This piece originally ran in Today's Parent.
The recent successes of Brave and Frozen demonstrate that movies starring girls can not only succeed, but can also dominate at the box office. For much too long, the common belief among producers has been that female protagonists doom a movie to commercial failure because boys will not go see it. How fantastic that this idea is on its way to becoming urban legend! After watching many children's movies to curate for recommendations to mother-daughter book clubs, in my book Her Next Chapter, I discovered that lots of great movies starring girls have been there all along. Here are five of my favorites, and there's no better way to raise interesting, exciting, daring and adventurous daughters!
Whale Rider (PG-13, but considered suitable by "mom reviewers" for much younger girls. I think this should have been PG, and feel it is fine for age 8+)
This is a beautiful adaptation of the book of the same name by Witi Ihimaera, which I also recommend highly. Ihimaera wrote the book in a mere three weeks following the experience of taking his daughters to several action movies and being asked repeatedly why the heroes were always boys and girls were always helpless. Ihimaera decided to write a book for his daughters where the girl was the hero.
Whale Rider takes place in a small village, Whangara, the actual hometown of Ihimaera, on the coast of New Zealand. The town is inhabited by people of Maori descent who believe that in every generation is born one male heir to the Chief who will eventually inherit the position. The people have lived in this place for over 1000 years and trace their ancestry back to a single man, Paikea, who, legend has it, escaped death when his canoe capsized by riding on the back of a whale all the way in to shore. First-born boys of Chiefs are considered the direct descendants of this ancestor. Even in the modern day, this mythology is alive in the people.
Enter 11-year-old Pai, the twin sister of the boy who, had he not died at birth, along with the twins' mother, would have been that chosen male heir. Pai, given up to be raised by her grandparents by her grief-stricken father who had abdicated becoming the next Chief, believes her grandfather, the current Chief, should recognize her as the rightful heir in the patriarchal tribe even though she is female. Koro, the grandfather, repeatedly rebuffs his granddaughter, who is determined to win over both her rights to succession and Koro's love and respect. Only Nanny Flowers, Pai's grandmother, understands Pai's true destiny and drive to become a leader in a male-dominated community, and supports her efforts to train for it with the boys of her village. Koro's inability to recover from the loss of both his son and his grandson as future Chiefs, as well as his entrenched prejudice toward females, blinds him to what only the viewer can see, which is Pai's natural leadership abilities and special gift for communicating with whales. To say more would require a spoiler alert! This movie gives me goose bumps every time I watch it. It is stunningly beautiful, ethereal, and mysterious. You'll be captivated, and your daughter will see an extremely special story about a young girl who would not give up on her dream to become a leader.
Rabbit-Proof Fence (PG)
Set in 1930s western Australia, Rabbit-Proof Fence is the story of three "half-caste" Aboriginal girls -- sisters Molly and Daisy, and their cousin Gracie -- who are stolen from their mother and grandmother and relocated 1,500 miles away to a re-education camp for children of mixed race. The idea -- and indeed government policy -- was that these children needed to "have the black bred out of them" for their own good. They would be trained to enter a life of indentured servitude to wealthy white families, and then, once in that world, if they were ever to marry and have children, they would most likely do so with white people, such that successive generations would progressively become whiter.
Based on a true story, the girls escape and walk for nine weeks without food and through harsh desert terrain along the rabbit-proof fence to find their way back to their mother and grandmother. The fence, thousands of miles long, was constructed at the turn of the century in an effort to keep rabbits and other agricultural pests in the eastern part of the country from crossing over into the western pastures and destroying them. The girls were able to use it as a landmark while making their way home. Alternately finding strangers who would feed and shelter them, and others who wanted to turn them in, the girls made this courageous journey while outsmarting a full-blooded Aborigine "tracker" who was a traitor to his own people. This story reminded me a lot of movies I've seen about the capture and "re-education" of Native American children here in the United States in the 1800s.
Although Gracie is eventually recaptured during the long journey, and later dies, Molly and Daisy make it back to their home in Jigalong. To say more I'd need to issue a spoiler alert, so I'll leave it this way: Be sure to see the last few minutes of the movie where the two real sisters, Molly and Daisy, on whom the movie is based, are shown as old women. This movie is riveting. It has been a long time since I've seen a movie starring girls who are so completely unadorned, and whose bravery shines so brightly against such a stark setting. This movie is about the triumph of the human spirit, and even more so, of the feminine spirit.
