a conversation with each other
  3. about something besides a male.

Recall the last five movies you saw. How many really pass the test? I’m not sure Just Visiting passes. But according to the Bechdel test database, recent movies such as Limitless, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,  The Tree of Life, Water For Elephants, Your Highness, Beastly, I Am Number Four, The Lincoln Lawyer, No Strings Attached, Source Code, and Avatar don’t pass.

Kids’ movies aren’t much better. Bechdel test failures include Hop, Rango, Rio, Jack and the Beanstalk, Megamind, The Secret of KellsFantastic Mr. Fox, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Ice AgeDawn of the Dinosaursand Shrek Forever After.

Another way to pay attention to gender disparity in movies is to simply count the number of female speaking characters. Top movies for kids from 1990 to 2005 averaged less than one female out of every three speaking characters. And in both animated and live action movies from 1999 to 2006, researchers noted that females were outnumbered by males in speaking roles as well as crowd scenes. Worse, girls and women were typically portrayed in stereotypical, often hypersexualized roles. It seems girl power, even in today’s family films, has a lot to do with sexy clothes.

Jeff Brunner thesocietypages.org/socimages/2009/10/25/disney-princesses-deconstructed/

This gender disparity is more than annoying. It’s damaging. Sexualized stereotypes are linked to a slew of problems in girls as well as women including eating disorders, poor self-esteem, and depression. Girls and young women who frequently consume mainstream media content are more likely to believe that a woman’s value is based on physical attractiveness. Even very young girls are beginning to self-objectify, to think of themselves as objects to be evaluated by appearance.

And there’s a lot of media consumption going on. Half of kids under six watch at least one DVD a day. That’s some heavy reinforcement of Hollywood ideals. In our house Just Visiting has given way to new favorites. I’ll be watching them with popcorn, a snuggly blanket, and some attitude. My foot is just itching to stomp.

Here are a few resources to light the way.

About Face

Adios Barbie

All Made Up: A Girl’s Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype to Celebrate Real Beauty

Beauty Redefined

Body Drama: Real Girls, Real Bodies, Real Issues, Real Answers

Body Outlaws: Rewriting the Rules of Beauty and Body Image

Body Shots: Hollywood and the Culture of Eating Disorders (Excelsior Editions)

Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel

Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture

Mothers for a Human Future

New Moon Girls

Packaging Girlhood

Pink Stinks

Resolving the Confidence Crisis

Taking Back Childhood

Teen Voices

The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls

101 Ways to Help Your Daughter Love Her Body

About Laura Grace Weldon

Laura Grace Weldon is a writer and editor, perhaps due to an English professor's scathing denunciation of her writing as "curious verbiage." She's the author of "Free Range Learning," a handbook of natural learning and "Tending," a poetry collection. (lauragraceweldon.com) She's working on her next book, "Subversive Cooking" (subversivecooking.com). She lives on Bit of Earth Farm where she is a barely useful farm wench. Although she has deadlines to meet she often wanders from the computer to preach hope, snort with laughter, cook subversively, talk to chickens and cows, discuss life’s deeper meaning with her surprisingly tolerant offspring, sing to bees, hide in books, walk dogs, concoct tinctures, watch foreign films, and make messy art.
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36 Responses to What Movies Tell Girls

  1. Kimerly says:

    Oh my! That is a powerful post, and gave me much to think about. Maybe a major movie clean-up would be a good summer afternoon activity. Another thought on the Disney princess movies…where’s the mommy? Almost all the ‘princess girls’ have lost their mom, or have a stepmom with issues. Mmmmmmm. Another story to be told.


  2. Alison says:

    This is a wonderful post. This is partly why I chose to homeschool, so my girls wouldn’t be influenced too much by classmates into liking Barbie and Hannah Montana. I am trying to raise them to look beyond the pretty, frilliness and see if a female character is really someone they want to admire and why. One of their favorite movies is one with Drew Barrymore called Ever After. We all love this Cinderella-themed movie; there are several strong and beautiful women, including the stepmother and sisters (terrible though they are). The queen is seen freely giving her opinions and advice to her husband and son. Danielle saves herself a couple of times, and she ultimately marries the prince who fell for her because she’s outspoken and strong.

    My girls are both in Tae Kwon Do, one is a black belt and the other a red belt. I’m proud of them. They are proud of themselves, and they are very encouraging to the other kids in the class, especially girls. I want them to feel they can take care of themselves and be leaders. I had tons of self-esteem issues, partly because I was awkward and did not live up to the beauty queen image. I’m at peace with myself finally and I hope my daughters can be who they are without worrying about being pretty enough.

