Rules are made to be broken, right? But what are these rules anyways — these stereotypes? A study by Common Sense Media found that children who are fed gender stereotypes may internalize those roles, shaping their behavior for years to come. The researchers found that the effects gendered media has on children include a tendency for girls to focus on their appearance, an increase in tolerant views of sexual harassment and the establishment of gendered behaviors in romantic and sexual relationships, as well as riskier behavior in boys and career choices limited by gender norms.
Once we grow up, we’re pushed into a new set of gendered expectations — those created in the workplace. Women who behave in ways that don’t fit the gender norm, for example being assertive in their career, have been found to be perceived as less likeable and less likely to be hired. The societal limitations placed on men can have a negative effect on their lives as well, prohibiting them from feeling like they are able to show any true emotion or empathy. One study even showed that “agreeable” men who were seen as warm, caring, supportive or sympathetic made an average of 18 percent less income and were evaluated as less likely to have management potential than their more traditionally masculine counterparts.
Many also have yet another fight to contend with — the norms and traditions placed upon them by their family and given culture. For those currently growing up in a rapidly changing world of increased globalization and instantaneous sharing by means of social media, young people are battling not only with the search to find their place in a larger society, but also within the dynamics of their family if they choose to shirk tradition in one way or another. Third culture kids, or those who grew up in places that are not their parents’ homeland, are the perfect example of such an identity crisis, as are children who identify as LGBTQ growing up in conservative households who may not feel comfortable being themselves.
If you can see it, you can be it
In 2017, Common Sense Media instituted a rating system that helped constitute what it meant for a film or TV show to have “positive gender representations.” Films on our list like “Moonlight” were given the stamp of approval for 17-year-olds and up, despite “depictions of violence, drugs and sex,” reports the New York Times. “I can’t think of any title that has prompted more talk about what it means to be an African-American young man, about opening up more possibilities, than that movie,” Common Sense Media’s executive editor for ratings and reviews, Betsy Bozdech, told the paper.
Actress Geena Davis’s Institute on Gender in Media is also working to balance the scales for onscreen portrayals in order to reduce harmful stereotypes and create an abundance of unique and intersectional female characters in entertainment. The institute’s slogan reads, “if she can see it, she can be it.”
We’re taking that phrase and running with it for a curated list of some of our favorite movies that defy stereotypes and break ceilings — from one of the top sing-along Disney flicks to laugh-out-loud classics and a tear-inducing new film that powerfully captures complicated family dynamics.
Best for space-lovers: “Hidden Figures”
“Hidden Figures” (2017) is the inspiring story of three African American women and their careers at NASA. First of all, the cast itself is incredible: Taraji P. Henson stars as Katherine G. Johnson, alongside Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae as Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, respectively. Watch as the trio take on the roles of “human computers” at the space agency in the 1960s, a time when the U.S. was in a space race against Russia, both trying to put a man into orbit. “Hidden Figures” is full of resilience, cunning and a boppy soundtrack by musical artist Pharrell.
Best to sing along to: “Mulan”
Disney movies are, of course, for everyone, but if you’re looking for an inspiring G-rated flick that both you and an 8-year-old would love, look no further than this Disney classic. Right now is also the best time to rewatch “Mulan” (1998) due to the 2020 release of its hotly anticipated live action remake. The original cartoon version is a retelling of a popular Chinese folk tale, centering around a young woman who has reached the age where she is expected to find a husband, with the aid of a strict matchmaker. Instead, posing as a man, she sets off to war, a crime punishable by death, to protect her ailing father from entering the mandatory draft. It’s full of catchy songs, a hilarious dragon sidekick voiced by Eddie Murphy and a triumphant feel-good ending.
Best for athletes: “Bend It Like Beckham”
A classic watch-any-time movie, “Bend It Like Beckham” (2003) explores the world of female soccer (football) while addressing important issues such as cultural identity, racism and the divide between old and new traditions and values. Set in and around London, it follows the story of two teens, one of whom comes from a very traditional Indian family, both intent on scoring professional careers in the competitive sport and the challenges they encounter along the way.
Best coming of age: “Moonlight”
“Moonlight” (2016) is a poignant drama based on Tarell Alvin McCraney's unpublished semi-autobiographical play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” It follows the story of Chiron, a young black man growing up in Miami, in three defining chapters of his life as he struggles to suppress his sexuality and true identity. Moonlight won three Academy Awards including Best Picture — heralded as a vital portrait of black gay masculinity in America.
Best family flick: “The Farewell”
A film based on an actual lie “The Farewell” (2019) stars Awkwafina as the headstrong Billi, as she travels with her family from New York to China to visit their grandmother who is dying of cancer. The problem? Everyone knows that she’s dying except the grandma herself, and the family intends to keep things that way as they devise an elaborate scheme to fake a wedding as a reason to visit her one last time. It masterfully captures the cultural divide between East and West while weaving in complicated family dynamics in a playful way.
Best Bollywood: “Dangal”
“Dangal” (2017), another film based on a true story, is about a wrestler in India who wasn’t able to take home the gold for his country. Mahavir Phogat, played by Aamir Khan, plays the former wrestler who then turns his attention to his daughters and helps train them to become prize-winning fighters despite societal pressures to do otherwise. The film is set in the northern state of Haryana, an area with some of the worst gender ratios in the country. It was also a hit in China, the country with the most serious gender imbalances in the world, quickly becoming the top grossing non-Hollywood foreign film in the country.
Best superhero film: “Wonder Woman”
Gal Gadot plays one of the most beloved superheroes of all time in “Wonder Woman” (2017). Once princess of the Amazons on a sheltered island paradise who was being trained to become an undefeatable warrior, her life is suddenly turned on its head. When an American pilot crash-lands on her island and warns her of the destruction happening in the outside world, Wonder Woman leaves the island the fight for the pursuit of justice.
Best for finding your voice: “The King’s Speech”
England’s Prince Albert, played by Colin Firth, is about to ascend the throne as King George VI after the death of his father and the scandalous abdication of King Edward VIII, but there’s just one issue: He has a debilitating speech impediment. The country was on the brink of war and badly needed a leader they could believe in, so his wife hires him a speech therapist with an unorthodox method of treatment in order to ready him for a big radio address to the nation. It’s an inspiring tale not only shows the strong bonds of male friendship, but thrusts a different kind of leader into the spotlight, showing that a speech impediment doesn’t mean you can’t lead a nation.
Best for teenagers: “Easy A”
“Easy A” (2010) is an easy-to-watch flick that’s equal parts hilarious and uplifting, in which Emma Stone plays a clean cut and innocent high school student named Olive Penderghast. Embarrassed by the lack of pizzaz in her life, Olive tells her best friend that she lost her virginity — a tall tale that a school bully overhears and relays to the rest of the school. Her life, and social image, changes overnight as Olive is now thought of as the “school slut.” Refusing to be beaten down by gossip and her peers, she uses the new scarlet A on her chest as a tool for her own self discovery and empowerment.
Best for adventurers: “Into the Wild”
Emory University graduate Christopher McCandless had it all — he was an athlete, top student and was born into an extremely wealthy family. Instead of getting a job upon graduation, however, he decided to shirk social norms and forsake the rat race for the journey of a lifetime in the Alaskan wilderness. Before embarking on his journey, McCandless gave away his savings to charity and rid himself of almost all of his possessions. Based on a true story, it’s an inspiring tale of the tenacity and endurance of the human spirit.