Monday, December 10, 2012

Some Gender-related thoughts about How to Train Your Dragon

Last week my kids and I have watched Dreamworks' How to Train Your Dragon more than once. Usually I can't watch a movie more than once without starting to think about the underlying social issues, and this must have been the tenth time I've watched this one, but for some reason this time I started going back over my thinking about gender in the movie.

One note before I start: these are thoughts about the movie, not the book (which I have not read).

I enjoyed How to Train Your Dragon far more than I expected to when I first saw it. However, I never saw it as cutting-edge in a gender sense. I liked that there were both male and female Vikings, but although the female Vikings seemed to be out fighting alongside the males, most were just incidental rather than main characters. Hiccup's mom was out of the picture. Ruffnut was ostensibly female but hardly distinguishable from her brother in behavior. I guess you could say that woman characters exist in the movie but aren't really put into the focus of the story.

It's not as if they couldn't have been, either. For the sake of argument let's put aside the question of faithfulness to the book, and ask if the story could have worked with different genders. I mean, why couldn't Gobber have been a woman? A female blacksmith with a peg leg and detachable hands, who can double the amount of time that an army has to get away, how cool would that be? Or why wasn't Toothless female? There's absolutely nothing that dragon does which is particularly masculine, that I can think of. There's no reason to act like just because a dragon species is stealthy and powerful and awesome that any particular individual of that species must be male. All other things being equal, there is no reason I can see why Toothless could not have been a female.

So now we get to the main characters.

Astrid, I liked. She was tough but not too boyish, had judgments of things, used her head, and had ideas that took her both in opposition to Hiccup and into alignment with him. While her habit of whacking Hiccup came across to me as over the top, it fit with the whole Viking idea. And I did appreciate that the habit didn't go away just because she started liking him.

So now we get to Hiccup. For some reason, this time I found I liked him better than I ever had. Let's set aside the easy comments, "He's a boy, why can't we have girl protagonists" etc. and take a look at what he's really doing.

He is advocating for feminine strengths in a world of masculine strengths.

Hiccup's main problem isn't that he's weak but smart and people don't value his brains (which is relatively more common as a story message). It's that he isn't any good at fighting even when he tries, and he obviously isn't cut out for it. It's his heart that he is faulted for - what Gobber says, "It's not what you look like, it's what's inside that he can't stand." He's faulted for his inability to occupy a proper place as a soldier in the war that has been going on for generations between the Vikings and the dragons. He tries to take part in it (by shooting Toothless) and discovers that his success in bringing down the dragon is the greatest regret of his life. His turning point is the moment when he holds up his knife trying to kill Toothless, and doesn't just choose not to do it, but risks his own skin in order to undo what he has done. He goes from being a someone who knows what he is supposed to do but is unwilling to do it and therefore gets into all kinds of trouble, to someone who knows that what he was supposed to do (be big and strong and fight and kill) was wrong and will go to all kinds of quiet lengths in order to stay on the path he knows is right.

The moral of this story, as I see it, is "take your time to think and be compassionate." Hiccup's major victory comes from holding course firmly - even when his father won't listen to him. He doesn't have to battle his father to convince him. He doesn't have to kill a dragon, either. Yes, the big mega-dragon has to be stopped, and there's the battle and self-sacrifice and all that, but to my mind, Hiccup's big victory comes when his father sees the truth. When Stoic realizes that Hiccup's way of seeing the world was correct, and that he was wrong to disown him.

I've spoken before (in my post about Strong Female Characters) about the value of femininity. Feminism has taken us to a place where it's often okay, approved of, encouraged even, for women to behave in masculine ways. So far, so good (even though we know there is plenty of work to do). This still puts an unfair emphasis on masculinity as the goal, however. Gender equity means equity - and that means putting value on femininity as well, allowing boys to behave in feminine ways, with feminine strengths. I came out of this viewing of How to Train Your Dragon feeling like Hiccup's journey was a step in the right direction, because what made him a hero began in his feminine side.

I'd love to see more of that in movies, in books, and on the playground. I'm taking it as inspiration for my own work, and I hope you'll consider doing so as well.

It's something to think about.


