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There is a lot to love and admire about “Wreck-It Ralph.” In many ways, both conspicuously and more subversively, the movie challenges gender stereotypes. That said, the gender matrix– a sexist framework that dominates animated films made for children– remains intact. Watching “Wreck-It Ralph,” for me, is like reading the Greek Myths; there are strong, complex females to admire but they are only permitted to demonstrate their power within a firmly established patriarchy.

Vanellope von Schweetz is such a cool Minority Feisty. She is smart, funny, daring, talented, compassionate, and vulnerable. She kicks ass but also has a huge heart. Vanellope is voiced by one of my favorite comedians, Sarah Silverman, and let’s just say, those two have a lot in common. Icing on the cake: Vanellope saves Ralph’s life with her speed and smarts. The cross-gender friendship between Vanellope and Ralph is the heart of the movie.

Vanellope is not the only Minority Feisty to love in “Ralph.” Sargeant Calhoun, voiced by Jane Lynch, also plays a complex and cool role. She is a fierce military woman but also passionate with a strong moral fiber.

A third Minority Feisty is Moppet Girl who hangs out at the arcade. Though her gender is a minority in the arcade crowd (I know, I know, that’s how it is is the “real world”) she is there and delivers the key line in the plot. Moppet Girl tells the arcade owner that the Fix-It Felix game is broken. She is also the character who provides the plot bookend, giving a fist bump to Vanellope at the end of the movie when she returns to her rightful position as ruler. It is a rare scene in animation to see two females interacting with each other, expressing power and victory. To put that scene in perspective, the awesome Minority Feisty of “Puss in Boots,”  Kitty Softpaws, never meets any of the other 4 females in the movie.

More coolness: One of the crowd scenes– in Vanellope’s game, Sugar Rush– is female dominated. The trio of girls who actually get to speak in that crowd are a stereotype, the trifecta, of mean girls: one bitchy leader flanked by a pair of followers (as seen in “Mean Girls,” “Heathers” “Never Been Kissed,” and many more “chick flicks”.)

But still, females dominating a crowd scene– a crowd scene of race car drivers, no less– is nothing to sneeze at. Those cars may be made out of cookies and candy, the drivers may have names like Taffyta, reminiscent of “My Little Pony” but, still, progress noted.

There are still more depictions of female power in “Ralph.” A few weeks ago, I posted about “riding bitch:” how whether a female in kidworld is on a magic carpet (“Aladdin”) a dragon (“How to Train Your Dragon”) or a hippogriff (Harry Potter), she’s is almost always found behind the male. The message is: the boy leads, the girl is along for the ride. Not in this movie. In “Wreck-It Ralph” Sargeant Calhoun piloted some kind of motorized, flying surfboard and a space ship while Fix-it Felix rode shotgun. Not only was Felix in the passenger seat, but he gazed, admiringly at Calhoun as he watched her do her stuff. Calhoun was shown as attractive and powerful simultaneously. That, my friend, is almost never depicted. Vanellope, herself, becomes a race car driver. She is also shown in the driver’s seat with Ralph behind her. Ralph does teach her how to drive (when he doesn’t know how either) but her skills surpass his and he is shown admiring her for her talent. (I cannot find images on the web of Calhoun piloting with Fix-It Felix by her side or Vanellope driving with Ralph in the back. If you do, please send me the link.)

But here’s the gender matrix. Even breaking all these sexist barriers, Ralph is clearly the protagonist. The movie is named for him. He’s the hero. Fix-It Felix is the “good guy” to Ralph’s “bad guy.” The real bad guy, the villain of the movie, Turbo, is also male. Turbo masquerades as King Candy but when Vanellope is restored to her rightful role as ruler, she is “princess,” not “queen.” In an often used cliche in children’s movies trying to straddle the princess-empowerment image, Vanellope tears off her puffy, pink dress. Later, in  the movie, when she has to wear the dress to attend a wedding, she is uncomfortable and scratches her neck. (I actually appreciated that detail much more than the overused “rip off your princess-dress/ corset” cliche. Another awesome factor: the toys from the movie. As far as I can see, the Vanellope figure is shown in her regular clothes or driving her car, not wearing the princess outfit she hates in the movie, which is, unfortunately, how Disney sells Mulan.)

