Gender Roles and Communication in a Gendered Society
Gender has come to be thought of as socially and culturally constructed, and popular media is the avenue by which these constructions are strongly shaped. Many children watch various children’s films and the characterizations of male and female in these shows, powerfully affects their views and representations of male and female spaces, roles, ideologies, values, beliefs, and behaviors.
In this paper, I wish to look at the depictions of the male identity and that of the female identity in children’s films. What I want to do is locate the gender constructions and representations that forces children to think about certain truths about what it means to be male and what it means to be female. Findings will be classified according to how each gender is addressed, their roles and behavior in the film, and the values and traits they have been set to possess.
Films considered for this paper were the following: The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mulan for children’s animated films; and then Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl  for non-animated film. Other films like Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and the like were not examined anymore as it was thought that these films were already stating the very obvious representations of gender.
Findings showed that women were referred to a number of descriptions, actions and traits that were traditionally labeled “female”. In grammar for instance, grammar rules that man in its generic sense applies to both female and male human beings. Such usage, however, is not only confusing but also has the effect of making women less important, obscure if not altogether invisible. When one says “man”, the image that usually comes up in the mind is that of a male person. This tends to push women into invisibility. This is illustrated in the films The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan, and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
In the film The Hunchback of Notre Dame, for instance, Clopin, the puppeteer opens the film with a song of introduction to children about the bellringer of Notre Dame and sings, “…who is the person, and who is the man behind the bells of Notre Dame?” The puppeteer sings further in the end, “what makes a monster, and what makes a man…?” The use of man here when taken into the context meant by the puppeteer is the generic man, and yet, viewers of the film will automatically think of the male person only. In another instance, Quasimodo and his master, the Minister of Justice, Judge Claude Frollo, argue about going to the “Festival of Fools,” and Frollo refers to everyone as “mankind” – which is supposed to refer to all persons when considered collectively. This term, however, has often been considered offensive because it is most often understood as men considered collectively and distinct from women.
Moreover, the film Mulan, demonstrates this aspect of usage also. The emperor of China likens an army to grains of rice and says, “…one man may be the difference between victory and defeat…” the use of man in this instance could refer to men alone since the army being referred to comprised of males only. But in the film, it was a woman who made a difference and brought victory to her country. Hence, the use of “man” in this occasion may also refer to females, only that her image gets obscured until she is no longer acknowledged as a significant figure in the victory of her country.
Furthermore, an expression used in the film has also expressed this concept. When Mulan risks her life to save her commanding officer and their battalion from the charging Huns – and succeeds, the dragon gong ringer, Mushu, congratulates her by saying, “You’re the man! Well, sort of…” Such remark again obscures the fact that a female character is just as good a soldier as men are believed to be.
Ascription of job titles according to gender was also noted. Ascribing gender to job titles can cause problems since it is no longer true that certain professions or occupations are female or male preserves. Therefore, to make a job title “male” or “female” is to discriminate against the other sex. Examples provided from the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean were the following: watchman for guard; maid for house worker; and businessman for business person.
Generic man is also commonly used as a verb, giving the general impression that only males are capable of doing the work or action described. Example is from the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean where such terms as “dead men tell no tales” “man overboard!” “man the deck!” “man the ropes” “men to arms!” “man the outpost”, and “men of honor” were used.
Idioms and common expressions often use man or its equivalent in the generic sense, often for grandiose effect, again pushing women who’ve achieved the same status, into invisibility. Examples include, “founding fathers”, “father of our ancestors” in the film Mulan; and phrases such as “every man worth his salt,” “any man who falls behind is left behind,” “damn to the depths whatever man that thought up the word ‘parley’!” and “what sort of man trades a man’s life for a ship?” from the film Pirates of the Caribbean. In another example, this time from the film, Mulan, Captain Li Shang expresses his thanks to Mulan for saving his life and says, “You’re the craziest man I’ve ever met… you saved my life and for that, you have my trust,” implying that women cannot be trusted to save a life.”
It is often unnoticed but the way women are treated in children’s media culture can be different from how men are treated. The result is that women get obscured, patronized, derogated, and trivialized, or defined not as individuals in their own right but in relation to their marital or domestic status: cook, nurse or caregiver, companion, and the like.
And then also, for example, a breach often occurs in the use of names and titles. In the films The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan, and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, for instance, after a woman’s full name is given, a woman often gets referred to by her first name: Esmeralda, Mulan, and Elizabeth; by the second person pronoun “you”, or by a term of address for girl. The surname is used in case of a man. The impression given is that women are less important and could be treated more informally.
