Childhood is a time of innocence, and it's easy to dismiss children's media as harmless because of the simplicity with which most of its audience will approach it. The truth is all media is created with a message, and the messages we send to our children may be the most important of all. The same innocence with which they approach the world leaves them less equipped to analyze the underlying intentions. As an offshoot to my main blog, See Jane Juggling serves as a place for some analysis on the messages children's media send. My perspective is admittedly biased toward gender and race concerns, but I would love to hear from you about your other viewpoints as well. Rate the media (explanation of ratings to the right) and leave a comment, and together we can shed some light on these complicated decisions.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Last Unicorn

Bankin/Bass Production
Rating: Y


I was afraid to re-watch this movie in order to review it. It was one of my all-time favorites as a child, and I was afraid that re-visiting it with a critical eye would expose it as being full of the stereotypes and limiting messages I'd found in so many other films I'd watched as a child. But I pushed my fear aside, and I'm so glad I did. This film is even better than I remembered!

The Last Unicorn is the journey of a unicorn who seeks others of her kind because she's suddenly discovered she may be the last one. Her travels take her to a castle where a lonely, controlling king has used his monstrous red bull to drive all of the unicorns into the sea in order to quench his thirst for power and his desire to surround himself with joyful things. Along the way, she picks up a bumbling magician named Schmendrick and Molly Grue, the only woman in a band of traveling thieves. With their help, she makes it to the castle, where Schmendrick turns her into a young woman to save her from the red bull. In her new human form, she lives in the castle where she is ruthlessly pursued by the king's adopted son, Prince Lir. As the unicorn begins to lose sense of her identity and struggles with remembering who she is and why she's there, her friends work to figure out how to get to the red bull's secret lair and rescue the unicorns. When they find it, she fears returning to her true form and debates the mission, but her friends (including the prince) help convince her to stay true to herself. She returns to unicorn form, defeats the bull, saves the unicorns, and once again reigns as protector of her forest, leaving behind the life she momentarily knew as a human.

In addition to being a fairly intricate and unique storyline (based on the novel by Peter S. Beagle, who also did the screenplay), it is also beautifully animated with an excellent score.

The Good

This film is filled with powerful women. The unicorn herself sets out on a dangerous and frightening journey because she knows she must save the rest of her kind. She leaves the safety and comfort of her forest home to do so, fully aware of the risks but determined to do the right thing. Along the way, she becomes a spectacle and an object of desire. When men try to capture her, she fights back and escapes. She is momentarily captured by Mommy Fortuna, a witch who runs a traveling circus, but she escapes by setting free the Harpy, the only other creature of the circus that is real and not an illusion of Fortuna's spells.  Even the villains are powerful women.

As a woman, the unicorn faces the pressures to conform to the traditional fairy tale. The prince tries to woo her by slaying dragons and acting as a traditional hero. By defying the stereotypical "fair maiden," she also teaches Prince Lir that he can step outside of his stereotypical role. In the end, Lir steps in to save her from the bull, but he fails and is killed. The unicorn (returned to her true form) brings him back to life, the one thing she can do to show that she was touched by human emotions, but not enough to give up her identity.

I also really appreciate the complexity with which the identity struggle unfolds. Prince Lir (and the traditional life he offers) is not vilified or over-simplified. Instead, the unicorn must make grand decisions about who she is and what she wants from her life. As the video above shows, that's not an easy choice, and I think that's a realistic portrayal of the identity struggles we all undergo, and it's a powerful message for children to see. 

The Bad

The unicorn's human form does adhere to stereotypical standards of beauty, with long, flowing hair, big round eyes, and a very thin frame. The human version is also shown to be fairly weak. She spends a lot of her time whining about her confusion and waiting inactive for someone else to unravel the riddle of the castle. The human form is not nearly as strong of a female role model as the unicorn.

There is virtually no racial diversity in this film. Also, the human form is supposed to be strikingly beautiful, and she is very, very white. Her hair is white. Her clothes are white. Her skin is white. While this is a reflection of the transformation from an all-white unicorn, it also portrays a white body as the most beautiful.

