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2/18/13 at 01:46 PM 0 Comments

How Movies Teach Our Kids about Gender

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Photo: Flickr/Christian Haugen - Creative Commons

By Marc Cortez

What are movies teaching our kids about gender, about what it means to be men and women? That’s the question Colin Stokes asks in this recent TED Talks video. Although he raises a number of good points, here are a couple of the more interesting ones.

The Bechdel Test

I’d never heard of the Bechdel Test, but it’s a way of gauging how a movie portrays its female characters. And it’s a pretty simple test.

  1. Are there at least two women who actually have lines?
  2. Do these women talk to each other at any point in the movie?
  3. Is there conversation about something other than the guy that they both like?

So the essence of the test is whether the movie contains “two women who exist and talk to each other about stuff.” That sounds like setting the bar pretty low. But the startling reality is that quite a few movies fail to achieve even this low standard. Either the movie has almost no significant female characters, or it fails to show them interacting with other women on issues unrelated to dating and/or marriage.

Although I always notice when a movie fails to have a significant female character, I’d never considered the importance of showing female characters talking meaningfully about important issues. The male characters do it all the time, and thus provide strong reinforcement that men can have those kinds of conversations. Even if it’s becoming more common for female characters to engage in the same conversations, we rarely see them having those conversations with each other, reinforcing the notion that women don’t talk about those things. I certainly don’t want my girls growing up thinking that they have to sit at the guys table if they want to talk about politics, theology, and other important issues (like football).

Where are the Disney Princes?

He doesn’t spend much time here, but I thought it was interesting that he clearly likes the Disney Princesses overall and thinks they provide good role models for young girls by helping them resist the “patriarchy.” He doesn’t explain what he means by that, but at the very least I’m sure he means that the Disney Princesses show girls that they too can be strong leaders, creative thinkers, and problem solvers, roles often assigned to men even in our modern world. So he thinks kids movies todays are actually doing a decent job of providing girls role models to resist negative cultural stereotypes.

He’s much more concerned about the boys. Although quite a few movies provide female characters that help young grils break free from negative female stereotypes, he doesn’t think we’re doing as well with the male characters, many of whom are aggressive and/or unintelligent. Although he doesn’t say it, you get the impression that he’d love to see some Disney “Princes,” young male characters intentionally designed to undermine harmful stereotypes of what “masculine” means.

As a father of two young girls, I have to admit that my radar is more finely tuned to the first problem. So I found it interesting to reflect for a bit on whether we’re being as careful with the narrative of masculinity embedded in kids movies.

To the Victor Go the Spoils

Around the 8:30 mark, Stokes turns his attention to a recent study indicating that 1 out of 5 women in America will experience a sexual assault of some kind. He is very careful to say that we should not blame this on movies since it is far too complex a problem for such simplistic explanations. Nonetheless, he does raise the question of whether our movies might be helping to establish a context conducive to this kind of behavior. And his primary concern is that the story embedded in many of our most popular movies is about a male hero who defeats some kind of villain through a variety of usually violent actions, and then at the end of the story he gets to collect his “reward,” which is usually an attractive girl. Add to that the concerns raised by the Bechdel Test, and Stokes asks:

Are they absorbing the story that a male hero’s job is to defeat the villain with violence and to collect the reward which is a woman who has no friends and doesn’t speak?

Again, he’s not saying that this explains sexual aggression against women. But he is suggesting that this kind of narrative provides a context conducive to viewing women as prizes that go to the victorious men.

He ends with video with an appeal for movies that will help cast a new vision for what it means to be a man who trusts and respects women, and for parents (fathers in particular) to be more careful in selecting movies that will help cast that vision.

Anyway, enough from me. Here’s the video. Let me know what you think.

Marc Cortez blogs at Everyday Theology, teaches church history and theology at Portland's Western Seminary and can be followed on Twitter.

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