Tag Archives: dimorphism

My, what dimorphic parents you have!

Quick note to add the new Disney princess movie Moana to the animated gender series.

As in the case of Hercules, Disney can claim that the giant male Maui is a demigod so it’s normal that he’s many times larger than the princess, Moana. (There are a lot of large-bodied people in some Polynesian societies, but I don’t think this is a sex-specific pattern.) So instead look at Moana’s parents.


His big toe has the same diameter as her wrist. His unflexed bicep is wider than her waist. (Sources say the voice actor for Maui has 20-inch biceps, while a real life-sized Barbie doll would have an 18-inch waist, compared with 31 inches for a typical 19-year-old woman.) Anyway, it’s ridiculous.

But this is not unusual for animated kids-movie parents. Here are the parents from Brave and How to Train Your Dragon:



So, extreme dimorphism among parents is common in this genre. Why? I can’t say for sure, but here’s a clue — the parents from Frozen:


My, how similar their bodies are! Sure, her eyes are bigger than his mouth, and his hand is a little engorged, but that’s because there’s a baby in the scene. In the scale of things, they’re practically twins.

If the difference is in racial or ethnic context for the families, then maybe extreme dimorphism among parents helps signify the exoticism of the culture depicted. Of course Black men are often stereotyped as having superhuman bodies, but super petite women don’t usually go along with that particular trope, so I’m not sure how to interpret this. Ideas welcome.


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Color and the making of gender in early childhood

Most of today’s readers weren’t following this blog back when I started writing about color preferences. Those posts are listed under the color tag. Now there’s a new paper on the subject that helps me think about how gender works in young children.

It’s called, “Preferences for Pink and Blue: The Development of Color Preferences as a Distinct Gender-Typed Behavior in Toddlers,” by Wang Wong and Melissa Hines, in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, the same journal where I published my paper on how adult color preferences are affected by the sex of their children. (Their paper is paywalled, but since we’re personal friends feel free to ask me for a look at my licensed copy.)

The researchers studied 126 children ages 20-40 months in a UK college town. The pertinent parts of their findings, for my purposes are: girls prefer pink over blue more than boys; but the the gap starts out quite small before age two and widens to age 3; the preferences are unstable, that is, the pinker girls and bluer boys at age 24 months are not the pinker girls and bluer boys at age 36 months. (The preferences were measured by asking which color they liked better on a card, and letting them choose between pink and blue gender-neutral toys.)

Whenever there is research showing differences between the sexes, I always like to look for the overlap (see, e.g., this post). That’s because people fixate on the differences to confirm their presumption that the differences are total, fixed, and baked in or genetic. This underlies the whole fixation on the dimorphism question. So when they report girls are more likely to choose pink over blue than boys, I plug the means and standard deviations into my graphing spreadsheet to see the implied distributions (assuming normality). Here is the overall pattern:


So, you can decide whether you think that’s a big difference, but you should factor in the size of the overlap. The change over about 14 months was pretty impressive, with boys and girls pulling apart. Here are the curves at 20-26 versus 34-40 months:


One possible interpretation of this pattern is that color preference is learned rather than baked in at birth, and this is a time kids learn it. That interpretation is strengthened by the further finding that, while the gender difference increases from age 2 to age 3, it’s not stable within individuals. That is, whether a kid was pink-positive or -negative at time 1 was not a predictor of their preference at time two. That’s what this figure shows — girls are more likely to be in the top-right, but the time-1–time-2 slopes aren’t significant:


That’s more evidence against the idea that the sex difference in color preference is determined at birth, which is also consistent with the historical evidence, as Jo Paoletti’s work shows.

Children themselves have a strong motivation to perform their gender identity in ways that please adults or perhaps other children, and that tendency exacerbates early sex differences. They can anchor this performance to an arbitrary marker like color. From the paper (references removed):

Gender-related cognitive processes have been implicated in the acquisition of gender-typed color preferences. Specifically, gender-typed behaviors may be acquired through self-socialization after children have developed gender identity, and become self-motivated to adopt gender norms.

Unlike critics of this blog, I don’t fear that gender differences will be erased if we don’t continuously reinforce and celebrate them. People will figure out ways to make the “natural” differences count enough to get the job done when they need to. And reducing the pressure will help decrease both gender inequality and the stigma experienced by non-conforming people.


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Off gender-script art

Fortunately, the hotel we’re stranded at is only a few blocks from the Art Institute of Chicago. Tooling around the museum I was still thinking about sex dimorphism, especially this piece in Time where I referenced ancient art and this one where I compared depictions of Hercules. I have no expertise in art history, so file (or skip) these as random observations of someone interested in cultural depictions of gender.


I’m intrigued by the idea — recurrent in the comments I get — that because animation for kids exaggerates things, then it is obvious that it will include extreme dimorphism. It seems to me that extreme dimorphism is a more common ideal now than it was in lots of other times and places, which perplexes me. So, in the category of dimorphism they didn’t do in the old days, here’s a Greek jar from 500 BC that shows men and a woman fighting. The caption describes her as “a fair-skinned Amazon, or foreign female warrior.”

vaseThe woman warrior’s body is just about the same as the man’s. “Of course,” they’ll say, “it’s because she’s a warrior.” And this is just super realistic art that happens to be about a female warrior — with no implication for gender ideal types.

