A few days ago, my flatmates succumbed to my insistence that we watch ‘The NeverEnding Story‘, one of my favourite movies as a young child. I hadn’t seen it in years and was curious to see how my perspective of it had morphed under a revisit as an adult, and for the most part it didn’t disappoint; there was definitely a lot to marvel at: Falkor certainly takes a turn for the creepy at one point, and the damned horse…THE HORSE! I can’t recall many kids movies that willing to emotionally devastate innocent little viewers. Not a completely flawless viewing experience but still I shall always maintain that for all its simplicity, it still has far fewer plot holes than Highlander (the previous showing at flat film club).
One part of the experience hadn’t changed for me, however. At the age of five, this movie was the first experience I clearly recall where I was given the clear message that I didn’t get to have adventures on the back of a luck dragon; my place was crying in the Ivory Tower waiting for the boys to save me.
This realisation was crushing: at this time I was growing up on a high country farm being homeschooled and wanting to learn to ride motorbikes and shoot guns like my brother. I modelled everything I wanted to be on the men in my life, not for a moment considering that my gender could be a factor in how my life played out. I actually thought Atreyu was a girl (go and watch the scene where he first appears and you will empathise with my confusion. No boys I ever knew had hair that shiny) and so I would spend hours pretending I was Atreyu while climbing trees and skipping the paddocks. Every year as part of Correspondence School (our homeschool programme) there was a week long lets-try-prevent-you-kids-from-becoming-socially-awkward get together which involved a costume party. I went as Atreyu, complete with an auryn made of tinfoil. And because kids are bastards, this is where I had my mistake pointed out to me. He was a boy. I was a girl. I had to find another idol.
So in the realm of Fantasia, who was left? No heroes, no fighters. Not even a sidekick. I was left with the Empress, who (although inexplicably held in high regard by her subjects) seemed to do little more than sit in her Ivory Tower as the world falls apart, looking pretty and crying up until the point she has to beg another boy to give her a new name to save Fantasia.
Although I couldn’t articulate it in a meaningful way, the sense of loss and exclusion I felt was profound. Because once this was pointed out to me, it just got worse. It was everywhere. Pinocchio. The Lion King. Aladdin. The Little Mermaid. Where were my heroes, who could adventure and fight and be brave too? Why was the world telling me I was only allowed to be good for nothing more than a prop, a nurturer or a sweet soul to be rescued or wooed?
I know that the arguments for the roles and actions of these female roles can be more nuanced, but this is only my experience. I was a tomboy as a kid, and it felt like a lonely experience because the message I was given was that I was an aberration. The only female character I remember identifying with in my primary school years was Lisa Simpson, but even then she was portrayed as a know-it-all who was ridiculed regularly for who she was.
An article has just come out quoting the Gina Davis Institute on Gender in Media on the fact that there is still a huge under representation of women in the film industry, which sounds like such a superficial issue. It’s just the movies, right? But it is important, because we get so many societal cues from popular culture starting right from when our parents first cave and hand over childcare duties to the telly. I love that there are films on offer now such as Brave and Frozen and the like, and I was over the moon when I hit high school and discovered Buffy and Veronica Mars. But female protagonist driven plots are still lauded like groundbreaking phenomena whenever they gain success, as they’re not part of a pop culture norm yet (let alone a societal one). I really, really hope it changes because for the most part, I’m still waiting for the world to let me out of this goddamned Ivory Tower.