Saturday, June 28, 2008

Pixar's Gender Problem


This post has very little to do with history, so feel free to skip it if that's what you come here for.

Pete and I went to see WALL-E last night. It's no Finding Nemo, but it is pretty good and excellent in parts. I'd recommend seeing it for the gorgeous end credits sequence alone.

Whenever a new Pixar movie comes out, I wrestle with the same frustration: Pixar's gender problem. While Disney's long history of antipathy toward mothers and the problematic popularity of the Disney Princess line are well-traveled territory for feminist critiques, Pixar's gender problem often slips under the radar.

The Pixar M.O. is (somewhat) subtler than the old your-stepmom-is-a-witch tropes of Disney past. Instead, Pixar's continued failure to posit female characters as the central protagonists in their stories contributes to the idea that male is neutral and female is particular. This is not to say that Pixar does not write female characters. What I am taking issue with is the ad-nauseam repetition of female characters as helpers, love interests, and moral compasses to the male characters whose problems, feelings, and desires drive the narratives.

Let us run down the current and upcoming Pixar films:

Toy Story: This buddy movie revolves around the rivalry/friendship between two male characters, Woody and Buzz. Female characters: Andy's Mom, Bo Peep, Mrs. Potato Head, Sid's sister Hannah, Baby Molly (we're scraping the bottom of the barrel here).
Grrl Power score: 0/10. The women in this story are almost entirely irrelevant.

A Bug's Life: This adventure story concerns the efforts of a male ant (Flik) who sets out on an adventure to save the colony from the wrath of a grasshopper gang. Interestingly enough, real male ants do nothing but eat and fertilize eggs, so Pixar had to go out on a limb to make this character male. Female characters: Dot, Princess Atta, The Queen, Gypsy, Rosie.
Gender Equity score: 1/10. This film gets points for having more than three female characters (out of a main cast of 17). Unfortunately, I had to deduct points for the writers' going out of their way to turn a female-dominated community into a male-dominated movie. To what end?

Toy Story 2: More Woody and Buzz. But now we have Jessie! Jessie is awesome and we love her. Too bad the story is still about Woody's existential crisis. Female characters: Jessie, minor toys (Tour Guide Barbie, Mrs. Potato Head, etc.), Andy's Mom.
Girls Rock score: 3/10. Jessie scores three points all by herself for being present, having a personality, and kicking ass. But the movie isn't about her.

Monsters, Inc.: Another buddy movie about two dudes, Mike and Sully. Female characters: Boo, Celia, Roz.
Feminist Statement score: 1/10. Boo is adorable and Roz turns out to be Agent 001 of the CDC. But seriously, what little kid loves to play with her Roz action figure?

Finding Nemo: Father/son bonding film featuring a male clownfish (Marlin) and his son (Nemo). I'm all for movies about fathers and sons and, in fact, this is my favorite of all Pixar movies. Still, Nemo doesn't put female characters front and center, and it probably shouldn't, considering the subject matter. If it were only one male-dominated movie in a well-balanced oeuvre, I wouldn't have a problem. Female characters: Nemo's dead mom (Coral), Dory, Peach, Deb, Darla.
Ally score: 2/10. Points for having an important female character. Not too many, though, since she is squarely in the selfless helper/moral center role. Should I give points for making 2 of the 8 fish in Nemo's tank female? Should I just be happy that any are female and not quibble on the 25% issue? Also, the elementary school teacher fish is male. Maybe because he's a science teacher.

The Incredibles: The story of Bob Parr's midlife crisis and how his family deals with it. Perhaps that's a little unfair — the whole family has problems that they work through in this film. Still, Bob's story drives the action. It's called The Incredibles, not Elastigirl Saves Your Whiny Ass. Female characters: Elastigirl/Helen, Violet, Mirage, Edna, Frozone's wife's disembodied voice.
Womanpower score: 5/10. Helen is a developed character with feelings and motivations. That gets us halfway there, even though almost all of the other superheroes are male (for no good reason).

Cars: Douchebag hotshot (male) racecar Lightning McQueen reenacts Doc Hollywood. I hated this movie. Female characters: Sally Carrera, Flo, Lizzie.
Girls Are Not Just Objects of Male Desire score: 0/10. Honestly, Wikipedia lists 15 residents of Radiator Springs. Three are female. Also, girls can't be on Lightning's pit crew, but they can be his silly, preening fans. Ye Gods.

Ratatouille: Male rat (Remy) dreams of becoming chef and achieves his goal even though movie sidetracks to cover ludicrous and unnecessary romance between humans part way through. This is the kind of shit that bothers me: Why is it important that the rat have a penis? Couldn't Remy have been written for a female lead? Why not? Collette's right — the restaurant business is tough for women, especially when even the fictional rat-as-chef barrier can only be broken by a male character. Female characters: Colette, that old lady with the gun, um . . . maybe some patrons?
More than a Token score: 1/10. ZOMG, we have one female character. We'd better make her fall inexplicably in love with the bumbling Linguini, stat!

