Percy Jackson, Minstrel Show

I often walk out of terribly sexist or racist movies, and I would have walked out of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Lightning Thief over the weekend if I weren’t with my teenage nephews. I embarrass them enough as it is. We had all read the book series together on a long road trip and were stoked to see it on the big screen.

Percy Jackson is a Hollywood blockbuster targeting a young audience with teen leads, so the protagonist is, predictably, a white male. What makes this movie unusually offensive is the portrayal of Percy’s sidekicks, Annabeth and Grover.

In the books, Annabeth is a sword-wielding badass who gets the crew out of jams. In the movie, she is still wielding a sword, but is “conquered” by Percy and demoted to a Damsel In Distress (DID), reminiscent of Coraline, where filmmakers created a new male character so Coraline could be a DID.  Also, Annabeth’s first few scenes are so absurdly sexualized–close-ups with hair blowing, lips pursed, tight clothing–that even my nephews scoffed at the screen.

The sexy makeover of Annabeth is followed by a steady stream of sexist scenes, including Percy and Grover ogling scantily clad girls in a hot tub and later, ogling dozens of grown women slinking about in revealing outfits at a casino.  It’s truly uncomfortable sitting in an audience of kids while cleavage is heaving on the screen.

The sexism in Percy Jackson is matched by the bizarrely racist portrayal of Grover, Percy’s male sidekick. Grover is played by a black actor, a laudable choice given the over-representation of white people in media.

However, this character is simply a mish-mash of gross stereotypes, reminiscent of the 19th century minstrel shows where blacks were portrayed as naively joyous (as slaveholders believed them to be).  Grover is an object of entertainment throughout the movie, providing steady comic relief with his stylized vernacular, “crazy” physical antics and, yes, even dancing.  Grover also embodies the stereotype of black people as animalistic since he’s half human and half goat.

Damaging stereotypes of blacks sexuality also abound in Percy Jackson.  Grover is portrayed as sexually insatiable and immoral, hitting on various women and even walking with four grown women on his arms in one casino scene (pimp imagery, anyone?).  All of his conquests are white women, with the exception of Persephone, played by 30-year-old Rosario Dawson, who rapaciously seduces Grover when her husband isn’t around.  Filmmakers would never show a grown, married, white woman seducing a black teen, or a grown man seducing a teenaged girl, in a kid’s movie.

So skip Percy Jackson and stick with Harry Potter, the wonderfully egalitarian Septimus Heap series, or my personal favorite, the Song of the Lioness books.  They have their flaws as well, but none so egregious as this Greek-god minstrel show.

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Dr. Caroline Heldman is the Executive Director of The Representation Project, Professor of Politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles and a Senior Research Advisor for the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media. She also co-founded the New Orleans Women’s Shelter, the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum, End Rape on Campus, Faculty Against Rape and End Rape Statute of Limitations. Her books include Rethinking Madame President: Are We Ready for a Woman in the White House?, Protest Politics in the Marketplace: Consumer Activism in the Corporate Age), Women, Power, and Politics: The Fight for Gender Equality in the United States, The New Campus Anti-Rape Movement and Sex and Gender in the 2016 Presidential Election. Her research has been featured in top academic journals like the American Political Science Review, the Journal of Politics, Political Psychology and Political Communications; and her work has also been featured in the New York Times, U.S. News and World Report, The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast.