The Song of the Sea is a new animated film for children and adults. It tells the tale of Ben and his younger sister Saoirse. It’s beautifully animated and based on folkloric Irish tales of Selkies – mythological creatures that are seals in water and shed their skins to become humans on land. Unbeknownst to Ben his mother was a Selkie and so is his little sister. It is a stunning story about grief, growing up and family. However, the more I watched it the more I realised that I had seen this story many, many times before and it’s one that has been told over and over again – it’s the one all about men.
I’ll start with a brief plot synopsis (spoilers): Ben lives in a lighthouse with his pregnant mum and dad. The mum gives Ben a magic shell and then goes missing into the sea leaving behind Saoirse, his little sister. Six years later and the dad’s still pretty unhappy and Saoirse still hasn’t said a word. Meanwhile, Saoirse discovers a magic coat left behind by her mum which lets her transform into a seal. She goes swimming for a bit and that’s when we learn she’s a Selkie. Unfortunately, nasty granny arrives to take Ben and Saoirse back to the city. Ben doesn’t really like Saoirse and is annoyed when she follows him as he escapes from his granny’s house. Some magical fairies inform the siblings that Saoirse’s a Selkie and must sing the Song of the Sea to free all the trapped spirits – it’s a shame she doesn’t speak. Unfortunately she gets kidnapped by a witch, Macha, who bottles up people’s feelings (literally) thereby turning them to stone. Her reason is that she couldn’t handle her son (a giant) being so sad when his wife died so she bottled up his grief and turned him into a giant cliff (the dad is basically the giant and the gran is Macha). Ben rescues his sister who starts playing the magic shell which causes all the bottles to break. Macha, part stone, is overwhelmed by her feelings but relents and helps transport Ben and Saoirse back home. There, Saoirse finally speaks and she sings a magic Selkie song that frees all the ancient spirits so they can finally return to their magical land far away. The mum reappears to take Saoirse away with her but instead Saoirse relinquishes her Selkie abilities so she can stay with her dad and brother. Everyone lives happily ever after, even the nasty gran who shacks up with the old ferry driver.
It’s a nice story full of metaphors, folklore and fantasy but there are some all too familiar and all too sexist tropes. To start with there aren’t many female characters – there’s the mum who vanishes within minutes; the gran who is the typical crone character – old, haggard and someone no one would ever want to grow up to become and Macha – the evil villain who is basically an even worse version of the gran. The main female character is Saoirse.
Firstly, she is voiceless, she literally has no voice for most of the film, which means Ben gets to do all the talking. Whilst she is often portrayed as more intelligent than her wilful, older brother, who drags her around on a dog’s lead for quite a bit of the film, she is still forced to follow him, even when she knows he’s going in the wrong direction. He becomes less ambivalent towards her once he’s learnt she’s a Selkie. As the film progresses she becomes weaker and weaker and ends up getting kidnapped. This inspires Ben to take even more action and battle the film’s antagonist. It seems a little bit as if Saoirse only has worth as a character once her brother has realised she’s useful – i.e. has magic singing abilities. He’s the one that puts the magic shell to her lips so she can play it and break all of Macha’s magic bottles. It’s almost as if little girls are being told to tolerate the whims and bullying behaviours of their elder brothers until their brothers realise they have voice and worth, and only then can they become somewhat empowered.
After her rescue Saoirse is even weaker meaning it is Ben that must overcome his fear of swimming and dive deep to uncover Saoirse’s thrown away Selkie suit. So despite the fact that the sea is Saorise’s element and true home it still ends up being all about Ben and his newfound abilities. Meanwhile, Saoirse’s singing and shell playing skills appear somewhat arbitrary given that she just inherited them and they’re basically magical. Saoirse’s voicelessness also means that apart from one brief chat with her mum right at the end the film categorically fails the Bechdel test. FInally, when Saoirse does eventually speak her first word isn’t hello or help or patriarchy, no, it’s Ben.
There are some nice messages in the film – namely that stories are very important, be they ones that run in the family or older more mythical stories that came long before the stories of the Bible. The film reminds us that our culture suffers when we lose our stories but it’s just a shame that the film’s own story tells us that men are the active ones whilst women sit around either trying to muck everything up (the gran and Macha) or are basically just there to sing at men’s command. The film also has something to say about men’s inability to emote, namely because the father remains confused and grief-stricken long after the disappearance of his wife but even this is implicitly traced back to his overprotective mother (the nasty gran) who constantly tells him she knows what’s best and lives a repressed, devout Christian life. This story is reflected in the mythical one with Macha literally turning her giant son to stone so he would no longer have to suffer the grief of the loss of his wife – if only women would stop meddling seems to be the point here. Other male characters include the comic ferry driver, the faeries (we see a few female faeries in the background at the end but none are given a voice) and the Great Seanachai – a mythical storyteller who remembers all the old stories and is thus a font of cultural knowledge and wisdom, oh, and he’s a man.
So, fifteen years into the 21st century and what do we get – another mythic adventure about boys and men saving the day. It’s nice that Saoirse sings her special song at the end and frees all the spirits but this is basically the same as Pepper Potts donning Iron Man’s suit at the end of Iron Man 3 in order to blast the main baddy to smithereens – it’s great a woman saves the day but it’s all a bit last-minute and tokenistic. Why not a whole film about an interesting and three-dimensional female character doing awesome and exciting things?
But that’s just it, it’s not that this film is a sexist travesty and should be banned, no, it’s just that this film follows in a long, long line of films and stories just like it – ones that portray men as the active and characterful heroes whilst women are painted as passive and regularly in need of rescue. The Song of the Sea slots so easily into this pervasive cultural narrative when it had so much scope to start rewriting it – why couldn’t it be Benjamina running off in search of her fey little Selkie brother? Why couldn’t the father have vanished right at the start? And why are there no characters of colour, or trans and queer characters partaking in the action, surely ancient Irish folklore isn’t just for white, heterosexual cisgendered people? The film has been described as a “timeless delight for all ages”- it’s only timeless because this masculinist and sexist narrative is so seemingly unkillable. It’s great to be inspired by old stories but it’s time we started telling some new ones, fit for the 21st century.