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Cross Post: In 'Planes' Males Soar, Females Get Grounded

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by Margot Magowan
August 14, 2013 2:00 PM
19 Comments
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Disney's Planes

I've blogged twice about the sexist preview for "Planes," and after seeing the movie today, I'm afraid I've got to blog about this awful scene once more. The sexist scene actually opens the movie. It sets the tone for the whole film, which is the opposite of what I thought the scene was going to do. When I saw the preview, I thought the plane who mocks the slow flyers by calling them "ladies," was having a moment of arrogance. The movie would redeem him when he went through his transition. But I couldn't have been more wrong. The sexist joke is his fantasy, the fantasy of a humble crop duster with a fear of heights who wishes he were a racer. The scene is sexism in fantasy world in sexism in fantasy world. Isn't that meta? It's the dream sequence of a "likeable" character. Can you imagine a hero making a racist joke and being likeable? In a movie for little kids? Yet, that's how much sexism we have to wade through before females are allowed to win a race in animation. Here's the text/ preview:

Plane One: What's taking this guy so long? Is he really as good as he says he is?

Plane Two: No, better.

Plane One: Whoa! Who was that?

Plane Three: (Descending fast on top of the other two) Well, hello ladies. Ready to lose?

Plane Three goes on to leave the "ladies" in the dust.


Today, in the New York Times , Frank Bruni writes about his conversation with Chris Kilmartin, author of "The Masculine Self."

"We start boys off at a very early age," Kilmartin told me during a recent phone conversation. "When the worst thing we say to a boy in sports is that he throws 'like a girl,' we teach boys to disrespect the feminine and disrespect women. That's the cultural undercurrent of rape"

"Planes" teaches kids exactly that, and that's only the beginning of the movie.

Following the sexist fantasy in "Planes," the narrative progresses exactly as "Turbo" did, the movie for kids that came out just a few weeks ago. Dusty, the male protagonist of "Planes," is told by his friend he'll never be a racer: "That's not what you're built for." This is the same conversation Turbo has with his brother who tells him that because he's a snail, he can't race. But guess who proves the naysayers wrong, that the hero can do anything, soar to the highest heights, be brave, courageous, and make his dreams come true? Unless, of course, he happens to be a "lady."

Today, if you see a movie for children, it will most often have a male protagonist while females, who are, in fact, half of the kid population, are presented as if they were a minority. Within that minority, there will be a strong female or two who reviewers will invariably call "feisty." I call these characters the "Minority Feisty." The trope has evolved from the Smurfette principle in that there is often more than one, and she is presented as strong. But rarely is she the protagonist. Her power, lines, and screen time are carefully and consistently circumscribed to show that she is not as important as the male star. Still, the Minority Feisty is supposed to pacify parents, making them feel that, unlike those sexist films of yesteryear, this movie is contemporary and feminist.

There are strikingly similar Minority Feisty in "Planes" and "Turbo:" Dottie and Paz are both mechanics and both shown in blue. Isn't that progressive? At first, I thought these mechanics were a coincidence. Then I realized that "female mechanic" is such a classic Minority Feisty role. All the parents watching can think: look a female mechanic! Isn't that wonderful? And overlook that the roles of Dottie and Paz are minor. They are there only to help the male hero accomplish his quest in movies that marginalize and demean females.

The actual race in "Planes" is totally dominated by male competitors. There are just two female racers: Ishani and Rochelle. "Turbo" has only one, and I missed her name. Both female racers in "Planes" are objects of lust for the males who have bigger parts. One scene is an extensive serenade/ mariachi sequence that sends Rochelle, the pink girl plane, into fits of desire. I thought I was going to throw up. Everyone else in the theater was laughing.

In both "Planes" and "Turbo," there is an evil champion male rival who is the protagonist's major competition. In "Planes," he's called Ripslinger, "the king of racing." In "Turbo," the role is filled by the macho Guy Gagne. Why not do something wild and crazy and put a female in the evil champion role? Dusty's mentor, his major relationship in the movie, is also with, surprise, surprise, another male: Skipper. Turbo is guided to winning by Tito, a taco maker, who also is cursed with a brother who doesn't believe in him but comes to see his gifts by the end of the movie. Nice parallel, huh?

There is actually a third movie about a competition this summer. "Monster University" is about rival fraternities. Rival fraternities. Not one of these movies shows kids that females can win. Even worse, as I began this post with, "Planes" mocks female competitors as losers.

Why do parents put up with this repeated sexism in movie after movie?

There's an excellent post about "Smurfs 2," yet another male dominated movie for kids that came out this summer, in The Atlantic: The Banal, Insidious, Sexism of Smurfette.

