Gender Representation in How to Train Your Dragon

The original post that made me think about this issue can be read here. Mike asked us to read it before today’s life drawing class.

The post talks about Disney and Pixar animation, but I think it mostly applies to the whole industry. It was always bothering me, I just couldn’t put my finger on it before. The example I would like to point out is Dreamwork’s How to Train Your Dragon movie series. I loved the story and the world since I first watched the first movie in 2010, so much that I read all the books as well. It is usually easy to spot differences between books and their film adaptations, but I try to focus on the gender representation issue.

The story is about vikings. They have board shoulders, they are heavily built, not just the men, the women as well. In the movies this works just fine in the background, all the women characters who doesn’t even have a line in the movie look like vikings. Fierce and strong. But what about our main characters?

All of the girls have beautiful hourglass shapes. We could say it’s only because they are still kids, but the boys are already heavily built – except for Hiccup of course.

Jumping to the second movie where we meet Hiccup’s mom. She is a viking as well, right? And she is not a kid anymore. Let’s have a look at the book.

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This is an illustration made by Cressida Cowell, the writer of the books. That’s right, she is Hiccup’s mom. A strong and feared fighter, a viking, heavily built and fierce as any other woman in the village. In the movie she is beautiful, has a narrow waist, and there’s not a loose hair on her head even tho she was living with only dragons for more than 20(!) years.

Every single character is more appealing in the movies. It’s understandable, according to the principles of animation appeal is really important, and on top of this it’s a kid’s film, it wouldn’t sell if everyone would look unpleasant. But there is a really huge difference between the changes in male and female characters. Yes, Hiccup is more visually pleasing and not as clumsy as in the books, and yes, Snoutlut isn’t as ugly either. But Astrid – who isn’t in the books… Her equal could be Camicazi, Hiccup’s friend, who is a witty little viking, very mischievous, always where the trouble is, kind of an escape artist… – became a love interest. And Valka – Valhallarama in the books – was the most feared fighter among the vikings and became a crazy housewife. It’s not only their looks that changed. Yes, they are still well-built characters, but in a very different way. I kind of want to point out that they only changed the names of the female characters. They even kept the name of their dragons, Camicazi’s dragon is Stormfly just as Astrid’s.

One could ask that most of the story had been changed, why just focus on these things? It is true, the whole story lost the main meaning of the books in the first minute of the movie. All they kept was the looks and personalities of the male characters. And this is why I’m asking the question, why they didn’t keep the females? Was Valhallarama too fat to be shown as a protagonist in a movie? Was it a problem that she was stronger than Stoic, the chief? Was Camicazi too clever to be included? Would it been a problem if she had outwitted Hiccup every now and then?

This is only one more example on how the male gaze changes and manipulates the way woman are seen in the world. DeBlois might have only had in mind to shape the characters as much as they will fit the story that he wanted to tell through Cressida Cowell’s world, but still this shows what a big difference there is between a man’s and a woman’s point of view on female characters.

I sure have learnt a lot, and will keep an eye on this issue from now on. I know that things got much better in the last few decades, but there’s still some space to improve.

References:

  • Cowell, C. (2003) How to Train Your Dragon. Hodder Children’s Books.
  • Gardan, T. (2015) Looking from the Outside In – Gender Representation in Animation. Available at: http://fourthreefilm.com/2015/09/looking-from-the-outside-in-gender-representation-in-animation/ (Accessed: 3 May 2017)
  • How to Train Your Dragon (2010) Directed by Dean DeBlois.
  • How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014) Directed by Dean DeBlois.
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