There’s been a lot of talk lately about how movies influence our daughters. The ever-heated Disney Princess debate rages on, with solid arguments on both sides, while new additions to the princess cannon like Brave and Tangled are nitpicked, attacked, and defended, depending on the day of the week. But why aren’t we talking about the movies that little boys are watching?
Colin Stokes posits in his TED talk, “How Movies Teach Manhood”, that the films we’re showing our sons may be contributing to a faulty understanding of what it means to be a man. The main comparison he draws is between The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars. In The Wizard of Oz, you have women in the roles of protagonist, villain, and guide. Dorothy wins the day by making friends and being a compassionate, righteous person. In Star Wars, there’s only one woman of consequence to be found, and she spends most of the movie waiting around for the male hero to come rescue her.
Stokes goes on to name-drop Alison Bechdel, pointing out that most popular movies fail her famous three-part test that determines whether a film does a good job of representing women (Are there at least two women? Do they talk to each other? About something other than a man?). He thinks that this is problematic for boys and well as girls. How can a boy grow up to think of women as his equals if the representations he sees as a kid are mute characters who only exist in terms of their relationship to men?
What Stokes is really talking about here is fostering a sense of empathy in our children, particularly boys. Kids should be given movies that put men and women on the same team, with no single person in the renegade hero role. Maybe the male characters of contemporary kids' movies can teach a thing or two about courage and perseverance, but ultimately the message they put out is that boys are destined to be heros by virtue of their gender, while girls exist to support the boys' quests and fulfill their needs.
One striking statistic that Stokes inserts into the conversation is that one out of five women in America have been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. He adamantly refuses to claim that film and TV are directly responsible for the high prevalence of sexual assault in the US, and instead addresses the real issue: Somehow, boys in America are learning that it’s OK to rape.
Stokes doesn’t suggest that better kids' films will cure the atrocious epidemic of sexual assault in this country. He simply points out that kids' movies can be good teaching tools, and that we should be mindful about which ones we endorse. So next time your kids are scrambling for a movie, why not throw on a Bechdel-Test-passing flick that features boys and girls working together? If nothing else, it’s an excellent excuse to watch The Wizard of Oz to your heart’s content.
Photos: Star Wars, TED Talks