Hairspray, 2007 version (PG)
What I love about Hairspray is that it teaches a number of important lessons without trying too hard, and in a production that is lively and fun, contagiously so. The story centers on Tracy Turnblad, an overweight teen who longs to audition for The Corny Collins Show, a teen dance show broadcast from a local TV station in Baltimore. The show is racially segregated, and there is plenty to discuss here for clubs wishing to analyze this aspect of the movie. It also features uniformly thin, pretty girls, and Tracy's compelling desire to star on the show despite her appearance challenges the notion that heavy girls "know their place." Tracy knows her place is wherever the hip kids are singing and dancing, because her talent speaks for itself. She is utterly lacking in self-consciousness. How often do our girls today see female characters in movies who are -- let's name it -- fat? And happy?
The comedy is marvelous. John Travolta donning a fat suit and a lot of makeup plays Tracy's mom with gender-bending hilarity, and Christopher Walken scores yet another brilliantly quirky role as Tracy's dad. Both are rocks of support for Tracy as she challenges and overcomes weight bias and as she joins forces with the show's black characters as they march and practice civil disobedience to end "Negro Day" on the dance show. The issues of body image perception and civil rights are obvious throughout the musical, but never heavy-handed. This one's a lot of fun!
Bend it Like Beckham (PG-13, but considered suitable by "mom reviewers" for girls as young as 10)
Jess Bhamra is an 18-year-old Indian girl from a traditional Punjabi Sikh family living in London. She's been playing soccer in the public parks with boys for years when an English girl her age, Jules, spots her talent and recruits her to play for a real female team that is professionally coached and competes nationally and internationally. The expected East-Meets-West culture clash ensues, but with many unexpected twists. Both girls struggle within their families to be who they are -- athletic, driven girls who are not interested in being the very feminine, boy-obsessed, "typical" girl of each of their cultures, respectively. They are competitive, goal-oriented, and keen to be seen as different -- but just as worthy -- kinds of girls. They in no way fit the "princess" stereotype -- either of the Disney variety, or any other, and they resent that this is expected of them by their families, friends, and society at large.
This movie is a fascinating exploration of the intersectionality of gender, race, and culture. Be prepared to want to talk about this movie for hours! There are so many substantive conversations to be had, including but not limited to: stereotypes and sexism, race, sexual orientation, mother-daughter relationships, female competition, beauty, the definition of femininity, and what it means to pursue nontraditional female goals in a man's world. This movie's a winner.
Tomboy (NR, but considered suitable by "mom reviewers" for all ages)
Tomboy, a French film with easy-to-follow subtitles, explores the struggle with gender identity of its ten-year-old protagonist, Laure. Laure and her six-year-old sister Jeanne move with their father and pregnant mother to a new neighborhood during the summer vacation. Laure, with her short hair and androgynous clothing, is immediately mistaken for a boy by the neighborhood kids, and she impulsively goes along with it, introducing herself as "Mikael." The summer days are long and the start of school seems far away. Mikael is athletic, "boyish" in her mannerisms, and without a trace of pink or princess, unlike little sister Jeanne, who loves girly clothes and ballet and adores her older sister, even though they are very different kinds of girls.
The arc of the story is apparent from the beginning. How long can the lie hold together? What will happen when school starts? The tension I felt as a viewer seems, in retrospect, as much a commentary on my apprehension about how difficult it can be for girls who do not conform to gender roles as it was for the character herself and her collapsing façade.
The film is a story about what it's like to live a lie -- in both big ways and small. As Mikael deals stoically with the heartbreaking finale she herself has set up, and the unsettling, yet in other ways understandable reaction of her mother to the revelation of the lie, the viewer can't help but feel the world's intolerance and the dilemma faced by so many children who struggle to reconcile who they are with who they are expected to be. Laure/Mikael's quest for an authentic self-identity is both beautiful and painful, and on some level this movie changed me. There is very little material in this film that is inappropriate for children. There is no sex, no drugs, no violence. It is remarkably wholesome in its portrayal of the innocence of childhood. I recommend it for any girls who can read well enough to keep up with the English subtitles, which are happily quite simple and spare, as is the dialogue. A gorgeous, moving and thought-provoking film.
While it's wonderful for girls to be able to see themselves represented positively onscreen, it's equally important that boys see girls in these roles. So make some popcorn and watch these movies as a family -- sons and daughters alike!
Lori Day is an educational psychologist, consultant and parenting coach with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport, MA. She is the author of Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More.