Bottom Line-

The Last Unicorn offers a complex look at identity struggles through the lens of a well-developed quest story. Featuring strong female characters in the protagonist, the villains, and the secondary characters, it demonstrates multiple versions of femininity. It offers an alternative to the traditional story of romance and strongly promotes the message of discovering who you are and being true to yourself.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Mighty B!

The Mighty B!
Rating: M (G, R)

Overview- There's a lot to like about the idea of this cartoon. Co-creator Amy Poehler voices the main character Bessie Higgenbottom, an excessively ambitious 10-year-old "Honeybee Scout" who aims to earn every merit badge (all 4000+) and become a super hero: The Mighty Bee.

Bessie is extremely loud and obnoxious. The qualities alternate between endearing and infuriating. The plot lines focus around Bessie's outcast status and her ambition. Each episode offers some dilemma (she's too short to ride the carnival ride, she needs to win a dog show to get the "Pet Appreciation Badge" but has no dog) and then shows a series of outrageous, obnoxious, and--above all--persistent strategies to overcome the challenge.

The Good-

Bessie definitely defies a lot of stereotypical portrayals of girlhood. She's clumsy, wears glasses, has buck teeth, and doesn't have any characteristics that are overtly "pretty" or "sexy." Her goal to become a super hero is a direct attempt to defy stereotypes that portray little girls as princesses, and this messages becomes even clearer when Bessie is shown interacting with the popular girls from her scout troop, stereotypical girly-girls that are portrayed as vapid and often cruel. The show does not glorify popularity, and it does not shy away from the fact that Bessie is mocked and ostracized by many of her peers.

Despite this treatment, Bessie is not anti-social. She has an enthusiastic and loving relationship with her mother, a tolerable relationship with her brother, and is clearly known and liked by adults she meets  as she zooms through town.

She also demonstrates qualities that girls are often discouraged from portraying: persistence, directness, curiosity, and the ability to use connections to get ahead.

The portrayal of Bessie's mom is also interesting. In the episodes I watched, there is no father figure in sight. Her mother is shown working often, sports a tattoo, and is overweight. Most cartoon characters drawn the way she is are portrayed as lazy and uncouth. But the mom, however tired and overworked, is a loving provider.

The Bad
 Bessie, for all of her powerful girl-positive portrayals, still exists in a world where stereotypes persist. Most of the other women (especially the popular Honeybee Scouts) still fit into stereotypical norms.
Bessie is only able to be powerful and ambitious by accepting outsider status and retreating into friendships with imaginary playmates and her dog.

Despite being set in an urban landscape, the show didn't have much racial diversity in the episodes I watched. What diversity I saw was disappointingly portrayed. In the first episode, Bessie enters a Chinese restaurant. The characters in the restaurant are crudely drawn Asian stereotypes and--as Bessie slips into one of her superhero fantasies--they transform into kung fu fighting enemies she must defeat before being rewarded by Mr. Wu with a dumpling. While I know that not every show is going to be able to work to actively dismantle both gender and racial stereotypes, it is very important that it doesn't actively promote them.

Bottom Line-
I like the idea of The Mighty B! more than the execution. The protagonist has a lot of potential to break down gender stereotypes, but the delivery falls short. While Bessie does portray a strong-willed, driven female character, she is only able to do so at the cost of being ostracized, so I wonder how much of a role-model she would be to older girls. And I do think this show is geared toward older children. The scenes change quickly and the messages are hyperactive and erratic, and recent research shows these fast-paced shows might not be good for young children's development. Finally, the show does a poor job of dealing with race, falling into stereotypical portrayals.

And, though this isn't really about the messages it sends, the hyperactive plot lines, high-pitched tirades, and general silliness make for pretty nerve-grating viewing experience.

What Other People Say-
You can see some reviews of the show from Common Sense Media and an Parent Guide.