Hollywood’s Girl Trouble

First, the good news: Pixar’s Inside Out is a mega-hit. Today’s conventional wisdom holds that movies that center around girls are risky ventures, but this movie is packing ’em in, even though at least half its major players are female and the conflict revolves around the emotional well-being of a pre-teen girl. Riley is one of the very few female protagonists of an American animated film who isn’t a princess of an age to fall in love and marry. But unlike Home and Monsters vs. Aliens, this movie is liked by critics as well as audiences. Parents of daughters, rejoice! Here at last is a good movie you can take your girls to, that won’t ask them to follow the adventures of a boy, man, or male toy/monster/insect/fish/car/etc.

Enjoy it while it lasts. I’ve been to see Inside Out twice in the theater, and here are the movies for which I saw trailers: Minions, The Good Dinosaur, Hotel Transylvania 2, The Peanuts Movie, Zootopia, Underdogs, and Pan (the only live-action trailer). A pretty diverse lot, perhaps, in terms of setting and tone. Yet they all have one thing in common: male protagonists. That’s right — we get seven movies with male heroes, but only one, albeit a very good one, in which a heroine holds center stage. We have quality but can’t seem to muster quantity, all thanks to Hollywood’s notion that girls will happily watch family movies centered on boys while boys will avoid girl-centric movies like some girl-cootie plague. For Hollywood executives, boy protagonists equal dollar signs.

Was it always like this? When, and why, did girls become box-office poison?

In the 1930s, the biggest child star, bar none, was Shirley Temple, the curly-haired moppet with a song in her heart. I saw my fair share of her movies when I was a small girl. Most of them are painfully dated. Now I think only 1935’s Wee Willie Winkie holds up well, thanks largely to John Ford’s direction and co-stars Victor McLaglen and C. Aubrey Smith. I’ve also read that kids in the ’30s really didn’t like Shirley, but were dragged to her films by parents who pointed to her as a model of adorable behavior. (Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye offers a rather grim deconstruction of Temple’s popularity.) Nonetheless, her movies made a ton of money, and 20th Century Fox cranked them out through the decade. Jane Withers was another girl star, albeit less precious than Shirley, and Judy Garland featured in her share of films prior to The Wizard of Oz. Their movies co-existed happily with boy-centered vehicles for Jackie Cooper, Freddie Bartholomew, and Mickey Rooney.

The 1940s also saw more balance between boy- and girl-starring movies than we see today. Filmgoers saw the advent of Roddy MacDowall and Dean Stockwell, but also Margaret O’Brien, Peggy Ann Garner, and young Elizabeth Taylor. In the 1950s, child stars in general seemed to fall out of favor, giving way to teenage stars (e.g. James Dean, Natalie Wood). Yet it’s worth noting that in 1951’s Angels in the Outfield, the baseball fan whose prayer summons the angels is a little girl. When the film was remade in the 1990s, the character was changed to a boy, reflective of the recent “girl-cooties” outlook.

The 1960s brought Hayley Mills, one of the few young girl stars to make a seamless transition from child to teenage roles. Pollyanna holds up beautifully, as do The Trouble With Angels and Whistle Down the Wind. The decade also saw two of the finest depictions of young girls’ coming of age ever put on film: To Kill a Mockingbird and The World of Henry Orient. In the 1970s, in addition to the gritty Taxi Driver, young Jodie Foster starred in good family films like Freaky Friday and Candleshoe, while Tatum O’Neal made Paper Moon and The Bad News Bears. Women may have gotten fewer good roles in 1970s films, despite the rise of feminism, but girls were still a presence, and could occupy the center of successful films.

Then came the 1980s.

Here we can see girls receding into the background. Almost all the decade’s well-known family films have boy heroes; if girls are “on the team,” they’re there mostly to scream. Girls only had relevance, apparently, once they became teenagers and could be played by Molly Ringwald or Ally Sheedy. Even as teens, girl characters concerned themselves primarily with popularity and finding boyfriends, while boy geniuses could hold the fate of the world in their hands in movies like War Games and The Philadelphia Experiment. Perhaps here we touch on the root of the problem, the idea that boys’ stories will appeal to boys and girls alike but girls’ stories will appeal to girls alone. If boy heroes get bigger battles to fight and wider spheres of action in which to move, is it any wonder that their stories speak to a greater range of audiences?

For all the flaws in Shirley Temple’s films, she could be an Everychild, though she was obviously a girl. She and O’Brien and Mills could confront problems boys and girls share: losing loved ones, learning values, and making sense of a confusing and often frightening adult world. Yet in more recent films we saw a more limited idea of the kinds of stories that could be told about girls. This narrowing found expression in a statement made by a TV executive in the late 1980s, printed in the TV Guide article “Does TV Shortchange Teenage Girls?” He explained the preference for boys’ stories by noting that while boy heroes deal with life’s major questions as they come of age, “only one thing happens when a girl grows up: she tries to be pretty so boys will like her.” (Had I not been a feminist before, reading this statement would have been enough to turn me into one.)

Spoken like a man who has no daughters, and certainly has never read Anne of Green Gables, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or A Wrinkle In Time. Yet this was one of the men in charge, and while television made significant strides in the years following the article, the Big Screen continues to reflect his mindset. A gem like Matilda, 1993’s The Secret Garden, or 1995’s A Little Princess may turn up on occasion, but when those movies fail at the box office, Hollywood executives shake their heads and blame it all on the presence of female protagonists, and continue to ignore girls’ stories. Some years we see one really good one. Other years, we see none at all.

This year, we’ve already seen Inside Out. Later this year, we’ll see Mockingjay Part 2, which will hopefully be better than its predecessor. But I still await the day when the release of a good movie with a young female protagonist doesn’t seem like such an unusual event.

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