The Bad Guy Anon meetings were hilarious and creative. I was cracking up watching them but these scenes fortify the sexist matrix.

The whole thesis of the movie is about being a bad “guy.” There was only one female in the bad “guy” group and she didn’t get a single line. It is mostly that cast of characters that made the poster that is all over San Francisco.

The bad female is not on this poster, nor is Vanellope, Calhoun, and Moppet Girl. When I posted earlier about the sexist poster, “Wreck-It Ralph” fans responded with hundreds of angry comments on Reel Girl and all over the web. Their first complaint was that the movie features strong female characters. It does. But the male is still the lead. That is what this poster clearly shows. That is why the poster was created to look this way and why the film is titled for Ralph.

Also, the poster is its own media. Even if you don’t see the movie, your kids see the poster on buses and looming over them on the sides of buildings. And again, if 50% of posters around town featured females, there would be no problem with “Wreck-It Ralph.” But, “Wreck it Ralph” fits a pattern, echoed and repeated, where males star and females are sidelined or missing.

Commenters on that blog post also told me the movie is called “Sugar Rush” in Japan. I think that’s pretty cool, but it’s still not called “The Racer, Vanellope” and it’s the U.S. version that sets the cultural standards here. Also, once again, Ralph narrates, the movie is Ralph’s story. Vanellope is his friend.

Why is the gender of the protagonist so crucial? We are all the heroes in our own lives. Again and again, with these films, girls see that there is a limit, a ceiling, to their potential, and it is marked with a male. No matter how important they are or how big a role they get to play, there is a guy who gets more.

Reel Girl rates “Wreck-It Ralph ***HH*** Take your kids to see this movie!

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Stanford educated engineer, Debbie Sterling, was always bothered by how few women were in her program. (Of 181 students in her program, she was the lone female.) It’s not that she didn’t understand why the gender gap existed. She related. As a child, her parents didn’t play LEGO or Lincoln Logs with her. It never occurred to them– or to her– to encourage exploration in building toys. Sterling didn’t get interested in engineering until high school. Now, she’s found a way to get more girls into building earlier. And guess what? Her tactic doesn’t involve turning  a toy pink.

Sterling created Goldieblox. She describes it as “a book and a construction toy combined. It stars Goldie, the girl inventor and her motley crew of friends who go on adventures and solve problems by building simple machines.”

One thing I LOVE about this toy is that Sterling created a narrative with a female protagonist around the activity of building. While I don’t necessarily agree with her reason for this tactic (“Boys like to build, girls like to read”) I do think that there are not enough stories starring females that revolve around action, adventure, and building. Most action toys– Batman, Star Wars figures, Superman on and on– have stories that go with them. If you gave a kid a Darth Vader figure without a billion dollar marketing movie machine, let’s just say that toy wouldn’t sell so well. While there is no Goldieblox blockbuster in theaters, helping children to create a story around a character is key to inciting interest and play. I create stories in order to get my kids dressed in the morning or into the bath. Narratives are the most powerful tools we have. Sterling uses narrative brilliantly to sell her toy, not only in the product itself but in the video she created to raise the money she needed to get it in production.

Here’s the video she made for Kickstarter. Please watch, it’s so inspiring.

After this went around the web, Sterling surpassed her goal of 5,000 orders. Goldieblox is in production. Not only that, the company has already started receiving orders from toystores. Goldieblox.com was just launched and you can order your toys there.

Sterling says, “The thing is 89% of engineers are male, so we literally live in a man’s world. Yet 50% of the population is female. So if we want to live in a better world, we need girls building these things too, We need girls solving these problems.”

