Since the earliest days of Chairman Mom, we’ve had threads on how to raise better boys. One thing I’m stunned about is the leadership that kids programming is increasingly taking on this front—particularly in a world where a Gillette ad saying “Hey! Let’s not bully and sexually assault each other!” was deemed an controversial attack on manhood.
Consider a few recent films my kids have watched: Ralph Breaks the Internet, The Lego Movie 2, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the film that beat the Disney/Pixar juggernaut for the Best Animated Film Oscar.
In each of these films, an element of toxic masculinity—once celebrated by the films I grew up with, and even kids films of a decade ago—is implicitly or explicitly dismissed and dismantled.
The “cool/loner/I don’t need anyone” version of Peter Parker is exposed as sad and filled with regret that he didn’t prioritize marriage and family. His arc is to recognize and change that and let down his “crushing it” sarcastic, too-cool walls. The heroes who get him there—who don’t need to make that emotional transition—are a young, skinny Black guy, and mostly women.
In Ralph Breaks the Internet, the “insecurity virus” that breaks the Internet is Ralph’s toxic neediness, insecurity, and desire to control his best friend Vanellope. It’s deep down sadness and loneliness that manifests in an aggressively, masculine, violent and destructive way. Taken to an extreme—online—and you’ve got incels. What saves Ralph, in part? Disney princesses who band together and catch his fall by getting him in a giant Snow White dress. Who are the tough characters in the film, the emotionally resilient ones who get him through this journey? Again, almost all women. The princesses, Vanellope, Yesss, and Shank (who is voiced by Gal Gadot).
The Lego Movie was the most explicit on the topic. It turns out the manipulative presumed Evil Queen wasn’t actually evil at all. That’s just how she was perceived because of the pattern in these types of movies. The bad character is the hyper-masculine raptor-training chiseled Rex Dangervest who wants you to know HE DOESN’T NEED ANYONE!
As it turns out (sorry—spoiler alert!) he only adopted this posturing persona thanks to—you guessed it!—insecurity over rejection turned toxic and violent. While the first Lego movie was about building, he is about destroying. The knock on Emmet is that he’s too positive in what’s become an apocalyptic lego-world. But the twist is that Rex Dangervest is a future Emmet that became what the world around him thought a man should be.
If you think I’m reading too much into the Lego movie, I encourage you to watch it: Most of this is explicit dialog.
The contrast is stark next to an old film my kids have been watching Monsters University and the film that lost Disney/Pixar the Oscar, The Incredibles 2. Plenty of folks have weighed in on how disappointingThe Incredibles 2 was from a gender point of view, so I won’t rehash that. But it’s even jarring now watching something like Monsters University, which revolves around fraternity life. It’s almost a kid-friendly version of all those frat movies of the 80s.
I don’t think there’s anything toxic about Monster’s University. There are clearly not the aspects that are now so disturbing about films like Animal House…but in 2019, my skin crawls a bit at the normalization of the Greek system as “the college experience” in a kid movie. Kinda grisley at a time when fraternities are getting banned from campuses and stats showing how odds of sexual assault increase with each frat party female undergrads attend.
The signals kids get from pop culture go a long way towards shaping their aspirations. It’s worth noting: Major motion pictures don’t take stands like these to be nice. They do it because it sells.
Today’s new questions on Chairman Mom:
- Anyone tried splendid spoon?
- Does everyone’s significant other annoy the ever living shit out of them?