Recently, Chris Routly stood up and said something. Over at Slate, Seth Stevenson has a good piece on how this stay-at-home dad helped encourage Kimberly Clark to change a recent Huggies ad campaign. Since 75% of all diapers are purchased by women, Huggies decided that the best way to sell diapers was with an ad that put Huggies to “the ultimate test,” babies left alone with dads while they watched a football game. According to the world of Kimberly Clark, men are too self-absorbed to be bothered by a dirty diaper until after a two-hour double-overtime game is finished. Presumably, mothers would be impressed that diapers stood the test and would simply gloss over how disrespectful the ad was to their significant other.
One Change.org petition and 1,300 quick signatures later and Chris was receiving phone calls from the executive suite at Kimberly Clark, which changed its ads to show dads interacting positively with their kids. Bully for Chris and, just as importantly, bully for Kimberly Clark. As Stevenson pointed out at Slate, brand marketing is hard to change. If you alienate half the population with your marketing, it will be much harder later to recover that share of the market if purchasing habits change. Kimberly Clark made the smart business move and decided that playing men against women wasn’t in their long term best interests.
Too bad Pixar hasn’t received the memo.
In his article, Stevenson points out that playing men against women in media is an old game, which existed long before political correctness made certain jokes less palatable. Huggies ad executives didn’t sit down and say, “Hey, I have a brilliant new idea for a commercial!” No, they are simply playing a game which has roots going back to the Punch and Judy puppet shows of the middle ages, which were the forerunners of early television shows like the Honeymooners.
So why the eternal battle of the sexes? Human beings are likely unique in the animal kingdom, in that we build our self-identity from stories. Yet for complex and changing concepts, like gender, telling meaningful stories can be difficult. Often a shortcut is taken by making reference to an outsider. It is much easier for human beings to say to a young boy, “Emotions are for girls, so cut out your crying,” than it is to define the rich emotional characteristics which make up a man. Referring to an outsider isn’t the only means by which we as human beings create shared identity, but it seems to be one of the easiest, a path of least resistance if you will. (This kind of laziness isn’t only limited to gender either; race, religion, and nationalism often make identity with reference to an outsider.)
The tragedy produced by this type of lazy gender making creates a gender seesaw on which one gender must be pushed down in order for the other to rise up. In order for men to be strong and powerful in our stories, women must become vapid and hyper-sexualized. In order for women to become intelligent, smart, and resourceful, men must be portrayed as doofuses. Welcome to the culture wars, America. How’s that working for you?
In the new Pixar movie Brave, the core of the problem starts with a weak and unsatisfying story about the relationship between a mother and her daughter. In all its marketing, Pixar has done a marvelous job hiding the main conflict of the film. I won’t wreck it here. Let’s just say that this film is a modern Disney princess story, along the lines of The Little Mermaid. The parent-child relationships and the child’s rebellion are all familiar. There is absolutely nothing groundbreaking in the premise of this film. The moments of tension and the conclusion are utterly predictable once the central canard is revealed. (From a marketing point of view, Pixar has been very wise to hide it.) The only real difference between this princess film and other Disney princess films is the lack of a Prince Charming. But this story isn’t about a girl and her prince. It is about a princess and her mother. So the lack of a romance isn’t really that groundbreaking either. This isn’t a romance film.
Manohla Dargis has an excellent review of the film in The New York Times which explains why the mother-daughter story doesn’t work either. That really isn’t my point. As a man, what bothered me as I watched it with my ten-year-old daughter was that all the girl empowerment in this weak film came by pushing down the men.
You don’t have to look any farther than this trailer to see that men in the film are portrayed as incompetent, uncouth, and ill-mannered, with no more care in the world than their own personal glory or the glory of their clan. I don’t have a problem with any given man being portrayed in this light. That is just good characterization. Some men can and do behave in this manner. My problem is that these characteristics are applied to almost every man in the film. In this way, they become characteristics of the male gender, rather than traits of some individual men.
The stupidity you see in the trailer is surprisingly consistent. At several points in the film, the Queen literally fills the mouth of the King with the lines he should say, because he is stuttering and unable to make even a basic speech to his subjects for himself. As far as I can remember, there are only two moments in the whole film in which a man does something constructive to solve core plot problems. In the first, the King role-plays with his wife an imaginary conversation with their daughter, encouraging the Queen to talk with her. Late in the film, the three adolescent males speak up at a key point, helping resolve the conflict. Yet in the rest of the film, the men act from their pride — their own rash and incompetent point of view. Their incompetence and buffoonery lead to fist fights, the threat of war, and the possible break-up of the Kingdom. The women are left to pick up the pieces and to save the men, not from an outside force, but from themselves. The effect is to exalt the resourceful and competent women over their male counterparts. One gender goes up, while another goes down.
Pixar can do so much better. While in Brave each gender tends to work against the other with their actions, in many other Pixar films male and female characters work together as equals to solve problems. I will only reference the first 15 minutes of Up, the romance of unexpected equals between Wall-E and Eva, and, most importantly, the relationship between Helen and Bob Parr (Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl). In all of these films, different genders worked along side each other, furthering common goals. There was no need to push down on one side of the gender seesaw in order to lift the other side up. Pixar was too good of a storytelling firm to resort to such cheap tricks, until now. We can hope it is an aberration. I worry it is the beginning of the end for Pixar’s independence from the tired Disney gender narratives.
Who cares, right? In a world of rants, why waste your breath when a movie follows common tropes? Because the trope of the stupid, irresponsible male vs. the capable female is coming true in real life. Rates of college attendance among men are dropping, while they are rising among girls. Boys now lag behind girls at every academic level from kindergarten forward. A growing number of college age men self-report feelings of social awkwardness. The stories we tell may not be the only reason for these trends, but they certainly do not help. If we as a society start boys off with family films which show them that their gender is not capable and is only interested in meaningless play and violence, why are we surprised when young boys become just what we expected them to be? We told them they were socially awkward and incapable. For the sake of our boys we need to create new stories which avoid making them look capable at the expense of women and which avoid pushing them down in order to lift women up.
So what is the answer? Shall we as men head to the barricades? GeekDads off to war for the rights of men? Do we try to push back down on the women’s side of the seesaw? I hope not. Women fighting for a better place in our society are not our enemy; the gender seesaw is. Gender is not a zero sum game. Women achieving a better place in our society is good for men. Men finding they are capable and competent is good for women.
What we need to remember is that we are human beings, as well as men and women. When any of us lift ourselves up at the expense of an outsider, we only hurt ourselves. As men we need to speak up like Chris Routly did when he recognized the gender seesaw in a Huggies ad. However, it is equally important that we speak up to our sons about how comic books or video games tend to hyper-sexualize women and give them an identity only in reference to men. Humanity first, gender second. That is the key to ending the gender seesaw.