I started Reel Girl just after Christmas almost three years ago, so freaked out by the pile of pink toys my three daughters received, most involving some form of dressing dolls: paper, wooden, plastic, magnetic, tiny, large, soft, and hard. I have to say, this year, with sites like A Mighty Girl’s and Toward the Stars, new toys like Goldieblox, books and DVDs I’ve sought out (Reel Girl recommends) this is the first year since I had children that I am actually excited about Christmas shopping.

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A couple days ago, I posted about how excited I was to buy some female action figures. Some of the new toys have arrived, including one of my all time favorites EVER, Serafina Pekkala from The Golden Compass. I love her.

I can’t wait until Christmas and my kids get Serafina together with Merida and Katniss, there will be an army of archers.

But, I’m kind of bummed about Hawkgirl.

Is it me or are her breasts seriously distracting?

Her head is cool, her wings are cool, but I don’t know if I can get past that bright yellow cleavage.  The whole point of buying these toys is to give kids an alternative so why the torpedo breasts? I get that my kids were not foremost in the toy designer or comic book artist’s mind, but I wish they were. They should be, right? I have 3 girls, but I don’t think I’d be psyched to give this toy to my son either.

But tell me what you think. And what you think a kid would think. Just don’t compare big breasts to big muscles. If you feel tempted, read this post.

Update: So I showed Hawkgirl to my husband: “What do you think of her?” He said: “First she blinds them with her boobs, then she attacks!”

Basically, he thinks she’s fine as long as she’s one of many, diversity is key. He reminded me of a castle the girls had filled with all kinds of magical creatures. Barbie was there, but she was just one of so many different figures. I think I agree. So at this point, it looks like Hawgirl will make it under the tree. I’ll update you on the post-Xmas reaction.

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“Pretending to be a princess is fun, but it is definitely not a career.”

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Last week, when I turned on the TV to put on a DVD, with my kids surrounding me, “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” blared into our den.

We had caught the movie in the middle of an action scene featuring all three Angels. My daughters’s mouths dropped open. They were so transfixed that I paused to let them watch, but then the hours of ads started, and I popped on Miyazaki.

But after that, I couldn’t get “Charlie’s Angels” out of my head. With the exception of “The Powerpuff Girls,” I don’t think my daughters had ever witnessed three females working together to save the world. I thought about the looks of delight, excitement, and awe on their faces and wondered if I should let them watch the movie.

Not only did I love the first Charlie’s Angels movie (the second one, “Full Throttle,” dragged) but when I was a kid, I was a huge fan of the TV show. I was eight years old when I started watching, and I loved that it was all about girls. I didn’t have to wait around, bored, to finally see a female saunter in to wander around the margins of the TV show. I also liked that the show was about three girls (I know “women” is correct here, but from my eight year old self point of view, I distinctly remember thinking: it’s all about girls doing stuff.)

Another reason I was a fan of the show was that the Angels were in different disguises every week. I couldn’t wait to see what roles they were all going to play. I think that watching them be different people gave me the idea that multiple identities were possible.

I was inspired by “Charlie’s Angels.” When I was nine years old, I began a novel that when completed was 120 pages, typed, about Kris Monroe (Cheryl Ladd’s character) and her adventures as a girl. My book was called “Look Out! Here Comes Kris” and besides “Charlie’s Angels,” my protagonist was influenced by Ramona, of “Ramona the Pest” fame and, also, my little sister. When I showed my book to my teacher, she asked me to read a chapter a day to my fifth grade class in homeroom. That whole experience helped to solidify my identity as a writer.

So did it matter that “Charlie’s Angels” was “jiggle TV?” Like I said, I was excited to see females get to be the stars of the show. But that is not to say the flowing hair, cleavage, and skinny bodies were lost on me. Early on, I got the importance of “beauty” in a woman’s life, in no small part, from my experience as fan of this show. To me, it seemed like “beauty” was a means to an end. If you wanted to have an exciting life, if you wanted to have adventure, if you wanted things to happen to you, if you were a girl, then first, before any of that, you had to be “beautiful.” I put “beauty” in quotes because I’m referring to the cultural definition of beauty.

