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The Hidden Meanings in Kids’ Movies by Colin Stokes (Transcript)

Full text of The hidden meanings in kids’ movies by Colin Stokes at TEDxBeaconStreet conference. 

“The director of communications for the non-profit Citizen Schools, Colin Stokes thinks deeply about the media he shares with his two young children”. – TED.com

Listen to the MP3 audio: The hidden meanings in kids’ movies _ Colin Stokes _ TEDxBeaconStreet


You know, my favorite part of being a dad is the movies I get to watch.

I love sharing my favorite movies with my kids and when my daughter was four, we got to watch The Wizard of Oz together. Totally dominated her imagination for months. Her favorite character was Glinda, of course. Gave a great excuse to wear a sparkly dress and carry a wand. But you know, you watch a movie enough times and you start to realize how unusual it is.

Now, we live today and are raising our children in a kind of children’s fantasy spectacular industrial complex. But The Wizard of Oz stood alone; it did not start that trend.

Forty years later was when the trend really caught on with, interestingly, another movie that featured a metal guy and a furry guy rescuing a girl by dressing up as the enemy’s guards. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Now, there’s a big difference between these two movies, a couple of really big differences between The Wizard of Oz and all the movies we watch today.

One is there’s very little violence in The Wizard of Oz. The monkeys are rather aggressive as are the apple trees. But I think if “The Wizard of Oz” were made today, the wizard would say, “Dorothy, you are the savior of Oz that the prophecy foretold. Use your magic slippers to defeat the computer-generated armies of the Wicked Witch.” But that’s not how it happens.

Another thing that is really unique about “The Wizard of Oz” to me is that all of the most heroic and wise and even villainous characters are female.

Now, I started to notice this when I actually showed Star Wars to my daughter, which was years later and the situation was different. At that point, I also had a son. He was only 3 at the time. He was not invited to the screening. He’s too young for that. But he was a second child and the level of supervision had plummeted.

So, he wandered in and it imprinted on him like a mommy duck does to its duckling. Is he picking up on the fact that there are only boys in the universe, except for Aunt Beru and, of course, this princess who is really cool but who kind of waits around through most of the movie so that she can award the hero with a medal and a wink to thank him for saving the universe, which he does by the magic that he was born with.

Compare this to 1939 with “The Wizard of Oz”. How does Dorothy win her movie? By making friends with everybody and being a leader. That’s kind of the world I’d rather raise my kids in. Why is there so much force, capital F Force, in the movies we have for our kids and so little Yellow Brick Road?

I know from my own experience that Princess Leia did not provide the adequate context that I could’ve used in navigating the adult world that is co-ed.

You know, there was a kind of first-kiss moment when I really expected the credits to start rolling because that’s the end of the movie, right? I finished my quest, I got the girl, why are you still standing there?

The movies are very, very focused on defeating the villain and getting your reward and there’s not a lot of room for other relationships and other journeys. It’s almost as though if you’re a boy, you are a dopey animal and if you are a girl, you should bring your warrior costume.

I mean, there are plenty of exceptions and I will defend the Disney princesses in front of any of you. But they do send a message to boys. The boys are not really the target audience. They’re doing a phenomenal job of teaching girls how to defend against the patriarchy, but they’re not necessarily showing boys how they’re supposed to defend against the patriarchy. There are no models for them.

And we also have some terrific women who are writing new stories for our kids. And as three-dimensional and delightful as Hermione and Katniss are, these are still war movies. And, of course, the most successful studio of all time continues to crank out classic after classic, every single one of them about the journey of a boy, or a man, or two men who are friends, or a man and his son or two men who are raising a little girl.

Until, as many of you are thinking, this year, when they finally came out with Brave.

I recommend it to all of you. It’s on demand now.

You remember what the critics said when Brave came out? “Ahh, I can’t believe Pixar made a princess movie”.

Bechdel test

Now, almost none of these movies passed the Bechdel test. Alison Bechdel is a comic book artist and back in the mid ’80s she recorded this conversation she’d had with a friend, about assessing the movies that they saw. It’s very simple. It’s just three questions you should ask:

1) Is there more than one character in the movie that is female who has lines? So, try to meet that bar.

2) And do these women talk to each other at any point in the movie?

3) And is their conversation about something other than the guy that they both like?

Right? Thank you.

Thank you very much.

Two women who exist and talk to each other about stuff. It does happen. I’ve seen it.

So, let’s look at the numbers.

2011, the hundred most popular movies. How many of them do you think actually have female protagonists? Eleven.

But there is a number that is greater than this, that’s going to bring this room down. Last year, the New York Times published a study that the government had done. Here’s what it said. One out of five women in America say that they have been sexually assaulted sometime in their lives. Now, I don’t think that’s the fault of popular entertainment. I don’t think kids’ movies have anything to do with that, but something is going wrong and when I hear that statistic, one of the things I think of is, that’s a lot of sexual assailants.

Who are these guys? What are they learning? What are they failing to learn? Are they absorbing the story that a male hero’s job is to defeat the villain with violence and then collect the reward, which is a woman who has no friends and doesn’t speak?

Are we soaking up that story?

You know, as a parent with the privilege of raising a daughter, like all of you who are doing the same thing, we find this world and this statistic very alarming and we want to prepare them. We have tools at our disposal like girl power and we hope that that will help.

But I got to wonder, is girl power going to protect them if at the same time, actively or passively, we are training our sons to maintain their boy power? And I’m talking mainly to the dads here.

I think we have got to show our sons a new definition of manhood. Now, the definition of manhood is already turning upside down. I mean, you’ve read about how the new economy is changing the roles of caregiver and wage earner. They are throwing it up in the air.

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