I’ve always loved movies, but as I’ve gotten older, my personal taste has changed a lot. Every once in a while, though, I re-watch one of my childhood favorites. Usually this involves a lot of awkward laughter and cringing at sexist, cliche, or otherwise problematic things I used to enjoy, but not so with “Spy Kids”, the 2001 release from director Robert Rodriguez.
If you want to raise your children (either current or future) in a cultural environment with healthy, non-stereotyped role models, the encouragement of positive development, and the rejection of harmful gender expectations,”Spy Kids” should be in your DVD player!
(CAUTION: Spoilers ahead!)
First of all, it’s an awesome story:
Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez have never told their kids that they used to be international spies for the OSS (Organization of Super Spies).
When they’re unexpectedly asked to go off on a mission after years of being “normal,” they jump at the opportunity, leaving siblings Carmen and Juni home with a family guardian disguised as an uncle. Unfortunately, retirement has made the ‘rents a little rusty, and they are taken captive almost immediately by the Thumb-Thumbs–henchmen of Floop and Minion, the bad guys. Incidentally, Floop is the master mind behind the kids’ television show Juni is obsessed with, but Gregorio suspects that he is somehow involved in the recent disappearance of several OSS agents. The Cortez home is attacked by Thumb-Thumbs and “Uncle Felix” spills the beans about mom and dad, causing Carmen and Juni to haul out of there in an underwater escape pod…thingy, unofficially become spies themselves, and set about rescuing their parents and saving the day.
So why, you ask, is it such an especially great movie for kids? I mean, it has greatness for everyone, and we can all enjoy a movie with a fun plot, but kids especially need entertaining movies that DO NOT reinforce unhealthy stereotypes or gender expectations.
Healthy, non-stereotyped adult role models:
- Gregorio is not a patriarch. Rather than being macho, domineering, or condescending, he is is quiet and respectful, and resists when it is suggested that he could fight with another kid’s father and impress Juni. The suggestion that he could have beat that guy into the ground is not made because he is a man, but because he is a super spy! By resisting he shows restraint and humility in favor of impetuous pride.
- Ingrid is not just a wife and mother. She is observant and outspoken, speaking more than her husband in every scene they share. She looks equally bad-ass in her leather spy costume as Gregorio does, and remains appropriately covered to avoid sexualization throughout the entire film. So often when women are put in traditionally masculine roles such as spies and government agents, they are either forced into the masculine box and made to seem cold and calculating or are overly feminized and turned into sex objects. Sometimes both at once! Neither with Ingrid Cortez. She is quite simply a smart, strong, caring and observant, kick-ass woman!
- Both parents, despite being secret agents in an action adventure film, show a full range of human emotion. ‘Nuff said.
- Floop (yes, I mean the bad guy), absentminded and blindly devoted to his art, has indeed been kidnapping OSS agents and turning them into mutant Fooglies, who then become the gibberish-singing stars of his show, but as it turns out, Floop is not actually evil. He has been tricked by Minion into assisting an evil plan when in fact, all he wants to do is create a great children’s television show! Floop is an excellent character for several reasons: 1) He proves that good and evil is not as straightforward as it may seem, 2) he demonstrates that even fully grown adults can be sad, conflicted, and misunderstood, and 3) he shows that adults can have crazy dreams too, and can even make them come true.
- The Thumb-Thumbs, rather than being people, are literally all-thumbs, which is both hilarious and sometimes frightening. This serves to cleverly characterize the brute squad (typically short, muscular men) as awkward and clumsy without inadvertently putting any certain kind of person in this very small stereotypical box! Brilliant move on the part of Rodriguez.
Rejection of harmful gender expectations for kids:
- Juni has trouble with self-esteem and sweats a lot due to fear and anxiety. He is cautious, clumsy, and very enthusiastic about Floop’s Fooglies (incidentally, a completely non-violent show), directly challenging the expectation that all little boys should be either athletic, outgoing, and confident, or introverted video game/book nerds. Juni fits into neither of these boxes. He is characterized as a dreamer with his “head up in the clouds,” something more often attributed to girls while boys are presented as more active and interpersonal. Despite these things, he is never made to seem “girly” or effeminate. The lesson he learns throughout the movie is about trusting and believing in himself, a worthy, non-gendered goal.
- Carmen, the older sister, is frustrated with her job of looking out for Juni. Her character rejects the expectation that all girls are born nurturing caretakers. Aside from that, she is clever (in a Hermione Granger kind of way, though not nearly as awesome), quick on her feet, and confident (though secretly insecure about her bedwetting). She starts out rebelling against her parents and lying about skipping school, but learns throughout the movie the value of cooperating with and trusting others, especially her family.
Finally, the movie is a great example of that timeless lesson for adults everywhere: NEVER underestimate kids’ observations, wisdom, abilities and ideas! They’re not stupid just because they’re young!
What did you think of Spy Kids? Do you know of any other fantastic movies for kids and families?