Girls on Film


Flea wishes she was a boy. If I’m honest, I have mixed feelings about this.

It’s not that I have reservations about tomboys, or concerns that Flea isn’t a “proper” girl. But I know the reason she wants to be a boy is that she thinks they have more fun.

Flea associates characteristics like adventure, naughtiness and bravery with boys, and not girls.

As I’ve said before (not that it should need saying) I’m a feminist. I try to make a point of explaining to Flea that girls and boys can do the same things, and only idiots think there are rules about what girls and boys can do. But I’m increasingly feeling as though I’m fighting a losing battle.

Where are the examples of these strong, brave, funny girls in the media?

Take the example of the cinema. We go to the cinema a lot, and Flea loves films. But the vast majority of the films we’ve seen this year either sideline female characters completely (Fantastic Mr Fox, Toy Story 2) or buy into the notion that the boys have all the fun while the girls need rescuing (Alvin and the Chipmunks) and mostly care about being pretty and popular. Or there just aren’t any meaningful female characters at all (Planet 51).

There are a few examples – Princess and the Frog (kinda), Ponyo, and Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (Flea couldn’t help shouting out “YES!” when the girl in this movie beheaded something with her sword) stick in my mind as having positive female role models. But they’re few and far between.

I’m curious if this is something other parents think about when choosing books and films for children, and what are your top recommendations for films and books for feisty, strong, independent girls? Is there a female equivalent to Horrid Henry or Buzz Lightyear?


Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She’s also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world’s coolest ten year old.

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  1. mathew
    23rd March 2010 / 10:31 am

    know what you mean. that’s why Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films were influential in the choice of name for my daughter 😉

  2. mathew
    23rd March 2010 / 10:34 am

    part 2: was down the park in november and there were some middle class parents pretty much forcing their boy to “save” the “Princess” girls (who were all in pink).
    a) he didn’t care to
    b) they were OK, they didn’t need saving.
    but ultimately, what message are they giving those girls (or the boy, for that matter?)
    i left the park in disgust 😉

  3. 23rd March 2010 / 10:57 am

    ThinkGeek sells a wonderful t-shirt with a princess crown and the logo “self-rescuing princess” on it. Flea’s got two.

  4. 23rd March 2010 / 10:59 am

    I agree with you completely. It was so refreshing to see Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and feel like wow, now that is one cool lady – strong, independent, articulate and daring. There really aren’t that many films with a female lead protagonist. In fact, I can hardly think of any. I don’t know why really? Few female directors as we witnessed with this year’s Oscars. Maybe it’s too empowering in a male-dominated world? I know I will def make a point to watch films & read stories to my children with a lead strong female role.

  5. 23rd March 2010 / 10:59 am

    As the father of a two year old girl I totally understand your point although I had to smile at seeing the phrase “positive female role models” & “beheaded” in the same sentence 😉

  6. 23rd March 2010 / 11:04 am

    Flea’s verdict on Alice was: “I’m not sure what the film was trying to say.” Perhaps when she’s older!

  7. Hannah
    23rd March 2010 / 11:06 am

    Totally agree with you on this which is why we read the Paperbag Princess to the girls much to my mother in law’s disgust but at least it shows them that they can do the rescuing

  8. 23rd March 2010 / 11:06 am

    I know, but it tickled me – I thought she’d be scared, so I was all ready to let her hide under my sweater, but this little triumphant voice just went “YES!!!”
    Probably this is deeply disturbing but I thought it was cute.

  9. 23rd March 2010 / 11:09 am

    We like Bolt – Penny is smart, not dressed in pink and sports a kick-ass scooter. I also have a soft spot for Mittens the cat.
    But you’re right. Films with decent female characters are few and far between. If I see another Disney princess I’m going to scream.

