Female characters in children’s animated movies

Recently, a friend loaned me her copy of the 2005 animated movie “Robots,” because I’d never seen it and missed a cultural reference she’d lobbed at me. I got a few belly laughs out of the slapstick comedy and Robin Williams’ sidekick antics.


However, I found myself getting irritated by the movie. Why, in this film about robots, which had no restriction of storyline whatsoever in terms of gender (no preestablished backstory, such as films based on old fairytales, etc.), was the main character, a plucky inventor, a male character?

Because only boys are inventors? Because the audience wouldn’t like or “believe” a movie with a female inventor? When half of the target audience is female? What kind of implicit message is being sent to impressionable kiddos here? What kind of effects will this have on career choice later in life, and how does that impact our society?

The main speaking female characters in Robots are:  the generic “mom” character, a bumbling landlady whose defining trait is having a huge posterior, an enterprising kid sister in the background who has a token “save the day” moment, the root-of-all-evil overbearing mother as the film’s arch villain, and the (curvy, thin) company gal (the only female in the boardroom of Bigweld Industries) who does have some wicked skating skills and takes part in the action but who ultimately serves as the support/foil and love interest for the male lead.

I took my irritation and poured that energy into a small investigation. I looked up the gender track record of children’s animated films in the past ten years. To narrow things down and make the search reasonably quick, I used Wikipedia lists of the top ten highest-grossing films of each year (resorting to IMDb for 2005 and 2006, when the Wikipedia entries only listed the top five films). I also decided to narrow the films to those with a solely U.S. country-of-origin listing (per Wikipedia).

I looked for two specific pieces of data for each film – did the plot hinge on a lead female character, and did the film pass the Bechdel test.

I relied on Wikipedia plot summaries to make a male/female binary judgement call for the lead character driving the plot. For a few movies – Rio 2, The Simpsons Movie, and The Croods – it was tough, since female characters played major roles, as per the summaires, but for these films, I wound up choosing “male” because the plot seemed to hinge around a lesson for the main male character.

The Bechdel test is a rudimentary rubric invented by a comic strip artist to identify the active presence of women in a movie and serve as a measure of sexism, with three criteria a film must meet in order to pass:

  1. The film has to have at least two [named] women in it.
  2. The women have to talk to each other.
  3. Their conversation must be about something other than a man.

The test sets a pretty low bar – a 10-second conversation about shoe shopping could qualify a film.

I used a volunteer-driven database to determine whether a film passed the test. Of the 69 films that made my list, 58 were evaluated on the site.

Here are my results:

Of the 69 U.S.-origin top-grossing animated films between 2005-2014, just 8 had a clearly leading female character (you read that right – EIGHT) – a sorry 12 percent. Of the 58 films that were evaluated with the Bechdel test, 45 percent passed (26 films).

U.S. animated films within the top-ten-highest-grossing between 2005-2014 that featured a female lead character

2005 – Hoodwinked


2009 – Coraline


2009 – Monsters vs. Aliens


2009 – The Princess and the Frog


2010 – Tangled


2012 – Brave


2013 – Epic


2013 – Frozen


U.S. animated films within the top-ten-highest-grossing between 2005-2014 that passed the Bechdel test

Films that failed the Bechdel test:

Films that did not have a Bechdel test rating at the time I checked: Chicken Little (2005), Pooh’s Heffalump Movie (2005), Barnyard (2006), Curious George (2006), Over the Hedge (2006), Bee Movie (2007), Surf’s Up (2007), Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008), Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008), A Christmas Carol (2009), Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012).

There were several films where a male lead were presupposed by a book plot – Curious George, Pooh’s Heffalump Movie, Horton Hears a Who, The Lorax – or, in the case of sequels, by a previous films – e.g., the Madagascar and Shrek sequels. There were a couple of female-lead films on the list that owed their main characters to literature, too: Tangled (Rapunzel), Hoodwinked (Little Red Riding Hood), and The Princess and the Frog.

True, the male-dominated pre-established plots could be re-imagined, but I tend to give them more leeway than other films where there was no reason to have a male lead.  Why do the lead machines in Planes and Cars and WALL-E all have to be male? They are machines, and machines have no gender! Why do the lead animal protagonists in Madagascar, Over the Hedge, and Ice Age have to be male? Worse yet, in two animal-based films where the lead characters should have been biologically female, they were changed to male! Barnyard features COWS – WITH UDDERS – who are supposedly a father/son duo, and Bee Movie features male honeybees considering jobs in honey production and pollen collection, when the worker bees that perform those duties in real life are always female. (*facepalm*)

I find this so frustrating because I can see how this is both a reflection of and a model for discrimination against female humans in the real world.

I’ve run out of time and energy to insert much more of a rant here, but for further reading on how women and girls are portrayed on screen, and the implications of those portrayals, check out this 2014 report, Gender Bias Without Borders. Also, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media rocks! I’m heartened by the fact that filmmakers are now thinking more about how films can be tweaked to be more representative of females.

One more quick aside: take a look at the movie posters for the eight films featuring female lead characters and think about what that says for racial minorities in animated children’s films. There’s a lot to be discussed there, too.

Copyright 2015 by Katie Bradshaw

4 thoughts on “Female characters in children’s animated movies

    • Sympatico! Erica, you rock! (The video link didn’t work though. When I tried to fix it, I wound up with an instructional video on how to speak in the negative in French.)

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