08 January, 2015

Disney made a mistake, but Emily Asher-Perrin didn't.

Earlier this week over on tor.com, Emily Asher-Perrin posted a thoughtful and, I thought, pretty spot on analysis of what Tangled, Brave, and Frozen all got wrong-- namely, that while they have female protagonists, they completely lack any female supporting cast, up to and including the animal sidekicks.

I know we're not supposed to read the comments, but I did. And after a lot of eyerolling, I came across one commenter who sparked a reply in me, which I'd like to expand on here.

The commenter wrote:
...why single out these three films when this happens EVERYWHERE. The critique really should be why does this happen (and everywhere, not just three Disney films, as in this essay here): one of the biggest selling genre series was written by a woman and it's a pretty white, male, heterosexual magical and muggle world that she's depicted.

And hey, that's not a bad question. Why target Disney, when this issue is disgustingly rampant and, let's face it, kids' movies are not even close to the majority of films that get produced in the US on a yearly basis?

It all comes down to how we critique, how we begin to frame the conversation. As I replied to that Tor commenter, an examination of the relegation of women to nameless windowdressing in all Disney films would be a dissertation, not a blog post. Lists help keep the discussion focused-- by critiquing these three films, Asher-Perrin isn't saying that they're the only films that need critiquing, she's using them as a jumping-off point to start a wider examination of the inherent sexism in Hollywood.

And boy, what a can of worms that is. The Huffington Post reported in 2012 that a study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media that looked at nearly 12,000 roles in prime time TV, children's TV, and family films, "...[researchers] found a lack of aspirational female role models in all three media categories, and cited five main observations: female characters are sidelined, women are stereotyped and sexualized, a clear employment imbalance exists, women on TV come up against a glass ceiling, and there are not enough female characters working in STEM fields."


Let's take this a bit further. In 2013, the MPAA reported that the share of tickets sold to 2-11 year olds was at its highest point since 2009 (page 2), accounting for 12% of frequent (once a month or more) moviegoers (page 12). 7 of the top 25 grossing movies of 2013 were rated PG or under (page 23) with 4 children's films appearing in the top 10.

In a world where women account for only 28% of speaking roles in family films, that's a pretty strong message we're giving, over and over, to really young kids.

Studies show that kids learn a lot about gender roles and job expectations from media. If the TV tells them that 72% of people with important things to say are men, they're going to grow up thinking that's reality. If the TV tells them a 14 to 1 ratio of men to women in STEM fields is normal, they're going to internalize that as truth without even realizing it.

I say again: ouch.

The lack of adequate, varied representation of women in media is a big problem, one that reaches way further than Disney. But if we're going to critique, why not start there? Of course we want to erode entrenched sexism now, see more representation on our screens now. But it's also important to do whatever we can do to stop the cycle now, and give the next generation a chance to grow up without being spoon-fed so much subtextual sexism.

The point of Asher-Perrin's post was that if a juggernaut like Disney, who rakes in money even on its weakest offerings, were to start the ball rolling on equal representation, it might give other filmmakers (and artists, and writers) the courage to follow suit. The Tor commenter was wrong: Asher-Perrin's critique shouldn't be different from what it is, it should stand alongside and be considered intersectionally with critiques of other films, other studios, other media.

Her post is a gateway to a larger consideration of the kinds of movies and media we offer our kids, and especially in light of the Frozen fever that doesn't seem to be releasing its grip on America's kids (and adults!) anytime soon, I applaud her for getting the discussion started.

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