ParaNorman is an animated zombie flick, light-hearted in its intent, and follows the adventures of an outcast 11-year old called Norman, who sees dead people. They’re everywhere.
I identify with Norman, I really do. These days, whenever I watch a kids’ film, all I see are anti-girl references and tropes. These tropes are like ghosts because only a select few of us seem ever to notice them. Where are the feminist reviewers on IMDb?
I don’t really like to make forceful commentary about a movie I’ve seen only once but the ParaNorman screenplay, written by Christopher Butler, is freely available online. I read through the screenplay after my visit to the theater hoping to prove myself wrong about the anti-girl messages in this otherwise deftly crafted film. I was really hoping to love this one, which is created by one of the storyboard artists from Coraline, a genuinely girl-friendly story.
Next, a fellow commenter at Reel Girl argued a pro-feminist ending after seeing exactly the same film. I assume all intelligent commenters at Reel Girl to be among the best educated and most thoughtful in relation to feminism and kids’ films, so I read the script looking for the girl-friendly bits.
While failure to find any may simply be a failure on my own part, after looking closely at the script, I came away feeling even less impressed. Before, I had said that everyone should see this movie and make up their own mind. Now I say, nah don’t bother.
HOW THE MOVIE OPENS
Quoted directly from the script:
An attractive FEMALE SCIENTIST in a gore-spattered labcoat moves fearfully along a wall, passing benches strewn with broken lab equipment. Her ample bosom heaves as she PANTS nervously, mascara-rimmed eyes darting to and fro.
Glass SMASHES on the floor nearby and MELODRAMATIC MUSIC swells. The woman backs into a shadow, not noticing a pair of dead eyes catching the moonlight behind her.
The music climbs to a frenzy as something GROANS horribly into the woman’s ear. She spins around on her stiletto heels as a rotted face looms out of the darkness, drooling through broken teeth, and lunges at her neck.
What isn’t mentioned in the script, but what viewers did see in the opening to ParaNorman, was the woman scientist’s buttocks thrust provocatively toward the audience. Along with the threat of her imminent demise, the audience is invited to admire her rump.
The camera cuts away to reveal Norman and his (dead) grandmother watching one of those old zombie flicks, safe in the comfort of his modern-day living room. His grandmother is appropriately dismissive of this film; the two of them are watching a Night Of The Living Dead type of ridiculous zombie-flick after all, which are so bad they can be appreciated in the modern world only as ironic spoofs of death and femininity and heroism. That’s the point of zombie films, right? They’re ridiculous by nature, and no one can take any single thing they say seriously. Especially the old ones. Except an argument can be made for the exact opposite: that zombie films rely on realism:
The protagonists of these apocalypses are everyman characters, blue collar heroes of modest ambition and means. In the zombie genre, average citizens are thrown into the chaos of the apocalypse, such as Shaun from Shaun of the Dead. Even when the characters are professionals, such as the soldiers and scientists in Day of the Dead, they do not possess pulp fiction levels of ability nor do they stop the apocalypse. They are swept up in the events, helpless to counteract them. The zombie genre demands realism on the part of its human characters, as they are not heroic saviors, but people the audience can identify with.
When viewing zombie stories ironically, bear in mind that even the most ironic sexism is still sexism, and still harmful. Anita Sarkeesian explained it beautifully in a commentary on retro-sexism in advertising. To take The Walking Dead as a more modern example of a zombie story (albeit for adults), this from The Idiot Box:
I feel like something more insidious is at play…I was absolutely shocked to see that a male character from the show who tried to rape a female character at the end of the last season is still being treated as a hero.
Bearing all this zombie- and retro-sexist-background in mind, I’m already wary of ironic sexism in a movie for kids, so when the female scientist’s sexualised rump is presented to us baboon-style in the very first scene, I’m already the tiniest bit uncomfortable. This feels to me like a very cheap way to draw an audience in. I wonder if lots of girl viewers are already feeling slightly excluded from this story, without necessarily being able to articulate why.
