I recently watched this amazing movie about a brave warrior who traveled undiscovered lands to provide food for their family. This character loves swords and taking dangerous adventures across jungles. During one of these journeys they make a very compassionate friend who’s favorite possession is a very elaborate dollhouse. They also love to read books in their spare time while relaxing in a flower meadow. When the main character gets caught up in a bind, their new friend takes it upon themselves to keep the main character safe at all costs. This goes so far as to them risk their own life.
Now I’m sure even without assigning any gender roles to the two characters from this movie most readers would assume that the main character in this film was an adventurous male, while the friend was a kind, nurturing female character. This actually isn’t the case for the 2010 Japanese film Arrietty. This is one of my absolute favorite films. Not only does the film have a gorgeous soundtrack and artistic style, it’s also a movie that I believe shows gender roles, especially feminist theory, in a wonderful light. Here we have a movie that successfully swaps stereotypical gender roles and portrays a rather masculine lead heroine and a feminine male companion.
There are a few different reasons why I consider Arrietty a more masculine heroine and Sho a more feminine hero. Most of the ideological framework I use in this blog post come from the wonderful documentary Wonder Women which explains classic heroines through a positive feminist sense. This documentary argues that the kind of heroine that should be a role model in our culture is that of a powerful woman who can lead her own story. Women who do not need men. One that sticks to her values and is not encapsulated by the world of romance. This is, to me, exactly what Arrietty embodies. This girl can stand up for herself and no one questions her ability just because she is a girl. And not only can she stand up for herself, but she also provides (literally food and household goods) to her family as a whole. I think a perfect scene to display Arrietty’s adventurous and brave qualities is the first time she goes out borrowing with her father. Not once does Arrietty’s father question her ability. He doesn’t even explain to her what needs to be done, she just watches and learns. When she comes across a sewing pin the first thing that comes to her mind is to keep it as a sword to protect herself. Her father even has to tell her that she doesn’t need to go looking for trouble, a classic phrase that is mumbled to young boys.
I also believe that even though Arrietty has a relationship with a male character, Sho, it never crosses over into the romantic world which is rare for a young heroine with a boy in her life. There is always Spiller, a character which you could assume forms a romantic relationship with Arrietty, but this is beyond the scope of the movie and Spiller is very much a side character in comparison to the friendship formed between Arrietty and Sho.
Sho on the other hand is a perfect example of a non-hypermasculinized male character. Sho is actually the opposite, he is very weak because of a heart condition. He is very compassionate, and would do anything to keep Arrietty safe in times of need. He is very different from the male hero because he doesn’t act in the stereotypical “heroic” way. His heroism is displayed in the form of sweet compassion. He is a very nurturing hero which would classically be thought of as a feminine role. On top of this Sho is infested in many things that would, in classical media, catch the attention of a woman. He loves flowers, reading, cleaning, cooking, and above all else he adores his dollhouse and wants nothing more than to give it as a gift for Arrietty to live in. Who is inclusive and is more interested in conflict resolution versus conquering this new species. Also, according to the documentary, in classic and even modern movies and media most female characters are typically shown sacrificing themselves for the man in the movie so he can “make it all the way” in a sense. This is reversed in Arrietty where Sho literally risks his life to help Arrietty make it to safety in the kitchen, and risks his life again when he runs to say goodbye. I think a great scene that encapsulate Sho is the very last scene of the movie where he explains to Arrietty that she has made him a stronger person and that he believes he can now survive with the courage she has given him to live a fulfilling life. In this scene Sho admits that Arrietty has made him strong enough to basically live his life and go through with his surgery.
Are roles really genderless in our society? Unfortunately I don’t think so. Back to the beginning of this post when I explained two separate characters free from gender, I’m sure characters like Sho are anticipated to be female while characters like Arrietty are perceived as male. That’s just deeply ingrained in American culture from the media that has been present over decades of film and literature. Although, I love when movies like this arise. Movies that challenge stereotypical gender norms and what it means to be masculine, or feminine. Movies where the girl loves swords and the boy loves dollhouses! It’s such a breath of fresh air to see gender roles reversed and set an example for young girls and boys that men don’t always have to be (and probably shouldn’t be) hypermasculinized, and that women don’t have to jump in front of a bullet for their man.