The Top 10 Feminist-Friendly Children’s Movies

April 7, 2010 § 18 Comments

Oh no, wait. I could only think of 5 — and 2 of them are debatable. How depressing? I’m positive there are more out there and it’s quite likely I’m nowhere near as informed on the subject of children’s movies as I think I am or that more openly feminist-friendly children’s movies aren’t what we would exactly call mainstream. I could however think of a whole bunch of feminist un-friendly children’s movies (future list?). Sooo here goes. The top 10 top 5 feminist-friendly children’s movies:

Note: This post is definitely going to contain spoilers for the five movies listed below. Though it’s probably unlikely that you haven’t seen most of them, I would hate to spoil any of these awesome movies for you!

5.) The Wizard of Oz (1939): The thing that I love about Dorothy is that she doesn’t take anybody’s shit. And I’m serious. Over and over in the film, she stands up for herself and calls people out, though not in an overtly aggressive way. With Ms. Gulch, the witch, the lion, and the wizard. And yes, she always does so in a distinctly “feminine” way, but I find her to be the most compelling of the four main characters. Sure, she doesn’t lack any major organs or possess a crippling fear of just about everything, but she shows the most determination and courage throughout the whole movie. She is, arguably, the strongest character because she has her one goal (to return home), which she pursues unwaveringly, braving witches, flying monkeys, and trees, all in a foreign land. Another refreshing thing about Dorothy is that she’s not looking for a man or to fall in love. There is no romance in The Wizard of Oz. Though I do take issue with the final message (don’t go looking for your heart’s desire any farther than your own backyard), I think she serves as a realistic role model for young girls from all different time periods.

4.) Beauty and the Beast (1991): Another questionable one, but I’ll fight hard for this one because I do think that Belle is a feminist role model. The main argument against Beauty and the Beast being feminist-friendly is about her relationship with the Beast. He locks her up and threatens her repeatedly. Having loved this film for a long time, when I really gave some thought to this I was disturbed. So Disney is basically advocating that you stay with your abusive boyfriend because he has a good heart deep down? But when I went back and watched it, that’s not the message I came away with. Belle is an awesome character. She wants to get out of her old-fashioned town and experience adventure, unlike many of the other Disney princesses, whose traditional “I want” songs talk about true love and men. And she reads. A lot. Belle is incredibly smart, which perplexes the townspeople. As the egotistical and slimy Gaston says, “It’s not right for a woman to read. Soon she starts getting ideas and thinking…” And what’s cool is that the movie directly challenges the expected role of a woman in society by making Belle an outsider. Everybody in the town agrees that she’s peculiar, yet she’s still the protagonist of the film. Thus, the townspeople are shown to actually be the ones who are mixed up. They all think she’s crazy to turn down  Gaston, as she does so brilliantly here:

Badass. Now…. onto the Beast. This is the hard part. He’s got a short fuse as is shown in his first few scenes. He yells and storms around his castle, essentially throwing tantrums everywhere he goes. He scares Belle a lot and yet they still end up happily ever after. How does this happen and does it send a bad message to the young, impressionable girls and boys watching? I don’t think it does because the Beast ends up going through a huge character transformation. Belle doesn’t begin caring for him until after he stops acting like such an immature douchebag and begins treating her with respect. When he’s skulking around the castle breaking things and yelling she responds to him just as fiercely, standing up for herself. And when it looks like he could actually be dangerous, she gets the hell out of there. She only comes back because he saves her life and she wants to make sure that he’s okay. You can even see the moral dilemma she has before returning him to the castle. One of my favorite scenes (and a scene that’s indicative of their developing relationship) is the one right after she’s just run away. They fight, but ultimately reach a reluctant resolution.

3.) A Little Princess (1995): It’s going to become clear by the end of this entry, so I might as well say it now: I adore this movie. It’s beautiful and exciting and tragic and joyful. And the protagonist Sara Crewe is fantastic. I wanted to be her when I was 8 and, now at 17, I still want to be her. She’s confident, smart, creative, and kind. She easily makes emotional connections with people and has a very defined moral code. Also, she’s not a racist — a huge plus. Most importantly, she strongly believes that all girls are princesses. Wait! If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t write me off just yet. The term “princess” doesn’t mean what you think it means. Being a princess doesn’t mean getting everything you want all the time, having lots of money, or living in a castle. For Sara Crewe, being a princess means only that you’re a human being who deserves love, respect, and understanding. It’s not about exclusivity because it’s something all girls share… even girls who are really really mean.