Impressed at the grandmother’s dismissive commentary (“That’s not very nice… what’s [the zombie] doing that for?”) I settle in for the rest of the ride. This film is going to poke fun at zombie films, and turn weak-female characterisation on its head, right? I push down the feminist sitting on my shoulder and reason that a middle grade audience will come away with a fuller understanding of zombie tropes, realising that almost everything these days is ironic, and the world will seem a better place as a result of this epiphany.
I can see the creator of this film might well have made this film with such noble intentions, but I’m about to argue that he falls way short.
I’ll also argue that by including a few interesting female characters, namely the grandmother, the drama teacher and Salma (the Minority Feisty), this obfuscates the fact that any female speaking roles are minimal as a proportion of the total, and just as importantly, masks the fact that the female characters exist first to prop up the male roles, and second because they kind of have to be there for realism (boys need mothers, for instance). A look at the surface level of this film and an audience may well come away under the impression that although this is boy-centered-film, it is very girl-friendly to boot.
Here’s why it’s not.
PROBLEM NUMBER 1:
Most female characters in Paranorman are as stereotypical as female characters in the original zombie flicks, without actually smashing through the heavy irony.
The description of Norman’s mother:
Norman’s mother, SANDRA BABCOCK, is emptying the dishwasher. She is in her late thirties, and wears ‘mom’ clothes that do no favors for her figure.
Have you noticed how often the term ‘figure’ is used to describe women, yet how rarely it comes up as an item of importance for men? When is the last time you heard anyone talk about a man’s ‘figure’?
Next, the audience is introduced to Norman’s teenage sister:
Breezing into the kitchen through the back door while CHATTING inanely on her cell phone, Norman’s older sister COURTNEY is fifteen years-old and is the bleached-blonde cheerleader archetype of every schoolboy’s sordid dreams.
COURTNEY: Oh yeah, he’s r-i-double p-e-d. Like, a seven pack at least. (to Norman) Ew! Watch it!
She pushes her brother out of the way as he drags the garbage outside.
I now have a sense of how the screenwriter thinks about women. A certain amount of character description is necessary in any screenplay. What stands out to me is that Courtney is FIFTEEN — she is sexually underage, yet still exists primarily as a sexual object: the ‘archetype of every schoolboy’s sordid dreams.’ (What does this say about ‘every schoolboy’?)
Admittedly, the viewer doesn’t get an accurate number on Courtney’s age. Given her role, I’d assumed her to be more like 17 or 18. Reading the script tells me something I didn’t want to know about her creator.
The next female character is Norman’s drama teacher, who is directing a comically over-the-top play about the witch burnings which happened locally 300 years before.
In a director’s chair far too small for the job is MRS HENSCHER, an imposing woman with spectacles and beret who looks like she smells of too-much perfume.
It’s important to this screenwriter that Mrs Henscher is fat: ‘in a…chair too small for the job’. Mrs Henscher has a larger-than-life personality and I admit that her physicality is a good match. I find the second part of the description interesting: ‘who looks like she smells of too much perfume’.
I include this description of Mrs Henscher first for completion’s sake, but also because I do appreciate this character. She’s interesting. Mrs Henscher is a classic example of the Acrofatic trope, or possibly Stout Strength. She’s a kind of Ladette.
But we don’t see much of her. And I doubt the target audience would identify much: she is presented as an eccentric and formidable teacher, and is as self-absorbed as she is physically powerful. Do I find her interesting because she is a jumble of mismatched tropes, similar to Megan on Bridesmaids, a butch-pearl-wearing woman, rejected by the mainstream but confident in her own right? (The only interesting character in that film, I might add.) At the risk of overthinking it, is this ‘mismatch’ between feminine accouterments and brute strength another kind of ironic novelty trope, which ultimately says something quite negative about femininity and all its associations? If a girl isn’t likely to identify with a female character, do we include her in the count of ‘strong female characters‘, whose very definition is problematic in its own right.
PROBLEM NUMBER 2:
Girl stuff is embarrassing and any resemblance to girls at all means you’re less of a man
ALVIN: Don’t get your bra in a twist, fat boy, this has nothing to do with you! Keep out of my way!
NEIL: Or what?
ALVIN: Or I’ll punch you in the boobs!
NEIL: I don’t have boobs. These are pectorals!
Alvin jabs him in the chest.
