Spy Kids and Family Values

When I was 9 or maybe 10, I thought Spy Kids (2001) was one of the greatest movies ever made. At the time I just liked it because it was cool––I was a kid, I didn’t think much deeper than that. It had all the things I thought were exciting and cool–especially gadgets like listening devices, microscopic cameras, etc. This movie differed from other spy movies in that the heroes were children, not adults. I think that the movie was designed to show the importance of family; but this film approaches it differently. In this movie the children are teaching the parents what it means to be a family. Lael Loewenstein from Variety Magazine wrote, “A full-blown fantasy-action adventure that also strenuously underscores the importance of family, “Spy Kids” is determined to take no prisoners in the under-12 demographic, a goal it sometimes dazzlingly achieves. Robert Rodriguez’s film, in which two kids become real spies to save the world from a mad genius, fulfills kids’ empowerment fantasies and features enough techno-wizardry and cool effects to satisfy those weaned on video games.” I think that this insight is spot on, at the beginning of the movie I would argue that the Cortez family is far from an “ideal” family where the kids don’t trust the parents with their secrets and their parents are hiding their own large secrets.

Spy Kids Movie Poster

My mom was pretty strict about what I was allowed to watch; she grew up without a television and so I think television and movies scared her because she thought they were going to instill values that she didn’t agree with in me. But Spy Kids was okay because it was a tame movie––not too much violence, no profanity, and it had a good message: family is good and telling the truth is important. What parent wouldn’t like those messages? The fact that my mom was (and actually still is) afraid that the media was going to corrupt me is similar to Sean Griffin’s assertion that “children have been conceptualized as blank slates upon whom parents ‘write’ their culture” (105). That’s what my mom was doing by being so picky about what media I was exposed to, she wanted to make sure that she was the one to ‘write’ culture onto me.

The message of the importance of family was lost on my 9 year old self. Instead, what I saw when I watched the movie was something that some parents might not be a fan of––that it was okay for a girl to have more “masculine” traits but the producers definitely counter-act her masculine traits. In the movie, Carmen, the older sister, is very much in charge (masculine); but, she takes care of her little brother (she mothers him in the absence of her parents) (feminine); but, she never wears clothes that are completely feminine although they have feminine accents (as noted with the hairband in the final photo or the pink shirt with the blazer). Gender expression is complicated in the film but it leaves just enough room for a kid like me to get the message that masculinity in females isn’t HORRIBLE.

Carmen’s costumes are masculine but definitely don’t let the viewer forget the she is a girl no matter what her actions may suggest.

Griffin writes, “Children’s play is not ideologically innocent; it is the primary means by which children absorb the values of society” (Griffin 116). I re-appropriated the ideals portrayed by Spy Kids when I played games with my sister for my friends; I always assumed the more masculine role both in mannerisms and in clothing. Even though in Spy Kids Carmen has more masculine traits it is still abundantly clear that she is a female and has to abide the expectations that society demands. I think a part of why I re-appropriated the message of the film was because my family does not fit the traditional family structure–my mom raised my sister and me as a single mom, my sister and I were both adopted, and we did not grow up in the suburbs (we grew up in Germany). Griffin realizes that there have been no studies that account for this, so perhaps that’s why I picked out different things from Spy Kids. At the end of the movie, everyone has learned the importance of family when Juni (the son) says, “Devlin, if you want the Corteze’s…you take all the Corteze’s…even Mom and Dad. From now on, whatever we do, we do together. Spy work…that’s easy. Keeping a family together…that’s difficult. And that’s the mission worth fighting for” (Spy Kids).

So, I took a movie that was about family and honesty and turned it into something that made it “okay” for me to divert from the traditional gender roles dictated by society and be the “more masculine” character in all the made up spy games my sister and I played.

In the end, they come together as a family and take down the “villain.”

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2 thoughts on “Spy Kids and Family Values

  1. Great analysis, Aviva — can you say a bit more about why you think that your untraditional family background made it easier for you to forward certain messages from the film and ignore others?

  2. I grew up with a mom (and then my sister came into the picture), there was no father figure for most of my childhood and even then it was different because he entered my life so late. So all the messages of “let’s be a family” didn’t mean that much because that’s not what a family looked like to me– my family was me, my mom, and my sister. I couldn’t relate with the nuclear family portrayed in the film. But, I could relate to the tension over gender expression that exists in the film (something that I can now clearly see existed in the movie, when I was 9 I just thought Carmen was cool and I wanted to be as strong as she was/just like her). My mom and I battled over what clothes I wore, she wanted me to wear more feminine clothes but I wanted to wear pants and a t-shirt, not a dress and not a skirt with a blouse. Since my concept of family was so different than what the movie depicted I think it seemed unreal to the point that I couldn’t re-appropriate family to fit my understanding; but the clothes and gender expression was definitely something that I could relate to and therefore re-appropriate. Does that make more sense?

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