In The Smurfs 2, there are a lot of Smurfs. And they all have names based on their unique qualities. According to the cast list, the male ones are Papa, Grouchy, Clumsy, Vanity, Narrator, Brainy, Handy, Gutsy, Hefty, Panicky, Farmer, Greedy, Party Planner, Jokey, Smooth, Baker, Passive-Aggressive, Clueless, Social, and Crazy. And the female one is Smurfette--because being female is enough for her. There is no boy Smurf whose identifying quality is his gender, of course, because that would seem hopelessly limited and boring as a character.

These characters, originating as they did in mid-century Europe, exhibit the quaint sexism in which boys or men are generic people--with their unique qualities and abilities--while girls and women are primarily identified by their femininity.The Smurfs 2, which premiered last weekend and came in third at the box office, doesn't upend the premise of Smurfette...Today, a blockbuster children's movie can invoke 50-year-old gender stereotypes with little fear of a powerful feminist backlash.

The author doesn't expand beyond "Smurfs 2" as far as the sexism marketed to children in movies this summer, but the erasure of female characters is shockingly consistent. And shocking in that it's not shocking. Not only is there no fear of powerful feminist backlash, when I write about this annihilation in kids' movies, I often get comments like: You call yourself a feminist? Why don't you write about something more important than cartoons? Who cares?

About the rape culture, author Kilmartin is quoted in the New York Times:

It's not DNA we're up against; it's movies, manners and a set of mores, magnified in the worlds of the military and sports, that assign different roles and different worth to men and women. Fix that culture and we can keep women a whole lot safer.

Kids learn from what they see again and again and again. You can tell girls that they can be anything they want to be until you're Smurfblue in the face, but if you don't show them, your words are meaningless. Why not show kids more movies where powerful females win? A crop duster can win a flying race around the world and a snail can win the Indy 500, but a female can't win anything? What does that teach children? That "you aren't what you're built to be" unless you happen to be built a girl. Suddenly, your options become pretty limited.

Why, I want to know, is the imaginary world, a place where anything should be possible, so sexist? Why aren't more parents demanding gender equality for their kids during this crucial period in their lives?

__________________________

Margot Magowan started her blog Reel Girl, because as the mom of three young daughters, she was alarmed by the sexism in children's movies, and the games, toys, and clothing mass-marketed to kids based on those movies.  Margot's fiction is featured in the anthology Sugar In My Bowl edited by Erica Jong. (Ecco 2011), and she is currently writing a Middle Grade novel about the fairyworld. Margot's articles on politics and culture have been in Salon, Glamour, the San Jose Mercury News, and numerous other newspapers and online sites. She has appeared on "Good Morning America," CNN, Fox News, and other TV and radio programs.

Republished with permission.

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19 Comments

  • elixabeth | November 24, 2013 7:56 PMReply

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  • Andy | August 23, 2013 9:18 PMReply

    Hey, I'm as big a feminist as you can find; but, the only thing you're revealing is that you haven't hung around many fighter pilots. The movie isn't making a statement, it's just using their voice as it's traditionally sounded, misogynistic.

    Yeh, I'd write it differently. But, don't get too wrapped around the axle for what actually might be a subtle jab at their mentality.

  • Carrie | August 20, 2013 4:05 PMReply

    Thanks for sharing this. This type of sexism needs to be challenged, every time. I appreciate the blog, now let's take the next step. Let's start a petition - maybe concerning editing this movie, or have Disney make a commitment to stop gender slurs like this. I posted on the Planes facebook page, and would appreciate others posting there as well. It would be great to see the link to this blog posted there, so others can see it. This will continue to happen as long as we continue to tolerate it. How many mothers would like to know this information PRIOR to letting their kids see this movie? I'm sure many would be offended. No one is overreacting at all.

  • JC Dell | August 17, 2013 1:17 PMReply

    No, no one is overreacting here. I can guarantee if these types of put-downs existed against men, they would never put up with it. In reality, though, they are an expression of male insecurity. Women are making alot of gains in this world, and all men have left is "their" media and these insults that are consistent in movies and t.v. And so much for originality. The "like a girl" and "ladies" comments are cliche, and simply reflect the lack of gender identity in males. Girls learn to speak before boys do, but when was the last time you heard girls pick on boys for how they speak? They don't, because empathy is an issue. It's time we stood up to these "ladies" types comment, point out their sexism, BUT ALSO THEIR INSECURITY. Not to mention their lack of creativity. Sexism is the result of a weak male identity, and therefore the need to continuously disparage and demean women. Don't assume the writers of this crap have good self-esteem, or you are just giving them what they want. I'm tiring of these slurs, so what do we do? I appreciate bringing it out in the open. This is a movie I might have considered, but certainly not now.

  • Emerah m | August 18, 2013 3:28 AM

    I agree 100%

  • Emerah m | August 18, 2013 3:28 AM

    I agree 100%

  • Okay Dude | August 17, 2013 12:12 PMReply

    I think you're reading WAY too into this.

  • Elise Hahn | August 17, 2013 1:14 AMReply

    Perhaps more than we need female characters that can be "winners", we need female characters, period — and films that promote character traits other than competition?

