When Pixar’s Up was released in 2009, NPR blogger Linda Holmes wrote a piece that in part argued that young Ellie – a pivotal character who nonetheless gets maybe five minutes screen-time – was just the type of girl she’d like to see as a central character. Young Ellie is a refreshing change from the sort of girl we’re used to seeing in animated children’s films, the damsel-in-distress, overtly feminine princessy sort, that is. But she’s only a glimpse. Flash forward three years and along comes Pixar’s Brave to (kind of) answer the call. Brave’s Merida is still a princess (Dear Pixar: Linda Holmes specifically requested a non-princess lead character like Ellie), though one with some big differences. Here we have a young woman challenging gender norms and the status quo whose relationship issues are with her alive-and-well mother instead of anyone resembling a true love. It’s just the sort of film I figured might earn the endorsement of A Mighty Girl, a new website devoted to compiling lists of books and films that offer empowering representations of female characters for young readers and viewers. I spoke with Carolyn Danckaert, the site’s co-founder, about A Mighty Girl, literary and cinematic representations of girlhood (empowering and otherwise), and the sea change that Brave just might be a part of.
Over the past twelve years, my husband, Aaron, A Mighty Girl’s co-founder, and I have bought a lot of birthday and Christmas presents for our four young nieces. We gave up on the chain toy stores with their pink princessification of everything early on and searched online for more girl empowering options. We didn’t find any comprehensive resources but we did learn that a lot of people shared our frustration with the one-dimensional nature of many of the products marketed to girls. Given this was an interest of ours and our geeky tendencies, we decided to build A Mighty Girl as a resource for others equally interested in supporting and celebrating girls. It’s now the world’s largest collection of books and movies for parents, teachers, and others dedicated to raising smart, confident, and courageous girls.
Where do so many books and films go wrong when it comes to including and characterizing girls?
There are a few common motifs for girls and women that you see in a lot of children’s literature and films. One of the worst from our perspective is the damsel in distress. This is, of course, a common theme in a lot of traditional fairy tales, especially the princess ones. I think this is one reason that a special feature we created in May, “The Ultimate Guide to the Independent Princess” had such resonance. Many girls still love princesses, but their parents are looking for better princess role models than the old-fashioned shrinking violet variety. The princess stories we included in this collection all featured princesses who were smart, daring, and capable of doing their own rescuing.
The most common motif today is probably the sidekick where the girl character is the trusty sidekick and helpmate of the boy leading character. Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with this motif – Hermione is a great character after all. The problem with this one is just how overused it is. A recent study, for instance, on the representation of women in film found that, among the 100 top-grossing films of 2011, only 11% of the female characters were the protagonists. This was actually a drop from 16% in 2002. This was a study of all films, but I imagine that the numbers for youth-centric films are quite similar.
Girls deserve to have a chance to see themselves in these leading roles as well because as Marie Wilson, the founder of The White House Project, once eloquently expressed it, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” Girls needs to read stories and watch films where they are the leaders, the heroes, the champions that save the day, find the cure, and go on the adventure. That’s really what A Mighty Girl is all about.
At the moment, Brave is getting some attention for being a story centered on a strong-willed girl taking matters into her own hands. I’m not sure if you’ve had an opportunity to screen Brave or not, but from what you’ve seen of it does Brave get it right?
I think Brave is an important film for a number of reasons. First, it’s about time that Pixar finally produced a film with a female lead character after 17 years of filmmaking. And Brave’s opening weekend demonstrates that a film with a female protagonist can do well in the box office. Second, and most importantly, Brave gives girls and boys a new princess icon to replace the passive ones of the past. Merida is the kind of princess that so many people have been waiting to see – courageous, compassionate, assertive, adventurous – and we’ve heard really positive feedback from parents along those lines as well.
Do you think, then, that we might be approaching the point where strong female protagonists are as viable at the box-office or on the bestseller’s list as their male counterparts are?
I definitely think books and movies with strong female protagonists are as viable as ones with male ones. The publishing industry is actually well ahead of film in this respect. There have been plenty of great books published for children and youth in recent years with girl protagonists. If you just take the Newbery Award winners as one metric, the winning books have actually been fairly balanced in terms of the number of male or female leading characters. The film industry, on the other hand, is way behind in terms of any kind of parity, as I discussed earlier, though I think that box office is ready for it.
Do you have a few animated characters from past films you could point to as being exemplary Mighty Girls?
I’m a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli films, and there are many fabulous Mighty Girl protagonists in his films. A few of my personal favorites include Kiki in Kiki’s Delivery Service, Arrietty in The Secret World of Arrietty, Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle, and Nausicaa in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
* For more great recommendations like these, Carolyn suggested readers check out A Mighty Girl’s animated movie section.