My two best friends and I were three lonely children growing up in the ’90s without siblings for playmates. We eventually found each other, but we also found comfort and adventure in a spate of intelligent films about girls like us—heroines of non-franchised stories set in the real world rather than a computer-generated one. There was Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, Sara Crewe of A Little Princess, Fiona in The Secret of Roan Inish, and the protagonists of Matilda, Harriet the Spy, Fly Away Home, The Parent Trap, and Ponette. These girls were too young for love triangles or battling dystopian forces. Their stories and conflicts varied, but they served to eventually reveal certain qualities: resilience, imagination, audacity, and compassion.
Another thing these films have in common is that they came out decades ago. Today’s audiences rarely see movies like The Secret Garden and Matilda—live-action works for and about younger girls that celebrate the ambition and resourcefulness of their protagonists. For studios, big-budget sequels and reboots and remakes dominate the day. Kids’ movies as a whole are usually animated and/or feature protagonists who are a bit older (or four-legged). Combine that with other systemic problems like outdated ideas about gender and marketing, as well as a dearth of female writers and directors, and the result is a cinematic landscape for girls that’s in some ways less rich today than it was 20 years ago.
Though modern films with boy protagonists are also increasingly animated (Big Hero 6, Sanjay’s Super Team), there are still a few live-action options with young heroes who use ingenuity and courage to solve problems (Pan, The Jungle Book). But within the broader context of storytelling, toys, and costumes for children, boys have traditionally been permitted to fill a wide range of exciting roles (pirates, superheroes, ninjas, astronauts). Girls, meanwhile, tend to be slotted into a narrower range of character types (princesses chief among them), making it that much more valuable when films present alternatives young female viewers can relate to. The problem is even worse for young girls of color, who historically haven’t seen many images of themselves on screen, animated or otherwise (though films like the upcoming Moana seem to offer some hope that might change for the better).
Nineties films like The Secret Garden or Matilda—many of which were, incidentally, adaptations of books—offered alternatives at the time. Their protagonists healed people and places, primarily through hard work and compassion, not magic. Even Matilda, who could move objects with her mind, was more interested in pursuing an education than in strengthening her powers. Fiona of Roan Inish, Sara of A Little Princess (not about an actual princess), and Mary of The Secret Garden didn’t happen upon adventure accidentally: They practically curated the adventures themselves. These films also exposed their viewers to more grown-up themes and ideas, such as grief and loneliness, and even classism, racism, and war—acknowledging the emotional capacity and maturity of their young viewers, rather than infantilizing them.
Since the ’90s, Hollywood has made small strides when it comes to better depicting women and including them behind the scenes, and yet there are fewer high-quality movies for girls being made today. “The industry is still overwhelmingly male,” said Kathy Merlock Jackson, a communications professor at Virginia Wesleyan College. And men, she added, “write stories that resonate with them, about their experiences growing up.” Pixar creates some of the best children’s films today, but since most of the people who work there are men, the studio produces more movies about boys’ lives, Jackson said.
Almost no Pixar movies feature female protagonists, with one notable exception: 2015’s wonderful Inside Out, which revolved entirely around the anthropomorphic emotions in an 11-year-old girl’s head. But even that film didn’t have a female director, and there don’t seem to be many attached to the movies on Pixar’s horizon. The problem is bigger than a single studio: The federal government is investigating the entertainment industry for gender discrimination after the ACLU argued that women are routinely excluded from directing jobs.
Though female authors such as J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins are behind Hollywood’s most popular young-adult material, the directors who adapt those stories are usually men. (This was also the case with many of the great ’90s films mentioned earlier.) An international study conducted by Dr. Stacy L. Smith at USC Annenberg and funded in part by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that fewer than one-third of all speaking characters in films are female, although “films with a female director or female writer attached had significantly more girls and women on-screen.” It stands to reason that getting more women, especially women of color, behind the scenes of children’s movies would lead to an increase in characters who better reflect the makeup of their young audiences.