Lavinia: Oh hush up, Lottie! I’m sure Princess Sara will give everyone a fair share. Right, Princess?
Lottie: I told her that’s what you were.
Sara: Well, not just me, all girls are princesses. Even snotty, two-face bullies like you, Lavinia.

And it goes both ways too. In the beginning, a woman Maya tells Sara that all women are princesses and all men are princes. Sara goes through a lot of tragedy and yet at the end of the film she’s still an open, loving person who can fight for herself and others against oppressors (in this case, Ms. Minchin).

2.) Labyrinth (1986): Labyrinth is another movie about a girl on a quest. In this case, the girl is Sarah, played by a super young Jennifer Connely. Sarah is highly imaginative and spends as much time as possible re-reading her favorite story Labyrinth. One night when she has to babysit her baby brother, she accidentally wishes him away into the goblin kingdom and she’s then presented with a choice by the goblin king (David Bowie!): she can either get all her dreams or attempt to get her brother back by traveling through an endless maze. She chooses the latter option and begins her journey. The thing that makes this movie stand out as feminist-friendly is the final scene. Jareth, the goblin king, tells her that all the terrible things he’s done to her were done out of love. He claims that she wanted him to be frightening, so he was… Essentially, the argument of an abuser. But Sarah won’t have any of that, instead placing the responsibility for his cruelty squarely where it belongs: on him.

1.) Mulan (1998): More Disney! But really, there’s no question this movie has a feminist message. Mulan, like Belle, doesn’t fulfill the the typical role assigned to women in her society — and in this case, that typical role is completely defined by how men view you:

Men want girls with good taste, calm, obedient.
Who work fast-paced.
With good breeding and a tiny waist,
You’ll bring honor to us all.

After botching her session with the matchmaker, Mulan expresses how she’s unable to fulfill the role she thinks her family and society want her to (the easy-to-marry, obedient, pretty girl who only speaks when spoken to). There’s even some conflict with her father, during which he exclaims, “I know my place! It is time you learn yours.” And then, shortly after, she joins the army in place of her father, disguised as a man. The problem arises of “having to act like a guy.” Mulan is unsure how to do so, but her first attempts at manhood include spitting a lot, punching someone, and flailing her arms around with her chest out when she walks. None of these tactics work out. While serving as a soldier, she is outspoken, intelligent, and strong. She’s also able, after an initially rocky start, to befriend the rest of the soldiers, including her commander. These soldiers embody certain stereotypes as men regarding what they look for in a woman. For example, while all the soldiers are going on and on about how “a girl worth fighting for” has to look a certain way and be able to cook, Mulan responds with, “How ’bout a girl who’s got a brain… Who always speaks her mind?” The rest of them are unimpressed. However, her male companions also show softer sides. They have the capacity to care for each other and fear and love. By the end of the movie, Mulan has defeated Huns, saved lives, reinvigorated the whole army, and stood up to her love interest (even though he’s–gasp!–a man).

And that’s about all I could think of. Are there more? Please, oh please tell me there are more!

§ 18 Responses to The Top 10 Feminist-Friendly Children’s Movies

  • Dava says:

    I absolutely loved The Secret Garden when I was younger, though I watched the 1987 version and I can only find a later 1993 version online:

    I’m trying to remember now whether it truly qualifies as a feminist friendly movie, but I remember Mary as being pretty fierce and always thinking for herself.

    I also loved the movie Polly (which I believe was Disney). It was a musical adaptation of Pollyanna:

    Enjoy!

  • Phoebe says:

    Thanks, Dava!
    I’ll be sure to check both of them out.

  • Caroline says:

    A Little Princess makes me cry and cry and cry and CRY. I get teary just thinking about the ending. *sniffles*

    Anyway, except Labyrinth which I haven’t seen, the other four were some of my FAVORITE movies as a child. Telling? Perhaps! :)

    What about Pippi Longstocking? It’s been ages and ages since I’ve watched those movies, so maybe they don’t have good messages, but I do remember loving her.

    • mirandanyc says:

      I adore Pippi! I reread one of the books recently and the feminist messages have not faded. She’s badass, she’s strong enough to lift a horse, she lives alone without parents, she does whatever the fuck she wants — like eat pounds of candy, wear mismatched stockings, be impolite at tea parties.

  • Sarah says:

    Hiyao Miyazaki is not only an awesome animator and filmmaker, but a self-proclaimed feminist, and it definitely shows in his films. They’re almost always led by smart, awesome young girls who save the day in some manner by being independent and fabulous. My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away are my favorites.

