Dispatch: Iron Man, Disney princesses and reflections on traditional gender roles
By Mike McMahan, LPC
Recently two articles caught my eye and caused me to reflect on how we view stereotypical gender roles and how we impart those roles to our children.
The first is a recent study that showed interesting results about how boys react to Disney princess movies. It has been well-documented that there are significant concerns about how young girls react to these films. Disney has made strides to address these, most notably with the more female-empowerment themed story line of their most recent princess film, Frozen. Spoiler alert! It turns out that “love at first sight” may not always work out well, as Princess Anna learns the hard way from the dastardly Prince Hans, an aspect I discussed previously.
Surprisingly, boys who view these films seem to come away with something less potentially problematic and quite positive: a sense of empathy. The study suggests that the more boys are exposed to the Disney princess films, the more they have “balanced interests,” including a lessened preference for traditionally male toys, such as toy guns. In addition, they were more likely to be helpful with school tasks and have an easier time sharing toys.
According to the researchers who conducted the study, "Princess media and engagement may provide important models of femininity to young boys, who are typically exposed to hypermasculine media. It may be that boys who engage more with Disney princesses, while simultaneously being exposed to more androgynous Disney princes, demonstrate more androgyny in early childhood, a trait that has benefits for development throughout the life span."
The phrase “rape culture” has gained traction recently, as highlighted by concerning statements and rulings from judges in sexual assault cases. Whether exposure to Disney films will help mitigate this is something that could potentially be explored in future research.
Less surprisingly, the study showed that Disney princess films may reinforce negative gender stereotypes in girls, including placing a higher emphasis on physical appearance, possibly to the exclusion of developing more positive skills, such as doing well in math class. These types of concerns about girls and negative gender roles are not new, and hopefully Disney will find a way to provide more and more positive role models—something they are clearly working to do.
Disney has worked to move away from having all white princesses, as exhibited by the non-white heroines of films like Mulan, Pocahontas, The Frog Prince and the upcoming Moana, for which they are to be commended. However, Marvel Comics recently took an even bolder step, announcing that Iron Man’s “real life” identity will be that of a 15-year-old African-American girl. This strikes me as a real departure, considering Iron Man literally has the word “man” in his name.
The new character is named Riri Williams and, in a contrast to the concerns I expressed earlier about girls not engaging in a math class, is a 15-year-old MIT student. This, obviously, busts a number of stereotypes about both women and minorities.
One thing I’ve noticed in working with children and adolescents is that while boys may object to stereotypically “female” media such as Disney princess films (“I don’t want to watch that, that’s for girls!”), young women don’t seem to react in the same way. I have worked with several girls who seem as aware of super heroes and Star Wars as do their male counterparts, especially now that the awesome Rey is on the scene. And while Marvel has had several female leads, they may not be as relatable to adolescents. For example, Jessica Jones; her story lines are more adult in nature, as they reflect her struggles with both literal and metaphorical sexual violence. The idea of a 15-year-old genius building an Iron Man suit herself in a dorm is very positive, and I can see teen girls identifying with this character in a positive way.
Something that has been a challenge to the mental health field for a while is engaging African-American clients in mental health services. I’ve written extensively about how I develop narratives with clients and I love the idea that this new Iron Man (or will she be Iron Girl or Iron Woman now?) might be a way to engage female African-American clients. Obviously I’m not saying that this character is going to dramatically improve black clients engaging into mental health services—that would be ridiculous. But I’m fond of the saying “when a door opens, I walk through it.” I see this as a possible door and, if it opens, I am walking through it. After all, reaching people is one of the key components of being a successful psychotherapist and I’ve had success with adolescents using these narrative-building approaches. Viva Riri Williams!
Mike McMahan, LPC is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
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