Confession time: I find Madeleine L’Engle’s inspirational nonfiction more engaging than her fiction. When I first tried to read A Wrinkle in Time, I bounced off what struck me as a rather dry, stiff writing style, and as with the also beloved The Golden Compass, I never managed to finish it. Nonetheless, I appreciate its importance within the canon of YA science fiction and its role in paving the way for smarter, more active female leads in the genre, and I totally get it when SFF writers and fans in succeeding generations point to Wrinkle‘s protagonist, Meg Murry, as an inspiration.
The movie version about to appear on the scene, however, looks inviting even for me. When reading a book you may like or dislike certain prose styles, but in a movie adaptation all you have is the story itself, and this story just might hit me where I live. (I may return to the book for another try.) In particular the young actress playing Meg, Storm Reid, makes the character seem like someone my inner twelve-year-old might follow anywhere. Movie posters like this one don’t hurt, either.
(Courtesy of http://www.shockya.com)
The poster clearly situates Meg as the point of view character, and the geometric shapes hint at her predilection towards STEM. The coloring gives the whole an aura of wonder. The images alone excite my curiosity. Yet not everyone is quite so enamored of it. One woman whose comment came up in my Twitter feed praises the poster on the one hand, but then adds the question, “Don’t they want little boys to see this too?”
To which I respond with the question, “Do we really have to do this again?” Because when I look at the poster I can’t see anything that might drive little boys away, except that it makes it clear that a girl is the central character. It’s that same very old and very bitter story I’ve railed against in the past: boys won’t see or read stories about girls. Boys can’t identify with girl protagonists or see female characters as role models. Never mind those little boys who enjoyed the heck out of Wonder Woman or who come away from Black Panther loving Shuri or Okoye even more than the title character.
It’s just one woman’s comment, and I could easily ignore it but for the fact that it’s all of a piece with the litany of protests that have rung out over the internet ever since the Star Wars franchise followed up The Force Awakens with Rogue One (two female leads in a row! Horrors!) and went through the roof when it was announced that Jodie Whittaker would play the Thirteenth Doctor. Now that we’re seeing more female characters in important roles in movie genres other than romantic comedy and domestic drama, the rallying cry of the push-back is, “Will no one think of the men?” Or in this case, the boys?
What the pushers-back can’t see, apparently, is that plenty of people are thinking of the boys, particularly in the genre to which A Wrinkle in Time belongs, the family film. Since the 1980s — quick, name a memorable live-action family film from the ’80s that featured a girl as the central character, other than Jim Henson’s Labyrinth — family films have been overwhelmingly male–dominated. In the area of live action, while teen protagonists might occasionally be female (e.g. Clueless, the Freaky Friday remake, and of course the Hunger Games series), child protagonists are nearly always male, and the characteristics these boys exhibit, exploration and innovation and risk-taking, are coded as male, while female characters are called upon to represent stability (yawn). In animation, male leads get to be thieves and vagabonds and lion kings and lords of the jungle, not to mention toys, ants, cars, and rats; female leads, by contrast, are usually princesses and rarely anything other than human (which is a big part of why I took Zootopia to my heart). If parents of sons are looking for movies and TV shows that feature boys being awesome, they have plenty of options to choose from. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: every major American animated release in 2017 featured a male protagonist, and this year it’s more of the same. Boys aren’t hurting for male heroes. They just aren’t.
But on the matter of movie posters, let’s take a look at these:
(Courtesy of Roger Ebert)
(Courtesy of IMDb)
(Courtesy of IMDb)
(Courtesy of IMDb)
(Courtesy of IMDb)
Has anyone looked at these posters and thought, “Don’t they want little girls to see this, too?”
I daresay not. As we all know, boys are the default. Girls are fine with seeing movies that center on boys, and they won’t even mind when the depiction of female characters gives off a whiff of misogyny, as we see in Mars Needs Moms, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, and Minions (although the first two on this list didn’t exactly set the box office on fire). Girls can happily identify with boys and look to male characters as role models, yet hoping that boys might do the same with girls and female characters is asking far too much. We all know that, right?
So when a movie like A Wrinkle in Time promises to give girls a character of their own gender worth admiring and identifying with — not a princess of an age to fall in love and marry but a real girl-child, and a socially awkward nerd at that — I can’t spend too much worry on the boys who might be driven away by “girl cooties.” It might just be that movies like this one, along with Black Panther, could help any number of little boys see that girl characters can be just as fun, and worth identifying with, as the boys, and in the long run, if the movies are good enough, the “boys’ stories are universal, girls’ stories are particular” notion might at last begin to die the death it deserves.