Revisting the Collective: ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ Helping to Solve Hollywood’s Female Character Problem

(CS: This month I am planning to have many more articles and reviews on the site. Some of the types of pieces I'd like to start doing again are explorations into deeper themes in specific movies. Though I miss the time I was paid to do this on a weekly basis for Collective Publishing. This was originally published on June 18, 2014.)

The summer movie season isn’t renowned for high-quality movies geared towards women or even movies with strong female characters. The fact the summer of 2014 is actually being considered a good year shows the problem because there have so far only been two good mainstream pictures marketed towards women in the very underrated twist on the Sleeping Beauty story, Maleficent, and the Shailene Woodley (in an Oscar-worthy performance) starring teen romance, The Fault in Our Stars. The even stronger criticism comes in the typical big-budget tentpoles that studios hope will draw out massive crowds, as for the most part the female roles remain underdeveloped. They either get to stay at home to worry about their husbands like Elizabeth Olsen in Godzilla or are largely a plot device to develop the main character like Emma Stone in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. (CS: Over a decade later, I'd say things have gotten better but it is nowhere near the level that the angry 'anti-woke' YouTubers would have you believe.) 

This summer still has offered up more glimmers of hope than most from the past. It helps that most of the pictures have cast incredibly talented and versatile actresses that rise above their roles like the aforementioned Olsen and Stone and other performers like Jennifer Lawrence, Angelina Jolie, and Rose Byrne. Edge of Tomorrow even allows Tom Cruise’s character to be a snivelling coward until encountering the real action hero played by the terrific Emily Blunt who is a finely blended mix of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Rambo but far better looking. (CS: I recently rewatched this with Everett, and this is easily in the top five best action movies of the 2010s.) 

This summer’s big special effects spectacle that has turned out to be the best template of how to create a picture that appeals to the sought-after demographics but still has strong female characters is the animated family feature, How to Train Your Dragon 2. It is an epic fantasy adventure with eye-popping visuals and two grand battles that rival most adult action pictures that is a perfectly suited story for pre-adolescent boys yet still creates female characters that are far more than just background scenery or objects to rescue. Valka and Astrid are graceful and sometimes feminine ladies who are also strong, independent and assertive. The women are also willing to express their feelings and emotions, which is rarely allowed to happen in a potential blockbuster for fear it would scare off teenage boys. (CS: We are very slowly getting a return to movies where characters display real emotions and even have some romance.) 

Looking back at animated picture history, the majority of women who are allowed to be portrayed as strong, independent, and assertive were also the feature’s villains such as Cruella Deville and Ursula. Over the years there have been periods where a female action star has been a hot property such as in the Resident Evil and Tomb Raider franchises. But it is incredibly rare that these powerhouse and sexy women are also allowed to convey a softer side filled with feelings and emotions because the fear is that such things would make the males feel too gooey inside and cause them to flee away from the cinemas. (CS: I'm repeating myself a bit here.) One of the few exceptions to this rule that instantly comes to mind is Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley from the Alien franchise, but the keyword is an exception and even then it is mostly covered up by her battling aliens. 

Valka and Astrid have compassion and nurturing instincts while also being forceful, commanding and tough when it is time to stand up and battle the evil. They can protect themselves and don’t need the males to come to their rescue. Astrid is still willing to sit down with her boyfriend and the feature’s hero, Hiccup, to talk about the things bothering him and offer up emotional support, but is also one of the few characters that doesn’t back down when confronted by the scary master villain, Drago. Valka has a motherly instinct when caring for both the dragons and her son. Hiccup, but is also ready to quickly start kicking ass when the villains attack the dragon sanctuary. 

When Valka is first introduced in the picture, I had an uneasiness about her. It wasn’t just that she wore that crazy mask and did some bizarre dance ritual. Something just felt off when she revealed she was Hiccup’s assumed-to-be-dead mother, and it took some time for me to reconcile that she is one of the heroes. I keep waiting for it all to be a deception. After being several days removed from seeing the picture, I can now realize what it is that initially made her so bizarre. Her story is so counter to most things we’ve seen in Hollywood movies. 