NEIL (CONT’D): Ow! My boobs!
A common joke. Yet I can’t think of any middle grade story which makes a joke out of a girl owning a pair of balls. Obviously, that would have the opposite message.
Femininity is depicted as weakness, the sapping of strength, yet masculinity is so fragile that apparently even the slightest brush with the feminine destroys it.
(The anti-fat jokes running throughout this film I will save for a separate post altogether.)
Later, the script describes a comically violent scene in the following manner:
Alvin [the bully] SCREAMS like a little girl, smacks it ineffectually with his spatula…
As Headless Horse writes at The Round Stable, “Clearly our cultural vocabulary could stand to grow up a little bit, and girls deserve to know they’re not afterthoughts—not to the makers of cartoons, and not to anyone else either./The parallels to other fronts in the broad, slow-moving war of social equality are clear: Polite adult company doesn’t use gay as a derogatory term anymore. Nor are words like retarded or bitchy considered welcome adjectives outside of the dialogue of deliberately retrograde fictional characters.” It’s not okay to use ‘gay’ as an insult in a kids’ film, and it’s not okay to use ‘retard’ as an insult, so why is it still okay to use ‘girly’ analogies… as an insult?
PROBLEM NUMBER 3.
The message that girl stuff is vapid
The tiny room is crammed full of posters, pom-poms, plush toys and plastic trophies. Pretty much everything is pink. [pink=girly, no?] Courtney sits talking on her phone, cotton buds between her toes as her painted nails dry.
COURTNEY: So I said to her, “Girl, come back and talk to me when your basket toss gets twelve thousand hits on YouTube!” Yeah, no, I said that. (listens and nods) Yeah, I’m stuck on lame patrol. Tonight’s gonna be a total yawn.
The audience is constantly reminded of Courtney’s shallow empty-headedness, with exclamations such as, ‘Oh, I broke a nail!’ An adult audience must surely recognise this as comically cliche. I’m not sure a younger, middle grade audience has been around long enough to see an entire fantasy world ironically.
Let us not forget that in kids’ films, as well as in real life, girl stuff is uncool, and must be rebranded entirely if boys are to have anything to do with it.
PROBLEM NUMBER 4.
The minority feisty is classically unattractive and only speaks when she’s saying overtly feminist stuff
The ParaNorman wiki entry on the Minority Feisty character of Salma sums up her role:
Not much is known about Salma outside of her name and status as a friend of Neil, as she’s seen hanging with him as well as trusting him enough to give him her number.
Making use of the screenplay PDF and Ctrl-F, here’s the sum total of Salma’s speaking parts:
SALMA [playing the bossy girl type]: Neil, come on. Let’s go.
SALMA: Why is the witch always a hideous old crone with a pointy hat and a broomstick? I don’t believe it’s historically accurate, Mrs Henscher!
SALMA (speaking as her onstage role as a witch): I curse you accusers to die a horrible and gruesome death and rise from your graves as the living dead; your souls doomed to an eternity of damnation!
SALMA (Salma talks into her cell phone with an expression of withering disdain.): So Norman, let me get this straight; you guys all go on this big supernatural adventure and you’re calling me in the middle of the night because you need someone to help you do your homework?
Even though Salma comes out with insightful commentary about what is essentially The Hermione Trope*, her physical presentation and her facial expressions make clear to an audience that Salma is to be perceived as ‘The Wicked Witch Of The West’. From the screenplay itself:
Salma is holding her hand up. She looks like the Wicked Witch of the West.
The feminist/wicked witch analogy is underscored in the slapstick, of which Salma is a victim:
Norman is yanked off balance and staggers into Neil who keels over, rigid branch arms unable to stop his fall. He lands on top of Salma, her kicking legs sticking out from under him as though Dorothy’s house had just landed on stage.
Is the audience to laugh when bad things happen to Salma? That’s surely the point of the slapstick.
SALMA [in response to Norman’s appeal for help with his research]: Well, duh. People found guilty of witchcraft weren’t considered people anymore. Norman, your witch was buried someplace else… in an unmarked grave! (reproachfully) If you cared to pay attention some of the time, you would know that we covered this in fifth grade history class… [notice that despite her protestations, she obliges the boys, compliantly] Okay. It says here she was tried in the old Town Hall on Main Street. There may be a record of her execution and burial in their archives.
