When I was in ninth grade, I had the (mis)fortune to be a participant in an arm wrestling contest. I am small boned, and have never been recognized for my strength, so I anticipated from the outset that I would lose. The only problem was my opponent was a girl. This girl was no shot-putter-type female (I know, a bad stereotype). She was a normal-sized, attractive young woman – and one of my best friends at the time. I found out a couple of years later that she was also an excellent kisser! But I’m digressing.
I gave it my best effort, and put off the inevitable for a while, but ultimately my (girl)friend was able to slam the back of my hand against the table. My close (boy)friends assumed I had let her win (but they were wrong). My not-so-close friends ribbed me for days about how I was weaker than a girl. Where is the rule book that says all successful men must be handsome, well-built, show little emotion or vulnerability, work outside the home and be naturally strong and heroic? Where is it written that women must be beautiful, well-built (but in a decidedly different way than men), emotional, work only as housewives and mothers, and be weak and helpless (i.e. they need a prince to save them)? Why must little boys play with trucks and little girls play with dolls? Those were the gender stereotypes of my growing-up years. Fortunately, for both men and women, we have come a long way since then. But we still have a long way to go.
The movie industry prides itself in being a champion of equality, but it is far from it. In 2014, the Geena Davis Institute conducted a study on gender in media.[i] Here are just some of the facts this study revealed about films released in 2014:
- There are 2.24 male characters for every 1 female.
- Only 23.3 percent of films had a female lead or co-lead
- Females made up only 7 percent of directors, 19.7 percent of writers, and 22.7 percent of producers
- Female characters are more than twice as likely than male characters to be shown as skinny, wearing sexy clothing, and either partially or fully naked
- Comments made by characters that refer to appearance are directed at women five times more than men
- Men are more likely to be seen as attorneys, judges, academics or doctors at a rate of 13 to 1; females made up only 13 percent of characters who were business executives.
A few years ago I attended the Broadway production of Cinderella. It was magical. But what was surprising to me was how many young girls in the audience had dressed as princesses. What kind of role model is Cinderella, or any Disney princess, for these young girls? Emulating princesses from the early Disney movies, young girls learn that physical looks are more important than intellect, all unattractive women are evil (and often overweight), women, in general, are weak and need a man to protect them, and a woman’s place is in the home. Poor Cinderella is trapped in a life of thankless cleaning and cooking until a handsome prince rescues her (whom she falls in love with at first sight). Ariel, from The Little Mermaid,[ii] is even worse. Originally, she appears to be a self-assured, strong young woman, well, mermaid. But then she falls in love with the handsome Prince Eric (at first sight again) and then gives up her home, her family and everything she is (even her voice) to be with him. How much more interesting and thought-provoking would the movie be if it was Eric who gave up everything to be with Ariel under the sea? Here is one of the climatic scenes from the movie. Note how evil is personified in an ugly, overweight woman:
But Disney has changed some through the years, like all of us. Its recent remake of Beauty and the Beast [iii] is charming, and Belle is the epitome of a modern woman. She is intelligent, strong, and a no-nonsense, successful inventor in her own right. The problem is not with Belle, but with the movie’s treatment of men. Gaston is the classic boorish male chauvinist pig, and the Beast is simply abusive, as demonstrated in this scene:
The good news is the Beast learns and changes – but including his looks from the ugly beast to the stereotypical handsome prince. How more interesting would the movie be if the Beast remained a beast, whom Belle had originally fallen in love with despite his looks? On second thought, falling in love with an actual beast might be a little too creepy!
Along with movies, I love live theater. One of the most interesting plays I have ever seen was the Dallas Theater Center’s recent adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Most of the main characters were opposite genders from the originals. In other words, Scrooge, Marley and all the spirits were women. It was still the same, beautiful story of change, but the role reversals not only caught my attention, they gave the familiar story a new look and feel. Geena Davis would be proud. As a solution for making Hollywood less gender biased, her Institute’s study recommends, when scripts are being reviewed, change the “he” to “she.”
I close with a discussion of two of my all-time favorite movies. I love these movies for many reasons, including that both take gender stereotypes and turn them on their heads. In The King’s Speech,[iv] we see one of the most powerful men in the world (England’s Prince Albert who becomes King George VI) show his vulnerability – something no “real man” is supposed to do. Check out this scene:
Billy Elliot[v] (spoiler alert!) is a young English lad who must grow up without a mother. His father and older brother are coal miners. As all good coal miners are, Billy’s dad is a man’s man, and he expects, like his brother before him, to be the same. So Billy’s dad enrolls Billy in boxing classes. The trouble is, Billy has no boxing ability, and finds himself more interested in the ballet classes that start immediately after the boxing lessons. Soon Billy is skipping the boxing classes and attending the ballet classes – until his father finds out. No son of a man’s man would take ballet over boxing, as ballet is only for “puffs:”
But Billy not only likes dancing, he’s good at it. Here, he shows his dad a few of his moves:
Ultimately, Billy’s dad let’s Billy pursue his dream of being a dancer. He is even willing to cross the picket lines of the miners’ strike to be able to pay for the dancing lessons. With the help of his teacher, Billy tries out for the Royal Ballet School. It is not the typical tryout, and Billy is sure he won’t get in. Here is the scene where Billy gets his letter from the school:
This scene is called “Acceptance” both because Billy gets into the prestigious school, but more importantly, Billy’s dad has come to accept Billy for being Billy, not forcing him to fit a stereotype or be something he wishes Billy to be. All parents should be more like the “new” Billy’s dad. Who didn’t fell the joy and pride of Billy’s father as he hears the news about Billy’s success, even though it might not have been the kind of success he originally wanted for Billy. Perhaps Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer and a Director of Facebook, said it best: “We can each define ambition and progress for ourselves. The goal is to work toward a world where expectations are not set by the stereotypes that hold us back, but by our personal passion, talents and interests.”
If only the whole world were so.
[i] As reported in the Huffington Post on September 24, 2014, updated on November 24, 2014.
[ii] The Little Mermaid
- Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures and Silver Screen Partners IV
- Directors: Ron Clements and John Musker
- Screenwriter: John Musker and Ron Clements
- Starring: Jodi Benson, Rene Auberjonois and Christopher Daniel Barnes
- Release date: November 17, 1989
[iii] Beauty and the Beast
- Production Company: Mandeville Films and Walt Disney Films
- Director: Bill Condon
- Screenwriter: Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spillotopoulos
- Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens and Luke Evans
- Release date: March 17, 2017
[iv] The King’s Speech
- Production Company: See-Saw Films, The Weinstein Company, UK Film Council
- Director: Tom Hooper
- Screenwriter: David Seidler
- Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter
- Release date: December 25, 2010
[v] Billy Elliot
- Production Company: StudioCanal, Working Title Films, BBC Films
- Director: Stephen Daldry
- Screenwriter: Lee Hall
- Starring: Jamie Bell, Julie Walters and Jean Haywood
- Release date: November 10, 2000