A Look a Gender in Children’s Cinema
Atlantis: The Lost Empire (Disney, 2001, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise) is not original by Disney’s standards, race and gender cartoon archetypes or many of the other characteristics that indicate the typical genre conventions of children’s cinema. Instead, it shows its uniqueness by not falling prey to the whole formula used by other directors to produce a moneymaking movie that kids nag their parents to see and that adults plop their kids in front of as a baby-sitter. Atlantis is not the break-through, progressive movie that questions industry habits or societal norms, but it does put race relations, semi-non-traditional protagonists and the importance of education and cultural preservation at the forefront of its storyline.
Firstly, it is important to acknowledge the elements that make Atlantis an average film in the genre. Like a laundry list, certain aspects also seen in numerous other kids’ movies can be checked off: the film explores the demise of a royal family, the female lead is a princess, the female lead is hetero-sexual, almost all the female characters are hyper-sexualized, the male protagonist must save the royal family and its people after being begged by the female lead, the female lead’s mother disappears/dies when she is a little girl (thus she has never had a ‘proper’ role model), the male protagonist lost both his parents at an early age, the male protagonist is white and hetero-sexual, the male protagonist is more knowledgeable than the female lead (about her own culture, she is illiterate and only he can translate the written word of her people), the female lead is gawked at openly by several male characters (with and without her knowledge), the male protagonist’s goal is to fulfill a dream of his grandfather’s (i.e. patriarchal pride, almost all of the characters are trying to fulfill a dream of their fathers’), there is a clearly defined bad guy (who is a “foreigner” – with a twist), there is a fight / violent scene in which the male protagonist must save the female lead who is in danger and cannot help herself and, last, but not least, the male protagonist and the female lead wind up together by the end of the movie. For most of Disney’s films and other producers and distributors of children’s cinema, it can practically be assumed that this list is handed off to the scriptwriter prior to the completion of the story in order to fill the standard format. Even with the fields of gender studies and children’s psychology consistently publishing work on the topic, few things have changed.
As for the aspects of the film that are atypical, there are many, but perhaps not enough to clean the slate and wipe away the stereotypes it is also laden with. Nonetheless, these differences need to be discussed for their importance in making Atlantis one of Disney’s more “conscious” movies. To start off, characters of multiple ethnicities, nationalities and backgrounds are featured in speaking roles (including Hispanic, French, Italian, African-American, Southern-American and, of course, Atlantian – each has a special talent or skill that makes them invaluable to the plot), both of the supporting female characters are more technologically advanced than rest of the male characters, one of supporting female characters holds military rank and is addressed with her title throughout (and the film is set in 1914) and there is an appreciation for a foreign culture, not just a foreign love interest.
Although several gender-related observations have been already pointed out, these dynamics are more influential with the context of the whole film. While watching, I could not help but to question the choices of the “binary” and wonder why the film-makers did not choose to perhaps explore an alternate caste for the Atlantians, maybe one with no gender or at least with more than two. Additionally, even though Atlantis is described as being far below sea level in a secret “cave,” the women are clothed in tight dresses and bikini tops as if they were influenced by Summer Sale commercials in the modern-day West. Apparently practicality was lost on this lost civilization, at least according to Disney.
As explored in the course article, “Hetero-Romantic Love and Heterosexiness in Children’s G-rated Films” (Martin and Kazyak), hetero-romance plays a role in uniting the main characters, but, thankfully, is not the goal of the movie. It plays a minor part post-climax as closure to the audience to assure the future of Atlantis (and to suggest a sequel). To further the affair, the female lead has to flaunt her wears and the male protagonist has to prove his worth through intellect. The classic innocent vixen trope is displayed when the female lead undresses to go swimming and the male protagonist’s eyes bulge slightly as he trips over his words. “Do you swim?” she says. “Uh, pretty girl, uh, uh, I meant, pretty good,” he replies. This odd idea of the woman being aware and unaware of her appeal at the same time is tricky and sometimes hard to recognize. It is an elusive look or a flirtatious action, often followed by a sincere comment to diffuse her sexual awareness, but increase his, which is acceptable.
Examining the male protagonist more closely, we notice that he does not fit the bill of the normal, masculine hero. He is scrawny and academic and made fun of for both traits. “You are a scholar, no less?” the female lead inquires. “With your diminished physique and large forehead you are suited for nothing else!” He is not set on finding a maiden or damsel in distress, instead he is hopeful in his hunt for history and heritage. His adventure is one of identity. His tools are education, dedication and empathy. Nonetheless, while his uniqueness begins the adventure, it is brute force, fast action and violent combat that saves the day. One moment he doubts his ability to lead and the next he is leading makeshift troops into a fiery battle to save the female lead, who, by this point in the story, is literally an object.
As the climax begins to ramp up, the female lead, for one reason or another, transforms into a holy statue, a glowing figurine frozen by a mystical crystal that binds her community. She is not a woman, definitely not a person, but a representation of the female form. The “bad guys” kidnap her in this state to bring her back to the modern world to sell her as an artifact. In other words, her autonomy is lost when she sacrifices herself and identity for her culture. She cannot have it all.
Caricatures in certain cases, when used in clever ways, can explain a cultural identity, understanding or phenomena that only parody can. By utilizing a stereotype to prove an idea about how such a generalization came to being so widely accepted, a lesson is learned and a comedy is often played out. On the other end, when a formula of tropes is repeated over and over without active commentary, such as in children’s movies where the target audience is obviously not media, politically or gender literate, lessons are learned lacking realistic dialogue to balance the digested material. This is the weary consequence of reusing the same story and characters in a loop with no responsibility for the messages being created, interpreted and internalized.