“Story for Boys” vs. “Story for Girls”

Warning: If you haven’t seen either of the How To Train Your Dragon movies or Disney’s Frozen and knowing events will spoil the viewing experience for you, don’t read this post.

There’s been a lot of talk about feminism in entertainment this summer. About how females aren’t empowered in fiction, regardless of the media. I tend to agree with this, but I find the problem to be this: when stories are geared to one gender or the other, the very nature of the characters change as well as the kind of story that’s being told. Personally, I find it rather insulting that The Powers That Be (book publishers and movie producers) think this is not only necessary, but proper.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, I’ll compare “a movie for girls” (Disney’s Frozen) and “a movie for boys” (DreamWorks’ two How to Train Your Dragon movies). I’ve seen the three movies and greatly enjoyed the HTTYD movies, but found Frozen to be highly disappointing as a story. It took a little time and a lot of discussion with my friend and editor, June Dal, but I think the basic problems lies with the difference between how “stories for boys” and “stories for girls” are constructed.

I’m using the two HTTYD movies because the hero in each relates to one of the princesses in Frozen for illustration purposes. I’m also ignoring the songs in Frozen as songs, but am looking at them as dialogue and what they contribute to the story.

Let’s take the younger princess first. In Frozen, Anna obviously worships her elder sister, Elsa. When Elsa’s powers accidently injure Anna, their parents decide the best thing to do is to lock their daughters in the castle and suppress all knowledge of Elsa’s powers. Both girls submit to their parents’ decree and Anna grows up very lonely, remembering a close friendship with her sister and longing for it, however no other friends are ever brought in for her to play with or grow close to.

When they’re older teens, their parents die and Elsa becomes queen and the palace doors are finally opened, allowing Anna to see the world for the first time in her memory. She falls in love with a personable young man, Hans, and seeks Elsa’s blessing, which is refused. The sisters fight and Elsa runs off, casting her kingdom from spring into deep winter. Anna immediately goes after her to talk to her, but makes no progress until she meets Kristoff, a young ice seller,  who gets her where she’s going. The talk with her sister does not go well, and Anna is injured again, this time fatally unless there’s an act of true love. The story first suggests that Anna must be kissed by her true love, Hans, in order to fulfill this requirement. But, Hans turns out to be a villain who only wants the kingdom, not Anna. She cries until Olaf, the talking snowman, finds her and suggests that Kristoff is her true love. Olaf also gets her out of the prison of her room so she can try to find Kristoff. Before she can reach Kristoff, however, she sees  Hans about to kill Elsa and inserts herself just as she turns to ice, saving her sister. This “act of true love” revives Anna, returning her and the kingdom to normal for the happy ending.

In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup is the only son of Stoick the Vast, the chief and the Viking’s Viking. Stoick fights giant flaming dragons face-to-face and wins. Hiccup wants more than anything to be a respected Viking in his community, which means he needs to kill a dragon. However, he’s “a talking fishbone” and his smarts and inventive ingenuity are discounted by everyone, including his father. In the opening of the movie, Hiccup’s invention downs the mysterious and dangerous Night Fury. While Stoick takes several ships of warriors (men and women) to hunt down the dragons’ nest to destroy it, Hiccup tends to Toothless, the fallen Night Fury, and learns that everything Vikings know about dragons is wrong. Toothless takes Hiccup and his rival/dreamgirl Astrid to the dragons’ nest to discover an evil queen dragon, who threatens and eats other dragons who don’t feed her enough. Stoick discovers Hiccup’s secret, disowns him and forces Toothless to guide his forces to the island. Hiccup introduces his friends to dragons and they ride to the rescue. Hiccup comes up with a plan that kills the evil queen, once he’s rescued Toothless, at some personal cost.

The similarities I see are:

* Both Anna and Hiccup are a form of outcast from the society in which they live

* Both have a vision of an ideal life they’d like to have

* They both would rather talk problems out than fight

* They both gather friends-allies in their quest

* They both use assistance to achieve their plans

* They both save the day in the end

The dissimilarities I see are:

* When told to “stay put and be good”, Anna obeys without question; Hiccup strives to prove himself repeatedly, disaster after disaster.

* Anna goes off to talk to her sister with only a cape against the sudden winter and no clue where to find Elsa; Hiccup gathers ropes to help his friends hang onto the dragons they learned to ride and knew exactly how to find Toothless and the other Vikings.

* When his plan to convince his village that dragons weren’t what they thought and everything goes bad, Hiccup makes another plan and enacts it; When Anna’s talk with Elsa doesn’t go well, Anna becomes unfocused and cannot make another decision until Elsa’s life is in danger.

* Anna looks to men to save her; Hiccup looks to a girl (Astrid) as the ideal Viking.

