Finding Strong Girls on Screen

I am a mother to a little girl.  As such, I end up worrying a lot about what kind of images of women and girls she will see, or what kind of role models she will have in her fictional worlds.  I’m sorry to say that at times I find it bleak and disheartening.  You see, my daughter – like many other boys and girls – loves to be active, loves superheroes, and loves being curious and inventive.  When Halloween rolls around, she consistently chooses to be a “boy” character: Iron Man, Max (from Max and Ruby), and already next year she wants to be Diego.

At this age I can honestly say, “Who cares?”  I certainly don’t care that she wants to be “boys” and I love that she picks competent and helpful characters.  The problem is that I realize there will be a time when she starts to realize that often there aren’t girls in these roles and I don’t want her thinking it’s because girls can’t be competent, helpful (without being pandering), or brave.  Potentially worse, when females are heroes (a la Wonder Woman or Cat Woman or Electra), they are still sex objects or if they are powerful, they are often evil.  Generally, though, the girls and women of TV and movies are only looking for a boy and romance.  Not what I want my daughter to believe is her only aspiration.

Because of this, I have made it my mission to make sure I have age-appropriate strong, female characters for her to watch when she turns on Netflix or we buy a DVD (she doesn’t do cable or network TV because of the ads; when she’s older we can talk about that form of advertising and the type of stereotyping it involves).  For those of you who are parents to girls or boys (as boys should also be able to appreciate and see that girls can do these things too and one way to do this is to make sure they see these examples starting at a young age), here are a few of the films and TV shows I have come up with…

Preschool Age-Early Childhood

Brave.  It took Pixar long enough to make a movie with a female protagonist, but it was worth the wait.  My daughter has seen this already and loves it and I’m so happy.  She already has her first toy bow and arrow kit (with 2 of 3 arrows broken already, but alas, that’s bound to happen) and is eager to learn to ride horses now.  For all those movies where we see boys and men “finding their destiny”, we finally have a female finding hers… and she doesn’t find it in some guy’s arms.

Dora the Explorer.  I admit the songs might drive me batty, but she’s not a size 0, she’s not bratty, and she’s sure as heck competent.  For some reason my daughter prefers Dora’s cousin Diego, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s all to do with the animals.  She loves animals more than Diego.

The Magic School Bus.  Okay, there isn’t really a female protagonist (unless you consider Miss Frizzle), but only because there really isn’t a single protagonist.  I also love that this show features a wide variety of kids: Different sexes and different races.  They all have moments where they are smart and resourceful.  Best of all?  The other kids value the intelligence of their classmates!

Other Mentions: Lilo & Stitch, Mulan, Max & Ruby (Ruby’s a little girly for my taste, but no one can deny she’s not totally competent!), iCarly

Older Childhood-Adolescence

A League of Their Own.  Girls playing baseball.  And playing it well.  The fact that this is a true story makes it especially high on my list because it can help teach our kids about the type of sexism that did happen at that time.  The fact that these girls played their hearts out but once men returned, there was no room left for them?  Well, doesn’t that say a lot about how our society views the female contribution?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  One of the best portrayals of females ever.  Joss Whedon just gets that women, like men, are complex and multi-faceted.  Buffy is strong, vulnerable, tough, scared, selfish, selfless, and it goes on.  Then you add in Willow and Cordelia and Tara and Anya and Joyce and you have women who are all real.  Minus the whole demon bit ;)  Probably for the older end of the spectrum here, but I’m sure there are some mature tweens who would love Buffy.  After all, I remember watching the movie as a tween!

Roseanne.  Most realistic and least gendered sitcom of all time?  Quite possibly.  Roseanne covered topics from periods to pregnancy to breastfeeding with grace.  She managed to make sure her girls knew that being a girl wasn’t a bad thing, regardless of what type of girl you were.  She also managed to buck the stereotypes of what these popular characters “should” look like.  And of course she made you laugh out loud while she did it.

Other Mentions: 2 Broke Girls, The Golden Girls, My So-Called Life, Hunger Games, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women

Late Adolescence

Fried Green Tomatoes.  This is one of those movies that had me both weeping in moments and laughing out loud.  I remember watching it at home for the first time with my mom and we just loved it.  The women were complex, the stories were real and heartfelt, and you felt that connection to all of the women whose stories were being told.

Parks and Recreation.  Okay, Leslie Knope may not be brilliant, but she cares and she works harder than many of the others around her.  Her tenacity and willingness to work and to take politics seriously is something I hope my daughter grows up with.  If I want my girl to look to TV to find a character she can take something from, she could do a lot worse than P&R.  (Just remember to get past the first season where she comes across far more ditzy and stupid than she is.)

Grey’s Anatomy.  Although I try to steer clear of the shows with too much romance, I acknowledge that when dealing with adults you’re going to have sex and relationships.  What I like about Grey’s is that in between that is the work and the friendships and the trauma and the joys that make up the rest of our lives.  It helps that you see women in top spots (or heading for top spots) and women both willing and unwilling to compromise their work for other elements of life because that’s exactly what we have in the world.

Other Mentions: Thelma and Louise, Call the Midwife, Homeland, The Good Wife, Law and Order: SVU, Murphy Brown, 30 Rock

By Tracy Cassels

January 20, 2014