14 Questions To Ask in Choosing a Movie For Your Kids

Some of the most sexist programming in America is delivered to our kids through G and PG rated movies: yes, those movies specifically recommended by the MPAA as appropriate for children. The problem is that in the vast majority of these movies, boys get to be the stars. Girls are often relegated to practically invisible sidekick roles. What’s shocking is that so many of these movies are about fantasy worlds where animals talk, sing and dance, but Hollywood seems incapable of imagining a magical world where boys and girls are treated equally.

This holiday weekend, I took my three daughters, ranging from age 2 through age 8, to Puss In Boots. The animation was beautiful. The music was fabulous. But the stars were the boys. The movie centered on Puss’s quest; it was his adventure. Like so many kids’ movies, Puss In Boots is a male buddy movie, in this case about Puss’s relationship with Humpty Dumpty. Kitty Softpaws is a great female character, but the movie clearly belongs to Puss and Humpty.

A couple days later I took my kids to see Happy Feet 2. (It was a long, rainy weekend.) In that film, girls fared even worse. Happy Feet 2 is–surprise, surprise–centered on male relationships; it’s a father-son saga about the penguin Mumble, and his kid Eric. But the movie also features no fewer than three subplots, all three about male relationships. As in Puss In Boots, there is a strong female character, Bo the penguin, but her part was so small that I had trouble even catching her name.

Other choices for kids movies this holiday season? Hugo; Adventures of Tintin; Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked; Arthur Christmas. Notice anything about the gender of the characters in those titles? Where are the female leads? Last year, Disney actually switched the title of Rapunzel to Tangled specifically to avoid highlighting the female star. Disney did this with no shame at all, giving interviews to media outlets about their decision, and received practically no protest. What message does this blatant sexism send to kids?

As the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media has found, the more media a girl views, the fewer options she thinks she has in life. The more boys watch, the more sexist their views become.

Keep in mind, we’re not just talking about movies. These film characters go on to appear in toys, clothing, food products and video games. When male stars in kids movies are ubiquitous and girls go missing, the gender programming spreads into every aspect of their lives. That’s bad for all kids and the adults they will become. It’s like First Lady training–smile, cheer, be loyal on the sidelines to the male star.

My blog, Reel Girl, rates movies on how appropriate they are for kids. Movies get from one to three “S”s for “stereotyping” and from one to three “G”s for “girlpower.” Here are the criteria I use:

  1. Is the movie titled for a male star?
  2. Is the movie centered around the quest of a male?
  3. Are the females in the movie helping the male achieve his goal?
  4. Which character goes through a transition?
  5. What is the ratio of males to females? Main roles? Crowd scenes?
  6. What are the females wearing? Does their clothing expose belly buttons and other body parts?
  7. How many lines do the female characters have?
  8. How many of the females’ lines have to do with what they’re wearing, what they look like, romantic relationships, or shopping?
  9. How many of the males refer to the females only in reference to romance and how they look?
  10. How do the females in the movie interact with each other? Do they interact at all?
  11. How are female friendships depicted in the movie? Are there any?
  12. Is a female character rescued by a male character?
  13. Does a female character make a rescue?
  14. What heroic acts or acts of bravery do the female characters perform?

So what can you do if these questions yield many “S”s and very few “G”s? Mostly, I don’t suggest forbidding your kids from watching films. There are some I will not show my kids, and there are many I won’t pay for, but kids live in the world just like we all do. Most of their friends will have seen them, be talking about them, and acting out the characters on playdates. Even if you don’t take them to the movies, they’ll see the characters as toys, or on diapers or cereal boxes. So my advice is to teach kids not to be passive receptacles of media. Studies have shown that discussing sexist media with kids can help inoculate them against its effects. The questions on this list aren’t for young kids but for their parents. When you talk to your kids, bring up these issues, and talk about why this matters.

Re-printed from Reel Girl

Photo by flickr user hoyasmeg under Creative Commons 2.0


  1. Great article. I actually wrote my college thesis about this topic. The sexism (and racism) in popular children’s movies goes well beyond what you touched on here. I highly recommend the movie “Mickey Mouse Monopoly” for those of you interested in further exploring this topic.

  2. Vicky Muehleisen says:

    This article made me think of the many anime movies with strong female characters (and often female lead characters–Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away) coming out of Studio Ghibli in Japan. I think that many Americans have an impression of Japan as much more male-centered than the U.S. (as an American living in Tokyo for more than 17 years, I don’t see it, though), but the culture of animated movies would seem to belie this. Of course, Japanese anime is not intended only for children.

  3. I took my younger brother and sister to see Puss in Boots, and afterwards I ended up having this very discussion with my brother, who’s 12 and an aspiring filmmaker. He didn’t see te problem at first, and tried to defend the female presence until I pointed out their actually very limited roles.

    I was in France when Raiponce (Rapunzel) came out and was shocked when I heard about Tangled being the US title. I also noticed that the character of Rapunzel had huge eyes (like many other Disney characters of late, actually) which is more common a trait of babies, rather than young and adult women. What’s up with that?

  4. This is a great article. BK, I’d love to read your college thesis.


    I subscribed to the blog, thanks for the tip. Do you think you could boil the 14 questions down to like 5 or less? I think it’d be great to create something similar to the Bechdel test specifically for movies to show your kids. I’d love to find more positive media for them (currently I don’t let them view barely anything).

    Great work!

  5. I took my niece and nephew to the theater this weekend because well, I’m not a parent and I don’t know what to do with kids. They chose Happy Feet 2 and I did notice that the couple of female characters in it didn’t seem to do anything important and the whole reason they were included at all appeared to get hit on by male characters. I do however think it is worth noting Will and Bill the krill characters which seemed to be a gay krill couple. I thought it was a good sign that kids movies are showing gay couples as normal and acceptable. They didn’t do that when I was a kid. Although I’m still convinced that Bert and Erie are together. I mean they share a bedroom! Even my grandparents didn’t share a bedroom and they were definitely a couple.

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