  • Cynthia Anne Womack | August 16, 2013 9:59 PMReply

    Females can have power if they are princesses and being formidable is recognized as an optional aberration. Males who are sensitive,artistic and nurturing are expanding the parameters of being a "real man". Females who are strong,adventurous and skilled in math and science are "butch", tomboys and incomplete until they assume their feminine roles. Let the token "Minority Fiesty" turn out to be the antagonist or main character. Let the pretty and virtuous character be the rescuee or sidekick. Let the older mentor still be (for want of a better word) sexy. Let rivalry be less of a source of conflict than some real issues that are more about letting noble and resourceful characters have victories than having everyone else be shown up as losers. Maybe,we could write roles for individuals and pull their characters' appearance out of a hat. (The chubby dog or black-and-gold jet or bespectacled centaur or corn-rowed architect could be equally likely to be a foe, a heart throb or the comic relief. )

  • Margot Magowan | August 18, 2013 1:40 PM

    Hi Cynthia,

    Agree! But one thing, it's not a "token" Minority Feisty because there is often more than one. Initially, I was going to call it "Token Feisty" but switched to "Minority" because the point is no matter how many "feisty" females they are, unless they are in the Pink Ghetto, there are much less than male characters.

    Margot

  • Margot Magowan | August 16, 2013 6:30 PMReply

    Hi JR,

    You're right, I got my creatures with reps for slowness mixed up! Will try to fix.

    Thanks,
    Margot

  • jr | August 16, 2013 6:12 PMReply

    I totally agree with the article, however, you make yourself look clueless when you refer to the characters in Turbo as turtles. I'm a 35-year-old with no kids, I don't watch tv, and even I know the movie is about snails, not turtles.

  • RipleyBipley | August 16, 2013 5:01 PMReply

    I'm so tired of all of this! I have yet to take my 4 year old to see a movie because of this very reason. She is incredibly smart and slightly timid - the last thing she needs is this kind of nonsense muddling up her self-worth. So far she's been happy with PBS cartoons - which thankfully have many female characters leads. Absolutely everything and anything else we've attempted to watch has been garbage. I understand wanting your kids to fit it - but parents really need to step up and NOT give these companies their business! Otherwise Pixar and Disney and Dreamworks think they are giving people what they want - and they're not!

  • Jacie | August 17, 2013 1:20 PM

    Yes, and who are the primary consumers - women! Who are the ones making Disney and Pixar and their "male" writers rich? Women! Who makes the decision (primarily) as what movies their kids see? Mothers! So an organized boycott is in order! These types of slurs are prevalent, even within kid's movies. Think of Mars Needs Moms, and the comment to one of the male characters "you walk like a girl." It was totally unnecessary, just a means to get a dig in at women. And we as women put up with this!! If women began to boycott movies due to gender slurs, there would be very few left.

  • Margot Magowan | August 16, 2013 7:02 PM

    Hi Ripley Bipley,

    PBS drives me crazy too. It's the "education" station, and its morning line up, at least in San Francisco, is shows with all male protags. You can find females, but you have to look. I blogged about PBS sexism here http://reelgirl.com/2013/03/pbs-puts-another-male-protag-in-coveted-morning-line-up-daniel-tiger/

    and here http://reelgirl.com/2013/03/pbs-blind-to-its-own-sexism-says-former-employee/

    and a few other places if you search reelgirl.com. It's frustrating because PBS should be more of leader on this issue.

    Margot

  • Stephanie | August 15, 2013 4:46 PMReply

    I was on an otherwise all-boy baseball team when I was 12. The main coach was horribly open in his sexism, his son even apologizing to me many times for it. The assistant coach, however, was great. In one game, the opposing team had a pitcher that just kept hitting batter after batter with the ball. He hit three boys in a row, all of whom cried, one quitting and going home.

    I got up to bat and the guy threw the ball right at my knee cap. It hit it very hard, then bounced off and hit my arm. I fell down, regrouped, got up, and jogged lightly to first base. The assistant coach clapped and yelled, "All right, Stephanie, show the boys how to take a hit. Walk it off, now." It was a refreshing change from all of the "you throw like a girl" crap.

  • Jacie | August 17, 2013 1:22 PM

    Yes and those "like a girl" comments are so cliche, and are nothing more than a reflection of male insecurity, fear, and a lack of empathy. Girls learn alot of things before boys, including language, reading, fine motor, etc. and girls do not pick on boys. Boys pick on girls due to lack of self-esteem, gender development, and social skills.

  • Margot Magowan | August 15, 2013 11:29 AMReply

    Hi Star,

    Disagree. The problem with female characters is the lack of diversity, their limited and stereotyped roles. We need more complex female villains.

    Margot

  • Star | August 15, 2013 8:06 AMReply

    "Why not do something wild and crazy and put a female in the evil champion role?"

    Because that would send the message to kids that males are good and females are BAAAAAD or, at least, that's what this site would argue.

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