Thank Heaven?

What can little boys do that little girls can’t? A lot more than we think, apparently.

Despite the asexual nature of most of the roles, the majority of child parts in mainstream film go to males. A quick list of recent films featuring male children:

Hearts in Atlantis
Stir of Echoes
The Sixth Sense
Disney’s The Kid
Stuart Little
Billy Elliot
Harry Potter

For the girls:

The Shipping News

Part of the problem is a result of long-standing gender-bias in adult casting. Of the nine movies in the first list, five of them require a child to relate to (or play a younger version of) an adult male. The Shipping News proves there’s no need for a child to be male in order to show bonding with a father, despite this, boys are overwhelmingly chosen as foils for male stars.

American paranoia about child molestation adds a layer of innuendo to any casting decision. In our society, pairing men with girls is a delicate proposition. Once upon a time, Shirley Temple was supreme on the screen; today we’d run out of non-threatening males to play her father. With this Lolita syndrome, often the initial assumption is that any girl onscreen will be victimized. Much care must be taken to establish safe father/daughter relationships early in the film. This is an extra burden on a script, and casting a male by default is an easy way around it. In this case, the fault isn’t with industry, but with a hysterical society that feeds on television news and court tv.

Still, in the final analysis, most of the roles played by boys could have easily been played by girls. The searching robot-child of A.I., the visionary children of Stir of Echoes and The Sixth Sense, and the pre-teen of Hearts in Atlantis, all gender-neutral roles. And no, following the book is no excuse–choose another book. Literature is full of children.

Finally, what’s the likely deciding factor? In the end, probably the fact that writers write about their own alter-egos, and directors want to tell a personal story. And in Hollywood, most of those people are men.

7 Responses to Thank Heaven?

  1. Cat says:

    In case you’re wondering, yes I did scour the web for statistics before I wrote this post. I came up empty. If you have a source, I’d love to see it.

  2. Sennoma says:

    I hate, hate, hate, HATE child actors anyway. It’s like child singers (e.g. boy sopranos, whatever those are called — no, not castrati, the ones whose voices haven’t broken), they do not have the emotional depth to play the roles. The kid in The Piano sucked, Haley Joel Whatever sucked in The Sixth Sense — and those are the two BEST performances by a child actor I can think of. I can’t wait for CGI to replace ’em. [/curmudgeon]

  3. Cat says:

    Grump! I think there have been some brilliant performances by children, though I agree overall that it requires a prodigy. The alternative is no children in film–which is bleak indeed.

  4. Jeani says:

    There are a couple of other factors at work, I think. You mention that “literature is full of children.” True, but I recently read an article detailing how most of children’s literature is completely devoid of girls who are main characters in their own right (rather than obsessing over getting boys’ attention). I wish I could remember where I read that article…I’ll have to get back to you on that.

    I also think it would be really interesting to do a study of girls in film and see what kind of characters they are when they’re the main role. I wonder if (as in books) they’re often portrayed as either being after a boy (and that’s the main storyline) or a victim or evil in some way. I know that the image of a girl in film that came to my mind immediately was the general one of a story in which a little girl has been kidnapped or abused in some manner.

  5. Cat says:

    Jeani–good point about the literature. I must admit I’m ignorant of those issues, though it doesn’t surprise me.

    Percentage-wise, I’d guess that girls are portrayed as victims as often as women are. This becomes especially problematic when you want to make a film where the girl is *not* victimized, because you must overcome audience expectations.

    Lasse Hallstrom deserves big kudos for his girl character in The Shipping News. Sadly, I can’t think of many others who have been so even-handed.

  6. Matt says:


    Some notable exceptions might be My Girl (sorry, I can’t stomach it
    much, but the girl is the main character, she gets a sequal, and that damn
    blond kid dies, not the girl); the girl in Stepmom (who, granted,
    got her start in Bastard Out of Carolina and Ellen Foster,
    but who was also supporting cast opposite Costner in that baseball movie
    (kee-rist it’s late, and I can’t remember …doh! For Love of the Game),
    the girl in WaterWorld (again opposite Costner) who is also in some
    other film… is she George Clooney’s daugher in that thing with him and
    Michelle Pfeiffer as single parents? BLEAH… ok, so not many winners thus
    far, but it does start to show the types of men who are not threatening as
    fathers. Does animation count? Princess Mononoke probably counts
    as abuse (abandonment?) but there are MANY powerful women in that film,
    though that’s Japanese. There’s an interesting dynamic there, from a culture
    which has long been turbo-patriarchal, but most of Miyazaki’s films deal with
    female protagonists as messianic figures. What’s the movie with the girl who
    flies the ultralight plane to lead the baby ducks on their first migratory flight?
    It’s not THAT old… but I think the girl from The Piano (Anna Paquin)
    is in it. City of Lost Children is French, and you get Ron Perlman
    set against a beautiful and tough little French girl.

    These by no means undermine Cat’s comment, of course. They only offer some
    alternatives, many bad, some better, a few good, to the very obvious dearth
    of worthwhile roles for young females in film, and for females in general.

    Foreign and independent filmmakers, and sometimes TV movies, offer some
    of the best opportunities.

  7. Cat says:

    All good examples, Matt. I was just staying in the past few years. I was also trying to stay very mainstream, so sadly, animation doesn’t count. I find myself wondering if live-action film in Japan is as female friendly? I’m not familiar with it enough to know.

    What would be extremely interesting is taking a look at a sampling of foreign (by which of course I mean non-American. Gah.) film and seeing if there are countries that are more even handed. I can’t confirm it off the top of my head, but I’m betting French film might be.