We go to the movies a lot as a family. Usually, that means a lot of superhero movies. Captain America, Iron Man, the Avengers, Superman—you name it, we’ve seen them all.
As a society, I think we often concern ourselves with the messages that our young girls get, especially from the media about issues related to sexism and body image. But as a mom of boys, I wonder about what messages my sons are getting—messages about women, yes, but also messages about men and manhood.
There have been some good books that explore these issues, including Real Boys by William Pollack and Raising Cain by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, both of which I read in my early days of parenting, when my oldest was still toddling. Both books explore the emotional life of boys, and more specifically, how our society tends to send boys the message that being a “real” man is about being tough and non-emotional—and how damaging those expectations can be. More recently, I read Rosalind Wiseman’s Masterminds and Wingmen, which looks more closely at boys’ peer groups and the dynamics that can make them positive or destructive.
And so I do wonder about the message the boys sometimes get from so many superhero movies, or the superhero ethic, I should say. Why are most superhero films about heroes and not heroines? In what ways do these films perpetuate traditional “man saves the day” narratives? Which characters in the films are allowed to be fully developed and complex? How are women’s voices treated?
There’s a lot to think about, and I try, when I can, to do my part to ask the questions that need asking. When they complain that a female character is “annoying,” I feel obligated to challenge their reaction, to try to get them to see the story from her point of view. Even if I too find the character “annoying,” I want to make sure their annoyance is earned rather than a result, in any way, of her being female.
Thinking about all this now, maybe this is why I felt especially happy that the boys wanted to go see Beauty and the Beast. I didn’t even have to twist their arms, and in fact, they all wanted to see it. I guess I could credit the marketing team at Disney (those evil geniuses). After all, I think there are still people out there who would have been surprised to see three boys at a Disney movie, especially one like Beauty and the Beast. They might have been just as surprised when I brought them to see the live-action Cinderella a few years ago.
When we went to Disney World a few years ago, we had one character breakfast that was princess themed. My oldest, who was seven at the time, was beyond embarrassed. I also remember when we went to see Frozen shortly afterwards, he turned to me during the movie and said, “I didn’t know this was a princess movie!” I don’t know that he would have changed his mind about seeing the movie had he known, but the fact that he could recognize the movie as “princess” movie was telling.
But then something happened, of course. He enjoyed the movie—and so did his brothers. And I don’t know if they noticed or not, but Frozen was the first “princess” movie I’d seen in which no prince is needed to save the day. True love does save, but it’s not the romantic, fairy tale love of Snow White or Sleeping Beauty; it’s the selfless, abiding love between sisters.
I have no way of knowing what impact seeing Frozen had on the boys, but I like to think that it did, even if they can’t quite articulate that now—or ever.
Maybe the novelty of female empowerment is lost on the boys and their generation, a generation that grew up with heroines like Katniss Everdeen. But maybe not. After all, The Bachelor is still one of the most highly watched series on television right now.
Beauty and the Beast has always been one of my favorite Disney animated films, and Belle, my favorite heroine (I mean, she loves books!). When we sat down to watch the film this afternoon, and the familiar village scene opened, I found myself singing quietly along, the lyrics of a musical I’d first seen more than 25 years ago coming back easily.Throughout the movie, my nine-year-old kept asking me, “Is this how it happened in the original?” That’s when I also realized that, for my boys, it will be this version of Belle and the Beast that will be their pop culture reference point, and not the animated film I fell in love with years ago.
So what will that mean for them? What will they take away from it? For one, I don’t think you can underestimate the power of seeing a strong female lead. It’s clear that Belle is in charge throughout the film; even when she’s imprisoned, she decides both to try to escape as well as to return. I think they might also see that it’s not the machismo of the self-centered Gaston (and the Beast, prior to his transformation) that is to be admired; in fact, it’s to be despised. It’s a specific rejection of that version of manhood.
And so despite reading a few negative reviews, I walked away enjoying this update as much as the original. Like the Cinderella live-action film (which I did not expect to like at all), I thought this update gave the characters a bit more complexity by filling in a few details here and there. Watching the film also reminded me of how many still-relevant and important messages it has about familial sacrifice, the power of (and suspicion toward) literacy, the difference between outside appearance v. inner character, our fear of the unknown, mob mentality. The scene where the villagers go to “kill the beast!” is still as frightening as I remember it being in the original.
I still have some issues with the story, like how the reward at the end still hinges on the Beast becoming his handsome self again. Good looks are a reward for those who deserve it, after all (but maybe that’s because Shrek made me understand how outdated that aspect of the story really was). Still, when we walked out of the theater, even my middle-schooler had to admit that the movie was “okay.” And they even let me play the soundtrack on the way home.
We’ll add it to the rotation that includes Hamilton. 🙂
This post is part of the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers, who have created a space for writers and teachers of writers to come together. To learn more about this challenge, click here.