One of the reasons behind my current dissatisfaction with Hollywood is the depressing lack of female protagonists among mainstream American animated releases in 2017, especially as compared to 2016, which gave us both Zootopia and Moana. (I’m still keen to see the smaller-scale indie animated film The Breadwinner, but its release has been so limited that it’s quite a bear to find a theater where it’s playing — a disgraceful way to treat a film that would appeal to families.) I understand that everything media-related comes in cycles, and that a year with one or more solid girl-centered offerings will frequently be followed by a year in which girls get shoved back into sidekick, villain, or background roles, if they appear at all. Remember 2011, when the front-runners for the Best Animated Feature Oscar were the male-heavy Rango and The Adventures of Tintin? The following year gave us Brave and Wreck-It Ralph, both enjoyable movies featuring female characters in central roles. So, since 2017 was lacking in noteworthy animated heroines, at least we can look ahead to the next months of 2018 with hopeful hearts, right?
Well, maybe not. Check out this YouTube compilation of trailers for 2018’s animated releases, at least in the first half of the year. Some look like fun — Aardman’s Early Man might be amusing, at least, because Aardman’s films usually are — but for all their differences, these movies, going by their trailers, have one thing in common that isn’t hard to spot:
It looks very much like this year will just be last year, all over again.
One of these movies, The Incredibles 2, is an interesting case. I loved the original, so I can’t help but be a little bit interested in the sequel, and I’ve read some excerpts from promotional material suggesting that Elastigirl, a.k.a. Helen Parr, will take a leading role and that the movie will be a female-led superhero film following in the footsteps of 2017’s Wonder Woman. If that’s true, then hurrah! But I’m afraid I can’t help being a little skeptical, since the teaser-trailer — which, like most teaser-trailers, gives us no hint of the film’s actual plot — chooses to focus on Mr. Incredible and baby Jack-Jack. I can’t help being reminded of the prominence of Olaf the Snowman in the marketing for Frozen and of Maui in the marketing for Moana. No matter how well a female-centered animated feature may do with audiences, marketers are still squeamish about letting people know when or if an upcoming release is focused on a female character.
Yet the rest of the movies are very clearly about dudes, so girls watching them will have to daydream themselves into the shoes of the male heroes or settle for identifying with the sidekick or love interest — again. And again. And again, and again. What are girls to do if they want a female hero as cool as Moana or Judy Hopps? Two things come to mind. The first is to fall to our knees and pray that Ava duVernay’s upcoming A Wrinkle in Time is every bit as good as we long for it to be.
The second: read instead.
Good books for young readers (children and tweens, not teens) centering on boys may outnumber those centering on girls, but good books about girls certainly outnumber good recent movies about them. If you make a friend of a good book when you’re ten or twelve, you’ll have a friend for life. A few of my favorites:
Matilda (Roald Dahl). Despite what movies and television want us to believe, child geniuses are not always boys. Matilda uses her immense brainpower to defy those who would tell her she’s nothing (parents, school principal) and to empower those around her. She’s a rule-breaker, a game-changer, and a wrecker of oppressive authority.
The Wee Free Men and its sequels (Terry Pratchett). Young witch Tiffany Aching is no Chosen One in the Harry Potter mold. Rather, she earns her hero status through a winning combination of hard work, determination, common sense, and fearlessness.
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, beginning with Dealing With Dragons (Patricia C. Wrede). Wrede employs a light-hearted, humorous style to tell the story of two female characters who become the best of friends. One is a dragon who eventually becomes King (yes, you read that right), and the other is an unorthodox princess determined to chart her own course.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World (Shannon Hale). The indomitable Doreen Green, a hero with the combined powers of Squirrel and Girl, may be in high school in this novelization of the popular comics character. But I can’t think of anything in this breezy, entertaining tale that couldn’t be enjoyed by smart girls as young as ten or even eight.
Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter (Astrid Lindgren). I picked up this novel after its anime adaptation charmed me. If you’ve always dreamed of living in a forest and learning the ways of the wild things, finding a best friend on your own adventurous wavelength, and conquering hate with the force of friendship and love, this is the book for you.