  10. Dan
    23rd March 2010 / 12:21 pm

    I do agree with the principles that are being expressed here, but since this is all in the name of ‘balance’, shouldn’t you also be demanding more negative female role models too? More films depicting female sociopaths, murderers, military despots, repressive dictators, master criminals…

  11. 23rd March 2010 / 1:16 pm

    I had the same thing as a kid, I was so annoyed that there were no girl heroines! But I discovered one movie which I still love: The Cave of The Golden Rose (also known as Fantaghiro). It’s this weird dubbed-into-English Italian movie, but the heroine is awesome! (there’s more info atò)
    Then there’s a Pixar movie coming out next year that has a similar story line: The Bear and The Bow (In rugged and mythic Scotland, the impetuous, tangle-haired Merida (Reese Witherspoon), though a daughter of royalty, would rather make her mark as an archer) and also Disney’s Tangled, which is a retelling of Rapunzel, but where the heroine has ‘magic’ hair.
    Another one I’d recommend is Avatar The Last Airbender. While not THE main character, Katara has a large role in the series and a great storyline of her own. The TV show is amazing, and there’s a movie version coming soon (August I think).
    You’re right though, there are nearly not enough cool girl main characters.

  12. 23rd March 2010 / 1:38 pm

    God I hadn’t even thought about this as mine are too little for movies yet. But I guess there is a lack of positive female role models. They do tend to be the damsel in distress or just a bit weird (Hermione in Harry Potter), not ballsy or gutsy. Let me know if you find any won’t you? cheers

  13. Vic
    23rd March 2010 / 1:53 pm

    It’s a shame she’s not a bit older cos there’s some great urban fantasy novels out there with some kick ass women in them.
    Unfortunately I can’t remember what I used to read at that age. Even things like Narnia, whilst great childhood books, have an awful lot of girl rescuing.

  14. 23rd March 2010 / 1:58 pm

    Personally I just watched Star Wars over and over again. Princess Leia awakened my 5 year old feminist self without me even realising. Although Luke and Han open her prison cell, she’s the one who ‘rescues’ them all in the end. Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark is another good strong woman. I remember being terribly annoyed by the next heroine in Temple of Doom who always complained about breaking her fingernails.
    Probably too “old” for your daughter, but computer game spin offs are actually often better in showing strong female rolees. e.g. Tomb Raider, Blood Rayne, Resident Evil…

  15. 23rd March 2010 / 2:21 pm

    My two-year old has the same problem, and I am struggling with it, too. We do have a wonderful female superhero on TV over here. She’s very popular. She’s all in pink, but she’s also a police officer in “real life” and is the one that does all the rescuing. It’s just one in a long line of men, though. It’s a tough one.

  16. Gipsy
    23rd March 2010 / 2:37 pm

    LOL @Dan. What you think we need MORE of those sorts of characters? Um just off the top of my head Cruella, Ursula the Sea Witch, and Mrs Coultman (Nicole Kidman’s character in The Golden Compass, which we saw at the weekend – has a strong female lead too though).

  17. 23rd March 2010 / 2:47 pm

    I’d not really thought about this (having a boy, and one who’s not really old enough to care yet at that), but you’re right. That sucks.
    Maybe you should go old school. Was there ever a Pippi Longstocking film? Or what about Annie? Or there’s Shrek? Princess Fiona kinda dispells that helpless maiden rubbish.
    Definitely a gap in the market though.
    (Quick! Jump on it and make a fortune!!)

  18. 23rd March 2010 / 5:37 pm

    The thing is Dan, that wouldn’t be very true to life would it? How many female repressive dictators can you name?
    I on the other hand can name many clever, funny, independent and resourceful women that would make a good role model for my (and Sallys daughter).
    See what I mean?

  19. 23rd March 2010 / 5:41 pm

    The book ‘Princess Grace’ by Mary Hoffman is great. It’s not a swashbuckling story, if that’s what you’re looking for, though there is a bit about real princesses from history, and some of those led their countries into battle. It’s very thoughtful. There’s a great line where Grace decides that sitting around in a pink floaty dress sounds very boring, and I always want to cheer at that point. I think you’d like it.
    I have also seen one or two jokey re-writes of fairy tales (Goldilocks, Red Riding Hood – that kind of thing). We’ve got Princess Pigtoria and the Pea, which is quite funny. Pigtoria is so cross with the pig Prince who put a pea under her mattress, that she goes off with the Pizza delivery pig instead.
    And yes, as littledude’s mummy says, Fiona in Shrek is a great anti-princess.

