I Am the Grouchiest Feminist Critic of Children’s Media...and I Loved THE SLEEPOVER and YES DAY - Mutha Magazine

99 Problems

Published on March 19th, 2021 | by Aya de Leon


I Am the Grouchiest Feminist Critic of Children’s Media…and I Loved THE SLEEPOVER and YES DAY

When I was a kid, we had an old VCR with one movie in it: the 1978 film Foul Play. Goldie Hawn plays a clueless divorcee librarian who gets mixed up in an assassination plot. I must have seen that film 20 times. In it, Jewish actress Marilyn Sokol plays Stella, a stereotypical angry, paranoid feminist who says the only line I can remember: “Rape is not an act of sex; it’s an act of violence. Remember that.” For the record, Hawn is also Jewish, but her white gentile-presenting looks meant that she fared differently in Hollywood. Sokol was rejected from being cast as Rhoda Morganstern in the Mary Tyler Moore show for looking “too Jewish.” The producers cast a non-Jew to play Rhoda. In Foul Play, Sokol’s character is every second wave feminist stereotype of Jewish women. With her scowl and dark, short, nearly Afro hair, she is presented as the unattractive contrast to Hawn, the clueless blonde ingenue.

I share this because, when it comes to media, I am Stella. Scowling and paranoid. Always certain the patriarchy is conspiring in all forms of children’s media to groom our children for rape culture. I even feel like a cliché. The fact that I am right is beside the point.

I share this because I need it to be understood that I hate nearly all children’s movies and TV shows. I have written publicly about the racism in Doc McStuffins, the misogyny in Zootopia, scrubbing off princess imagery from accessories and running a Barbie-free house. I preview just about everything—even trailers—before I show them to my kid. And each time I let my guard down, I regret it. I showed her the trailer for Peter Rabbit. (What could objectionable about Peter fucking Rabbit? I’ll tell you.) Peter playing the partying frat boy while the farmer is away. They literally have a scene where Peter is standing on a produce box tipped on its side, pulling green leaves off a head of lettuce and making it rain on two half-naked girl bunnies who are dancing down below. Yes people, Peter Rabbit is grooming your children for stripper culture. (By the way, I stan for strippers, but NOT IN MY CHILDREN’S MEDIA unless it’s thoughtfully designed to be age appropriate). In order to make films that parents can enjoy, many of these children’s films—generally written and produced by men—have sexual imagery and humor that the children will not really understand. Which is even creepier, because the films are literally grooming unaware children into a bro culture view of sexuality, and winking at themselves for slipping some sex in to the show without the children’s knowledge or consent.

Amazon.com: Foul Play: Goldie Hawn, Chevy Chase, Burgess Meredith, Rachel  Roberts, Eugene Roche, Dudley Moore, Marilyn Sokol, Brian Dennehy, Marc  Lawrence, Billy Barty, Colin Higgins: Movies & TV

I have a zero tolerance policy for this kind of sexual grooming, for sexism, for racism, for all other forms of bigotry in children’s media. I also have a very low tolerance for romance in children’s media. I believe it is generally designed to give girls the message that their lives need to revolve around romance and heteronormative relationships with boys. I never let my kid see anything that I haven’t vetted on Commonsense Media and scrolled through ALL the reviews. Believe me, I am not fun when it comes time to pick what our family will watch for movie night. Nobody wants to pick a movie with Stella.

Suspicious and hostile as I am, I have fallen in love with two different children’s movies that have been released by Netflix in the pandemic: The Sleepover and Yes Day. And—despite my incredibly—high bar, I recommend them both quite heartily.

The Sleepover asks, “What do you do if your parents are kidnapped by a crew of international thieves? You begin a wild overnight adventure — complete with spy gear.” This film is written and directed by women, with several female producers. And it shows. No creepy bro sex jokes, and they engage then subvert the romantic cliché. Also, the adult content has to do with the complexities of parenting and adult relationships in families. Maybe it goes over the kids’ heads, and maybe it doesn’t, but if they do understand it, it is actually good information for them to have about life and the world. The jokes are not ultimately at your children’s expense. Also, it’s not that the parents are spies, it’s really that the mom was a spy and is being pulled back into her old life.

In the more recently released Yes Day, “A mom and dad who usually say no decide to say yes to their kids’ wildest requests with a few ground rules on a whirlwind day of fun and adventure.” Again, female creatives ground this film. Yes Day was originally a book written by the late Amy Krouse Rosenthal, and although the film is adapted and directed by men, Jennifer Garner, who stars in the film, also was one of the producers.

Like The Sleepover, Yes Day is ultimately about how moms reconnect with their pre-parent selves, and how that journey is transformative for everyone in their families. In very different ways, they both films have strong critiques of sexism.

My only critique of Yes Day is that—in this era of the Movement for Black Lives—the police and jails are seen as benevolent systems, and police incompetence is seen as silly and harmless. But that is a distortion of reality that I can live with.

On the other hand, I was also impressed by the way Yes Day depicted the multi-racial family. The dad is Latinx, and the entire family is bilingual. While there is one moment where Jennifer Garner mimics his accent, she has also become fluent in Spanish. So instead of the husband and kids assimilating into white culture, she is assimilating into theirs. You love to see it.

Everyone knows that I am Stella when it comes to movies. Other parents often seek my counsel, because they know I am the toughest critic. In the sidebar, you can see the text exchange between me and a lesbian mom of Black kids.

No spoilers, but I’ll just leave you with a few favorite moments in these two movies: underwear, car wash, snot. Our family was in hysterics through both of these films, and I hope yours will be, too.

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About the Author

Aya de León teaches creative writing at U.C. Berkeley. Kensington Books publishes her adult novels, her award-winning “Justice Hustlers” feminist heist series (which includes SIDE CHICK NATION, the first novel published about Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico), A SPY IN THE STRUGGLE, about a young Black woman FBI agent who infiltrates an African American political organization fighting for climate justice and Black Lives (out now), and QUEEN OF URBAN PROPHECY about women in hip hop, police violence and the climate crisis (out now). In October 2021, Aya published a young adult thriller about a pair of undocumented Dominican teen girls who uncover a kidnapping plot to stop the Green New Deal called THE MYSTERY WOMAN IN ROOM THREE. Given the climate emergency, this novel was too politically urgent for traditional publishing, so it was serialized in in six installments on Orion Magazine, and is available free of charge. In October 2022, her next young adult novel comes out from Candlewick Books, UNDERCOVER LATINA—about a 14-year-old spy who passes for white to stop a white nationalist terrorist—the first in a Black/Latina spy girl series. In spring 2022, Aya is producing a free online conference called Black Literature vs. The Climate Emergency at UC Berkeley African American Studies. Aya is also working on a memoir of her body that explores the intersection of food, body image, race, and the environment. Finally, her Justice Hustlers series has been optioned for television, and she is currently working on the pilot. Find her at ayadeleon.com

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