Do you see the basic difference between Anna and Hiccup? Anna comes up with a single plan (to talk to her sister), but she doesn’t prepare well and can’t get where she’s going without help from a man. Once that fails, she flails and allows Kristoff to make all her decisions for her. When Hans is revealed as a bad guy, she cries until the snowman arrives and gives her new direction. It isn’t until the very end, when she has nothing left to lose, that she throws herself in the way to save her sister.

Hiccup, from the beginning, has a plan to gain respect from his people. He succeeds, but no one believes him. As he discovers more information, he makes new plans, invents things to achieve those goals, adjusts plans until the end where it is only his plans and his ability to work with the traditional Viking enemy (Toothless) wins the day.

Moving on to the elder princess and the second HTTYD movie.

We actually see very little of Elsa, if you think about it. She accidently hurts her sister and then hides in her room for years. Strangely, no one seems to notice that the heir to the crown, their future queen, shuns everyone, including her sister. When she’s challenged by Anna after the coronation, her first reaction is to strike out and run away. When she’s challenged by Hans and the others, she has this awesome, terrifying power and then doesn’t use it well to defend herself. Once imprisoned, she uses her power to escape, but it seems almost accidental. Then she flees again to wander pointlessly until the villain finds her.

From what we’re shown, Elsa is a horrible queen. There are years between the death of her parents and her own coronation, so who was running the country if she was hiding in her room? While the song Let It Go is enthusiastic, it’s all about how she feels and what she wants and is very selfish. The song shows no caring for the sister she just left or the kingdom she’s now responsible for. From the mountains, she doesn’t even look back to see what havoc she wrought. She builds her ice palace and is content in her solitude until her sister’s visit causes her to lose control again. And all we see her do for her subjects is let them ice skate in the summer (at the very end).

Whereas, when Hans is given command in the sisters’ absences, the only time we see him, he’s actually making certain people have warmth and are taken care of. He’s being a good ruler. Yeah, he’s a bad boyfriend and wants to take the kingdom from Elsa, but I can’t help thinking it would be better had he succeeded.

Again–it’s the man who’s demonstrating competence in decision making and carrying out plans, not the women.

In How to Train Your Dragon 2, five years have passed since the first movie and Stoick has his mind set on retirement and making Hiccup the chief. Hiccup would rather continue to explore the area with Toothless, discovering new lands and dragons. Out on one of these explorations, Hiccup and Astrid discover a man named Drago Bludvist is collecting dragons for an army. Stoick wants to lock everything down, but Hiccup attempts to go talk to Drago. This all goes wrong as well, and Drago gains control of Toothless, forcing the Night Fury to kill Stoick. With Hiccup and his allies grieving, Drago and his dragon army moves to attack Berk (Hiccup’s home). Hiccup thinks of a way to go after the villain and manages to bring Toothless back to his senses. With Hiccup’s plan, Drago’s plan starts to falter and Toothless then ends it once and for all, out of love for Hiccup. At the end, Hiccup is hailed by his village as the new chief.

Similarities:

* Both have strained relationships with their parent(s).

* Both Elsa and Hiccup are reluctant rulers whose father’s death thrust the responsibility on them.

* Both face challenges to their way of life.

* Both have great power at their command (Elsa: Ice power, Hiccup: Dragonmaster and Toothless).

* Both are responsible for the dangers faced at the end of their story.

Dissimilarities:

* Elsa runs from confrontation and problems; Hiccup faces confrontation and problems

* Elsa does not confide in family or friends; Hiccup confides and seeks advice from family and friends

* When confronted with Elsa’s power, her people do not defend her from cries of “witch”; When confronted by Drago, Astrid voices confidence in Hiccup’s power

* Elsa does nothing to save her sister or her country from the villain; Hiccup actively works to save Toothless and Berk from Drago’s forces

* Hiccup is shown actively caring for his father, his friends, his dragon, and his village; Elsa is shown actively caring about her sister and herself.

Moving away from the main characters for a moment, let’s look at how women and girls are portrayed in HTTYD. Though none are named, women are defending Berk as well as the men during the initial dragon attack. We see women warriors on the ships to attack dragons as well as men, and they return wounded, just as the men are.

We have three named females in the two movies: Astrid, Ruffnut and Valka.

Valka has, for the last 20 years, has single-handedly rescued dragons from Drago’s traps and hirelings without any help. She knows more about dragons than anyone, including Hiccup. She is actually the first target Drago intends to defeat.

Astrid and Ruffnut are Hiccup’s peers. Both are on the track to be good dragon-killing Vikings at the start of the first movie. Astrid is the one to beat. Astrid is the epitome of what a Viking should be, and the Viking Hiccup can only dream of becoming. She plays as a major antagonist in the first movie before Toothless convinces her to side with Hiccup. By the second movie, she is still a fearsome dragon-riding Viking warrior and very much Hiccup’s right hand. In Hiccup’s absence, she makes decisions and plans and their coterie follow her lead. While she isn’t as insightful or creative as Hiccup, she is as brave and intelligent.

