Mainstream children’s media is still lacking in positive portrayals of gender for young girls and boys. Priya Kulasagaran digs up some classic books and movies which challenge traditional gender roles for children.
If you were asked to draw a firefighter, a surgeon and a fighter pilot, what gender do you think you would choose for these roles? A classroom of children at the Whitstable Junior School in Kent, United Kingdom were asked to do just that in a short film by British charity Inspiring the Future. Released early last year, the segment only five of the 66 drawings done portrayed women. The children then met the real-life versions of their drawings; all three of the professionals were women.
The advertisement, created for a campaign called “Redraw the Balance”, revealed that even children as young as five can have their perceptions shaped by gender stereotypes. While parents are among the most important role models for children, gender biases can all too easily be reinforced by the media. Taking movies for example, girls tend to be portrayed as being more demure, dependant and homely, while boys are more likely to be shown as adventurous, assertive and confident.
Research around the world has shown that mainstream media’s representation of narrow gender roles (like “girls shouldn’t be assertive’ or ‘boys shouldn’t cry’) can be damaging to how children view themselves as individuals. In today’s media-saturated world, the repetitive imagery of gender stereotypes, if unquestioned, may pressure children to conform to these roles; girls being encouraged to be just ‘pretty and feminine’ while boys are told to be more aggressive and ‘act tough’.
As society itself is pushing for greater gender equality, more people are taking a critical look at the way children’s media presents gender roles. Even Disney, a famous purveyor of the damsel-in-distress trope in the past, has been upping its game by introducing stronger and better developed female protagonists in more recent animated movies like ‘Moana’ and ‘Frozen’. As such, here are some classic books and movies that showcase positive gender roles for children.
- Legendary Princesses of Malaysia
Most of us would be family with foreign princess stories such as Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, but what about the delightful fairytales from our own backyard. Retold by Raman Krishnan, Legendary Princesses of Malaysia features 10 local princesses illustrated by local artist Emilia Yusof. Instead of just being content to be beautiful, these princesses kick butt; from saving kingdoms by being brave warriors, to using their wits to outsmart antagonists.
Aside from more famous figures such as Puteri Gunung Ledang, the book also features slighter lesser known ones such as Cik Siti Wan Kembang of Kelantan, who was said to be a skilled martial arts proponent and polyglot who spoke many languages. Aside from showing young girls that princess can be fierce and intelligent, the stories here also exposes them to Malaysian folklore and culture, giving children a more racially diverse set of princesses to look up to.
- Spirited Away
A classic anime film by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away tells the story of 10-year-old Chihiro Ogino who suddenly finds herself whisked off to a fantasy world and save her parents to boot. The story starts with Chihiro and her family taking a wrong turn while driving to their new home. Stopping by a mysterious village, the parents make the mistake of eating at an empty restaurant stall and turn into pigs. Chihiro, who is now caught in the spirit world, undertakes the quest to change her parents back to human form while battling an evil witch who wants to keep her trapped.
Filled with gorgeous imagery and all forms of quirky magical creatures, Spirited Away sees Chihiro grow from being a sulky tween to a more mature young adult. In a genre where many protagonists are male, the film offers the refreshing view that girls can go on adventures too.
- William’s Doll
Although written in 1972, this picture-book is still boldly relevant for today’s audiences in tackling gender and stereotypes. William is a young boy who wants nothing more than to have a doll to play with. This wish however, is met with derision and taunts from his friends and brother. William’s father tries to coax William to change his mind by getting him ‘manlier’ toys like trains and toolsets. All the while, poor William grows increasingly despondent, and still hopes to have a doll someday. Finally his grandmother, the only person who understands William’s desires, gives him a doll.
The ending of the book offers a great explanation of why gender stereotypes are not helpful. Here, William’s grandmother explains to his father that if girls play with dolls to be good mothers, why can’t boys play with dolls to be good fathers? In other words, if William chooses to play with dolls, he can learn how take care of his own baby in the future. In this day and age, when toy stores still separate children’s toys in pinks and blues, William’s Doll teaches children (and adults) that they should be able to play with any sort of toy they want.
- The Story of Ferdinand
This charming book is an even older classic, being published in 1936. The Story of Ferdinand is mainly about not fitting in with the rest of the crowd. Ferdinand is a curious young bull; instead of rough-housing with the other bulls, he prefers to lie under a tree to smell flowers. He grows up to be the strongest bull in the herd, and in a comedy of errors, gets chosen to compete in a major bull fight. Once in the ring however, Ferdinand chooses to lie down and smell the flowers worn by the female audience members. Disappointing everyone, he his sent back to pasture, where he spends his days with the flowers he loves.
Although not strictly about gender, Ferdinand the Bull shows children that it is okay to not conform to traditional gender roles—particularly boys who may not enjoy ‘masculine’ activities like sports or aggression. A full-length animated film based on the story is set to be released this December, featuring American wrestler and actor John Cena as the voice of Ferdinand.