I hesitated to insert this bit of commentary into my review of Winnie the Pooh because I’m dead serious about it, and I couldn’t find a way to make it work amongst the preposterous “complaints” about the film that filled my “screed.” (Though obviously not everyone can see sarcasm even when it’s staring them in the face.) But there’s this, too: what I’m about to complain about is not something that’s uniquely a Winnie the Pooh problem but yet another example of a problem that plagues our pop culture. So it didn’t seem fair to make it seem like I was piling on poor old Pooh.
Here it is now.
I was sitting there watching Winnie the Pooh and letting the silly, utterly inconsequential sweetness wash over me when suddenly it struck me, for the millionth time but with the power of a new ephiphany: Every single character but one here is male… and the only female character is defined exclusively by her motherhood.
Christopher Robin? Male.
Now, we’re not “supposed” to point out unpleasant stuff like this about kiddie movies. We’re supposed to just relax and enjoy them and let them wash over us and not think about it too much. But that’s why it’s so insidious — and yes, I mean that deliberately: insidious.
If our pop culture were pretty balanced among some stories that were mostly about boy characters and some stories that were mostly about girl characters and some stories that were about a fairly balanced bunch of both boy and girl characters and some stories that 75/25 boys/girls and some stories that were 75/25 girls/boys, and so on, it wouldn’t matter. But this is not how it is. The vast majority of stories are about male characters. The vast majority of stories about groups of character feature lots of different male characters — often defined by various traits: The Fat One, The Smart One, The Clumsy One, The Daring One, and so on — and perhaps, if we’re lucky, a single female character who is defined solely by her gender: The Girl One. Nothing beside femaleness is needed to define this character: she is not brave or cowardly, reckless or prudent, smart or dumb — she’s just the girl. She’s probably pretty, because that’s how you know she’s a girl: she’s there to make the world more pleasant for the male characters. She might need to get rescued at some point. She’s almost definitely the carrot dangled in front of The Leader One, with the prospect of her as the prize he wins if he succeeds.
Now, in the world of Pooh, Kanga does not serve this purpose… but she also serves no other purpose but to be mothering. She says and does pretty much nothing but deliver gentle maternal scolds to all the boys around her, who clearly — boys being boys and all — need it. (That’s sarcasm.) But there’s no reason in the universe why Owl could not be female: no story hinges on Owl being male. There’s no reason in the universe why Rabbit could not be female: no story hinges on Rabbit being male.
No, I don’t think that A.A. Milne chuckled evilly to himself and set out to exclude female characters from his stories because he hated women. He was only unconsciously regurgitating the biases of our culture: that maleness is the default, the neutral, and that there’s no reason for a character to be female unless ladyparts are required (such as, in this case, having given birth).
Here’s where the insidious comes in: When all children see are stories in which boy characters run the gamut of human potential and girl characters are only notable for their girlness, they internalize these notions. They learn that boys can do anything and girls can only be a narrow sort of “girlness.” Girls are never The Funny One or The Depressed One or The Wise One.
Kids see this in even the “inoffensive” children’s stories, like Winnie the Pooh’s tales. Like in the Toy Story movies, which grudgingly allow more than one female character in, but again only when they must be female — of course Bo Peep and Jessie the Cowgirl have to be girls — but never when the gender of a toy is absent or ambiguous: Rex or Slinky or Hamm or many of the other toys could have been female, but aren’t. Even the really good, really wonderful, really must-see stories follow the same plan.
It’s depressing to realize this, if you care about exposing children — boys and girls alike — to fairer, more humanist ideas about what they are capable of.
And that’s why it must be pointed out. When even the “nice” movies engage in this, these biases get deeply ingrained and powerfully reinforced in our individual subconsciouses and in our cultural supraconsciousness.
I’m not suggesting that anyone should have changed Milne’s characters in the name of feminism. I am suggesting that we need to be creating new stories that allow girl characters to express the full range of human experience to balance the likes of Milne out… and to make sure that when someone creates a “nice” new story, its Rex or Slinky or Hamm aren’t create male by lazy default.