In short, the audience is encouraged to disassociate ourselves from this sexually unappealing feminist character, who only ever bosses boys around and raises her hand in class to offer intelligent but very annoying feminist commentary. So any feminist observations Salma comes out with are nulled. This feminist character is actually worse than absent. This characterisation is not only anti-feminist, it’s anti-thinking.
*What I call The Hermione Trope: smart girls only exist in stories to help out the boys on the boys’ adventures while she sits at home doing the hard yards by reading books. To be fair, Hermione does join in the adventures even though she must read a lot of books ‘off stage’. I have yet to find a good name for this relationship. It’s evident again in Monster House, a movie with character dynamics very similar to this one, except the Hermione character (Jenny) gets a lot more screentime and is a lot more likeable than Salma.
PROBLEM NUMBER 6:
The commodification of female bodies
Neil! Will you get the door?
NEIL: I’m busy!
MITCH (O.S.): Are you freeze-framing Mom’s aerobics DVD again?
ANGLE ON TV, with a still image of a Lycra-clad instructor bending over. Neil quickly turns it off.
Needless to say, the ‘Lycra-clad instructor’ is female, and her buttocks fill the screen. I think the reason an audience finds this funny is because of the innocence of it: an older, more worldly young man would have found more hard-core/covert methods of objectifying women’s bodies. This is the sort of humour prevalent in comedies like Ted (2012). But Ted is for adults.
The female buttocks-fill-the-screen thing are (no doubt deliberately) reminiscent of one of the very first images in this film: that of the female scientist in the labcoat whose brains get eaten in that over-the-top Zombie film watched by Norman and his grandmother. After hoping that this film was going to highlight the ridiculousness of that storyline, now I’m convinced that this film only serves to reinforce them, to a brand new and younger audience.
Later, during the zombie invasion:
A corpse stands agog before a billboard. The poster is for a line of “Lady Luck” lingerie and features a buxom woman in her underwear draped over a roulette wheel. The tagline is “FANCY YOUR CHANCES?” The corpse’s one eye pops out of its socket and dangles by its optic nerve.
PROBLEM NUMBER 7:
11-year-old boy speaks in a fatherly and all-knowing manner to an 11-year-old girl, saving the helpless little creature
This is a story in which a boy is chosen to Save The World (or at least, the community).
PRENDERGHAST GHOST: Oh it’s you all right! I’ve been holding back the witch’s curse for years, but now I’m dead. It has to be you!
NORMAN: But I… I don’t know what any of it means!
Norman understands that he is just like the little girl, in age at least.
NORMAN: How could you?! She was just a little kid! She was no different than me!
Here’s the scene where Norman calmly reasons with Aggie:
Norman climbs up a tree root, Aggie’s flames searing his skin and clothes as he gets close enough to touch her.
NORMAN: Then stop. This is wrong and you know it! You’ve spent so long remembering the bad people that you’ve forgotten the good ones. There must have been someone who loved you and cared for you. You don’t remember them?
AGGIE: Leave me alone!
NORMAN: But you’re not alone! You have to remember!
AGGIE: Keep away from me!
Norman reaches the end of the root and jumps. His outstretched fingers shake madly as they approach Aggie’s tiny hand, as though the air is fighting against him.
There is a flash of white, and silence.
NORMAN: Sometimes when people get scared they say and do terrible things. I think you got so scared, that you forgot who you are. But I don’t think you’re a witch. Not really.
Aggie looks into his eyes.
AGGIE: You don’t?
NORMAN: I think you’re just a little kid with a really special gift who only ever wanted people to understand her.
He smiles softly.
NORMAN (CONT’D): So we’re not all that different at all.
So why the huge wisdom differential? TECHNICALLY, the little girl has been around for CENTURIES longer than he has. Norman goes ahead and ‘talks the girl down’ from her temper tantrum in the sky.