Valka has been absent from Hiccup’s life since he was a baby. She was away the entire time because she believed the dragons needed to be protected and her community didn’t understand the creatures weren’t inherently evil. There have been several narratives in action and fantasy adventures about fathers that disappeared early in a child’s life, but we then learn it had been for noble causes. The father is usually redeemed and shown to be a hero and inspiration. Men are allowed to go off on adventures, even if it means leaving behind the family. But there isn’t much fiction where a woman leaves her children, and she is still crafted to be likable or especially, heroic. I agree that a mother should be with her child but so should a father, yet in the fantastic work of fiction, normally only the male is allowed forgiveness because they had important business that just needed a few decades of attention. (CS: This also applies to the real world where a dad being gone all day is considered his role while some believe the mother should be home all day to nurture the child and sacrifice her own wants and needs. It is crazy to think how preconditioned we are to this ingrained societal mindset to the point I initially distrusted Valka.) 

I’m not saying it is believable that a loving mother would be away from her child for almost two decades. But flying dragons and armoured limbs aren’t really all that realistic either. The crucial point is Valka never gets condemned for her actions and is able to remain one of the most righteous characters in the picture, despite doing something that is construed as the actions of a selfish female villain in almost any other story. Fiction often allows men to rise above and fight for the greater good, but this time the same leeway was given to Valka. She is then openly embraced by her family when they discover she is alive. 

The reunion of Valka and her husband, Stoick, is one of the most tender and intimate scenes that has ever been in a big-budget adventure picture. It isn’t about passion or lust. It is about a real and deep connection between the two. They truly respect each other, and Stoick sees his wife as an equal. This is the exact same thing that happens with the Astrid and Hiccup relationship, where they act as equal partners and value the opinions of each other. Rarely does a big studio action picture bother to take the time to show a relationship that feels real and goes beyond the superficial level. This is far from a romantic movie or one about relationships but takes the time to focus on the small things to make the relationships matter. The respect shown to female characters by their partners allows them to rise way above the status of arm candy and become integral people in the world. (CS: Being more than just the partner is one thing MCU struggled with even when they were nailing hit after hit a few years back.) 

Cate Blanchett voices the Valka character, and this isn’t any minor thing. First of all, she is one of the most talented actors in Hollywood, and her gifts easily translate to voice work. She makes Valka feel like an authoritative and confident woman who also is willing to care deeply and love her family (even if she is gone for 20 years). It is also important because at the start of the year when she was gobbling up countless awards for her Blue Jasmine performance, Blanchett was speaking out against the lack of strong and valuable roles for women in motion pictures. This wasn’t just a criticism towards the big blockbusters but all the movies churned out by Hollywood. The problem is women are more often either tertiary characters or objects for the male protagonist to gain. There are clearly exceptions with Blue Jasmine being an obvious one, but it is still a problem. It is refreshing to see an animated picture taking small steps to make the female roles seem meatier and more significant. 

How to Train Your Dragon 2 isn’t a story about female empowerment. It won’t be the picture that smashes gender stereotypes. It is still a fantasy adventure that appeals more to boys, and the hero is most definitely the male, Hiccup. The most important relationship in the movie is actually between him and his male dragon, Toothless. In some ways that is what makes this movie so worthy of note. It is a typical epic adventure that excites most young boys, but it still takes time to make the female characters matter. They aren’t the stars, and the women are still in supporting roles, but they are given attention and intricacies that are typically lacking.  

It is proof that you can make a picture aimed at the coveted teenage male group and still show some care towards female characters. It has the added effect of broadening the picture’s appeal and scope. I realize How to Train Your Dragon 2 was made for kids in elementary school, but it has many of the elements and action that still appeal to teenagers. This picture is exciting but also has an emotional complexity that is often completely absent. This animated feature has created a template that proves that even male-dominated genres can have some room for smart and strong and also feminine women.(CS: Animated movies have proven to be more progressive than many adult-oriented pictures in the last decade and a half.)