This weekend “Finding Dory” opened to enormous box office success, which is important for a sequel driven by a female character. My family and I join in on the positive reviews, we all really loved the film.
Except for one really important part.
The movie offers marginal gender balance (two of the six main characters are female) but the film redeems itself by depicting the female characters as the heroes (Dory, Destiny, Becky). It is a beautifully animated, so much so my kids kept turning to me asking “is this real life?”
The story has a central theme – the importance of family bonds, those we are born to and those we make along our journey in life. My husband and I were very touched by tender moments between Dory and her parents (the lines of sea shells, anyone?). No matter what path you take in life, love will bring you home.
Friendship, courage, empathy, self confidence, and teamwork all are strong story components. As the character arcs play out we see different vulnerabilities and idiosyncrasies of many characters, especially our main characters. Destiny the whale shark has poor eyesight that impacts her swimming, Bailey the beluga is super dramatic and convinces himself his sonar does not work, Marlin is his usual pessimistic self, Nemo has his little fin, and Hank the octopus (actually, a septopus due to a lost tentacle) is terrified of the kiddie touch pool and the open ocean. Most obvious of all is Dory’s short term memory loss, and we see her struggle to overcome this while being open about her condition and unafraid to ask for help.
As the film played out I was touched by the way Pixar showed Dory’s parents teaching her in ways that gave her the skills she needed to be independent and “normal”. I have a daughter with anxiety and I completely identified with having to do things differently in order for my girl to feel like she could do what all the other kids were doing with ease.
Having a kid who is different is not easy.
It was heartwarming how the six main characters accepted one another’s quirks and encouraged one another to triumph despite them. In many ways, the film can serve as an important vehicle to opening meaningful conversations about disabilities and differently abled people.
Unfortunately two characters were not afforded the same inclusion and acceptance, which left me feeling very uncomfortable with certain scenes in the film.
Gerald is a sea lion who is goofy looking, does not speak, and moves and behaves in a way that differs from the other two sea lions we meet, Rudder and Fluke. In fact, we see Rudder and Fluke bully Gerald. All for laughs from the audience. Their behavior isn’t used as a teachable moment, instead the neuroatypical Gerald is used as a punchline.
Schools and parents do a lot of work these days to teach kids to stand up to bullying, to be an active witness instead of a silent bystander, and to recognize the power of kindness. Gerald’s character could have been treated much differently and still been silly.
I know kids who are a Gerald. They aren’t punchlines. They are human beings who do not deserve to be bullied nor ostracized.
Becky is a loon with a bizarre appearance and she behaves differently from the rest of her flock. While her character serves a purpose, her “differentness” is again exploited by Rudder and Fluke. Marlin is openly hostile to her. Her appearance is meant to be jarring, and we see characters react strongly to her with little tact or respect. Becky doesn’t talk but she does make strange noises, another punchline. In a movie with only two of the six main characters cast as female, and two of the five side characters as female, it would have been nice to have Becky portrayed differently.
The movie makes the distinction if you are different but look and behave mostly “normal” (Dory, Nemo) you are accepted, but if you look or act oddly you are the butt of the joke and used by the other characters. Gerald and Becky are most definitely outsiders. This post and this post do a nice job of explaining why this made many viewers uncomfortable or downright upset.
David Chen for slashfilm.com summarized the scenes very succinctly: “Both of these characters feel like cheap jokes. For the kids that are in the audience, they send a pretty clear message: It’s okay to laugh at people who are different, or who aren’t as smart as you are. Sure, Dory is differently abled. But she doesn’t fundamentally look/function different than most of the other characters in the film. Becky and Gerald, though, are fair game. For a movie that’s all about how anyone can achieve anything, that’s disheartening and inconsistent.”
There are a lot of kids who are Gerald’s and Becky’s. I don’t think they are jokes. I think more often than not, they are the best of us.
My friend Jennifer and I were discussing this aspect, and her words perfectly sum up my feelings on Gerald and Becky’s roles: “I really, really struggled with the Gerald character. It made me absolutely cringe. I wasn’t happy with it and it seemed completely unnecessary. At least Becky, they show how the world looks through her eyes (literally) and they portray her as someone who is a useful member of that society. But the mocking and bullying of Gerald? Totally not OK.”
I know Gerald’s and Becky’s so I talked to my kids about this aspect of the film. I’ve been bullied, it is a miserable experience. This is a wonderful family film and your family should go see it. The good messages definitely outweigh the bad, but the bad messages still need to be addressed. When our children know better they can do better.
I feel like a fish out of water for saying something negative about a film that is so widely loved. And I did love the love the film. But I don’t love cruelty, and frankly our nation has enough of that going on right now. I know there are kids off the screen who could be negatively impacted by the acceptance of treating Gerald’s and Becky’s cruelly. With a platform the size of Pixar’s I would have appreciated if respect and inclusion had been a tenant throughout the film.
Like Charlie taught Dory, “There is always another way.” Let’s choose instead to take good care of each other.
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.