Why Our Protagonists Matter

Last week, I watched “Bend it Like Beckham” with my two sons. We had gotten the movie as a birthday present for Samuel, my Indian-born son, figuring that a film about soccer, and with an Indian protagonist, would hit the mark. And it did, mostly, except for the parts that were about the romance between the main character and her coach. Turns out, ten-year-olds still find kissing a little icky.
As I watched with them, I had an odd emotional reaction, finding myself a little verklempt now and then. Potentially, the semester’s starting, and the end of my amazing summer, was making me teary-eyed: sometimes stepping back into the routine of grading papers and preparing classes can be really difficult.  
But I was also overwhelmed with gratitude that my boys were intrigued by a movie with a strong female protagonist who was pressing against a soccer glass ceiling, fighting against her own cultural expectations for what Sikh young people could be.
Set in London, the movie follows Jesminder (nicknamed Jess), a Sikh with amazing soccer skills who joins a women’s football club against her parents’ wishes: they desire for her to be more like her sister, settling down with an nice Sikh man, planning weddings, learning to cook–though the sister, turns out, has bent expectations, too, given that her marriage will be one of love, not arrangement. (There’s some great soccer sets in the film, but also very fine Bollywood-inspired singing and dancing. If you haven’t seen it, you really should. You can ask Samuel to borrow his copy.)  
Anyway, so we were watching the movie, and the boys were enjoying everything but the icky romance. At one point, though, I had to stop the DVD to explain why Jess’ parents forbid her from playing soccer, because she was a woman, and because they thought she should be doing more traditional activities, like making Aloo Gobi.
“That’s so dumb,” Samuel said, shaking his head. Meaning: Why shouldn’t a girl get to play soccer? Why was she having to lie to her parents about going to the games? I felt like something powerful was going on in our small exchange, that something had shifted for my kids. They were seeing that cultural expectations about what it means to be female and what it means to be male a little “dumb.”   
Amen to that.
As we were watching, I also thought about how rare it was for my kids to be viewing a girl in a protagonist’s role, never mind a girl doing something traditionally thought of as masculine. This is not because of their own choosing, but because few movies make the hero a female character, even in movies where it wouldn’t seem to matter much whether the protagonist was male or female. I mean, really: Does it matter to the plot that the heros in the Toy Story series are male, with female sidekicks? Madagascar? Cars? Even my beloved Muppet Show is dominated by male muppets, despite Miss Piggy’s powerful presence.
So my boys rarely follow the stories of female protagonists, in movies or in books. I’ve addressed this with my writing classes: how few female protagonists are in kids’ and young adult books, for the simple reason that girls are often comfortable reading about male protagonists, but boys chaff against the idea of reading about female protagonists. The male protagonist becomes the norm, and girls are often asked to adapt. Heaven forbid we ask the same of our sons.
Or of our grown-up men, really. A woman will more easily go with her date to a movie starring a male protagonists, but the converse is not true. Instead, films in which women play strong roles are called “chick flicks,” a diminution letting men know they need not watch. Who cares about a woman’s story, anyway? One of the reasons Bridesmaids was so ground-breaking—in 2011, for goodness sake—was because the protagonists were all females, with nary a strong male lead in sight.
Sometimes, when I talk with others about my feminist identity, about how feminists aren’t man-haters and that they simply want equity between genders, I hear that feminism is irrelevant. Women have the same opportunities as men, I am told, and the problems of inequity have been solved.
Forget about the inequities that continue to exist in the workplace. Or that women have fewer leadership roles than do men in our government, business, and educational institutions. We only need to look at kids’ books and movies to see that in our society, men and women, boys and girls, are not treated equally.
And won’t be, until we decide it’s acceptable for our boys to see girls playing lead roles in movies and in books.  As long as we continue to believe that boys shouldn’t have to read a book or watch a movie with a female protagonist–essentially, that boys shouldn’t have to see the world from a girl’s point of view–we convey to them that their experiences, their stories, are more valuable than a girl’s.
We will also be sending our kids the message that our expectations for boys are far different than our expectations for girls. And that, as Samuel pointed out last week, is just dumb.