Beauty standard

On a different subject, thinness in general, which of course is a historically-recent obsession. Here’s a nice example, an 8th century, Tang Dynasty, earthenware sculpture featuring a “matronly rider” with “ample proportions — conveyed by the folds of her flowing, wide-sleeved robe as well as by her plump cheeks and double chin,” which was “fashionable at the mid-eighth-century Tang court.”

chinahorseThey don’t mention her tiny hands, also in fashion among Chinese elites, and possibly bound feet (footbinding is supposed to date from around this period).

Gender (non-)differentiated children

The Art Institute is all about Impressionism, and there is a recurring theme among the French painters of little boys with long hair and dresses. Here is Jean Renoir, from 1899. The caption says the boy wanted his hair shorter but his father made him keep it long till school rules required him to cut it at age seven.

jeanrenoirThe caption doesn’t say whether he liked sewing.

Who knew Claude Monet also had a son named Jean? Here he is at age five or six, in 1873, playing hoop while his mother watches. The scene depicts the well-being of a period of “financial security” for the family, so it’s not like they couldn’t afford boy’s clothes.


Finally, Camille Pissarro’s Woman with Child at the Well, part of a series “depicting peasant girls taking a break from their chores.” The model for the little boy was the painter’s fourth son, Ludovic-Rodolphe, who was four at the time.

ludovicNone of this is surprising to people who’ve seen this portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at age two, in 1884:


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Herculean dimorphism

Who knows how many animated Disney movies I haven’t even seen yet? I never saw Hercules before.

I know, I know, Hercules is a demi-god. But he’s also all man. In Disney’s (1997) version, Hades says to Megara, “I need someone who can — handle him as a man.” And handle him she does:


And since they involve him in such matters of the human flesh (and heart), that means their measurements are fair game for the Disney dimorphism series. If Disney is going to eroticize the relationship and sell it to innocent children, then we should ask what they’re selling.

As usual, they’re selling extreme sex dimorphism. I did some simple measurements from one pretty straight shot in the movie, and compared it to this awesome set of measurements taken of about 4,000 U.S. Army men and women in the late 1980s. Since Hercules is obviously extremely strong and this woman seems to be on the petite side, I compared their measurements to those of the biggest man versus the smallest woman on each dimension in the entire Army sample. The numbers shown are the man/woman ratios: Hercules/Meg versus the Army maximum/minimum.

As you can see, this cartoon Hercules is more extremely big compared to his cartoon love interest than even the widest man-woman comparison you can find in the Army sample, by a lot. (Notice his relaxed hands – he’s not flexing that bicep.)

To show how unrealistic this is, we can compare it to images of the actual Hercules. Here’s one from about 1620 (“Hercules slaying the Children of Megara,” by Allessandro Turchi):


That Hercules is appallingly scrawny compared with Disney’s. Here’s another weakling version, from the 3rd or 4th century:


Now here is one from the 2014 Paramount movie, in which he is conveniently paired with the human female, Ergenia:


That bicep ratio is only 1.5-to-1. And that’s not normal.

Seriously, though, isn’t it interesting that both the Disney and the Paramount versions show more extreme dimorphism than the ancient representations? Go ahead, tell me he’s a demigod, that it’s a cartoon, that it’s not supposed to be realistic. I have heard all that before, and responded with counterexamples here. But that doesn’t explain why the modern versions of this myth should show more sex dimorphism than the old-school ones. That’s progress of a certain kind.

I’ve written so far about Frozen and Brave, Tangled, and Gnomeo and Juliet, and How to Train Your Dragon 2. It all goes back to the critique, which I first discussed here and Lisa Wade described here, of the idea that male and female humans aren’t just different, they’re opposites. This contributes to the idea that Mark Regnerus defends as the “vision of complementarity” — the insistence that children need a male and female parent — which drives opposition to same-sex marriage. If men and women are too similar, then we wouldn’t need them to be paired up in order to have complete families or sexual relationships.

In the more mundane aspects of relationships — attraction and mate selection — this thinking helps set up the ideal in which women should be smaller than men, the result of which is pairing couples by man-taller-woman-shorter much more than would occur by chance (I reported on this here, but you also could have read about it from 538’s Mona Chalabi 19 months later). The prevalence of such pairs increases the odds that any given couple we (or our children) observe or interact with will include a man who is taller and stronger than his partner. This is also behind some notions that men and women should work in different — and unequal — occupations. And so on.

So I’m not letting this go.


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Movie dimorphism update: How to Train Your Dragon 2 edition

In the kids’ movie sexual dimorphism saga, we have a new entrant: How to Train Your Dragon 2.

The posts so far include Frozen and Brave (which includes data on real hand size differences), Tangled, and Gnomeo and Juliet. The objections to complaints, and some counter examples, are in this post.

