Film TEDx

How to pick the right movies to share with kids: Some tips and thoughts from Colin Stokes

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

Colin Stokes’ favorite part of being a dad is sharing movies with his two young children. While his daughter’s favorite is The Wizard of Oz, his son quickly became obsessed with Star Wars after catching a glimpse of the movie at age three.

“It imprinted on him like a mommy duck does on its duckling,” says Stokes. “I wonder what he’s soaking in. Is he picking up on the themes of courage and perseverance and loyalty? Is he picking up on the fact that Luke joins an army to overthrow the government? Is he picking up on the fact that there are only boys in the universe besides Aunt Beru and the princess … who waits around through most of the movie so that she can reward the hero with a medal and a wink?”

In today’s talk, filmed at TEDxBeaconStreet, Stokes takes a look at the messages kids might tease from classic movies like The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars. Stokes says that he feels far more comfortable with Dorothy’s message than with Luke Skywalker’s. He wishes more films championed the ideals that violence isn’t the answer, that goals can be achieved by kindness and that women can be both powerful and wise.

“Why is there so much Force in the movies we show our kids and so little Yellow Brick Road?” Stokes asks.

In his talk, Stokes shares that he uses the Bechdel test, created by Alison Bechdel in 1985, to determine if a kids’ movie is good to share with his children. The test involves asking three questions: (1) Does a movie have more than one woman in it? (2) Do they talk to each other? (3) Is their conversation about something other than a guy?

Stokes believes that the messages in movies do matter, and wonders: could this be one issue at the root of why there are so many sexual assaults in the United States?

“When I hear the statistics, I think, ‘That’s a lot of sexual assailants. Who are these guys? What are they failing to learn?’” says Stokes. “Are they absorbing the story that a male hero’s job is to defeat the villain with violence and then collect the reward, which is a woman who has no friends and doesn’t speak? Are we soaking up that story?”

To hear Stokes plea for dads to show their sons movies with broader definitions of manhood, watch his moving talk. And after the jump, Stokes — who writes the hilarious and insightful media blog, Zoom Out — unpacks the messages he sees in more movies that are favorites for kids.

Writes Stokes:

Plenty of excellent movies fail the Bechdel Test, or imply that heroism is equivalent to a boy becoming a man. Yes, there’s plenty to enjoy and admire in these movies, but if you’re looking for something that shows your children a wider world — and gives your son a wider range of role models — load up some of the masterpieces that push the formulas to more inclusive places:

Movie formula: The Quest

Typical Version: A boy’s world is threatened by an evil male force. He must train and mobilize other boys to defeat the enemy in a violent conflict. There is essentially one female, who is granted to the hero as a prize.

ExamplesStar Wars, The Hobbit, The Lion King

Enlightened version: A boy or girl (or team) seeks to heal an injustice in the world. They must make friends who share their goal to change the culture of an older generation, by modeling a better way.

ExamplesThe Wizard of Oz, The Muppet Movie, The Dark Crystal, Castle in the Sky (Japan), Spy Kids 1 & 2, , Tangled

Movie formula: Finding a Purpose

Typical Version: A boy finds his place among men through mastery of a skill, understanding of competition and teamwork, and/or moving up in the male hierarchy. There is essentially one female, who is granted to the hero as a prize.

ExamplesA Bug’s Life, Cars, Ratatouille

Enlightened Version: A boy or girl finds his or her place in a diverse society through self-knowledge and the application of skills to communal goals.

ExamplesKiki’s Delivery Service (Japan), Babe, Stuart Little 1 & 2

Movie formula: The Secret Alien

Typical Version: A young boy comes into contact with a being seen as dangerous by the adult male world, and  moves up in the male hierarchy by using the being against shared enemies.

ExamplesIron Giant, How To Train Your Dragon

Enlightened Version: A boy or girl comes into contact with a being seen as dangerous by diverse adult world, and re-orders the world’s assumptions in the act of stewarding it to safety.

ExamplesE.T., Lilo & Stitch, Monsters Inc., Secret World of Arrietty (Japan)


Do you think Stokes was too hard on Princess Leia in his talk? He agrees and has issued an official apology. He writes:

A commenter or two has pointed out I was too hard on Princess Leia in my TEDx Talk. I dismissed her as someone who “sits around for the whole movie so she can give the hero a wink and a medal for saving the universe.” While it’s true that the Star Wars galaxy of the original films is Tolkien-like in its gender ratios, I was wrong to throw the leader of the Alliance under the galactic bus.

Check it out the rest of his apology on his blog » 

And another great resource if you’re interested in the portrayal of gender in kids’ movies: the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which this year published an impressive report on the stereotypes of women in film » 

Comments (23)

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  • Petr Mazák commented on Apr 16 2013

    Hm. The idea of parenting with movies is interesting, but the speaker is not – especially after he pointed out Brave. Seriously – BRAVE?

    I mean – princess movie. Ok. Whatever. But – the story? What Brave teaches girls:
    “be stubborn, rebel against any authority, ignore your parents and if you have serious problem, get out from the house. Don’t worry, everything will be fine, you do not even have to try or make any efforts, the world itself will take care of you, you do not have to try to empathize others, because in the end, they will understand and accept your point of view completely.”