Admittedly, some of his precocious wisdom has come straight from his dead grandmother, who filled the fairy godmother role much earlier. Grandma Babcock appears seldom on screen, but when she does, she offers some weighty one-liners and theme-revealing advice:
GRANDMA BABCOCK: There’s nothing wrong with being scared Norman, so long as you don’t let it change who you are.
The Grandmother is the only truly positive female character in this film, since I’m discounting the strangely unappealing drama teacher and the deliberately scorned young feminist, Salma.
But Grandma Babcock cannot possibly make up for everything else, even if her lines are some of the most memorable. Arguing that ParaNorman is girl-friendly and then citing the grandmother would be like saying that Cinderella is a feminist story, because the fairy-godmother is very wise and helpful. Just like those old fairytales, ParaNorman is still, at its core, a story about girls waiting in the sidelines for boys to save the day, fairy godmother notwithstanding.
See: Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit:
Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men.
Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.
EDIT: After reading the ParaNorman review written by Hoyden About Town, I understand exactly how I haven’t seen the forest for the trees.
It was all going so well until Norman speaks to the ‘witch’ who was actually an 11 year old girl who was executed for witchcraft because she could speak to the dead too. Norman solves the problem of her raining down destruction on the town built around tourism based on her legend by insisting to her that she must forgive and forget. He gets really up in her face about it. Forget that this jury of mainly men (one woman) killed an innocent child for being a witch, that she as an 11 year old must understand that the adults made a mistake because they were scared, that it is her duty to forgive them and go to the grave.
I had to stop my list of complaints somewhere, but I really should have looked more closely at the entire plot and structure of this film, which is predicated upon something very wrong indeed. I’m clearer now on exactly why I found the ending so offensive.
See also: The Problem With Raising Good Girls from Role Reboot. ParaNorman has exactly the same problem as Bland’s story for preschoolers.
PROBLEM NUMBER 8:
Girls stand by and cheer Norman on in stereotypically feminine supporting roles
Either that, or they run away.
The fat woman from the Drive-Thru runs past SCREAMING, her face and T-shirt covered in blood-red ketchup.
Even at the climax, Courtney MIGHT have undergone some sort of character arc, learning to be proactive instead of pathetically passive in the presence of an attractive young man (the one who turns out to be gay* — SUCKED IN COURTNEY, JOKE’S ON YOU), but instead she has only learnt to respect her little brother. She cheers him on like the expert cheerleader she has been acculturated into being as the townsfolk gaze on in wonderment:
COURTNEY (CONT’D): Everybody, listen up! You all need to stop trying to kill my brother! You’re adults! Stop it! I know that this seems crazy, believe me I’m with you on that, but I think he does actually know what he’s talking about!…I’ve cheered the uncheerable, Norman, and I’m not letting you give up now!
It’s easy to forget that it’s information gleaned from the knowledgeable and hard-working Salma which is what actually Saves The Day. But where is Salma when Norman is busy being congratulated at the end? I don’t even remember.
*See also: Representing sexuality in animation:
In spite of animation’s inherent plasticity and the implication that animation can “resist outmoded notions of… performance” and “carry with it alternative ideological imperatives” (Wells, 1998, p.227) prime time television animation tends to follow the stereotypical representations of most visual narratives when depicting homosexual characters, using the traditions of feminizing, demonizing or ridiculing the homosexual male, or more recently othering such characters by intellectualizing them, or in the case of lesbians, dumbing these characters down to unibrow car mechanic hicks.
Girls are treated poorly then smile demurely
I’m not imagining things here. This is what it says in the script [parts in parentheses are mine]:
Courtney counters the backseat barbs [from a male character she likes] by smiling demurely
And during a zombie action scene:
VARIOUS ANGLES ON the garish town center nightlife intercut with CLOSE-UPS of the wide-eyed zombies.
Two teenage girls in mini-skirts walk along the curb. A pickup truck crawls by, driven by red necks who wolfwhistle and gesture rudely. The girls GIGGLE.
At no point in this film do girls stand up for themselves. Except for Salma, who is shot down and sat on.
Perpetuation of some pretty damn dodgy mars vs venus gender bullshit
This is an interaction between Norman’s parents, in which we are reminded that men don’t ask for directions and women can’t read maps:
PERRY BABCOCK: We’ve already been this way. We’re going around in circles!
