This week I had my granddaughters with me for a few days. One of the things we did was to go and see “How to Train Your Dragon, Part 2.” I went in expecting to just tolerate it, to get through it because it would entertain them.
That’s not how it went. I loved the movie, and two days later I can’t stop thinking about it. If you haven’t seen the movie, SEE IT. Today. Kids or no kids. Be warned, there are spoilers in this post, so read now or read after you see it, but please see the movie!
I have to admit that the battle scenes, and the good vs. evil plot points were pretty standard and I just tolerated them. But the interpersonal relationships, especially where gender roles and male/female power in relationships are concerned, were truly extraordinary. I’ll skip the more general plot and just discuss those points.
“Stoic” is the chief of a Viking clan that has learned to tame and ride dragons (after centuries of trying to wipe them out). He is big and burly with a loud voice and a commanding tone. He is trying to force his slight, sensitive son (Hiccup) into being chief. Hiccup does not want this, but he feels he can’t tell his father. So right away the father is cast in the traditional way: forceful, demanding, and unwilling to listen.
Hiccup’s mother, Valka, has been gone since she was taken by a dragon just after his birth. Little is said of her, until, miraculously, Hiccup finds her. The first time we see her, we don’t know who she is. She is wearing a fearsome mask, standing on the back of a flying dragon, lifting her spear into the air. Valka, indeed! She is terrifying and powerful. When she removes her mask, we are shocked to see that she is a beautiful woman. Traditionally, this is the point at which she would reveal her weakness, her “femininity,” and explain how hard she has worked to be in a man’s world, even disguising herself as male. Not in this movie. Valka is a warrior goddess, fiercely presiding over a sanctuary for rescued dragons. There is an evil band kidnapping dragons and forcing them into servitude. She has been their rescuer, fighting and winning against the forces of evil, all by herself.
There is the requisite touchingly emotional reunion between mother and son, but then Valka reveals that she could have returned, but chose not to because at the time her husband Stoic, the chief, believed that dragons were the enemy and was intent on wiping them out. Valka knew that dragons were sensitive souls, and gave up everything to devote her life to saving them.
So this is where it gets interesting. A woman giving up everything, including her husband and her child, for her principles? Women aren’t allowed to do that, are they? Men have done it for centuries and have been applauded for it. Think of all the teary scenes of men leaving their families to go off to battle to defend some principle or the other. Are there any recriminations? Does anybody say “What is he thinking leaving his children? How selfish!” No, we praise the sacrifice and the strength and bravery he shows. But women can’t do this, can they? And if they do, surely they will be punished and be filled with regret and shame, right? (cue Ibsen’s A Doll’s House here).
Then Stoic arrives. He has made one semi-disparaging remark about his missing wife previously (“His mother couldn’t stay in one place for long, either”) reinforcing the image of the missing mother as flighty, irresponsible, and not properly “in her place.” So, when he sees Valka, we expect recriminations, anger, disbelief. Instead, after a pregnant pause, Stoic runs to her, embraces her, and gushes with love for her. There is not a shred of anger, or blame. I cannot tell you how it hit me to see a strong, powerful, not-always-sensitive male figure in a movie—a children’s movie!– showing emotion and not having it depicted as him “giving in” somehow to emotions that he is trying to fight off, or becoming weak in the face of love. There is love, but Stoic is not weak. And neither is Valka. He respects the accomplishments she has made in her absence, and understands. He welcomes her with open arms, and the love story between them gets more and more tender as the movie goes on.
By far my very favorite moment of the movie occurs just after Stoic and Valka’s surprising reunion. The forces of evil are about to attack the sanctuary she has spent her life building. Stoic looks up at the encroaching horde, pauses, looks at Valka and says “What should we do?” She says “Fight!” and they launch into battle.
OK. Wait. What? The big, strong he-man just asked his wife what to do about a situation that is in “his” area of expertise? And then went with her answer unquestioningly? He deferred to her out of respect for her and recognition of something that was her accomplishment alone? With not a shred of resignation or condescension? Whoa. Paradigm shift.
I have not thought about a movie this much in a very long time. And I have not enjoyed a children’s movie in even longer. Children’s movies generally reinforce every gender role stereotype, and reduce people and situations to their very simplest outlines. Yes, we have started to have female main characters, and powerful ones. But if all we do is flip the script, and make the girls powerful at the expense of the boys, what have we gained? In this movie, the power is truly shared, the male and female characters are true equals, and strength can accommodate love and emotion without being diminished.
More of that, please.