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Feminspire | April 20, 2014

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Miyazaki for Kids: Using Animation to Promote Strong, Healthy Girlhood

Miyazaki for Kids: Using Animation to Promote Strong, Healthy Girlhood

Just for fun, try taking your daughter to the movies this weekend. See if you can find something cheap to watch. Wreck It Ralph might be playing still, or maybe even Rise of the Guardians. Whatever movie you choose, I want you to count up all of the female characters. It won’t take long. Now count the male characters and give me the ratio of them next to the female characters.

Think it will be 50-50? Try again. Females are disproportionately represented in films, which presents a number of problems. Firstly, it’s completely inaccurate and stupid, given that half of the population is missing from a movie. So unless it’s about, say, pod people from another planet who only have one sex, it’s irrelevant to half of the people watching it.

Secondly, our daughters have no one to look up to except the Love Interest and the Plucky but Inferior Sidekick — the two token roles that women are given in most films. You’ll see these two roles in the two aforementioned movies, as well as any other films you watch (including most adult movies, aside from romantic comedies) with very few exceptions. In 2012, Pixar released its very first film that featured a female in a lead role — and Disney’s pretty much given females the backseat lately, too. Even Disney’s last film, Tangled, had its name changed from Rapunzel because they didn’t want to alienate the boys in the audience. Heaven forbid a movie be centered around a female character!

When I demand that a movie pass the Bechdel Test, it doesn’t make me a stereotypical angry feminist; it makes me an irritated mother expecting the very basics of human normalcy. The only thing that the Bechdel Test demands, if you recall, is that two females are in a movie and they have a single conversation that is about something other than a male. The fact that movies rarely pass this “test” is absurd. It should be a natural occurrence in any movie that represents a culture made up of multiple sexes.

The good news is that although these movies are rare, parents continue putting pressure on companies to demand that they give us great lead female characters. Organizations like the Gina Davis Institute on Gender and Media and Pigtail Pals give me hope. I’m tired of hearing my daughter’s friends inquire if girls can be astronauts or cowboys or explorers “too.” My own daughter, age seven, still comes to sexist conclusions once in a while, even as I patiently raise her in a feminist household full of literature featuring strong women and healthy examples. All it takes is one friend to question her Cars sandals, one relative to make a comment about her not liking dolls, and she suddenly becomes unsure. Wouldn’t you at her age? “Why haven’t we had a girl president?” she asks again and again. Indeed.

That’s why it’s so important for us to keep moving forward not just politically, not just socially, but also in the media we use.

I will be writing for Feminspire from my perspective as a feminist homeschooling mom, and one of the things I want to talk about is not only how to change this media, but also the media we can support right now for our daughters (and our sons, who also need to see strong, multi-dimensional females in movies and elsewhere). My favorite director who routinely gives me this media over and over again is Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki takes a complete role in his films, often writing, directing, animating and even writing songs for them. Many of his films feature an environmental message, and most of them feature strong, funny girls who develop over time in an epic hero’s journey — you know, like boys do in most animated films.

When we’re talking about movies for littles, or young girls under, say, age 8, I wholly recommend the movies PonyoThe Secret World of Arietty, and my daughter’s favorite, My Neighbor Totoro. Wood Sprite* is seven and also enjoys movies like Howl’s Moving CastleSpirited AwayKiki’s Delivery Service and The Cat Returns, but some of these may contain content that is too scary for littles. The first three are completely appropriate for kids ages four and up.

Ponyo is a fairly recent film about a little fish-girl who wants to become human. Yes, she falls in love with a human boy — he is only five — but she actually uses her strength, spirit and wit to outsmart her father, the keeper of the ocean, to become human in the first place. She unflinchingly takes on nature itself, and her hundreds of little fish-sisters help her. It’s like a little mermaid story without all the misogyny. The little boy does take on a heroic role more so than many boys do in Miyazaki movies, but it is equal to the role Ponyo has in the movie herself. The movie also features two strong mothers, one of them the Moon, which I love since Disney likes to kill moms off so often. We need more moms in movies!

ponyo gif

My Neighbor Totoro is about the relationship of two sisters, their relationship with their mother, and their adventures with the forest spirits in their new home. Maiden, mother and crone are all represented in the movie, which is very rare. Female friendships are also touched on, but it’s mostly about two sisters and their love for one another. It’s a gorgeous, delightful movie, one of Miyazaki’s oldest ones, and it’s what hooked me onto his films first.

my neighbor totoro gif

The Secret World of Arietty is a new movie, released just last year in the United States, and it is just dazzling. The story is based on The Borrowers, but it’s also the coming-of-age tale of a teen borrower who isn’t afraid of humans. Arietty is independent and strong, loves nature and helps take good care of her family. She is adventurous and brave and saves the life of a teen boy in the movie. It’s just as gentle and gorgeous as the other movies listed and contains humor, uplifting music and the smooth, natural flow that is a trademark of Miyazaki’s movies.

The Secret World of Arietty gif

In Miyazaki’s works you aren’t going to see the sexualization of girls, their need to be rescued by boys, or any inferiority that is present in so many other films. He often uses inspiration from girls in his family or daughters of his friends, so you will see girls journey from one age to the next, overcoming obstacles, saving loved ones, and bravely taking on life. Some are funny, some are whiny, and some just want to play pretend all day — quite like our own daughters. But it doesn’t end there. You’ll also experience movies that have such exquisite animation, unique stories and creatures, and even open storytelling that leaves you wondering (and often needing to see the movie a few times to fully get its message) and maybe even a little smitten by magic. It’s not the fast!action!packed! animation you’re likely to get in a theater, but a lovely sensory experience for the entire family.

If you’re new to Miyazaki, I really recommend starting with Totoro. You’ll be amazed that you’ve never seen these wonderful, complex movies before — and you’ll probably be addicted for life. Like me.

*Wood Sprite is the online alias I use for my daughter

Do you love Miyazaki films? Which are your favorites, or alternatively, which movies in general do you recommend for their representation of girls and women? Share with me in the comments!

Written by Sara Schmidt