    • Phoebe says:

      You are so right! How could I have forgotten about Miyazaki? Spirited Away is one of my absolute favorite movies.

  • lnpsocia says:

    i agree with you especially on the little princess i really love that movie and it reminds me that being a princess doesn’t mean getting everything you want all the time i really like your list i’m going to go watch labyrinth which i’ve never seen

  • Jha says:

    While we’re still on Miyazaki, let’s not forget Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle! She’s definitely hands-down one of my fav Miyazaki heroines.

  • Robin says:

    The Last Unicorn!

  • Amanda says:

    Labrynth was the first thing I thought of, and is one of my favorite movies. I have to toss in my vote with the Miyazaki crowd, too!

  • Victoria says:

    I think you can make a pretty strong case for Jasmine in Aladdin. She does not want to get married and refuses to see the many arrogant princes who come. Her goal is not marriage, but to be a fair ruler of her kingdom.

    This in turn reminds me of both of the Princess Diaries films, both of which have pretty strong feminist messages. Yes–Mia spends a large period of time lusting after that stupid blonde boy, but that’s the point–it was a stupid waste of time. At the end of each she does end up with love, but feminist are surely allowed to love, right?

    • Phoebe says:

      Yeah, I have mixed feelings about Jasmine. She does have some awesome lines such as, “I am not a prize to be won!” (Something I quoted as a little girl for a long time… :)) The thing that’s fucked up is that Disney felt the need to dress her in very little amounts of clothing and to give her a ridiculous body shape, making her one of the most sexualized Disney princesses ever.

  • Maire Smith says:

    I dislike ‘Beauty and the Beast’ as a feminist movie, because kids tend to pick up on messages you don’t intend. If you spend a lot of effort telling them that people expect girls to be one thing, then even if you say there are other things to be, they’re highly likely to just pick up on the initial message. Being told that if you’re a strong, intelligent woman, you’ll be in a permanent fight with most of the world is just not a message I want my kid to focus on.

    Here’s my current working list. I’m interested to see you’ve got ‘Wizard of Oz’ too. My criteria are that the movie pass the Bechdel test (at least two women in the movie, who talk to each other about something other than a man) and that it doesn’t promote sexist behaviour or focus heavily on sexism in a way that might convince kids it’s not worth the fight. I’m also thinking of Mary Poppins, possibly.

    1. My Neighbour Totoro
    2. Kiki’s Delivery Service
    3. The Wizard of Oz
    4. Alice in Wonderland
    5. Ponyo (?)
    6. Nim’s Island (?)
    7. The Wild Thornberries
    8. Lilo and Stitch (?)

  • Jas says:

    I just want to toss in my two cents behind Maire Smith on this, In my estimation, movies that depict sexist behavior as a status quo — even one that can be transcended by a plucky heroine — are not feminist-friendly. My own experience of gender is a much more egalitarian one than my mother’s was and, in turn, I hope that by the time my daughter (now 3) is old enough to recognize sexism. she will experience it as an incomprehensible relic of ages past rather than as something she must actively fight against.

    I’d like to submit the following candidates which, although I haven’t seen them in a while, I remember as being feminist friendly:

    Fern Gully: not crazy about the romance sub plot, but Krista is a great character and her relationship with Maggi meets the Bechdel test with plenty of room to spare.

    The Secret of Roan Inish: I really like how Fiona trusts herself even when all of the adults in her life tell her she’s wrong.

    Hoodwinked: Really funny, with a wonderful theme of not being able to judge a book by its cover, and it easily passes the Bechdel test.

    And, although it’s more in the Labyrinth age-group and goes against my opening statements, Whale Rider is an incredibly empowering movie for young women.

  • Robyn says:

    Labyrinth, yes.

    Wizard of Oz, yes.

    A Little Princess, okay, though I prefer the old b&w to the ’95 version.

    Mulan, better if they hadn’t had to put that last bit of “needing a husband” crap in at the end.

    Beauty and the Beast, oh hell no.

    Best nominee by a commenter, better than any in the op: Whale Rider.

  • Robyn says:

    Maire’s list is the best.

  • Denise Blinn says:

    Kit Kittridge, An American Girl. Hands down – great female lead. A girl who wants to be a reporter and rights wrongs. Great feminist director, too – Patricia Rozema. So no subliminal anti-female messages. And my daughter adores it…

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