  20. 23rd March 2010 / 5:51 pm

    My 3 year old daughter has taken this line of thinking one step further, and now often begins her sentences with ‘When I am a boy….’
    I don’t think there’s a huge amount we can do about popular culture. There is Mulan I suppose, but in the end even she hangs up her sword and marries a nice boy like her dad told her to.
    I think the best we can do is try to be good role models for our daughters (and sons) ourselves. We can show our kids that women can be independent and resourceful, strong and good decision makers, and hopefully that will have a lasting influence on them and how they see themselves.

  21. MrsW
    23rd March 2010 / 8:07 pm

    I’d probably better asking my daughter but you mentioned Ponyo and both my older 2 are Manga/Anime freaks and there are a lot of strong female characters to be found there, I am thinking Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, My Neighbour Totoro… ooh loads of them!

  22. 23rd March 2010 / 8:54 pm

    Excellent blog. You’re right there is a real lack of decent role models for girls. I remember watching True Grit (Sunday afternoon special I think) and just wanting to be the girl in it. I worry that my sons don’t learn enough about what women are capable of and that they can’t be cool.

  23. 23rd March 2010 / 9:31 pm

    I asked L (three next month) last week what she wanted to be when she was older and she said “a boy”. I thought it was funny, but now you’ve got me worrying. I don’t have an answer, but I’ll be watching and hoping someone else does soon…
    Although I can’t help thinking that the same must have been true for us, and we still came out thinking that we could be anything we wanted to be (Bugsy Malone? Is Tallullah an appropriate role model?!)

  24. 23rd March 2010 / 9:46 pm

    I actually struggle to find good female role models to show my son! He’s 10, and I don’t want him thinking we’re weak and whiney. Even when I am being weak and whiney. Seems that the only strong females are evil villians…
    During the Olympics, we watched a lot of the women’s sports, including our Gold medal women’s hockey game.
    It is really hard to find any strong females anywhere in media, so I try to concentrate on the sports aspect.
    One movie/book that was pretty decent for a good female lead was Bridge to Terabithia.
    I always wanted to do boy things – but in heels. Red heels. And lipstick.

  25. 23rd March 2010 / 11:36 pm

    Bel (6) is into pirates, cars and dinosaurs yet still loves to wear pink.
    She has just started reading puddle goblins with me and its a book of goblins and snot and snails and she loves it.
    Have tagged you for a meme.. sorry if you’ve had it already.

  26. 24th March 2010 / 6:59 am

    I have the opposite and I am not sure Sally that it’s anything we’ve ever done or said or projected upon them, I think it’s just the way we’re wired. I was just like Flea as a child BIG tomboy even broke my arm at 6 being Tarzan lol. Eliza is at the extreme end of girly, I have to encourage her to get out and get dirty in the garden she’ll come in crying as she has dirt on her hands, she loves princess and the whole lot. Yet she plays dinosaurs and pirates and cars
    My son while only 22 months is at the other end of boy and is quite rough and tumble and into his “boy toys” but one of his fave toys is a baby born, I bought for Eliza but she rarely plays with dolls.
    I think it’s important to just let children be as you are let them set the pace/path for what they enjoy acting out and playing with. My husband almost had a fit when he saw Jerry hushing his baby and pushing it around in his pink stroller 😀 But he knows now after I beat him within a inch of his life that’s it’s OK 😀
    She also loves studio ghibli movies loves Kiki that’s quite a good hero/heroine role. And Bolt. You’re right there is very few female strong roles out there. Well that are suited to a small child!

  27. 24th March 2010 / 12:11 pm

    My four-year-old son wants to grow up to be a girl. Not sure what that adds to this debate, but thought it might balance things out…
    And yes, there is a huge and worrying lack of female role models, particularly in cinema (I think TV is slightly better). It does have an impact, especially in families where parents might not be proactively pushing the ‘geneder equality’ message as effectively as you do.