SANDRA BABCOCK: Maybe we should pull over and ask someone?
PERRY BABCOCK: Oh, right, you think maybe we should stop at a graveyard and dig up some other eighteenth-century corpses?
SANDRA BABCOCK: It’s not a bad idea.
PERRY BABCOCK: I wish I understood you.
Women, OF COURSE, are completely non-understandable. Unintelligible, even. Yes, women are fucking crazy, and totally useless during a zombie apocalypse.
At the climax, Norman has saved the day. A boy is pleased to make his Dad proud, but doesn’t care for his mother’s reaction.
SANDRA BABCOCK (CONT’D): My brave little man! I thought I was going to lose you!
NORMAN: Mom, you’re embarrassing me.
SANDRA BABCOCK: That’s my job.
COURTNEY: Good job, Norman.
Perry takes a deep breath and looks at his son. There is relief and a hint of admiration in his eyes.
PERRY BABCOCK: Well done, Son. You did it.
Throughout the film, the mother and father’s dialogue have been equally inane, but in the end, only the mother is found to be stereotypically embarrassing. We learn that while it’s important to make your dad proud, mothers require forbearance.
Limits of the Bechdel Test
The movie does in fact pass. There is a brief exchange between Selma and Mrs. Henscher in the scene where the kids are rehearsing the play. Selma complains that the play not being historically accurate, and Mrs. Henscher replies that the point is to promote tourism, not be historically accurate. Only a few lines, but I think it qualifies.
There is a moment where the little ghost witch girl is talking to her mother under a tree. So this film technically passes The Bechdel Test. But what about The Magowan Test, which I feel is more appropriate for kids’ stories? It doesn’t pass that.
Feminism is a niche area and anyone who fancies he’s up to the job of writing a feminist screenplay starring middle grade kids would be well advised to do some goddamn reading on the matter. Either that, or leave the feminist commentary right out of it, since stories about boys deserve to exist in the world — just not at the expense of girls.
ParaNorman is an excellent example of the insidiousness of female representation in kids’ films, because with its straw-feminism, it’s easy to sit back and consider that part taken care of. This mirrors exactly how feminism works the real world, here in 2013: We all see a few women in power and assume feminism has done its job. Instead, I fear we’re heading swiftly backwards.
The screenshots above come from the fan-created ParaNorman Wiki. Here’s a very telling screenshot of that site. Notice what’s there and what’s missing?
A Further Note On Audience
Kids deserve better: not ‘morality stories’, but yes, they deserve politically correct. Partly because ‘politically incorrect’ can’t be funny in an ironic sense until ‘correct’ has been learned in the first place.
If this were a film for adults, I wouldn’t even bother. Adults — ideally, at least — have a well-honed sense of irony.
It has been suggested that this film is not for little kids. And it’s true that we shouldn’t simply assume that ‘animation=for kids’. When deciding who a film might be for, far better to look at the storyline and themes.
See: At What Age Do We Understand Sarcasm? from io9: “It appears that when kids at around the age of eight or nine encounter sarcasm, they know it’s sarcasm only by tone.”
The protagonists of ParaNorman are 11-years-old. While I could go on at length on a different topic: the infantalisation of entertainment, I don’t feel this particular animated film has enough depth to appeal exclusively to adults. That’s not to suggest that adults won’t also enjoy this film, should they go along KNOWING IT’S A KIDDY FLICK, but surely if a film starring 11-year-olds were marketed as a film for adults, without the added wisdom of hindsight a la The Wonder Years, an adult audience might feel a bit weird about that. The themes in ParaNorman are summed up in far too heavy-handed a manner for this film to be a deliberate appeal to adults. As for the morals, an experienced audience has been there, done that. The slapstick comedy of ParaNorman appeals to an even younger audience who, unfortunately, would likely suffer nightmares (tried and tested). Middle-schoolers are a varied crew, but any parental guidance should by rights focus on the unintended messages mentioned above; with films such as this one, parents aren’t just there to provide a warm presence in the face of supernatural themes. There are more important jobs than that.
What Parents Need To Know about the ratings of this film, from CommonSense Media.