When Pixar’s new animated adventure Brave reaches UK cinemas next week, even grumps like me, who feel the picture falls short of the studio’s usual standard, will be cheering in the streets. The cause for celebration is the film’s emphasis on the relationship between a young, assertive Scottish princess called Merida and her mother. The idea has long prevailed that a film’s potential audience falls in inverse proportion to the main character’s oestrogen levels, but this has been discredited by Brave, which has already grossed more than $340m. This year we have also seen the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s novel The Hunger Games ($683m worldwide), and two popular spins on Snow White (Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman). And there must be at least another few hundred Twilight books lined up on the Hollywood conveyor belt. No longer are complex female characters for the under-18s rarer than hen’s teeth.
If I’m attuned acutely to the presence of women in children’s entertainment, that’s partly a result of having two daughters. Still, I took a dismayingly long time to recognise their need to see themselves represented in the films they watch. At a screening of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones in 2002, my son Barney, who was eight, was spellbound, but my eldest daughter, Rosie, then nine years old, kept trudging off to the toilets. Was it an eating disorder? Dysentery? No – she was bored by this boys’ own adventure set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far inferior to ours in its equality legislation. At 19, Rosie now has a special predilection for movie drag queens. Given time, and the necessary research grant, I’m certain I could prove this to be the result of a dearth of female role models in her early cinematic diet.
By the time my youngest daughter, Edith, now 11, had developed a taste for film, I was better placed to understand what she might respond to. Japan’s Studio Ghibli was – and still is – a world leader in producing fantasies that happen not to exclude half the population. Movies such as Spirited Away or Kiki’s Delivery Service encourage children to be uninhibited in their imaginations, emotions and ambitions.
Young girls, in particular, benefit from seeing characters whose gender plays no part in their success or failure. Visibility, rather than idealism, is the key: anyone who grows up starved of stimulating on-screen counterparts is bound to feel overlooked at best, and undervalued at worst.
Conventional wisdom has it that a story with predominantly male characters (from Harry Potter to Diary of a Wimpy Kid) will appeal to everyone, whereas a female equivalent will be as off-putting to most young boys as a game of kiss-chase. That’s why Disney panicked over its film Rapunzel, switching the title to Tangled late in the day and retooling it to include more boy-friendly elements. It’s why the hero of the same studio’s Chicken Little was changed from female to male at great expense during production. Even a hit like the West End musical Matilda will at some point have caused its marketing people to gnash their teeth and ask: “But will the boys come to see it?”
In a fair world, Brave, The Hunger Games and Twilight will allay those fears, rather than be seen as freak hits. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt for Hollywood to bulk up its behind-the-scenes female presence. Those whoops of joy over Brave catch in the throat at the news that its director, Brenda Chapman, was given her marching orders during production. “Off-message” would be a polite term for dismissing one of the few female directors working today from a movie about female empowerment – and replacing her with a man.
The signs are that children’s films are coming round to the idea of strong female heroes, even if Studio Ghibli still remains a wondrous anomaly. “I think the old rules have been overturned,” says Cressida Cowell, author of the How to Train Your Dragon series. “Girls need to be reminded not to kowtow to the boys too much. But there have been so many good female characters for girls in cinema – Lyra in The Golden Compass, Katniss in The Hunger Games, Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass. It’s not that girls need to see other girls on screen in order to enjoy something. But you feel a bit cross when a cool female character isn’t represented. As a young reader, I did wonder why there couldn’t be a Jane Bond.”
One of Cowell’s own daughters reprimanded her for not including any female characters in the first two Dragon novels. “Although Maisie liked the books, she got really cross about that. So I created Camicazi, the coolest girl imaginable. Now I get lots of boys saying she’s their favourite character. They’re not put off by the fact she’s a girl.”
Joanna Nadin, author of the pre-teen Penny Dreadful books and the Rachel Riley young adult series, thinks the problem is perpetuated in the marketing departments. “Publishers don’t bother trying to sell girl books like mine to boys and instead ‘pink them up’ as far as possible,” she says. “I hate it. I read one of my books to a group of 13-year-old boys without showing them the cover and they loved it. Then, when they saw how it was marketed, they admitted they’d never buy it.”
Of course, the sparkly pink world of Disney princesses is an important part of the imaginative universe, and always will be, but what’s changing now in movies is choice. A wider range of alternatives can only make young audiences more discerning and demanding. I hope my children feel unencumbered by any of the assumptions and biases left over from more prohibitive generations. And I was definitely heartened when Annie (the film of which opened exactly 30 years ago this month) was chosen as the end-of-term play at Edith’s school. What thrilled me was not the prospect of 60 11-year-olds lunging for the tricky high notes in Tomorrow so much as the thought of the opportunities it would present for girls neglected by the previous year’s production of Oliver!
As it happens, Edith auditioned for, and won, the part of Rooster, Annie’s dastardly kidnapper – her traditionally male kidnapper. Is there a point there, other than that both my daughters have now exhibited an avowed interest in cross-dressing? Only, I suppose, that expressing yourself is partly about feeling you can do so without being restricted by gender – even if that means dressing up in a trilby, a spiv’s suit and a badly glued-on moustache. Attagirl.
Brave opens on Monday.
Five more kick-ass female heroes
Hit-Girl (from Kick-Ass)
She’s an 11-year-old superhero crime-fighter with a Girl Scout demeanour. She also dismembers murderous drug dealers. Discipline her for her use of the c-word, and she might remove your spleen with her samurai sword.
Mulan (from Mulan/ Mulan 2)
During the Han dynasty, one girl fought the patriarchal system. Mulan went to war dressed as a man, paving the way for other women to belt out whopping great show tunes on the battlefield.
Belle (from Beauty and the Beast)
The makeover of the Disney princess – from sparkly arm candy to feminist who’d rather read a self-improving book than be wooed by a hunk – began with this 1992 take on the fairy-tale. Re-released this year in 3D.
Sen (from Spirited Away)
Her parents are turned into pigs, her name is stolen by an old hag and her body becomes transparent – but through hard work, ingenuity and resourcefulness, Sen gets her old self back, and becomes employee of the month at a bath-house for oozing, slimy gods.
Jen (from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
In Ang Lee’s gravity-defying martial arts romp, women take most of the major roles, virtuous or villainous. Jen is somewhere in between; a petulant, no-nonsense noblewoman. High points: attacking a bandit who dares to steal her favourite comb, and literally bringing the house down in a chaotic brawl.