Another challenge in creating more girl-centric films is the assumption that “girls will go to boys’ films, but boys will not go to girls’ films,” said Jackson, who pointed to the example of Disney picking the name Tangled over Rapunzel (it also used Frozen instead of The Snow Queen). Gender doesn’t strictly matter as a point of identification; kids can relate to anything if given the chance, even inanimate objects. Still, it’s important for young girls to see images of themselves onscreen—to realize their personal stories can have universal relevance, and that they needn’t exist merely as extensions of male characters.
Films like Frozen, Twilight, and The Hunger Games exemplify how kids movies with female stars tend to feature young women more than girls. “The marketing philosophy in Hollywood is that younger [female] audiences are ‘aspirational’ and will watch older girls, but that older girls won’t ‘watch down,’” said Susan Cartsonis, the producer of What Women Want and Where the Heart Is. The result is that movies for younger viewers can feature more sexualized female protagonists (consider how the figure and appearance of Ariel in Disney’s Little Mermaid titillated male film critics at the time).
Even outside of movies, girls are exposed to pop-culture messages that sexualize them from a young age, which can lead to unhealthy attitudes about self-image. Having younger female characters star in their own films helps to counteract that pattern. “The truth is that themes for girls are also themes women carry with them through their teen years, young-adult years, middle age, and old age,” said Cartsonis. “Friendship, and the discovery of powers or identity they didn’t know about or underestimated—these themes work at every age.”
Professor Ian Wojcik-Andrews of Eastern Michigan University highlights another roadblock for filmmakers: the lack of a tried-and-true genre for the pre-pubescent girl. “There is no mythological framework for the 11- or 12-year-old child, particularly the girl,” said Wojcik-Andrews. He explained that while movies for older children like The Hunger Games regularly draw on tropes from Ancient Rome and King Arthur, there’s no popular narrative archetype for younger children, especially girls, that Hollywood studios are eager to market.
All of these gender-specific challenges to making films for girls are playing out against a backdrop where live-action films for children have largely disappeared, or rather, been “decimated,” as Melissa Silverstein, the founder and editor of the blog Women and Hollywood, put it. “A lot of [actors] have migrated to TV,” Silverstein said. “That’s where the good roles are.” There are far fewer child actors in the central roles of kids’ movies today, and many have been replaced by older characters or cartoons.*
Indeed, kids’ viewing habits have changed significantly in the last decade or so. “What children are engaged with now is not as much film as it is television, Netflix, or Amazon,” said Lynne McVeigh, an associate professor of television and children’s media at New York University. She said it makes little sense for studios to bother with expensive movies for the younger demographic, since teens are more likely to go to the movies. “I don’t think it’s a bad or good thing—it’s just changed,” she said, pointing to shows like Doc McStuffins (about an African American girl who plays doctor to her toys), Peg + Cat (an educational math program), and Angelina Ballerina as standout examples on TV.
There’s a silver lining to all this: With more alternative forms of film and TV release available, there are myriad options to showcase independent work. To compete in the children’s movie market, big studios may need an action-adventure spectacle with merchandise; but HBO and Netflix could do for children’s programming what they’ve already done for grown-up shows—expand the limits of a genre by giving producers more creative freedom and placing a higher premium on quality over ratings. This could mean more writers and directors taking risks telling stories with young girl protagonists, including those of color.
In a 1995 review of A Little Princess, Roger Ebert wrote:
Movies like A Little Princess and The Secret Garden contain a sense of wonder, and a message: The world is a vast and challenging place, through which a child can find its way with pluck and intelligence. It is about a girl who finds it more useful to speak French than to fire a ray gun. I know there are more kids this season who want to see Judge Dredd, Die Hard With a Vengeance, and the new Batman movie than kids who want to see A Little Princess, and I feel sorry for them.
Ebert was right to be concerned; the people we meet, experiences we have, and movies we watch in childhood can resonate for a lifetime. Little girls deserve worthy, thoughtful films aimed at them, as much as anyone—and the rapidly changing home-entertainment landscape should give families reason to hope that the industry will eventually deliver.
* This article originally misattributed a point about the decline of child actors in kids movies to Melissa Silverstein. We regret the error.