Dr. Seuss' The Lorax: Why Such a Stereotyped View of Girls and Boys?

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An article about Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax (the movie) made the rounds on social media this week. Entitled “Save the Lorax: Shun the Stuff,” it noted how the “eloquent environmental message” of the Dr. Seuss book on which the film is based is “being crushed by the film’s slew of corporate cross-promotions.” Seems the anti-consumer Lorax is being used to sell everything from pancakes to diapers and even SUVs.

Reviews of the film have been harsh, but since I read nothing that said the film itself had commercial tie-ins or product placement, and because my sons have never seen any commercials about this film or any of the Lorax-themed products, I figured we could give it a shot. I was also curious to see how this wonderful book had been treated in its film adaptation.

The Lorax, Photo By Universal Pictures
The Lorax, Photo By Universal Pictures

For those unfamiliar with the book, it is about a mythical creature called the Lorax who tries to stop an entrepreneur known as the Once-ler from harvesting Truffula trees. The man ignores him and, in his quest to make money, destroys an entire forest, leaving it blackened and empty of the animals that once happily lived there. The story of the Lorax is told by an elderly Once-ler in flashback to a young boy curious about who and what the Lorax was.

The book is a favorite of my older son and I knew that the message, if it was delivered effectively, would resonate with my recycling-obsessed younger son. And it did. The environmental, anti-consumer message is loud and clear, although younger kids might not understand the references to glowing babies and canned air.

The animation is amazing. The whole look of the film very Seussian, although the dialog is not. (Nor is the back story about the young boy chasing down the Once-ler because of his love for a girl.) On the rare occasions when actual passages from the book are used, they seem to be kludged in rather clumsily. A minor quibble, since the real focus of the movie is not dialog, but action sequences and the arresting images of trees being felled, animals sadly leaving their home land, and the eventual dimming of the once colorful Truffula valley. There is also a happy ending and enough music, adventure, and goofy creatures to entertain kids. My sons laughed a lot and quite liked the film.

What about gender? Sadly, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax breaks no new ground. In the original story, the three principal characters -- the Lorax, the Once-ler, and the child who wants to hear the tale of Lorax -- are all male and they remain male in the film. (Some people have called Seuss sexist because of the lack of gender balance in his stories, but I assume the predominance of male characters was more a sign of the times in which Seuss lived than actual overt sexism.)

It would have been nice if the filmmakers, realizing the lack of female lead characters in children’s films, had taken a risk, changed it up, and placed a female in the role of hero/protagonist. But that step would have been truly revolutionary. I don’t imagine the filmmakers even thought of it. If they did, they probably decided against it, lest there be a great hue and cry over someone changing the source text. I would tend to agree with that attitude in the case of many classic stories -- I am not generally a fan of revising books written long ago to suit our modern sensibilities -- but in this case, the sex of the lead is irrelevant to the story. What would have been the harm?

Putting aside that idea, which really is a pipe dream, I found myself less concerned about the sex of the lead characters than with that of the supporting players. Where there were opportunities to add females to the story, they were exactly where you would expect them to be -- cast as mothers (mostly overbearing) and a potential girlfriend.

The love interest, named Audrey, plants the idea of seeing a real tree in the mind of the boy, Ted, who has a crush on her. Other than that, she has precious little impact on the story and is certainly not allowed to venture with him into the wide world as he seeks out the Once-ler. No adventure or action for her, a notion that is brought home in a dream sequence where Ted imagines her dressed as a princess as he, the gallant hero, presents her with a real Truffula tree. Sigh.

The mothers are what you would expect. Only Ted’s Grammy makes her presence felt as she helps steal back the last Truffula seed from the bad guys. Note the term “bad guys.” The villains are all, predictably, male.

Also predictable is the absence of male characters in one particular role -- that of fathers. Neither the Once-ler nor Ted has a father. It’s true that their families each get minimal screen time, but the only parent present in those scenes is the mom. As with the question of a female lead, I have to ask, what would have been the harm in including a father in one or both of the family scenes?

The Lorax is an entertaining film that most kids will enjoy, but its message on gender, while not as egregious as some films, is not nearly as progressive as its message about the dangers of consumerism.

I didn’t hate Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, but I found myself frustrated that the tiresome gender tropes I recognize from virtually every other kids’ film are used again here. Clearly the film’s creators took liberties with the story in order to pad it to feature film length. They had the freedom to do whatever they wanted with the back story. Why such a stereotyped view of girls and boys?

It may seem like a minor complaint, but attention must be paid to gender stereotypes, no matter how subtle they seem. As a piece I recently read on the Common Sense Media website says:

“Stereotypes are easily recognizable and understandable...But as we all know, stereotypes are a delicate matter. They can bolster negative perceptions, justify prejudice, and reinforce sexism...Plus, they’re insidious—creeping into our attitudes without us even realizing.”

In The Lorax, the stereotypes are so familiar that they will probably go unnoticed, but, as part of the pop culture landscape, they fall in line with the negative gender portrayals seen all over kids’ media, where girls are not heroes, men are not parents, and the only people taking action and effecting change in the world are male.

Time now for my clumsy insertion of a passage from the book: Until some filmmaker decides to go against the grain with gender portrayals -- even in the smallest roles -- nothing is going to get better in kids’ films. It’s not.

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