Yes, it is just a summer movie. Yes, it is supposed to be funny. Yes, the minions are cute.
Then why are some people voicing negative feedback after viewing the movie, specifically critiques of sexism? Why are they ‘reading so much into it’?
Because media has undeniable influence over society, of which our children are a part, and this knowledge requires us to think critically about what messages our kids take in.
That is not to say you can’t enjoy the movie and crack up over the funny parts. Do those things. BANANAS!
But be aware there are some problematic themes present pertaining to gender and while not unique to this film, stereotypes of both males and females are reinforced here and serve to reinforce gender stereotypes our kids learn everywhere.
Also be aware this movie isn’t “just a movie”. It is a facet of a multi-million dollar franchise for which apparel, toys, school supplies, Happy Meals trinkets and licensing deals cover America. Put another way: The influence doesn’t stop when your kid skips out of the theater. It has only just begun.
Rest assured a movie with a $115 million opening weekend, making it the second-biggest animated opening ever, will have significant influence over Hollywood. Hollywood loves money, as any business should. As the WSJ reports,“Universal has several projects lined up with Illumination, which continues to be a crucial moneymaking partner for the studio even as the overall animation field becomes more competitive than ever. Two Illumination films will hit theaters next year, and a third “Despicable Me” is scheduled for release in 2017. The “Minions” debut “bodes so well for the future,” said Nick Carpou, Universal’s president of domestic distribution. The studio gave “Minions” its widest North American opening ever, a debut in 4,301 theaters.”
In other words, the team that brought us “Minions” will be producing future stories for which the same thematic problems could (will) reoccur and the studio will squeeze this franchise for every penny it can get into perpetuity.
So what’s the problem?
For starters, the lack of females in the titular minion species.
The reason for this leads to our second problem, the celebration of stupid boys.
A movie review I posted over the weekend from Reel Girl called out the lack of female minions. That point was hotly debated, despite the fact their creator has said in interviews they are all male and intentionally all male. And despite the fact the absence of female characters from media should be weird for people, but such is the result of institutionalized sexism that goes unquestioned and unchallenged by the masses. BANANAS!
Another reason we know there are no female minions?
Our golden little friends lack to formulaic demarcation of femininity used across all animation: pink, pronounced eyelashes, bowed lips and lipstick, high heels, coy body language.
Because kids have already learned male is the default, when characters don’t have these things they are assumed to be male. When I was asking friends for examples, my friend Rebecca shared, “My friend Alia’s son argued with her that he had no eyelashes because he is a boy. (He believed cartoons more than the evidence of his own eyes that eyelashes were a secondary sex characteristic.)”
Another friend Wendy said of her daughter, “Miss K thought the same thing. That real-life boys don’t have eye lashes. I had to point out some very real examples to convince her otherwise.”
Gender and racial imbalance in media impacts children, especially when 72% of protagonists in children’s media are males and 85% of characters are white. It teaches them what is the norm for society and who is desirable.
Common Sense Media explains that “When kids see the same gender stereotypes portrayed over and over again in media, they can become misinformed about how the world perceives them and what they can grow up to be. They may also form judgments about others based on the portrayals they see in stories and images.”
How does this impact from media play out in real life? An example given during the discussion yesterday: Little girls who love Minions being teased or told they are only for boys, or who want to play pretend as a Minion and is told by her playmate she cannot because she is a girl.
The most common reply was “You’re reading too much into things” and “My kids wouldn’t notice that”. Psychologist Aurora Sherman addressed this mindset with, “As a psychologist I can say with confidence that children learn way more than they overtly talk about or can report on; that is the essence of what socialization means. Therefore, the discussion of how male and female characters are portrayed, or what the ratio is in a movie (or book, or whatever) is actually very important, whether you think a child has noticed or not.”
The second problem with the film, and of equal importance, is the celebration of stupid boys. If boys are going to dominate children’s media, we should hold the bar a little higher for them. Co-director and voice of the minions Pierre Coffin explained why we don’t see any female minions with, “Seeing how dumb and stupid they often are, I just couldn’t imagine Minions being girls.”
As my friend Simon Ragoonanan of Man vs Pink said, “I read Pierre’s comment as ‘I just couldn’t imagine girls being funny’.”
Hollywood is already one big frat party, and now the biggest kids’ movie around has people going nuts for idiot yellow henchmen who are so moronic they couldn’t possibly be female? The other side of that coin is that a group of “dumb and stupid boys” is still more desirable than the idea of having any females present?
The blog Amptoons summed it up perfectly: “As often happens, this is sexism that is both anti-girl (because it implies that girls have less than the full range of human traits) and anti-boy (suggesting that boys are inherently “dumb and stupid”).”
That’s hugely insulting to our boys. Why does that not bother people and why do they not notice? We don’t build girls up by knocking boys down.
I’ve heard people argue the lack of female minions is made up for by the female villain Scarlet Overkill and the Queen, who were strong roles in the film. But the film isn’t titled “Scarlet Overkill”, the story is about the simpleton minions around her.
And then one has to question can women be strong only when in the presence of imbecile men, because the “true” hero is missing so it’s either these idiots or a woman? That isn’t exactly winning at feminism, folks.
Yes, the shenanigans of the minions are super funny. But not when they make our sons the butt of their joke. Remember – the creative mind behind the minions said they are all boys because girls would never be this stupid.
In media, although they dominate the lead roles, boys are still limited to these stereotypical roles: The Joker, The Jock, The Strong Silent Type, The Big Shot, The Action Hero, and The Buffoon.
The gender stereotypes throughout children’s media present bigger problems for boys, several have long reaching consequences. Characters like The Strong Silent Type, The Big Shot, and The Action Hero rarely show emotions and traits beyond arrogance, stoicism, and aggression. That fails to give boys a buffet of human experience to draw from. Those messages about masculinity and suppressed emotion carry over into real life when boys are told to “man up” or that “boys don’t cry” or to “stop being a p*ssy” (read: feminine). Society makes sure to emasculate boys who dare to have feelings.
Characters like The Joker, The Jock, and The Buffoon are normally depicted as cave men or clownish cave men. If they have a bright idea or success, it is by total accident. The usually need to be cared for and looked after by a female character. From this boys learn the role of the underachiever. The ‘underachieving boy in school’ alarm has been ringing for some time and is debatable, but from a cultural point of view the “slacker boy” gets to grow up to be the “dumb dad” or “misbehaving bachelor”. Society then treats them as the Homer Simpson dad who can barely manage to “babysit” his own children or the perpetual man-child with a Peter Pan complex.
Boys will be boys, right? From parents thinking boys’ poor behavior is innate and a result of gender to teacher bias that punishes boys to Rape Culture that excuses criminal boys, as a society we don’t hold very high expectations for our boys and men. They still get to run everything from board rooms to the White House (for now), but as long as they stay one notch above apes and not throw their own poop they’re doing just fine.
We can strive to expect more from our sons, yes?
Man. that’s a lot to put on the non-existent shoulders of those darling minions, isn’t it? How are minions wearing overalls if they have no shoulders? And they don’t speak English, but their names are Kevin, Stuart, and Bob? But having a female minion would have been all kinds of crazy? Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
The minions aren’t the issue. They are a symptom of a much bigger problem, one we don’t connect the dots to in order to see the big picture. I want more for my son and daughter, from media as a whole, so I’m choosing to look at this movie with eyes wide open.
Melissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween”. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com.