"There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference." --June Jordan

Thursday, April 9, 2009

My Antifeminist Childhood: Swiss Family Robinson Edition

For me, gaining a feminist consciousness has been accompanied by a process of reconciling the now-painfully-obvious sexism in the movies, TV shows, games, and whatnot I grew up enjoying. There are enough of these things that I decided to start a new series: "My Antifeminist Childhood".

I re-watched the 1960 Disney film Swiss Family Robinson over the weekend, and I was reminded of all its not-so-subtle messages about gender. As a little girl, this movie taught me that men and boys are capable of anything. That they are strong, fearless, adventurous, and resourceful, and that women are useful here and there but need lots of gentle treatment and extra help.

First, the men of the family build and then reveal their elaborate tree house to their wife/mother, all the while driving home the point that she is afraid of wild animals, climbing things and being up high. She, of course, is especially excited about her new kitchen:



Then, Fritz and Ernst sail around the island and end up rescuing a "cabin boy" from a bunch of pirates. They treat him roughly and remark to each other how soft and "sissy" he seems, and when they discover that he is actually a girl in disguise, they turn on the chivalry and begin competing for her attention.



Naturally, this girl (Roberta) is completely incapable of getting along without the boys' constant help and attention, and when Fritz is attacked by a giant snake in the swamp, she can only clutch a tree and scream instead of help out.



I get that it was made in pre-Second Wave 1960, but I grew up watching it over and over in the 80s, and there's no way it didn't have some sort of effect on my ideas about gender roles. I suppose if I had really wanted to, I could have tried to identify with one of the adventurous boys in the film, but instead (like most little girls watching movies with no strong female characters), I used to try to figure out which one I had the bigger crush on (definitely Ernst, by the way).

15 comments:

tracy said...

The movie that really ticked me off when I was a kid was Cinderella (especially during the making of the dress scene).

Tracey said...

It's funny. I remember totally loving the dress-making scene in Cinderella when I was little, but I'm sure it would bug me now.

Rosa said...

Every time someone gives our son a movie or book I loved as a kid, i have to shudder and fear.

The Disney stuff is the *worst* because people assume it's benign. Peter Pan, for instance, which is not only sexist but also astonishingly racist. Apparently the Aristocats (which my kid got for Easter from his grandma) is only sexist, not racist. I made my partner watch it so I didn't have to, since I loved it so much as a kid.

I'm going to follow this series if you keep doing them, because as a kid of the '80s my entire childhood is available on DVD instead of safely in my memory.

funambulator said...

I totally know what you mean, tracy. It's the mouse lyrics:

Boy Mice: I'll cut it with the scissors. And I can do some sewing!

Girl Mice: Leave the sewing to the women! You go get some trimmin'!

Bleh.

Evo said...

I know the feeling. I recently watched "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" for the first time since my childhood. OMG! I actually thought, when I was a kid, that the brothers "kidnapping" all those women was ROMANTIC! The horror!!!

snobographer said...

You know what fries my ass in retrospect? 'Happy Days. They made that at the height of the second wave and the black civil rights era, set it in a Northern Migration city, and all they bothered to do with it was make 'Leave it to Beaver: The Post-Pubescent Years.'
At the time though, I crushed on Richie Cunningham just for seeming like the least likely one of the gang to assault a girl on a date. Like wow give that guy a merit badge.

Marla said...

This really caught my eye because I also grew up watching this movie. I was born in 1961, so I was seeing it when it was fairly new. The thing is, I remember my friends and I playing SFR, and I always played Ernst and Donna always played Fritz. None of us ever played the "girl" parts, because they were boring and useless. I played Batman, Donna played Robin, Kathy played the Bad Guy. No one ever played Catwoman or Batgirl.

We identified with the exciting, fun roles. Not many years later, however, I can remember being indoctrinated into the idea that it was somehow inappropriate for me to play a boy role, which was not an idea I cherished; I was very resistant to assuming the female identity and was a "tomboy" for most of my younger years.

It makes me realize how much brainwashing goes into creating this female persona that a lot of people believe is really the natural expression of genes and hormones. It's not.

In some ways I'm glad I grew up when I did, instead of when you young people did. I came of age in the heyday of feminism--it's horrifying to me to see how much ground we've lost. At 12 or 13 years old, I would never have believed that these same arguments would have to be made again, over and over, every generation.

Anonymous said...

Apparently the Aristocats (which my kid got for Easter from his grandma) is only sexist, not racist.

Don't watch it if it's too painful :D, but there is this scene, which is heavy on the chop-socky Asian stereotyping (it starts around 1.30 on the video).

OTOH, you could probably make an argument that showing a multi-ethnic/multi-racial (well, aside from the fact that they're cats!) jazz band *was* being progressive for Disney in the 70s, so yeah...

- Scarlett

Emy Augustus said...

I'm really liking your 3 part series of your antifeminist childhood. esp this one and the one about street fighter. I recently watched Slum Dog millionaire, and while the movie was good, I was really annoyed by how the basic basic plot is still the same as soooo many movies out there. Which is Boy as the main character and hero and rescues the beautiful girl that he loves. so annoying.

Tracey said...

Emily Augustus: I know what you mean! I thought Slumdog Millionaire was beautiful, but the only girl in it was such a victim in need of rescue.

plumpdumpling said...

Don't tell Kamran I said this, but "gentle treatment" and "extra help" are his middle names"

Nia said...

I never saw that movie, but there was an an animated series, probably Japanese, called "The Robinson Family", that used to infuriate me because the middle child, a girl, was always the butt of every joke, or rather, all the moral points where aimed at her. One of her brothers could also tease her with no reprimands from the parents.

About Slumdog Millionaire, I thought it was illustrating three basic ways to deal with random, crushing violence: the older brother followed "if you can't beat them, join them" logic, the girl became submissive, and the younger brother just kept trying to slide by and blend in as discreetly as possible. I didn't find it particularly sexist in the sense that the "hero" is a victim of the circumstances as much as the girl.

Anonymous said...

Just curious to know if a man like I am are welcome in a antifeminist guilde? info@intercultural-elearning.com (No bad judgement, just question)

Anonymous said...

I did an error not antifeminist but feminist, but the question is the same. I believe in the equity for all, of course. I know too that we are all humans children of women and men.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, my kids are watching this and we are having a discussion about how women are portrayed and how the movie could be different if they had treated the women as equals.