For example, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quasimodo’s parents attempt to enter Notre Dame but were stopped by Judge Frollo. One gypsy woman carries a bundle and is addressed by the second pronoun “you” such as “You there, what are you hiding?” And then again Frollo sings, “…now tell me Maria…” instead of the usual use of the whole term “Ave Maria” a name given by Roman Catholics to a form of address to the Virgin Mary. In Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Elizabeth Swann is first addressed as Miss Swann but is later referred to only by her first name and oftentimes by the term “Missy,” a term used to address a girl expressing reprimand and a term often considered offensive. Other female characters in the same film were addressed only in their first names whereas men in the film were almost always addressed either by Mr. Sparrow, Mr. Gibbs, etc., and by an address of respect, “sir”.
Physical appearance often finds its way into description of women, whereas this does not usually happen if the subject is male. This reflects the tendency to view women as sex objects. Women are portrayed as secretary, maid, wife, pleasurable company, a woman having “airs in demeanor” such as those portrayed by Elizabeth Swann in The Pirates of the Caribbean. They are obliged to be quiet, demure, graceful and polite, refined, poised and punctual. What is more, women are taught that “…boys will gladly work for you, with good fortune and a good hairdo, you’ll bring honor to us all…” and “men want girls with good taste, obedient, works posthaste, with good breeding and a tiny waist…”
Aside from this, they are also rendered as someone with a very curvy body and wherein men are lustfully teased or tempted. With this, they are also depicted as seductress. Other than curvature bodies, women’s roles and activities focused on being a mother, a laundrywoman, a housekeeper or maid or governess, roles which are extensions of a woman’s domestic roles. Men, on the other hand, are usually described by their ability or achievement, not by their physical attributes. Unfortunately, women are oftentimes not accorded with the same respect.
Moreover, emphasis on a woman’s physical attributes could also take attention away from her more important achievements. An example is Phoebus, Captain of the Guard addressing the gypsy Esmeralda’s skill in sword-fighting in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, “you fight almost as well as a man.” Descriptive terms that disparage women or trivialize their accomplishment and that infer certain women-associated traits like indecisiveness, irrationality, vagueness, dependence, impulsiveness and the like can also make them seem inferior. Characters depicted to have such qualities are those by Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan, and Elizabeth in the Pirates of the Caribbean.
Other character descriptions attributed to females in the films studied for this paper were passivity, being dominated by men, governed by emotion, overly emotional and dependent, and having flairs in demeanor. They were also depicted as less intelligent than males and generally weak needing men’s protection and guidance.
The modifiers in the films show what it is to be “manly” or “womanly”, “feminine” or masculine”. These reflect stereotyped thinking and imply that one sex has a monopoly of certain traits and virtues. To be feminine for example is to be soft, coy, and vulnerable while to be manly is to be strong, forceful, and responsible.
The films studied for this paper, suggests that such active audio-visual materials might be harmful to young children because mindsets regarding what is male and what is female tend to make both males and females suffer as a result of gender stereotypes.
Fried stated that “before entering school, children are exposed to sex-typed models in television, movies, toys and games, child-rearing practices, and the attitudes of individuals who people children’s formative years”. It is implied further that at around age four or five years old, children begin to model the behaviors of adults that they see around them, including those they watch in films or TV, allowing them to become more independent and develop their self-identity. The bias formed by such media then prevents people with mindsets about gender from discovering activities and interests that may best be suited to their personality and abilities. As today’s society acknowledges that women are just as capable as men, it is imperative that their roles in children’s media culture also change.
In conclusion, children’s media like those produced by Disney perform a major role in shaping the consciousness and perspectives of children about gender. Representations and symbolisms of male and female roles, activities, traits, and the like tend to contribute towards the social construction of gendered mindsets, hence the persistence of traditional gender role stereotypes in society.
 Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise. The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Walt Disney Classics. Disney Enterprises, Inc. 1996.
 Tony Bancroft & Barry Cook. Mulan. Walt Disney Classics. Disney Enterprises, Inc. 1998.
 Gore Verbinski. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Walt Disney Pictures. 2003
 Tony Bancroft & Barry Cook. Mulan. Walt Disney Classics. Disney Enterprises, Inc. 1998.
 Fried, F. J. (1982). Stereotyping in children’s materials. East Lansing, MI: National Center for Research on Teacher Learning. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED215320). p.25