In Dragon, the young hero, Hiccup, and his friend Astrid are about the same size:

dragon-kidsSo file that under not extreme dimorphism. But there isn’t a lot of romance between them. I wouldn’t have made an entry for the film if not for a few tender moments between Stoick the Vast and his wife, Valka (Hiccup’s parents).

stoick-valkaTrue to form, it is during the tender moments that the greatest sexual dimorphism is displayed. Here are their hands from the scene where their love is (spoiler alert) rekindled (sorry for the image quality – it was dark):


I actually don’t see how her tiny fingers can reach all the way across his hand like that. Ouch! Anyway, the point is the size difference. Please don’t say, “Of course his hands are huge, his name is Stoick the Vast”! It’s fiction. They could have done whatever they wanted. That’s why some of the Vikings have Scottish accents, and there are flying dragons (still not enough magic to get any people of color into the frozen North, though — except the foreign arch villain, Drago Bludvist).

Anyway, here are the previous pictures in the series:




Gnomeo and Juliet



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Can animated boys and girls be (almost) the same size?

A lot of the criticism I got for this post on Disney dimorphism was about how good animation inevitably exaggerates sex differences. (There are a lot of these comments on the Sociological Images version of the post and on the Slate re-write.) Here’s one example:

Cartoons aren’t meant to accurately portray people, EVER. They are meant to exaggerate features, so that they are more prominent and eye catching. So feminine features are made more feminine, and masculine features are made more masculine. … The less realistic the proportions, the more endearing and charming we find the character. The closer to realistic they are, the creepier/blander they can become.

Flipping through IMDB’s list of the top 500 animated movies reveals that Disney is certainly not alone in emphasizing the larger size of males. But there are a few successful counterexamples as well.

Here are some good ones where the male and female characters are similarly proportioned. Note these are not just random male and female characters but couples (more or less).

From Kiki’s Delivery Service by Hayao Miyazaki:


From Dreams of Jinsha:


Even some old Disney movies have romantic moments between physically-similar males and females. The original Snow White (from the 1937 movie) was paired with a Prince Charming whose wrists were barely bigger than hers (plus, look at her giant/normal waist!):


Disney non-human animal pairs were sometimes quite physically matched. Consider Bambi and Faline (Bambi, 1942):


Or Dutchess and O’Malley from Aristocats (1970) in which their exaggerated femininity and masculinity are not conveyed through extreme body-size difference:


In other realms of animation, Marge and Homer Simpson, the most durable couple in animation history, have very similar features: heads, eyes, noses, ears. His arms are fatter and neither of them really have wrists, but I’d put this in the category of normal sex difference:


Of course, Lucy and Charlie Brown were virtually identical if you think about it:


I’m open to other suggestions.


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Disney’s dimorphism, ‘Help! My eyeball is bigger than my wrist!’ edition

(Addendum added at the end)

I can’t offer much in the crowded field of Disney gender criticism. But I do want to update my running series on the company’s animated gender dimorphism. The latest installment is Frozen.

Just when I was wondering what the body dimensions of the supposedly-human characters were, the script conveniently supplied the dimorphism money-shot: hand-in-hand romantic leads, with perfect composition for both eye-size and hand-size comparisons:


With the gloves you can’t compare the hands exactly, but you get the idea. And the eyes? Yes, her eyeball actually has a wider diameter than her wrist:


Giant eyes and tiny hands symbolize femininity in Disneyland.

While I’m at at, I may as well include Brave in the series. Unless I have repressed it, there is no romance story for the female lead in that movie, but there are some nice comparison shots of her parents:


Go ahead, give me some explanation about the different gene pools of the rival clans from which Merida’s parents came.

Since I first complained about this regarding Tangled (here), I have updated the story to include Gnomeo and Juliet (here). You can check those posts for more links to research (and see also this essay on human versus animal dimorphism by Lisa Wade). To just refresh the image file, though, here are the key images. From Tangled:

From Gnomeo:

At this point I think the evidence is compelling enough to conclude that Disney favors compositions in which women’s hands are tiny compared to men’s, especially when they are in romantic relationships.*


How do real men’s and women’s wrist sizes differ? I looked at 7 studies on topics ranging from carpal tunnel syndrome to judo mastery, and found a range of averages for women of 15.4 cm to 16.3 cm, and for men of 17.5 to 18.1 cm (in both cases the judo team had the thickest wrists).

‘Then I found this awesome anthropometric survey of U.S. Army personnel from 1988. In that sample (almost 4,000, chosen to match the age, gender, and race/ethnic composition of the Army), the averages were 15.1 for women and 17.4 for men. Based on the detailed percentiles listed, I made this chart of the distributions:


The average difference between men’s and women’s wrists in this Army sample is 2.3 cm, or a ratio of 1.15-to-1. However, if you took the smallest-wristed woman (12.9 cm) and the largest-wristed man (20.4), you could get a difference of 7.5 cm, or a ratio of 1.6-to-1. Without being able to hack into the Disney animation servers with a tape measure I can’t compare them directly, but from the pictures it looks like these couples have differences greater than the most extreme differences found in the U.S. Army.

*This conclusion has not yet been subject to peer review.


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