  1. It's interesting you bring this up because I was just considering this gender role reversal in my Skyrim characters - more specifically mine and my wife's. I play this burly, bearded smith who wields two-handed axes and hammers. His father was a soldier and warrior and was all about dedication to the cause. It killed him and left his children fatherless and lost in the world. Jolfgar (my smithy) now dreads the thought of war and the loss sustained by it. He thus makes shields and armor, but refuses to make weapons. He'll fight when he must, but still leans toward defense. He won't take life unless his life or an innocent's depends on it.
    My wife's elf mage is female and is all about arcane education and herbal alchemy. But she is strong in destruction magic and wades unarmed and unarmored into dangerous situations. She's as happy picking herbs and concocting healing potions as she is burning giant spiders and frost trolls. She would like to just sit in the library with a book, but if she has to go recover the book from a dangerous dungeon first, she will without blinking. To her the end entirely justifies the means. The smith is the opposite. To him the path is the worthier part.

    Am I making any sense? Or am I just projecting and overreaching and chattering incessantly about Skyrim? :)

    1. There's a bit of Skyrim there, Realmwright, but my sense is that you feel both of these characters have a balance of tough and gentle characteristics. I think that's natural for most realistic characters.

  2. I hadn't really consciously noticed that sort of role reversal, but I loved that Hiccup not only realized that his way could be right for him, but in pursuing it, he convinced the others to accept it as well, starting with Astrid. She's the one who, with her questions, talked him through his lowest point when all looked lost, because she'd come to believe that his values, though different from the norm, might be right.

    Astrid: It's a mess. You must feel horrible. You've lost everything. Your father, your tribe, your best friend...
    Hiccup: Thank you for summing that up.
    Hiccup: Why couldn't I have killed that dragon when I found him in the woods? Would've been better, for everyone...
    Astrid: Yep. The rest of us would have done it. So why didn't you?
    Astrid: Why didn't you?
    Hiccup: I don't know... I couldn't.
    Astrid: That's not an answer.
    Hiccup: *Why* is this so important to you all of a sudden?
    Astrid: Because I want to remember what you say, *right now*.
    Hiccup: Oh, for the love of... I was a coward! I was weak! I wouldn't kill a dragon!
    Astrid: You said *wouldn't*, that time.
    Hiccup: Agh, whatever... I *wouldn't*! Three hundred years, and I'm the first Viking who wouldn't kill a dragon!
    Astrid: First to ride one, though. So...?
    Hiccup: I wouldn't kill him, because he looked as frightened as *I* was. I looked at him... and I saw myself.

    The role-reversal actually makes the revelation more powerful. That a boy could have the values typically assigned to girls validates them as being worthwhile for everybody. Astrid isn't as hard after Hiccup shows her that the old Viking way might be wrong. That since Hiccup's way might be right for him, she doesn't have to be quite so tough all the time herself. And it made them both stronger and better able to deal with the ultimate threat to their people.

    1. Jaleh, thanks for the extended quote, which is one of the ones that stood out for me as well. It's the validation of values typically assigned to girls that is the most important contribution here, to my mind. They have to be important for everyone, and that means boys as well as girls. I wanted to point this out in part because when one talks about the value of feminine strengths, people often misidentify those strengths and wrongly claim there is no way to validate them. Thanks for your comment.

  3. I had the thought this morning that the script for How to Train Your Dragon was based loosely on My Friend Flicka. Ken wasn't your ordinary boy, he was a dreamer much as Hiccup was.

    1. Interesting thought, Sandra. I have little idea of the history of the book and its influences, unfortunately. Thanks for bringing up the concept of the dreamer. Hiccup seemed too active for a typical dreamer, from my point of view, but the dreamer role is definitely a good one to mention, since it's not a stereotypical male role, and yet has occurred pretty commonly in stories. Thanks for your comment!

  4. I really loved the movie and its message that killing things doesn't make you a man.

    Cartoon Network now has a series based on the movie. It's called "Dragons: Riders of Berk." I've enjoyed the episodes I've seen, and Astrid has a bigger role.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Marilynn! You're now the second person to recommend the series. I'll check it out!

  5. It's funny but I just pretty much assumed that Toothless is a girl (but then my cat is a girl and they look almost identical!). I know Hiccup calls him "boy" but seriously, it's hard to tell with reptiles, and I"m not sure how closely Hiccup would be paying attention anyways....

    1. Bah, why am I anon?! Well that was Erin....

    2. Yes, I see your point. The script does refer to him as a boy, however, maybe because that's the easy default. Thanks for your comment!

    3. Toothless is probably referred to as male because he's a male in the books. The books are quite different from both the movie and the series, though. We do discover in the series that both Fishlegs' and Astrid's dragons are females.

    4. Thanks for adding that information to our discussion, Kathy! I appreciate it.