    That movie suck. Not because it is a princess movie, but because the story it is telling, because boring Disney-like character dynamics (or, I should say, the lack of it), because unjustified story twists and multiple deus-ex-machina interventions, which are the only thing which keeps the story moving.
    Pixar success was not about awesome animations, but about the original stories and “realistic” characters. Brave has no original story and all characters there are boring.

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  • Aji Ek commented on Jan 20 2013

    saya sangat suka dengan film the Bechdel test , terima kasih telah berbagi informasi

  • Sidney Oolongo commented on Jan 19 2013

    I don’t think Stokes needs to retract criticism of Leia. Yes, it was mistaken to characterize her role as doing nothing, but to focus on that is to miss the larger and more insidious issue: Leia might as well be a man. She generally confronts her opponents with defiance and posturing, and overcomes all her threats with force/violence. She is not a good role model for women… nor *men* for that matter–at least the type of men Stokes himself espouses. It would appear the reason she is a woman at all is that she is a typical male role who can also elicit a sexual response from a man.

    • Colin Stokes commented on Jan 19 2013

      Interesting point, Sidney. I feel that way about most of the woman warrior characters I see, especially in How To Train Your Dragon. I give Leia a little extra benefit of the doubt because of that first scene, where she’s not a warrior yet. She’s risked her diplomatic status to deliver intelligence to the Rebels, and she thinks quickly enough to get it to Obi-Wan at the last possible second. She’s verbally defiant, but otherwise takes no fool-hardy risks. It’s only when the men bust her out of jail and force her into violent conflict that she shows herself capable of physical violence. She doesn’t even fire the laser cannons at the pursuing Imperial ships. And in Empire, she’s seen as a servant leader–the one who gives the orders but then the last to leave the base. That’s not masculine heroism to me–that’s just heroism.

  • Hypatia Hopton commented on Jan 19 2013

    So inspired to see a man agreeing with these ideas instead of making sarcastic comments and jokes!! I have 2 daughters and it is incredibly difficult to find movies that pass this Bechdel test. I was already bothered by the lack of female characters for my daughters to identify with in movies and shows, because they are absolutely not the princess types, and after learning about the simple qualifications of the Bechdel test, I was on a mission and found that options are few and far…. I find more opportunities in books, I’m not sure what message that sends to girls… Strong, interesting, respectable female characters aren’t good enough for the movies?? At this point my oldest daughter identifies with more male characters than female. Typically, both my daughters want to play with boys, but little boys of course are repulsed by this idea and mydaughters are allowed to tag along at best, usually they are asked to leave the boy group.
    Parents of boys don’t see this either. All is great in their world. The toys for boys support skills and ideals that are valuable to society (building, heroism, strength, etc) Costumes for boys send a completely different message (fire man, doctor, super hero, dressed for comfort) Then we walk to the “girl toy” aisle and we see pink and a lot of dresses, heels, sparkles, jewelry… plastic kitchen items… Girl costumes are just a repeat of all of that… focusing on how they can look pretty, no real value to their character. So, with quite a bit of effort, we work our way around this challenge. At least they will grow up seeing through these limited categories.

  • Rene Price commented on Jan 18 2013

    As I thought about this, it bothered me that I had commented even though I had only had a superficial watching (its hard to do better with 3 boys in the room) and so I watched again when I could really hear what Mr Stokes was saying. Then I wanted to rewrite my first comment, but could not figure out how. I stand by the comment that Brave and movies like them send awful messages to my sons about manhood and masculinity. I can respect the idea about wanting to see movies that are less “force” although I think they are also important. I did love that he talked about Obi Wan and Glenda being the characters we really hope our children are identifying with.

    • Colin Stokes commented on Jan 18 2013

      Thanks for watching, Rene, and good luck with your three future heroes. I think that just showing them how to think critically about the way men and women are presented in media will go a long way.

  • Rene Price commented on Jan 18 2013

    I am so sorry. I expected more from a TED talk. The Bechdel test is archaic. “(1) Does a movie have more than one woman in it? (2) Do they talk to each other? (3) Is their conversation about something other than a guy?” Do you turn that over so that the movies you present to your son and daughter also meet the similar and gender appropriate qualifications for boys? As a mother of 3 boys, it is incredibly offensive to me how prevalent it has become for children’s media to include “strong” female characters that would pass these tests with flying colors, and yet depict men as criminal, foolish, stupid and/or generally undesirable. I long for the days when AT LEAST prince charming was an outstanding human being. And while there are a lot of movies that depict women as superficial prop or possessions, I would be hesitant to say that having to be a smart, brave, selfless and heroic man in order to be worthy of the heart of a smart, strong, brave, selfless and heroic woman is a “poor message” to be sending our kids. It is okay for some movies to be about boys and some to be about girls. They don’t all have to be gender equal. That would not represent real life at all. I think we need a new test that asks new questions; maybe ones that point toward championing both genders instead of one or the other.

  • Ren Huschle commented on Jan 18 2013

    Your not very observant Mr. Stokes… Your assessment of of Princess Leia is still terrible. You only take the parts of the movies that show her weakness, and generalize from there. All the main characters are all shown in weak and fallible ways.

  • commented on Jan 18 2013

    I’m a huge fan of the Bechdel test. Great post!

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