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Sugar, spice and 'Real Steel': Why robots should be for girls (and moms) too.

I’m not sure when exactly my 2-year-old daughter fell in love with robots. Maybe it was one of the thousand times when her dad has said, “Hey little girl, check out this cool robot! Don’t you love them?”

Traditional gender roles tell us, of course, that little girls like princesses and little boys are the ones who like robots, but I don’t see why that has to be so.

My daughter enjoys wearing her pair of fairy wings, and her favorite book is Pinkalicious, but she also adores this boxy, tin-toy Lilliput robot that staggers forward awkwardly when you wind it up. He has joined more than his share of imaginary tea parties.

This is why I’m grateful for a movie like Real Steel, opening today, a robot boxing movie that has something more to it than just the spectacle of flying sparks. (Read EW critic Lisa Schwarzbaum’s A-minus review here.)

It’s not that anyone should be pressured to love anything, but why aren’t robots and sci-fi the kind of thing that all kids can enjoy regardless of gender, like Elmo, macaroni and cheese, or misbehaving?  I feel like that dynamic has already been changing, with just as many gals embracing geek-culture as guys, thanks to storytellers like Joss Whedon and James Cameron, who took pains to welcome them to the boys-only club of monsters, machines, and mayhem. This futuristic world of fantasy and imagination should be big enough for everybody.

But let’s face it: The reason robots have been the domain of little boys for so long is because the stereotype for both, mostly deserved, is “Destroy! Destroy! Destroy!” But with Real Steel, director Shawn Levy puts a great big beating heart at the center of his movie’s battered metal chest, broadening its appeal to not just dads and sons, but hopefully moms and daughters too. The story of Hugh Jackman as a down-on-his-luck, deadbeat dad who reconnects with his estranged son (Dakota Goyo) while they rebuild an 8-foot robot pugilist named Atom has a lot more in common with Paper Moon than Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Lost’s Evangeline Lilly plays the tougher-than-she-looks owner of a robot training gym. (Moms may appreciate, and sympathize with, the effort she puts in to keep her two non-mechanical boys functional.)

Levy and Jackman have said that they wanted the movie to have a heartfelt appeal beyond just robot spectacle, that the father-son story had to be strong enough to touch an audience even if the sport was ping-pong, or they were rebuilding a car instead of a metal gladiator. Okay, so I asked the actor the obvious question in a recent interview: “Why make it with robots at all then?”

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Image Credit: DreamWorks/Greg Williams

Jackman took a moment to answer. Then his face broke into that big familiar smile and he said the obvious back, “Because they’re cool.”

I had to laugh. That’s as good an answer as any. Robots are massive, they’re powerful, they’re (supposed to be) devoted to us. When you’re a kid, you don’t have any say over your life. You’re told what to wear, when to eat, where to go, what to say. Every element of your day is controlled. How cool is it to be the one in command? Or to just be that strong? “If you can control something like this, that has all this power, it gives you power,” Jackman said.

For a kid raised on Transformers toys, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Isaac Asimov, Battlestar Galactica, and Star Wars’ R2-D2 and C-3PO, it’s hard to reduce their appeal to one particular element, but that comes pretty close: They’re cool. That desire to be strong, resourceful, but also feel empathy for those who suffer when that power is misused, is a good thing for boys and girls to have rattling around in their subconscious. But also, yeah – like Hugh said: They’re just cool.

In my case, I have a little girl who brings me so much happiness and I’m trying to give her a little piece of the things that made me happy as a child too (and obviously still do). But that wind-up tin-toy I mentioned earlier? That thing just sat on our shelf for years – a kitschy decoration. Only after our daughter came along, and she began reaching for it, laughing at its bumpy walk, did it become a plaything again.

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I’m blessed with one of those cool-chick wives who is both a girly-girl and a tomboy, thanks to her amazing older brother, who had a great comic-book collection and didn’t mind sharing his love of Wolverine, Thor, Batman, and Superman with his tiny Strawberry Shortcake-loving sister. (While I’ve seen Real Steel once, she has already seen it twice – bringing along her girlfriends the second time.) I don’t think my daughter has to grow up to be just like me, but I’d love it if she grew up to be like her mom.

And so, the robot indoctrination began. Again, I would never force anything on my little girl, but after repeatedly watching pieces of Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure during her limited TV time, I did introduce her to T-Bob, the fussy little automaton from the old ‘80s cartoon M.A.S.K., by popping in one of those DVDs. She has her favorite robot t-shirt shirt, and my heart swelled recently when was playing with one of my vintage Transformers toys, rolling the little yellow Volkswagen on the tabletop, and discovering the hood pulled out into little legs, the wheels became arms, and the back panel lifted open to reveal a metal face. “Ro-butt!” she declared with a big grin, holding Bumblebee out to me.

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Does it go both ways? Do I think a little boy should be encouraged to play with dolls? Absolutely. They already do. People who think He-Man and GI Joe aren’t dolls simply because they’re marketed as “action figures” are kidding themselves. I’ve become quite a fan of Pinkalicious myself, and I’d hope the boys in her daycare class play with the non-action-oriented dolls with her just as she plays Hot Wheels with them. A boy should be able to sit down and enjoy a make-believe tea party just as much as a girl. Of course it’s okay for boys and girls to have some separate things, too. As the proud dad of a little girl, I just like the idea of blurring the line some.

My daughter is still a little young for movie theaters, since sitting still for more than 40 minutes tends to give her a case of the squirmies, but I’m looking forward to the day when she’s a few years older and we can sit down to watch Real Steel together. If she were 8 or 9, we’d be at the first screening after school on Friday. Right now, the animated Robots movie from 2005 is more her speed. And I can’t wait for her to discover The Iron Giant. There’s a lot of time left to grow up. I hope there are more movies like Real Steel waiting for her in that future.

She’ll decide for herself what she loves as she gets older. Maybe that’ll include robots, and maybe not. At the beginning, though, I just believe those who are made from sugar, and spice, and everything nice should have a little iron mixed in as well.

Follow Anthony Breznican on Twitter: @Breznican.

Read more:
EW Review: ‘Real Steel’
Box Office preview: ‘Real Steel’ to rock and sock the competition
Evangeline Lilly discusses learning elvish, breastfeeding on the set of ‘The Hobbit’

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