In Disney's Planes, the Guys Soar While the Girls Get Left in the Dust


I’ve blogged twice about the sexist preview for “Planes,” and after seeing the movie today, I’m afraid I’ve got to blog about this awful scene once more. The sexist scene actually opens the movie. It sets the tone for the whole film, which is the opposite of what I thought the scene was going to do. When I saw the preview, I thought the plane who mocks the slow flyers by calling them “ladies,” was having a moment of arrogance. The movie would redeem him when he went through his transition. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. The sexist joke is his fantasy, the fantasy of a humble crop duster with a fear of heights who wishes he were a racer. The scene is sexism in fantasy world in sexism in fantasy world. Isn’t that meta? It’s the dream sequence of a “likeable” character. Can you imagine a hero making a racist joke and being likeable? In a movie for little kids? Yet, that’s how much sexism we have to wade through before females are allowed to win a race in animation.

Here’s the text; all voices are male:

Plane One: What’s taking this guy so long? Is he really as good as he says he is?
Plane Two: No, better.
Plane One: Whoa! Who was that?
Plane Three: (Descending fast on top of the other two) Well, hello ladies! Ready to lose?

Plane Three goes on to leave the “ladies” in the dust.

Recently, in the New York Times, Frank Bruni wrote about his discussion with Chris Kilmartin, author of The Masculine Self.

“We start boys off at a very early age,” Kilmartin told me during a recent phone conversation. “When the worst thing we say to a boy in sports is that he throws ‘like a girl,’ we teach boys to disrespect the feminine and disrespect women. That’s the cultural undercurrent of rape.”

Planes teaches kids just that, and that’s only the beginning of the movie.

Following the sexist fantasy in Planes, the narrative progresses exactly as Turbo does, the movie for kids that came out just a few weeks ago. Dusty, the male protagonist of Planes, is told by his friend he’ll never be a racer: “That’s not what you’re built for.” This is the same conversation Turbo has with his brother who tells him that because he’s a snail, he can’t race. But guess who proves the naysayers wrong, that the hero can do anything, soar to the highest heights, be brave, courageous, and make his dreams come true? Unless, of course, he happens to be a “lady.”

Today, if you see a movie for children, it will most often have a male protagonist, while females, who are, in fact, half of the kid population, are presented as if they were a minority. Within that minority, there will be a strong female or two who reviewers will invariably call “feisty.” I call these characters the “Minority Feisty.” The trope has evolved from the Smurfette principle in that there is often more than one, and she is presented as strong. But rarely is she the protagonist. Her power, lines, and screen time are carefully and consistently circumscribed to show that she is not as important as the male star. Still, the Minority Feisty is supposed to pacify parents, making them feel that, unlike those sexist films of yesteryear, thismovie is contemporary and feminist.

There are strikingly similar Minority Feisty in Planes and Turbo: Dottie and Paz are both mechanics and both shown in blue. Isn’t that progressive? At first, I thought these mechanics were a coincidence. Then I realized that “female mechanic” is classic Minority Feisty. All the parents watching can think: look a female mechanic! Isn’t that wonderful? And then overlook that Dottie and Paz exist only to help the male hero accomplish his quest in movies that marginalize and demean females.

The actual race in Planes is totally dominated by male competitors. There are just two female racers: Ishani and Rochelle. Turbo has only one, and I missed her name. Both female racers in Planes are objects of lust for the males who have bigger parts. One scene is an extensive serenade/ mariachi sequence that sends Rochelle, the pink girl plane, into fits of desire. I thought I was going to throw up. Everyone else in the theater was laughing.

In both Planes and Turbo, there is an evil champion male rival who is the protagonist’s major competition. In Planes, he’s called Ripslinger, “the king of racing.” In Turbo, the role is filled by the macho Guy Gagne. Why not do something wild and crazy and put a female in the evil champion role? Dusty’s mentor, his major relationship in the movie, is also with, surprise, surprise, another male: Skipper. Turbo is guided to winning by Tito, a taco maker, who is also cursed with a brother who doesn’t believe in him but comes to see his gifts by the end of the movie. Nice parallel, huh?

There is actually a third movie about a competition this summer. Monster University is about rival fraternities. Rival fraternities. Not one of these movies shows kids that females can win. Even worse, as I began this post with, Planes mocks female competitors as losers.

Why do parents put up with this repeated sexism in movie after movie?

There’s an excellent post about Smurfs 2, yet another male dominated movie for kids that came out this summer, in The Atlantic: The Banal, Insidious, Sexism of Smurfette.

In The Smurfs 2, there are a lot of Smurfs. And they all have names based on their unique qualities. According to the cast list, the male ones are Papa, Grouchy, Clumsy, Vanity, Narrator, Brainy, Handy, Gutsy, Hefty, Panicky, Farmer, Greedy, Party Planner, Jokey, Smooth, Baker, Passive-Aggressive, Clueless, Social, and Crazy. And the female one is Smurfette–because being female is enough for her. There is no boy Smurf whose identifying quality is his gender, of course, because that would seem hopelessly limited and boring as a character.
These characters, originating as they did in mid-century Europe, exhibit the quaint sexism in which boys or men are generic people–with their unique qualities and abilities–while girls and women are primarily identified by their femininity. The Smurfs 2, which premiered last weekend and came in third at the box office, doesn’t upend the premise of Smurfette…Today, a blockbuster children’s movie can invoke 50-year-old gender stereotypes with little fear of a powerful feminist backlash.

The author doesn’t expand beyond Smurfs 2 as far as the sexism marketed to children in movies this summer, but the erasure of female characters is shockingly consistent. And shocking in that it’s not shocking. Not only is there no fear of powerful feminist backlash, when I write about this annihilation in kids’ movies, I often get comments like: You call yourself a feminist? Why don’t you write about something more important than cartoons? Who cares?

About the rape culture, author Kilmartin is paraphrased in the New York Times:

It’s not DNA we’re up against; it’s movies, manners and a set of mores, magnified in the worlds of the military and sports, that assign different roles and different worth to men and women. Fix that culture and we can keep women a whole lot safer.

Kids learn from what they see again and again and again. You can tell girls that they can be anything they want to be until you’re Smurfblue in the face, but if you don’t show them, your words are meaningless. Why not show kids more movies where powerful females win? A crop duster can win a flying race around the world and a snail can win the Indy 500, but a female can’t win anything? What does that teach children? That “you aren’t what you’re built to be” unless you’re built a girl. Suddenly, your options get pretty limited.

Why, I want to know, is the imaginary world, a place where anything should be possible, so sexist? Why aren’t more parents demanding gender equality for their kids during this crucial period in their lives?

Reel Girl rates “Planes” ***SS*** for gender stereotyping

Margot Magowan started her blog Reel Girl, because as the mom of three young daughters, she was alarmed by the sexism in children’s movies, and the games, toys, and clothing mass-marketed to kids based on those movies. Margot’s fiction is featured in the anthology Sugar In My Bowl edited by Erica Jong. (Ecco 2011), and she is currently writing a Middle Grade novel about the fairyworld. Margot’s articles on politics and culture have been in Salon, Glamour, the San Jose Mercury News, and numerous other newspapers and online sites. She has appeared on “Good Morning America,” CNN, Fox News, and other TV and radio programs.

This post originally appeared on Reel Girl, and was also published on Women And Hollywood. Republished with permission. Follow Reel Girl on Facebook.

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