Animated films have a complicated relationship with gender. Growing up, we were treated to films with very black and white depictions of women. Women were beautiful and selfless (think Belle) or strong and stubborn (think Mulan). Now, the newer generation of animated films have gender roles that are more dynamic, complicated and realistic. Films like Frozen and Brave have created lasting, powerful, female-focused films with heroes to be proud of. The revolution wages on.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 features two prominent female characters — Valka and Astrid — who bring a new dimension to the controversial "Strong Female Character" archetype — the type of female character who is physically strong but perhaps less complicated or compelling.
Putting a physically strong, outgoing or rambunctious woman in a movie often gives the appearance of creating a gender-forward film, yet most of the time, that female character is not fully developed (think Kick-Ass, The Matrix or even the first How to Train Your Dragon). This movie progresses that discussion in many ways, most radically by creating female leads who do not easily fit into a box.
While it may feel disappointing that we're still at the point of rattling off gender triumphs in film, until there is an equal playing field in Hollywood, it's necessary, if only to highlight what is going right.
Here are just seven of the subtle ways How to Train Your Dragon 2 speaks to female power and influence in order to show audiences, and especially young audiences, that indeed female characters are valuable.
1. When the men follow the woman.
In many films starring a strong action girl as a female character, she blusters and talks a big game. She may take down a bad guy or two — but, ultimately the film places her as subordinate to the man, who is "always right". In How To Train Your Dragon 2, however, women often make important decisions and men defer to their judgment. In one instance, after the film's leading family is reunited, the main villain (Drogo) attacks the island they're on. After surveying the chaos, both Stoick and Hiccup — the village chief and his successor — turn to their wife and mother to ask for advice on what to do. When she gives her answer — "Protect the dragons!" — they fall in line. It's a simple moment, but the fact that the woman is in charge is important nonetheless.
2. When the women had power of presence, not brute force.
Neither of the film's female leads — Astrid and Valka — possess significant physical strength. This sets them apart from the usual strong female character trope. Instead, both Astrid and Valka show their strength through their leadership skills. Every time we see Astrid in the movie, she is taking command. Similarly, Valka has limited fighting skills. Her power comes through her relationships to dragons, and she wields that power well.
3. When Valka leads a dragon resistance.
Valka leads the force when dragons fight back against Drogo. She uses her strong relationship with the dragons to advance the plot and stand up for what she cares about — not just the goals of the men in the movie.
4. When Astrid takes control.
With both Stoic and Hiccup gone, Astrid, Hiccup's girlfriend, is the one in charge. After the main male leads are missing for some time, she leads a team of young vikings (ostensibly, other leaders in the village in their own ways) to find where the other characters have gone missing. She successfully intimidates the dragon trapper into doing what she wants and is the one who discovers where Drogo, the villain, is hiding. She also coordinates her and the others' escape just in time to join the defense of the dragon sanctuary. Though she may have been third in line, she shows herself to be just as capable a leader as Hiccup, and the men around her follow her loyally.
5. When the parents had a healthy (if complicated) relationship.
The main character's mother, Valka, has been missing for 20 years before Hiccup finds her. Eventually, his father finds out that she is alive also, and their meeting is tense. After 20 years apart, it would have been easy for Stoick to be angry or resentful towards Valka, who had not returned home since she was stolen by dragons. Instead, Stoick shows love and understanding. After all this time, he still understands his wife, and approaches her gently to see if she's interested in being with him.
When Hiccup, excited at the prospect of having a family, starts talking about his mother moving back home, he pats his son and says "Easy now, son. It's a lot to take in." Unlike so many other movie romances, Stoick defers to his wife's choices, knowing that it takes two people, not just one, to love.
6. When the father sacrificed for his son.
When Hiccup's dragon, Toothless, is taken over by the villain, Drogo attempts to have Toothless kill Hiccup. Instead, Hiccup's father leaps in front of the blast just in time and takes the hit. Stoick loves Hiccup and has spent the last 20 years with him, so it makes sense that he would be the one taking the leap, rather than Valka. But it could have very easily been the other way around. It is more often the case that the female maternal character must make the "ultimate sacrifice" for her child. This troublesomely implies that that a woman's primary value is what she can give her children. However, HTTYD2 shows that men can be amazing parents, which eases the grip on women to always be the one shouldering the burden.
7. When Astrid and Hiccup are established as equals.
Hiccup and his girlfriend Astrid got together five years ago, at the end of the last movie, and are apparently still going strong. For most of the movie, Hiccup acts on his impulses, and others (his father, friends, mother and girlfriend) are left to follow him or be left behind. Astrid often follows, taking up her dragon and going after Hiccup every time he makes a dramatic exit from the scene. However, do not mistake her for someone who merely trails after the man. The movie puts their relationship in better context when the pair have a discussion in the beginning of the movie. Astrid knows exactly where to find Hiccup and can wheedle out of him what's been on his mind — all while making fun of his mannerisms and his voice. The movie may be all about Hiccup, but it's clear from this conversation that the two see each other as equal partners.
While there are still some problems with film's depiction of women, for example — Valka needs to be rescued about three times in the big battle and disappears altogether in the third act — HTTYD2 does give female characters the ability to be "strong" in ways that don't have to do with physical strength — and to do something with that strength other than sacrifice themselves for others. It's a simple step forward but it's all part of the important progression towards on screen equality.