Viewer Beware: Classic Movies With Outdated Gender Roles

Written by

Erin Feher and Betsy Bozdech of Common Sense Media

12:45 pm

Photo Via Grease 

No matter how much they themselves admired Cinderella or Ariel as kids, most modern moms don’t want their daughters dreaming of the day Prince Charming will swoop in and save them. But that doesn’t mean those classic flicks filled with old-fashioned gender stereotypes have to be banished to the dungeon for good. The cringe-worthy plot lines can serve as teachable moments if you are prepared before you press play. Below, we round up some of the most egregious cinematic offenders (with help from Common Sense Media), and suggest some talking points to go along with the films. And remember, girls and boys both need to hear these disclaimers loud and clear. So, make sure to school your little princes on what’s wrong with these stories, as well!

Annie Get Your Gun—It’s fun and upbeat, but this 1950s musical hinges on the idea of the main character downplaying her skill as a sharpshooter to win her macho, competitive fella’s heart (as the song lyric says, “You can’t get a man with a gun”).

Beauty and the Beast—While bookish, independent Belle usually gets a bit more credit than some of her fellow Disney princesses. Meanwhile, pompous bad guy Gaston is a walking stereotype of what makes a man “manly.” The movie mocks him for it, but it also doesn’t really supply any alternatives. And the jiggly barmaids fawning over him add fuel to the fire.

Carousel—Darker than most Rodgers and Hammerstein classics, this musical deals with domestic abuse—and implies that feelings of love can overcome a woman’s physical pain.

Cinderella—She’s stuck in a life of thankless cooking-and-cleaning drudgery, and her circumstances only take a turn for the better when the prince (who’s little more than a rich, handsome stereotype himself) falls in love with her at first sight and whisks her off to his castle. Hardly empowering. (For a twist with more girl power, try Interstellar Cinderella.)

Grease—It will always be fun to watch on summer nights, but don’t forget that Sandy basically changes everything about who she is to increase her appeal to Danny…and it works. She and her girlfriends are also the subject of plenty of objectification, and Danny feels like he has to lie to his friends about having sex with her for them to think he’s cool.

The Little Mermaid—Feisty Ariel falls in love with handsome Prince Eric on sight, then gives up her home, her family, and even her voice just to get the chance to be with him. Why isn’t it Eric—another prince who’s loved basically just for his looks—who should want to live under the sea?

My Fair Lady—While grumpy Professor Higgins learns some important lessons about treating people with compassion and humanity, his treatment of Eliza can be pretty appalling—and she doesn’t even seem to mind that much. And then there’s his “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” number.

Oklahoma!—Will Parker gets to go check out the bright lights of Kansas City (including the “bur-lee-cue”—a.k.a. “burlesque”), while Ado Annie, who’s presented as so endearingly loose that she MUST want everyone’s kisses, just “cain’t say no” to anyone. Plus, women are auctioned off to the highest bidder—well, their picnic baskets are, anyway—and Curly is a traditionally strong, protective “man’s man.”

Peter Pan—Often cited for its racial stereotypes, this Disney classic has many of its female characters (particularly Tinker Bell) caught up in jealous rivalries over Peter’s affections. And Peter even says “Girls talk too much” at one point.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer—The girls wait at home while the boys head out into the wilds. And when Clarice and Mrs. Donner (who doesn’t even get her own name!) do try to help, they almost immediately get captured by the abominable snowman.

Sixteen Candles—Girls don’t get a lot of respect in John Hughes’ beloved ’80s comedy: Boys pay to see Sam’s underwear, and in one scene it’s implied that a guy had sex with a girl while she was passed-out drunk. And why is Sam so fixated on Jake, anyway? He’s not all that much more than good hair and a nice car.

Sleeping Beauty—Poor Aurora falls in love with her prince (another rather one-dimensional handsome Disney hero) after one meeting but then doesn’t even get to follow her heart. Instead she’s packed off to the castle to marry someone she’s been engaged to since birth, with no say in the matter. It works out OK in the end, but she still barely knows him before they say “I do.”

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—After being kicked out by a jealous stepmother who cares only about superficial beauty, Snow White ends up cooking and cleaning for seven men while they’re off at work. And despite the fact that she’s been warned of evil, she’s easily tricked by the witch in disguise—and then (of course) gets saved by a man.

Swiss Family Robinson—The female characters are a bit too dependent on the stereotypically strong, capable boys and men in this classic adventure story. Mrs. Robinson is most excited about her fancy tree-house kitchen, and the boys immediately start fighting over Bertie/Roberta when they discover she’s a girl (rather than a “sissy” boy).

And make sure to fill your movie playlist with some strong-women alternatives—check out Common Sense Media’s recommendations right here, as well as our stories on movies and books starring brainy heroines, why media role models matter, and combatting gender stereotypes in the media your children consume.

Leave a Comment



I usually refrain from commenting and simply enjoy your articles but this is absolutely absurd and a scary reflection of where society is headed. We have become so delicate and hypersensitive to every aspect of daily life we now need a disclaimer and “conversation” before allowing our children to view “The Little Mermaid and Swiss family Robinson”!! God help us (can i say that?) in raising strong, resilient, able body adults who will inherit the problems we are creating for them. Let’s talk more about fixing the deplorable public education system and using our parental authority (yes, we are in charge!!) to take back childhood by removing smartphones and video games from our children’s hands. Maybe then kids will become (or return to what they were before we gave them these weapons) intelligent, independent thinkers able to sort through the horrifying gender stereotypes of these “dangerous” movies.

Bryony Angell

We can comment in real time to things we object to in media, and explain it to our kids as we watch this stuff with them. Thanks for reminding us to be active participants in what our kids consume.