    Thank you for this post!


    • Laura Weldon says:

      Your girls sound strong and self-directed. Fantastic. It’s not easy to hold back the relentless influences telling our kids that who they are is defined by how they look and what they own. You’re right, having hobbies or skills to focus on really makes a difference too. My kids never cared much about trends or fashion. They’re too busy paying attention to what interests them. Thank goodness for homeschooling.


  3. tokyobling says:

    I absolutely agree. I was lucky enough to be raised in a family dominated by strong women and as a result I find the vast majority of Hollywood movies nothing less than absolutely boring. A woman in a movie has to be sexy and dangerous, or sexy and helpless, in contrast with the abundance of male roles and variations. Unfortunately gender equality is not something that comes easily in most cultures.

    But I’m doing my best, by breaking out of the stereotypes and loudly proclaiming on all my first dates my intention of becoming the best stay-at-home-dad there ever was once I find someone to start a family with. No wonder all my first dates are also last dates…! Not even many women are interested in atypical gender roles.

    Oh, and for a movie with at least a few scenes of woman to woman talk (that doesn’t involve men, shopping, fashion, beauty or shoes) and with a good deal of action thrown in, check out The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, a French film labeled as a Feminist French Female Indiana Jones. I’m sure your daughter will love it.


    • Laura Weldon says:

      Loudly proclaiming anything on first dates tends to be a turn-off. That may be part of the issue. Whether men or women want to stay home to raise their eventual kids is something best discussed well into a committed relationship. Give that a try TokyoBling. And thanks for the movie recommendation.


  4. Marti says:

    While it is, of course, imperative to teach our daughters these important lessons, I don’t see many people with sons comment on this. I have a 10 yo son, and I hardly want him to think girls are objects to be judged or valued only for their appearance or sexuality. I believe it is not enough to make our daughters strong; we with sons must complete the equation by teaching our sons that girls and women are complex, complete human beings, just as boys and men are.


    • Laura Weldon says:

      So completely true. I think we not only have to teach them but also model this for them, and frankly that modeling also has to come from the men in their lives.

      There’s plenty of evidence that boys and men are also being affected by stereotyped images of masculinity—ridiculously over muscled bodies, insanely heroic actions, impossible feats of strength, and absolutely no “softer” emotions. That’s something we have to even out as well. Basically, there’s to much emphasis on surface appeal in media geared at kids (well at all of us).


  5. Rebecca says:

    Laura, thanks so much for your thoughtful post. I don’t yet have a daughter but I feel like I have lots of surrogates through my math tutoring, and definitely see these issues come up in different manifestations. It can be hard to know what to say without sounding like an out-of-the-loop adult so I look forward to investigating these resources.

    I’ve been looking for that image of the Disney princesses after stumbling on it by accident. Does the Princess from the Princess and the Frog pass the test? I seem to remember her being much more concerned about opening her own business, and I seem to remember her talking about it with the voodoo queen character.

    Also I love the movie suggestions from the other commenters!

    @Marti — I’d love to hear more specifics about how you talk about this with your daughter. I wonder if gender equity parallels recent race equity findings — Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman did some great reporting on how not talking about race, parents end up with racist kids (totally by accident and with the best of intentions). They had some great tips about how to talk specifically about it that sound similar to Marti’s comment.


    • Laura Weldon says:

      Rebecca, you’re exactly the person who shows interest in girls for what they can do and what they like to do, rather than what they look like. Your role is a powerful one. The girls are lucky to have you.

      I haven’t seen the Princess and the Frog. Sounds like it passes the test.


    • Marti says:

      Hi Rebecca,
      I don’t have a daughter, but for my son, I am definitely a role model of a strong, independent woman. We talked specifically about the roles women can play in the world during the 2008 Presidential Campaign. I was pleased to find he was mystified that Hillary Clinton’s run was anything out of the ordinary. There was no reason, he said, that women shouldn’t be President. I work very hard not to put stereotypical images into our daily life. Both my husband and I speak in terms of sharing the household load, each person doing what he is ABLE to do, not just what tradition suggests is “our job”. Also, keeping ourselves at a healthy weight is a challenge; I always refer to the health risks/benefits involved, not the physical image.


