Thanksgiving weekend I found myself in a long line at the movie theater, waiting to see the newest Disney princess flick, Frozen. So much of the movie buzz was about whether boys would watch a “princess movie.” Conventional marketing wisdom has been that girls will watch movies about boys, but boys won’t watch movies about girls. I saw it with a ready-made focus group—five boys ranging from preschool to pre-teen. Their reviews were glowing (“awesome!” “hilarious!” “the snowman said ‘butt’!”) and had nothing to do with the gender of the main characters. But let’s get real: on day 7 of a 10-day school break, none of us were that picky.
So what is it about “girl movies” that boys supposedly find so unappealing?
My guess? The girl protagonists we are used to being served up are just boring. It’s not their fault—they have been imprisoned in the towering failure of imagination that is the “princess movie” formula. It isn’t really a fair comparison. Boy characters (be they humans, cars, monsters, whatever) have their own story arc complete with character motivation, challenges to overcome, and quests to fulfill. Even in title roles, girls are more often objects than subjects, serving as the motivation, prop, or reward for someone else’s heroic deeds.
The question isn’t why don’t boys relate to these movies, but how can anyone?
It is amazing to me we are still having this conversation. That it is actual news when a girl character is a person instead of a prop. Girls as objects; boys as subjects. Snooze.
Another person who can’t believe we’re still talking about this is the namesake of the Bechdel Test, a set of three criteria for movies that have women characters who are more than mere objects. It first appeared in Alison Bechdel’s 1985 comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. To pass the test, a movie must (1) have at least two women in it, who (2) talk to each other about (3) something besides a man. In case it isn’t obvious, this a low bar. It doesn’t make a movie feminist, or worth $8 at the matinee. It just means the women in it are people.
Although being famous for the rule doesn’t do Alison’s work justice, it is fitting. What made Dykes to Watch Out For revolutionary and revelatory in the 1980s is that its cast of characters are lesbians who are fully formed human beings. The relevance of the “test” shows just how little has changed. After a recent round of media attention, Alison pointed out that her critique is at least as old as Virginia Woolf. Frozen’s head animator pointed to the technical challenge of creating female characters who are expressive and individual, yet faithful to the “pretty” princess mold.
But Frozen promised to be different. So I watched the movie in actual suspense: Would the princess (once again) be rescued by the heroic prince? Or does she get to be the hero in her own story? Is happily ever after defined as romance and marriage? Or is there another story about happiness, friendship, and love? If two women share the same space, does one have to be evil?
Spoiler alert: The girls are people. Two sisters are the main characters; the boys are sidekicks. A major plot twist turns on the idea that fairy tale romance is a scam. The act of true love doesn’t climax in a shimmery wedding scene. And the snowman says “butt.”