One thing I love about Drew Barrymore’s movie is that she mocks that stereotype with the slow-mo flowing hair and exaggerated sexual innuendos. But back to considering the movie for my kids, as I posted just a couple days ago, kids don’t get irony. So would the movie, with all the Cameron Diaz’s butt shaking, be bad for my kids?

Here is what sucks: in 2012, there are still no action-adventure movies where three females work together to save the world. Even in adventure-fantasy books, from classics like Alice of Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz, and Lucy of Chronicles of Narnia to the contemporary ones like Lyra of The Golden Compass— the female protag is surrounded by a constellation of mostly male characters. When do you get to see females bonding not over men or make-up, but skill?

So the bottom line is I got the movie for kids. Right when I opened the DVD, one of my daughters picked up the box,  turned to her sister and said: “Who do you think is the prettiest?”

I stopped and wondered: is this a bad idea? “Which one is smart? Which one is brave? Which one is fast?” I asked them. But that thought process is hard to generate when the picture shows them all just standing there, skinny, hip-cocked, not doing anything they are in the movie, not driving a race car, breaking into a safe, or making a bomb.

I went ahead and pushed play.

My kids loved the movie. I did, too. But my daughters and I, we’re all waiting for more action-adventure movies starring women, as in plural.

Reel Girl rates “Charlie’s Angels” ***HH***

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Since monster movies for kids starring girls seem so rare, I thought I’d tell you about one of my children’s favorite Halloween books.

The Witch Who Was Afraid of Witches is about three witch sisters. The youngest one, Wendy, always gets left out because she can’t do anything cool. On Halloween, her broom is broken, and she is left alone to take care of the house. A boy, Roger, dressed up as a ghost trick-or-treats at Wendy’s house. Roger convinces Wendy that all she needs to trick-or-treat is a new broom. Not realizing she’s a real witch, he takes her to his house to get one. It is at the Roger’s house, that Wendy discovers her power. She makes Roger’s old house broom fly. Roger and his mother are amazed and impressed. More adventures ensue and that culminate with Wendy making her first real friend and also, her sisters coming to respect and including her.

The book we have is  an I Can Read it and has been a favorite for learning how to read.

Reel Girl rates The Witch Who Was Afraid of Witches ***HHH***

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This Halloween season, Hollywood put out not one, but three new monster movies that star males. Once again, in children’s movies, male characters are in the majority while female characters are in the minority. You can read about these new movies in Reel Girl’s post Girls gone missing in new Halloween movies for kids.

The Reel Girl community put together a list of monster movies starring females that you can screen this Halloween and show your kids that girls and boys are equally important. There is no reason for kidworld or fantasy world to be sexist.

So here are the historical exceptions we found, but a few things first:

Given the slim pickings, we took some liberties here with what really qualifies as a monster movie. Teen movies are not included, these are recs for young kids who you’d think would be too young to be learning about sexism.

I have not seen several of these movies, and must admit the poster for “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” so dominated by Jim Carey, who takes over every movie he is in, as well as the boy leading the pack of kids, makes me a nervous. The Corpsebride rec comes from a source I trust, but I personally didn’t see it when it came out, pre-Reel Girl, because I couldn’t stomach another animated bride. I hear this movie is great though, and I’m going to rent it.

“Coraline” is one of my absolute, favorite animated movies. Some little kids get scared, but, I think  repetitive sexism is scarier to expose your kids to than any monster. My younger one loved it and my older one was the most frightened, though a couple years later she loves it as well. And the book, too.

This is a list in progress. Please send in your suggestions.

Coraline

Kiki’s Delivery Service

CorpseBride

My Neighbor Totoro

Wizard of Oz

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Monsters and Aliens

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Hocus Pocus

 

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