I first noticed it a couple of summers ago, when we went to see Monsters University as a family. Sulley (the big monster) has been invited to join a fraternity, and is trying to fit in with his potential fraternity brothers, who aren’t making good choices. Mike (the little monster) is trying to excel as a Scarer, and not having any luck. Sulley gets into some trouble—acting out to impress the guys—and Mike tries to save him. They have a moment together, on the edge of an embankment in a wooded area as a team of authorities searches for them—in which Sulley tells Mike he is afraid. Not of being caught, but of being exposed as a fraud, because he’s not so scary after all. When Sulley said that, my ears perked up—this was significant. For my son, for every boy watching that movie, and for our culture.
Monsters University presented us with the difficulty every boy feels in trying to fit into what Jackson Katz terms “the man box.” In his documentary “Tough Guise,” Katz speaks to many young men who describe the pressure to be a “real man”—tough, strong, independent, hard, in control. Katz points out that this concept of masculinity puts men and boys into a box—everyone in it is a “real man.” The box that defines manhood puts a great deal of pressure on boys to conform—and to ridicule and hurt those who don’t. (See my post on Rosalind Wiseman’s Masterminds and Wingmen for more information.) I was happy to see a movie address this issue directly, even if only for a moment.
The following summer, we went to see How to Train Your Dragon 2, and I was even happier. Although I had some issues with the movie—chief among them, the fact that Hiccup’s mother, Valka, is a clear leader and should have been chosen to head the village when a new leader was needed—I saw, again, a different kind of hero. Hiccup doesn’t hide his pain, his fear, or his love—of people or dragons. He is an adventurer with a kind heart who takes after his formidable mother. This is progress. I talked about the movie with my son, and he and I watched the first movie together, as I hadn’t seen it before. We discussed heroes and dragons and the idea that anyone can protect and lead the village—without having to prove it by hurting other people.
Big Hero 6, which we saw last weekend, takes this idea and presents it as a full-blown theme: here, indeed, we have a new hero. I was excited to see this film because I’d read that it is Disney’s most diverse film to date. And indeed it is—the film takes place in a futuristic city, San Fransokyo, where kid-genius Hiro Hamada teams up with a band of brilliant young people from a variety of backgrounds. I enjoyed watching the characters play against stereotype, and the story, in which Hiro looks to understand and then avenge his brother’s death, is a good one. The crux of the film is the lesson Hiro has to learn: a true hero doesn’t seek revenge through violence. Instead, the mark of a hero—here, demonstrated via rebirth imagery that includes a portal and some decidedly placenta-like primordial soup—is willingness to put others first. Hiro learns—through sacrifice and rebirth—that love, not violence, defines a hero.
Now that’s a lesson we need to see in our media.
Margot Macgowan, who writes over at Reel Girl, has rightly pointed out that many recent kids’ films keep a male hero in place. No matter how diverse the cast gets—with females who can “woman up” and people of color who debunk stereotypes, all great stuff—we are still in a patriarchy (albeit a benevolent one) if the hero is always and only a male.
As we move into an era in which the male hero doesn’t hide emotion behind violence, we also need to define our leaders as not only heroes, but heroines. We’ve had some films that do that (Brave, Frozen, Maleficient), but the standard adventure movie is still boy territory: girls get a take or a retake on the princess film. The next level is to provide a playing field in which anyone can be the hero: when you enter the story, you have no idea who’s going to take the lead, but you know that the hero isn’t seeking self via violence, revenge, and repression.
And that means that these adventures will be lead by heroes and heroines who can rescue us all.