When I was 8, my mom ruined Disney for me. I thought Peter Pan was fun. She thought Tinker Bell's shimmying was sexy, and hence sexist. Soon I realized every cartoon would come with a lecture.
Back then, I didn't see why it mattered that slinky Tink was battling motherly Wendy for Peter's attention. It was just a story, right? In a fantasy where children flew and crocodiles ticked and parents were banished, my mom was fixating on the boring male-female stuff.
Now that I'm older, I understand. Fantasies or not, too many movies feature the same tired gender roles. Boy does cool stuff. Girl rewards him with a kiss. Movies made just for girls tend to offer an alternate princess fantasy: Girl overcomes mean rivals and puts on a pretty dress. Boy comes calling.
True, Hollywood has gotten better at giving girls active roles in action movies — Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series, for instance. Even Barbie redeemed herself in the Toy Story series by being awesome.
Still, are there alternatives? Movies where girls are neither sidekicks nor princesses? In my view, "girl-friendly movies" aren't necessarily the ones that push girl power. They're the ones that portray girls as people — with choices and potential. I've compiled a list of films that pass my own simple test:
Does the movie's central girl character have fun?
Does she make mistakes and take responsibility for them?
Is she allowed not to look pretty every single second?
Parents and daughters won't always see eye to eye on what's a "good role model." You may not be able to convince your 4-year-old she'd rather be a doctor than a princess, or your 16-year-old that Twilight is hopelessly retro. But good movies aren't behavior blueprints; they offer strong stories and food for thought — for both genders. (These films are great for boys to watch, too. The less we all kowtow to Hollywood marketers' divisions of movies into "guy flicks" and "chick flicks," the better.)
A note on ratings: According to research from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media — yes, founded by the actress who played a pirate captain in Cutthroat Island — females are underrepresented in G-rated fare, which could be one reason films for tots (and "general audiences") are underrepresented here. See the sidebar for some G-rated suggestions not on my own list. Where I felt a rating needed explanation, I've added it.
A World Apart (1988, PG): If your mom cared enough about social justice to go to jail, would you support her? That's the question a South African teen ( played by Jodhi May) faces in 1963, when her mom (Barbara Hershey) leaves her daughters to act on her anti-apartheid convictions. This nonpreachy history lesson dares to suggest that sometimes moms have good reasons for not putting family first. Bring tissues.
Anne of Green Gables (1986): It's a classic. It's Canadian. It's one of the best adaptations of much-loved kids lit, due largely to Megan Follows' performance as the carrot-top orphan who brightens the lives of an aging brother and sister. Find the whole set, sink into the green world of Prince Edward Island, and watch Anne mature into a whip-smart young lady.
- Bridge to Terabithia
Bridge to Terabithia (2007, PG): If you read the book by Vermont author Katherine Paterson, you know there will be tears at the end. Buckets. Paterson's story of a creative, oddball girl who befriends a lonely boy and draws him into her fantasy world holds up in this adaptation. A nice reminder that girls and boys can be just friends — and kindred spirits.
Fly Away Home (1996, PG): Before Anna Paquin grew up and started doing bad things on "True Blood," she starred in this movie about a 13-year-old who reacts to her mother's sudden death by becoming "mother" to a gaggle of goslings. When the geese need to migrate south, she guides them, flying an ultralight. It's beautiful, great for animal lovers and a solid father-daughter bonding story.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944): Any kid who loves musicals should see this classic about four sisters, set in 1903. Older girls will relate to Judy Garland's awkward efforts to romance the boy next door, and younger ones will love Margaret O'Brien. Sure, it's corny, but so is High School Musical. If they like this one, check out other Garland showcases such as Girl Crazy (1943) and The Harvey Girls (1946).
- Spirited Away
My Neighbor Totoro (1988, G), Howl's Moving Castle (2004, PG) and Spirited Away (2001, PG): Two sisters discover a world of forest spirits. A shy young girl meets a handsome man ... after a spell turns her into an old lady. A bratty kid finds herself in a land where gods and spirits need her aid. If your kids cotton to the strange and beautiful animated worlds of Japan's Hayao Miyazaki, they'll recognize themselves in his heroines. Just be aware that clamoring for super-cute stuffed Totoros may ensue. (Also check out Ponyo [2008, G]; Kiki's Delivery Service [1989, G] and Princess Mononoke [1997, PG-13].)
Tangled (2010, PG): A blond-princess movie that turns out to be something completely different — a fable about independence, responsibility and knowing when to let your hair down (or cut it). Disney's female characters have gotten a lot more interesting since Peter Pan.
Whale Rider (2002, PG-13): A 12-year-old Maori girl strives to prove her right to lead the tribe in this film from New Zealand, an unconventional family story with breathtaking scenery. Though my sources say it's perfect for kids 10 and up, it was rated PG-13 for a brief glimpse of a pot pipe. Such is the Motion Picture Association of America.
- An Education
An Education (2009, PG-13): American teen movies still tend to divide girls into Nerds and Skanks — as if a smart girl who became sexually active automatically lost her "smart" status (see Easy A). Not so this Oscar-nominated British film, which also offers a refreshingly real view of a far-from-perfect first relationship. There's occasional sex and swearing.
"Freaks and Geeks" (1999): Before Judd Apatow made raunchy comedies, he produced this TV series about Reagan-era teens, canceled after just a year. It's the funniest, most believable depiction of high school I know. When brainy Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) decides to desert the nerds and hang with the "freaks" for a while, she deals with problems ranging from an underachieving stoner boyfriend to a "bad girl" who feels threatened by her. The show is frank but not risqué — ABC Family aired it with slight editing.
True Grit (2010, PG-13): I'm guessing you've heard of this one. But it's worth noting that the Coen brothers' True Grit is more about 14-year-old Mattie Ross than Rooster Cogburn. Fast talking, brave, driven and stubborn — but not above making mistakes — Hailee Steinfeld's Mattie is an unforgettable heroine. Warning: There's violence, brief but intense.
Winter's Bone (2010, R): Last year actually brought us two movies about girls who win the day with good, old-fashioned stubbornness (and smarts). Ree Dolly, the heroine of this indie movie about poor people in the Ozarks, is a latter-day heir to Mattie Ross. Only she doesn't hire a man with a gun to help her protect her two younger siblings — she does it herself. The rating is for cussing and drug use by supporting characters.