*Warning* – contains spoilers about the movie “Turning Red” as well as “Brave,” “inside Out,” and “Encanto.”
Imagine something with me for a moment. Imagine there is a movie about an adolescent boy who discovers that he has magic shapeshifting powers to become a fierce, powerful animal. The males in his family have had this power for generations because a deity granted the power to a male ancestor in order to help him protect his family from enemy invaders. The boy has to learn to control the amazing power and potential of this fierce warrior alter-ego. What’s the next part of the story?
Would he save his family from an evil ruler trying to harm them?
Would he save his town from an earthquake that almost destroys a stadium full of people?
Would he save his city from an evil power that wants to enslave the population?
Or… would he get in an argument with his dad about going out with his friends and end up doing intense emotional labor to heal intergenerational dysfunction in his wider family?
Do you think boys and men would ever, in a million years tolerate that last option? This boy superhero uses his superpower to… do emotional labor for his family. The end.
What about this scenario:
Imagine a prince who is a crack shot archer. How does he end up using his amazing archery prowess in the story?
Does he protect his village from attacking enemies?
Does he make a really difficult shot to bring down a treasure-hoarding dragon that is burning Laketown?
Does he rob from the rich to feed the poor, and defeat the greedy local nobles?
Or… does he win a contest to avoid getting married and then spend the whole movie arguing about it with his dad, finally to reconcile at the end?
Do you think boys and men would ever stand for that last scenario? The amazing young archer spends the whole movie… arguing his right not to get married. The end.
Here’s another one:
A magical family all has superpowers, granted to protect them from violent people who surround their land… except for one boy. He somehow didn’t end up with a superpower, so he feels ashamed and embarassed. The family is in danger – there are threats from the villainous people outside their village, and the family’s superpowers no longer seem enough to keep their village safe. The boy goes on a quest to find what is needed to save his family and their village from ruin.
Does he find a magic spell that only he can weild?
Does he find a magical weapon that teaches him how to protect his village?
Does he find a magical beast who joins with him to protect the village?
Or… does he heal intergenerational trauma for his wider family through intensive, thankless emotional labor?
How would that last one go over, do you think? A young boy goes on a quest to save his village from enemies…. and gives everyone some psychotherapy to get along better. The end.
One last scenario:
A boy moves to a new state. He’s struggling to make friends and settle in to his new home.
Do we watch him gain confidence by joining the sport and impressing his teammates?
Do we see him stand up to a bully and gain the respect of some nice kids?
Does he befriend a wise mentor, who teaches him inner strength and impressive karate skills?
Or… does the movie show us his conflicted inner feelings as a way to highlight the different layers of emotional labor involved in childhood?
I mean…. honestly…. can you imagine male moviegoers putting up with that? A movie where the entire point is understanding the intricate emotional workings of a boy?
Movies about emotional labor can be helpful IF they make visible the previously invisible work females have traditionally done AND demand that it be better valued as well as shared equally by males.
But…. folks… can you see the imbalance here? If Encanto didn’t have such catchy songs, no one would care much about it, no matter how likeable Mirabel is. Inside out was clever, sure. But the stereotypes of which emotions are male vs female detracted terribly, and in the end, the alter-hero Joy does just what our culture demands females do: tons of thankless emotional labor on behalf of her community. Brave, Turning Red…. these movies had a lot of good in them, and so much potential. They could have used the archetypal hero journey to give girls role models for being so much more than the village mules.
Because that is what females are groomed to be: mules. We are groomed to do constant, unpaid, unthanked emotional (and domestic) labor on behalf of our communities. Capitalism demands that domestic and emotional labor be valueless. Our culture trains females to devalue ourselves in order to prevent us from demanding that our massive labor be recognized and compensated. We are also expected to endure abuse (just like these female movie characters) from community members who desperately need our help but cannot admit it.
These movies describe and proscribe the mythological, archetypal norms and values of our culture. They describe the way females are devalued, and they reinforce that devaluation. They act as ideological indoctrination to keep females subordinate, in the same way that limiting female religious symbols in Christianity to “Mary, meek and mild” and the occasional “God who is like a gentle Mother” describes and proscribes subservient, passive roles for females.
Studios are finally making movies like Frozen, Frozen II, Moana, live action Mulan, Raya and the Last Dragon, and Star Wars 7,8, and 9. Good. Make more. Our girls need to see females in archetypal hero journeys that bring liberation and justice to all forms of oppression. Our planet needs saving!!! And Christianity needs to lift up the feminist voices within the tradition, lift them way, way, way up. Here’s one such voice – taken from the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of Scottish Gaelic, prayers, songs, and charms from the 19th century, here is a collection of lines in praise of Mary:
Thou glorious Mother of the Stars
Shield of every dwelling, shield of every people
Since thou art the star of night
Lighten me in the darkness
Since thou art the sun of day,
Encompass me on land
Since thou art the star of angels,
Watch over me on earth
Thou art the Queen-maiden of the sea
Thou art the river of grace
Thou art the well-spring of salvation
Thou art the star of morning
Thou art the star of watching
Thou art the star of the ocean
Thou art the star of the earth
Thou art the star of the [kin-dom]
Thou art the corn of the land
Thou art the treasury of the sea
Thou art the cup of wisdom
Thou art the well-spring of health
Thou art the sun of the heavens
Thou art the moon and the skies
Thou art the star and the path
Of the wanderers
Since thou art the full ocean
Pilot me at sea;
Since thou art the dry shore,
Save me upon land.
Shield of every dwelling, shield of every people
Mayest thou shield me by day and night
O bright and gracious Queen of heaven.
…That’s more like it. Amen.
BIO: Trelawney Grenfell-Muir teaches courses about Sex, Dating, Marriage, and Work in the Religion and Theological Studies Department at Merrimack College and about Cross Cultural Conflict in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A Senior Discussant at the Religion and the Practices of Peace Initiative at Harvard University, she holds an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology with a concentration in Religion and Conflict, and a Ph.D. in Conflict Studies and Religion with the University Professors Program at Boston University. She currently writes articles, book chapters, and liturgical resources about feminist, nature-based Christianity.