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.
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:
- Have at least two female characters (with names known to the audience)
- who have a conversation with each other
- 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 Kells, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, and 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.
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.