In HTTYD2, Astrid makes a plan to save Hiccup and Stoick and goes after it. Though her plan turns out to be faulty because of ignorance, she is effective within the boundaries of her knowledge. Her decision and actions place Hiccup’s resources at hand when he needs them, which works since she is Hiccup’s partner and not just his love interest.

Ruffnut stands more as a comedic relief in the story, but her comments do bring some insight. She is also fearless when it comes to conflict and obeys instruction, despite smart-alec remarks. In this discussion, she’s also important because she falls in love with Eret, who traps dragons for Drago. She falls in love, watching him from afar and is totally captivated. Eret makes no bones about not being interested, but she isn’t dissuaded. Well, not until he turns them over to Drago as captives. “Aw, you were so perfect!” Afterward, he sides with Astrid, Ruffnut and the others, joining Hiccup’s fight, and she loves him again. However, when she’s knocked from her dragon and is falling to her death, it isn’t Eret who saves her, but the two young men who’ve been trying to woo her all through the movie. It is then that she realizes her love for Eret was lust and turns her romantic attentions to young men who actually care about her.

Compare that reaction to Anna’s when Hans reveals himself as a villain. She lays down and sobs until Olaf points out that Kristoff loves her, so she goes running to Kristoff. We get no explanation, no exclamation, no realization from Anna about the change of affections. If it’s true love, then shouldn’t she feel it too? Shouldn’t she have had doubts about Hans’ kiss being able to save her?

As far as I can see, the “story for girls” focuses so much time and attention on emotions and relationships and giving motivation for those things, the writers forget or ignore what the characters’ actions say about them and their world. The princesses in Frozen are complacent and obedient to their parents’ bad decisions, never questioning, never pushing boundaries, never looking for options, never negotiating for something that would make them happy and allow them to grow as people.

For all that it was hailed as a pro-female movie, I found Frozen highly disappointing in its messages to young females. It gives the subtle lessons that the right thing for girls is to be passive, obedient to even absurd rules, not to try too hard, to wait for a man to help or tell her what to do. Frozen just repeated the same age-old rote from Disney’s early years of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Disney has back-pedaled from the promise of Ariel’s stubborn independence (in The Little Mermaid) and even the historically inaccurate Pocahontas’ willingness to fight for what she loved. I find that fact to be very sad indeed.

Whereas the “story for boys” has heroes who make decisions, make plans, and go after their goals, adjusting their plans when they’re stymied or fail outright. Regardless if they’re male (or female, in the HTTYD series), characters in a “story for boys” are expected to be active, goal-oriented, and more assertive/less submissive.

It seems to me that such heroes as Hiccup encourage boys to think for themselves, to make their own assessments and decisions, to think of plans to gain goals, to question rules and people who try to harm them in some way. They’re encouraged to be independent, creative, inventive, educated and intelligent.

I have to question whether these lessons should only be taught to boys. In 2014, this should be geared to all young people, not one gender over the other. And these are lessons children learn because when children love a movie, they will watch it thousands of times; they will memorize every line and repeat it; they learn movies they love by heart. They take the lessons within those movies to heart. As adults, we should be aware of what the lessons we’re giving our children to take to heart really are because that’s what will mold them into the adults they will someday be.

As a writer, I know the old axiom: “Character is action.” Emotions are necessary, but what captures readers (and viewers) are characters that DO INTERESTING STUFF. Anna is more interesting than Elsa because she actually attempts to do something about the sudden winter. Even though Elsa got the best song, she is passive and incompetent, a fact that might be okay for the beginning if she’d managed to learn to be more active over the course of the story. Yet even Anna does not DO as much as even the side characters in the “story for boys”. Her actions are largely ineffectual and when she is confronted with failure her only response is to cry.

Someone asked George R. R. Martin (he of Game of Thrones authorial fame) how he could write such fascinating and strong female characters. His reply is one that I wish more writers (and publishers and producers) would remember: “I’ve always considered women to be people.” By focusing so much on how the princesses feel, to the detriment of what they do, the writers of Frozen have in many ways lessened their main characters ‘as people’. As I said before, emotions are important, and it might be reasonable that a ‘movie for girls’ will focus more on them than a ‘movie for boys’. But, emotional content can’t be the whole of a good story. The character’s actions also have to make them worthy of the term ‘hero/ine’.

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2 Comments

  1. Great post. This is one reason I love Ofelia in “Pan’s Labyrinth” so much – she discovers and earns her destiny by making her own decisions and resisting authority when that authority goes against her conscience.

    Reply
  2. blairbburke

     /  August 17, 2014

    Great analysis. I was unimpressed with Frozen, too, but couldn’t put my finger on it. I do think it’s hard because some aspects of Frozen are positive for girls (personal courage, ultimately love of family). When you try to sell one good message it’s easy to miss that you’re wrapping it in old stereotypes, which is why it’s so important to be vigilant and think carefully about everything your characters do and say.

    Reply

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