How Movies Teach Our Kids about Gender

What are movies teaching our kids about gender, about what it means to be men and women? That’s the question Colin Stokes asks in this recent TED Talks video. Although he raises a number of good points, here are a couple of the more interesting ones.

The Bechdel Test

I’d never heard of the Bechdel Test, but it’s a way of gauging how a movie portrays its female characters. And it’s a pretty simple test.

  1. Are there at least two women who actually have lines?
  2. Do these women talk to each other at any point in the movie?
  3. Is there conversation about something other than the guy that they both like?

So the essence of the test is whether the movie contains “two women who exist and talk to each other about stuff.” That sounds like setting the bar pretty low. But the startling reality is that quite a few movies fail to achieve even this low standard. Either the movie has almost no significant female characters, or it fails to show them interacting with other women on issues unrelated to dating and/or marriage.

Although I always notice when a movie fails to have a significant female character, I’d never considered the importance of showing female characters talking meaningfully about important issues. The male characters do it all the time, and thus provide strong reinforcement that men can have those kinds of conversations. Even if it’s becoming more common for female characters to engage in the same conversations, we rarely see them having those conversations with each other, reinforcing the notion that women don’t talk about those things. I certainly don’t want my girls growing up thinking that they have to sit at the guys table if they want to talk about politics, theology, and other important issues (like football).

Where are the Disney Princes?

He doesn’t spend much time here, but I thought it was interesting that he clearly likes the Disney Princesses overall and thinks they provide good role models for young girls by helping them resist the “patriarchy.” He doesn’t explain what he means by that, but at the very least I’m sure he means that the Disney Princesses show girls that they too can be strong leaders, creative thinkers, and problem solvers, roles often assigned to men even in our modern world. So he thinks kids movies todays are actually doing a decent job of providing girls role models to resist negative cultural stereotypes.

He’s much more concerned about the boys. Although quite a few movies provide female characters that help young grils break free from negative female stereotypes, he doesn’t think we’re doing as well with the male characters, many of whom are aggressive and/or unintelligent. Although he doesn’t say it, you get the impression that he’d love to see some Disney “Princes,” young male characters intentionally designed to undermine harmful stereotypes of what “masculine” means.

As a father of two young girls, I have to admit that my radar is more finely tuned to the first problem. So I found it interesting to reflect for a bit on whether we’re being as careful with the narrative of masculinity embedded in kids movies.

To the Victor Go the Spoils

Around the 8:30 mark, Stokes turns his attention a recent study indicating that 1 out of 5 women in America will experience a sexual assault of some kind. He is very careful to say that we should not blame this on movies since it is far too complex a problem for such simplistic explanations. Nonetheless, he does raise the question of whether our movies might be helping to establish a context conducive to this kind of behavior. And his primary concern is that the story embedded in many of our most popular movies is about a male hero who defeats some kind of villain through a variety of usually violent actions, and then at the end of the story he gets to collect his “reward,” which is usually an attractive girl. Add to that the concerns raised by the Bechdel Test, and Stokes asks:

Are they absorbing the story that a male hero’s job is to defeat the villain with violence and to collect the reward which is a woman who has no friends and doesn’t speak?

Again, he’s not saying that this explains sexual aggression against women. But he is suggesting that this kind of narrative provides a context conducive to viewing women as prizes that go to the victorious men.

He ends with video with an appeal for movies that will help cast a new vision for what it means to be a man who trusts and respects women, and for parents (fathers in particular) to be more careful in selecting movies that will help cast that vision.

Anyway, enough from me. Here’s the video. Let me know what you think.



7 Responses to “How Movies Teach Our Kids about Gender”

  1. Joey Espinosa February 15, 2013 at 5:11 am #

    Thanks for this review. I saw this video a couple of weeks ago, and I was wondering what others thought, especially through a Biblical perspective.

    I think he brings up some good points, but makes some long reaches for connection. The point of male aggression in movies is noted, but to connect it with abuse is not a great logic.

    Boys (and men) do need to pursue, provide, and protect. The key part is to teach them to do those in the proper outlets.

  2. Shari February 15, 2013 at 6:50 am #

    I am far more concerned about how movies and TV pervert the biblical roles of men and women. I am far more worried about the feminist agenda in movies, TV and books. I am far more concerned that men, if not portrayed as violent, are portrayed as bumbling idiots, dumb, insensitive and only interested in one thing!

  3. Shawn February 15, 2013 at 8:20 am #

    Men and women ARE different. Culture it trying to make them the same by trying to blend their roles. Biblically, men & women have different roles and until the church does a better job of helping the lay person develop their self-identity and worth in Christ, it is futile to try and “fix” the tension between men and women. In the speakers sincerist best, he is trying to fix the symptom instead of the problem. It is a lack of gospel problem, not a gender training problem.

  4. DaveS February 15, 2013 at 8:29 am #

    As a father of a near 22 year old daughter, who over the past few years has listened to her bemoan the masculinity and maturity of the majority of young men she sees in both the church and culture at large, we really do need to be concerned with what kind of images of masculinity that are being portrayed and young men we are developing. they will one day marry your daughters and be fathers to our grand-children. Much of the the weak, wimpy men we see portray on the outside are reflections of the inside. We need more gallant, self-sacrificing, God fearing Princes and Knights in Spiritual Armor and physical reality.

  5. ChrisB February 15, 2013 at 8:57 am #

    The problem with the Bechdel test is action movies. While we can have movies like Hunger Games where women are forced to do violence, Western society doesn’t prefer that. We want men who go out and fight to keep their women (mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters) safe. Non-action movies pass the Bechdel test more often because it’s ok to have women in comedies and dramas.

  6. Aaron Tucker February 15, 2013 at 10:24 am #

    So many of these TED talks only scratch the itch and raise more questions. I like, though, that they get my brain churning.

    I affirm that males could use more epic stories that he describes in the end of his talk. I also believe, however, that the prevalence of the conquering-evil story motif is suggestive of the fact that males pursue and conquer, that such ideas are part of what men naturally do. Perhaps that’s why they make such huge amounts of money at the box office. I don’t necessarily think we should get rid of them.

    Interestingly, Stokes references his belief that pornography and entertainment are not connected to violence to women. However, in another TED talk, a psychologist discusses masculinity and its connection to pornography’s development of a desire for something new, and how the need for new is contributing to the “demise of guys.” An interesting watch.

  7. Jon February 19, 2013 at 2:03 pm #

    To the point about the male hero vanquishing the enemy and saving the girl, it is important to remember that at its core, this theme directly parallels the Bible. The main meta-narrative arc of Scripture is that Jesus “kills the dragon (Satan), and get’s the girl (Church, Bride of Christ)”.

    To be clear, this can be adapted well or poorly in to popular media, but don’t be so quick to discount the theme altogether. There’s a reason it’s so popular and that it resurfaces again and again in all societies, everywhere–it’s hardwired into creation.

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