  6. hsw says:

    The last statistic is telling, we really try to keep media consumption to a movie once a week (our kids are just almost 1 and 3). Even with that my daughter loves princesses. Even Mulan, which is her favorite aside from Mary Poppins, fails the test you described. Truly food for thought. My biggest personal goal is to model a positive body image but it is hard when you are faking it a little!


    • Laura Weldon says:

      I hear you! It is hard to model a positive body image while faking it. I’ve always wanted to be taller, slimmer, and more coordinated. Instead of implying to my daughter that I’m those things, I just stick with emphasizing strong legs that can walk a long way, healthy bellies that know when they’re hungry, brains that can hold onto good memories like right now (and then to better hold those memories we talk about the smells, sound, and feel of the moment we’re in).


  7. CaptiousNut says:

    It’s my contention that men won’t and can’t possibly appreciate women until they have a daughter of their own. I know I didn’t. So the objectification of women goes hand-in-hand with the *deferred adulthood* aspect of age-graded mass schooling.

    Note you’ll never see anyone in a movie *reading a book* either – no less the Bible!


  8. Laura Weldon says:

    Good point about deferred adulthood. Another thing schools tend to do that have a long term impact in adulthood is to emphasize one’s weak points. is that we end up with business climates that work harder on compensating for weakness than building on strength, and in the larger culture, a “personality climate” that seems hell bent on exposing one another’s weaknesses rather than strengths.


  9. Marcy says:

    @CaptiousNut, just one counterexample is Belle from Beauty and the Beast, who is often reading.

    Laura, you might enjoy the book Cinder Edna — in it, Cinder Ella and Cinder Edna are neighbors. Ella is helpless and forlorn. Edna works hard and takes a cheerful look at life. Ella marries the self-absorbed prince. Edna marries his more interesting brother. It has its own flaws, but it’s a fun counter to the typical Cinderella story.

    I’ve tried to get into some of the folk tale collections that allegedly gather strong women — The Serpent Slayer, Not One Damsel in Distress — and found them even more of a turnoff than the helpless damsel variety. Do you have any such collections you recommend?


    • Laura Weldon says:

      I ADORE Cinder Edna. I’ve used that book repeatedly in classes I teach and challenge people to re-do fairy tales. I don’t have any real suggestions for collections of ‘strong women’ tales. I know I bought my daughter an old copy of Free To Be You and Me when she was about four. She liked it, I thought it was way over the top. And for adults, I believe Women Who Run With The Wolves is supposed to have quite a bit to do with female empowerment relating to myth and folklore. Never read it.


      • Marcy says:

        What about single stand-alone stories like Cinder Edna? Got any other favorites?

        We like to get a bunch of stories on the same idea — right now we have just about all the Snow White stories the library had. It’s a nice way to defuse Disney without outlawing it completely, plus it’s just fun to see the different illustrations and different takes. The parodies are fun, too. Another favorite in our library box this week is The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig.

        Sometimes the parodies are too over the top in one way or another. Can’t think of an example at the moment, though.


  10. Arani says:

    I’m not particularly fond of Disney movies myself, but the Princess and the Frog is wonderful for girls, even if the prince wasn’t good enough for Tiana. I’m not sure if the conversation between her and her mother, or that screechy rich girl and Tiana pass muster for the Bechdel test, but I adore that movie’s messages and wouldn’t hesitate to let my (as yet unborn) daughter watch it.


  11. Rebecca says:

    Oooh!! I was reflecting on this discussion while doing some dishes and thought of a good fairy tale movie…. “Penelope” starring Christina Ricci. It’s not based on a traditional fairy tale, but a story of a secluded heiress who is cursed, and the only way she can lift the curse is if she falls in love with one of her “own kind.” But the message at the end is quite unexpected. Still not sure if it passes the Bechdel test but the heroine is worth emulating… intrepid, smart, and sincere. And you can get it on Netflix!


  12. Laura Weldon says:

    Clearly I’ll have to add Penelope as well as Princess and the Frog to our netflix queue!


  13. Loving the article! Will be using in my Sunday Surf
    I studied communication sciences and movies and representation was my field (I hould have continued, but destiny – read sexism – decided otherwise)
    I recently wrote something similar about women and relationships


    and about songs


    It is freakish how prevalent these attitudes towards women remain and are accepted as part of our culture. And there really aren’t that many alternatives (I’m not quite sure that things like the princess diaries define as strong female roles)

    You are inspiring me to write a post about movies that do have strong female representations!