  28. 24th March 2010 / 5:58 pm

    I’m one of these people that think that its all about the role models provided by family and friends. Children are who they are.
    If you want to give her some strong female role models, when I was little I was inspired by reading biographies of famous women like Amelia Erhart, palaeontologist Mary Anning (theres a fab kids book: Stone Girl, Bone Girl about her) and some of the amazing early Egyptologists like Margaret Murray.

  29. Carrie
    24th March 2010 / 8:35 pm

    This is really interesting. Was just trying to think of my own childhood and I don’t think I was ever aware that the films I enjoyed had strong boy/weak girl characters even though in retrospect as a grown-up feminist I am appalled by them. I think I was always keener on my books and imagining my own stories – Little Women was a favourite from pretty much the very start…
    Re princesses etc – I’m a Rainbow Guide leader and I’ve been a bit disturbed by the “Princess Party” Girlguiding UK have planned for the under 7s as part of the centenary of guiding celebrations. (The Brownies are doing a “Take To The Stage” extravaganza, which isn’t that much better.) But I don’t know if I’m too picky.

  30. 24th March 2010 / 9:32 pm

    absolutely agree. at least we have Peppa Pig here were Peppa is a bit sassy and her mum is really the hero of the show. But i worry about this all teh time – i want a strong feminine character – why is this so hard? They are either feminine with no guts, or tomboys with no female pride. Strong Feminine Women Please!

  31. 24th March 2010 / 11:33 pm

    The Princess and the Dragon by Brod Bagert
    Once upon a time
    In a far-off distant place
    There lived a lovely princess
    With a pretty princess face
    She loved a handsome prince.
    She had loved him all her life
    And deep inside she always knew
    Someday she’d be his wife
    Their world was picture-perfect
    Until that awful day
    A dragon swooped down from the sky
    And carried her away
    But this princess was no wimp;
    She drove a Masserati.
    She was a champion wrestler!
    She had a black belt in karate!
    So when that dragon growled at her,
    the princess knocked him flat,
    and that fire-breathing dragon
    turned into a pussycat.
    She Jogged back to the castle,
    Got home in time for lunch,
    and the prince was glad his princess-bride
    could really pack a punch.

  32. 25th March 2010 / 12:55 am

    How about ‘One Grain of Rice’ by Demi?
    Or ‘A is for Abigail – an almanac of amazing American women’ by Lynne Cheney. I know you are English, but that doesn’t mean she can’t be inspired by Abigail Adams,Amelia Bloomer and Dr. Sally Ride.

  33. Rachael
    25th March 2010 / 8:34 pm

    I second this. My ten year old loves Pippi Longstocking, and loved her as a five year old, too. Once Flea is a little bit older, I’d recommend the fabulous Clarice Bean books by Lauren Child, and Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.
    I think ultimately that the most influential role models for a girl growing up are the women around her. My daughter had her pink princesses and ponies phase, but has grown up into a young person who knows just what she wants out of life. She’s certainly not planning on waiting around for a prince to sweep her off her feet.

  34. 30th March 2010 / 7:01 pm

    Have you watched ‘go diego go’? Both my kids love his big sister Alicia. The main character, Diego, is a boy, but his sister Alicia is the one who drives all the cool vehicles! She is an animal scientist and is smart and strong, there is really no gender sterotyping n the show. My kids (boy and girl) fight over who gets to be Alicia when they pretend play “Diego and Alicia!”!
    Also Mulan is a brave, adventuorous Disney Princess (though she does pretend to be a boy!), my daughter loves her. The movie is kind of scary though.

  35. Karen
    8th April 2010 / 1:07 pm

    Monsters vs Aliens! My son loves “ginormica” (who used to be Susan before she was hit by a meteor on her wedding day) nearly as much as buzz lightyear. she kicks alien ass. she’s really big. she skates. she gives her fiance the flick because he’s an idiot. Its an unexpected delight. really.

  36. karen
    8th April 2010 / 1:17 pm

    … and Monsters Inc (yes, we are all monsters all the time here in 3-year-old boy land) Boo is cool but the best twist is that the most powerful character in the movie turns out to be the shelf-bosomed receptionist of a certain age. Five stars from me. *****