Movies

Harmful Stereotypes in the 1961 Movie The Parent Trap*

Good day all.

The other day I watched the 1961 The Parent Trap with my little brother and sister. As a child it was one of my favorite movies. Not many movies have twins as main characters, much less twins that hatch wild plans to get their parents back together. But when I was watching the movie this time, I was watching it with a more knowledgeable pair of eyes. I haven’t watched it in years and I have learned so much about the way society and the media often treat women since then. Even though I knew the plot, I saw the characters with fresh eyes and boy was I in for a shock. The characters all seem to be based largely on two molds. The character was either a woman, with all the specific traits that “come with being a woman” or the character was a man, with a the specific traits that “come with being a man.” I understand that previous sentence was ridiculous, please give me a moment to explain.

While watching the movie, I noticed that the majority of the women and girls in the movie have very similar traits. They often use others to get what they want, they scheme against each other, and they are very passive aggressive when approaching issues that they have with other people. With the exception of the camp counselors, all of the other named women in the movie exhibit the aforementioned traits, even the kids. When Sharon is pretending to be Susan out in California, she meets Vicky for the first time. Sharon can tell that Vicky is not a nice woman, but she pretends to like her and she pretends to be nice to her. To try and get rid of Vicky, Sharon makes up tons of other women that her dad has brought home over the years and messes with her head creating lies designed to hurt her as much as possible. This is not a healthy way to interact with a new person even if it is someone you don’t like. Sharon is thirteen and she thinks it is okay to lie to and manipulate the people you don’t like. Little girls aren’t born knowing how to manipulate people. She had to have learned it from the other women in her life. Namely her mother and her grandmother that also exhibit the same exact traits. Susan, however, has seems to have very little interaction with other women who are conniving and vicious. Rebena, the housekeeper could have taught her some things, but not the aggressive attack that she did on Sharon’s tent at camp. That prank was mean-hearted and thought up by Susan and her friends. I don’t understand how all of the girls we get to know at that camp are so mean and passive aggressive. It is completely unrealistic. Real life girls don’t act like that.

Then there is the “prank” that Susan, Sharon, and Maggie pull on Vicky. All three are involved because Maggie willing stays behind knowing that the girls are going to do something to get rid of Vicky. Maggie lets her thirteen-year-old daughters help her compete with another woman for their father’s affection. That is messed up on so many levels. Two thirteen-year-old girls willingly endanger another person just so that they can show their father that she is just out to steal his money, which they didn’t even try to tell him. None of the three ever talk openly with Mitch about their misgivings for Vicky. They just make snide remarks about how young she is and try to manipulate him into thinking their way. Even when they are talking to Mitch, they are still competing against Vicky. It’s sick.

Louise McKendrick, the girls’ only pictured grandmother is less passive aggressive than the girls, but she is more controlling. This is not to say that a woman who is in charge of herself and those around her is bad. Louise controls her family in a way that seems almost abusive. She dictates the schedule of her daughter, her granddaughter and her husband. When Susan comes home as “Sharon with short hair,” everyone in the house, without fail, says “wait until your grandmother sees you.” Her grandmother proceeds to shame her for cutting her hair short by saying she should pick one and be a girl or a boy, not both. That in itself is transphobic, especially against non-binary people that are agender or bigender or any gender that isn’t strictly “boy” or strictly “girl.” Not to mention the fact that she is shaming her granddaughter for cutting her hair in a way that makes her happy which is definitely emotional abuse. Louise does not interact with her family in a healthy way and she also portrays the stereotype of a conniving, controlling woman just like the other women in this movie.

Mitch and the other guys in the movie are made to fit a different mold. All of the men in this story, without fail, exhibit some very similar character traits. The bumble through their lives letting the women in them run their lives completely. Most of them have little to no idea what is going on around them and they pretend to not understand the passive aggressive interactions the women in their lives are having. In this case, the best example is Mitch just wandering around, chasing after Sharon, who he thinks is Susan, trying to tell her that he is going to marry Vicky. He just bumbles around not really listening to Sharon all the time. Their conversation starts on the golf course where he listens to her very well and tries to give her “the talk,” because that’s what he thought she was talking about. That miscommunication is not entirely his fault because Sharon isn’t really understanding what he is getting at either since neither of them are using clear language. However, later, Sharon kinda freaks out after he says he is marrying Vicky and he just says she’s gone hysterical and doesn’t even try to listen to her. He allows Vicky to go take care of her and disappears for a while. I understand that he may not understand how much Vicky and Sharon hate each other at this point because he hasn’t been in the room when they have been mean to each other, but there are definitely points later in the movie when he is and can’t seem to grasp the complexities of their communication. Also, he should know how to deal with a freaking out teenager by now. It’s not a new thing. I should know. I used to and still do randomly freak out all the time. If Mitch was really the great father he was portrayed as, he would understand how to talk to and listen to his own daughter, even if he didn’t think it was the right daughter.

The farm hand, Hecky, also doesn’t seem to understand tension between Vicky and the other women in the family. During the camping trip he realizes or is told that the girls don’t like Vicky and helps them harass her and stay out of trouble with their father. At the beginning of the movie, the camp leader of the boys camp is portrayed as a bumbling idiot. He walks up to the pedestal with his napkin still in his shirt, like he is completely unaware of his surroundings. Then he speaks slowly and in a way that makes him sound either very drunk, or unintelligent. Later, when Sharon and Susan knock over the table of food. He catches a cake, then throws it aside to catch the punch bowl which spills all over him. I feel bad for the poor guy, he was written to look stupid and be the butt of silly jokes.

As I have shown, despite some minor exceptions and differences, the women of The Parent Trap are all extremely similar and the men are as well. This similarity in characters is just lazy writing and completely inexcusable. There is no reason all of the women in a movie, no matter their age should be conniving, often mean-spirited manipulators. Just as there is no reason that all of the men in a movie should be portrayed as bumbling idiots that are letting women run their lives because they don’t know how to do it themselves and despite being around them for most of their lives, the men do not understand how to interact with people that aren’t male. This is not to say that there aren’t moments where actual differences in the characters present themselves. Maggie is shown to have a temper, Vicky is just out to steal Mitch’s fortune, etc. These do happen throughout the movie, but they are few and far between. I left out more sexist scenes and bits of dialogue than defining character bits. I still like this movie, but I needed to highlight the stereotypes and sexism present in the film. An important part of consuming media is being able to think critically about it and since this movie was one of my favorites as a child, I wanted to analyze it now that I am almost an adult. I am sad to find so many issues in the film since it is one of my favorites, but we must learn from our mistakes and make better movies in the future.

Have you seen the 1961 version of The Parent Trap? What did you think of it? Did I leave something important out of my analysis? Do you think I’m entirely wrong? Let’s have a discussion.

-Alora

*I would like to make a note that I am looking at this from a very modern perspective, so it is possible that women did interact with each other this way in the 60’s, but I still think the writers were lazy with characterization.