    • Laura Weldon says:

      Thanks for your posts, agree with both of them. Now that I’ve written about the Bechdel test it has been opening my eyes to how truly skewed even the best movies tend to be. Look for ward to your post about movies with strong women. I find this more the case in foreign films, personally.


      • well, I’m Belgian, and for my thesis I studied sexuality in Belgium film. It was a mapping study, since nothing had been written about the topic, and one of my grand conclusions was how passive women were portrayed in sexual relationships in these movies, so it doesn’t really work that well for Belgian film.


      • Thinking even more about this topic, I can’t even give you the name of one Belgian female actress for movies, but I can give you a truckload of male actors.
        So sad
        And I wish I was at Uni agai to write about that


      • Laura Weldon says:

        I think women and girls are more assertive in foreign films, but especially those geared to kids.


      • Laura Weldon says:

        Alright, now that I’m trying to think of specific titles I realize that our favorite foreign films are more nuanced, more complex, and more overall pleasing but only slightly more balanced in favor of strong (or at least interesting) women and girls. sigh


  14. Wrote a whole post (that I expect to seed a series of posts) to comment back. It ends with listing a few picture books that portray females in a way I prefer (that is to say, they don’t have to be “powerful” or perfect girls, but they do have to be kind w/o being dominated, and effective in working toward their goals). Those have pictures and brief commentary, but to give you a list of possible answers to the question about stand-alone picture books about interesting/proactive females:
    – What Shall We Do, Blue Kangaroo? (Clark)
    – Bread and Jam for Frances (Hoban)
    – Daisy Comes Home (Brett)
    – Loop the Loop (Dugan)
    – Miss Rumphius (Cooney)
    – Moses — When Harriet Tubman led her People to Freedom (Weatherford)
    And several more that are straight-up romances (so you might not be interested in them) but ones I consider more balanced than what you’ve protested against:
    – Tam Lin (Yolen)
    – A Weave of Words (San Souci)// The Golden Bracelet (Kherdian)
    – The Rough-Faced Girl (Martin)
    – East of the Sun West of the Moon (Mayer)
    – The Lady and the Lion (Long & Ogburn)

    And if you’re still looking for a better “collection” of female-centered folktales, I recommend Ragan’s *Fearless Girls, Wise Women & Beloved Sisters.* I like this type of collection b/c it’s about all types of women: the quiet as well as the bold.


    • Laura Weldon says:

      Wonderful list! We’ve read most of them, I’m eager to read the rest. There are many more picture books with multi-faceted female roles than movies.


    • Marcy says:

      Thank you — am going to bookmark for later. I do love the books about Frances — another good one is Bargain for Frances where she works out a tricky situation with a manipulative friend.


  15. I knew I had it somewhere: here’s the same about children’s literature


    I am composing a list, but I also added the criteria that it is a positive portrayal of women (no Sex and the City or Mean Girls bullshit where characters are more of a caricature than an actual persona) and I’ve discovered that my favorite movies of all times, the ones I have watched over and over since I was young answer to all these.
    Girld want and need to see these movies.


    • Laura Weldon says:

      Fantastically interesting article. As I started reading it I thought, oh well they’re including really old books so that’ll skew the results, only to find that character’s gender representation was BETTER 100 years ago!


  16. Zoe says:

    Princess Smartypants is pretty good! I wish I’d carried on reading stuff like this as I’d grown older…


  17. Mamapoekie says:

    I’ve published the first one, about children’s movies: http://www.authenticparenting.info/2011/07/approved-for-little-girls-movies.html
    have another one coming up with adult movies


  18. Surprise says:

    Ms. Weldon, What movies as a pattern tell girls is that they don’t matter: their journeys, their goals, their thoughts are not important. Here’s my outline of how mainstream films portray women:

    1) No women at all
    2) If you have to have a woman, make her young, scantily clad, and ultimately deferential to the main male character.
    3) If you’re forced to portray two women, show them separately interacting with the male lead, or simply silent.
    4) If you’re forced to portray two women talking to each other, make sure they’re talking about men.
    5) If you’re forced to portray two women talking to each other, use a divide and conquer strategy. Make sure that an attractive scantily-clad younger woman is pitted against an older woman, who is bitter and cruel.
    6) NEVER show two middle-aged or old women talking with each other about something other than men, laughing, enjoying each other’s company, and obviously having a good time. THIS is taboo. It is forbidden. Older women forming alliances with other older women is out.


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