WALL-E: Robot somehow acquires human gender characteristics, strives to clean up earth, goes on adventure to space. Why does WALL-E need to be male? Why does EVE need to be female? Couldn't they both be gender ambiguous and still fall in love? That would have been a bold move, but I think it's safe to say that Pixar is less than bold on the gender front. "Hey, guys, we have this robot with no inherent gender identity. We want to give it an arbitrary gender. Maybe we could make it female. Yeah, no, that would just just be ridiculous." Female characters: EVE, Mary, maybe some of the dead ex-captains of the Axiom
Challenging Gender Stereotypes score: 2/10. EVE is the competent scientist-bot. Still, making something that is inherently genderless male because male=neutral is bullshit.*

Up: This upcoming buddy movie features an elderly man named Carl and his young friend Russell who travel the world together in search of adventure. I don't know much about this film since it won't be released until 2009. What I do know: it's a buddy movie about two guys. See: Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., above. Female characters: IMDb lists five actors for this movie. All of them are fellas.
Are There Any Girls in This Movie? score: can't tell yet, but it's not looking good.

Toy Story 3: see Toy Story, Toy Story 2
Will Jessie Be There? score: dunno


newt: So, we have this movie about the two last blue-footed newts on earth. Scientists want to breed them, but the two can't stand one another. The newts' names are Newt and Brooke. What should we call the movie? Let's call it "newt." Yeah. Brooke's a dumb name.
Female=Normal score: not promising. There are few better ways to tell kids that male=normal and female=weird than to make sure that your male character has the same name as his species and your female character doesn't.

The Bear and the Bow: OOOOOH! Somebody told Pixar that they needed to make a movie with a girl as the main character! So, duh, it's going to be "Pixar's first fairy tale"!!! The main character will be, get this, a PRINCESS! But, since the Pixar people are probably good Bay Area liberals, I'm sure the princess will want to defy her parents'/society's expectations. Where have we seen that before, I wonder? No cookies for rehashing the same old shit. If we're super lucky, she won't marry the prince, which will allow us to cover the same ground that Robert Munsch and Free to Be You and Me covered in the goddamn '70s. Maybe it will be good, but no matter how good it is, it still PISSES ME OFF that girls get to be main characters only when they are princess (or marrying up the social ladder a la Belle and Mulan) in fairy tale worlds. Boys can be main characters anywhere, but if a girl is the main character, you can bet your ass it's a fantasy world. (Side note, as of 6/28/2008, the Wikipedia entry for this movie's premise begins, "In mythical Scotland . . ." Damn. I wanted to go to Scotland next summer.)
Please Don't Be Awful score: unknown, though the girl=fairy tale princess thing means they've got to work their way up from below zero in my book.

What can little girls and the women who love them conclude from surveying Pixar's body of work? Most obviously, it's that girls are particular while boys are general. I suppose this might have something to do with Pixar wanting lots of people to see their movies and fearing that girls will see boy movies but boys won't see girl movies. I heard a lot of that sort of "wisdom" from librarians when I was an elementary school teacher, but I'll tell you now — I read Little House in the Big Woods and Matilda to my second grade class and they ate it up.

I suppose what makes me so mad is not that Pixar makes movies about male characters but that they seem to go out of their way to make sure that this remains the case. This isn't just a problem with their story choices, though they are a little heavy on the buddy film/father-and-son plots. On several occasions (A Bug's Life, WALL-E), they have defied logic in order to make sure that the protagonist of their tale was male. When good female characters are part of the story (Elastigirl/Helen Parr, Jessie), they still focus on the male character's plotline and development. They make infuriating choices (female main character = princess in fairy tale). It's not just the stories they choose to tell, it's how they choose to tell them: in a way that always relegates female characters to the periphery, where they can serve and encourage male characters, but are never, ever important enough to carry a whole movie on their own shoulders. Unless they're, you know, princesses.

/rant

UPDATE: After publishing my own rant, I found a few similar observations. None of them has angry Jessie, though.

*UPDATE 2:
I just returned from seeing WALL-E with my 12-year-old sister, and I'd like to revise my comments on it somewhat. The first time, I just watched for enjoyment, but this time, I tried very hard to identify the cues and actions that marked WALL-E's and EVE's genders and see if I could imagine them as gender neutral. In truth, it wasn't too hard. Up until the scene when they introduce themselves by name, it was pretty easy to imagine each of them as either the opposite gender or gender-neutral.

There are only a few things that specifically gender WALL-E as male: his name, a single comment from John ("I know that guy."), and his copying of the male part of the "Hello Dolly" dances. His voice could be interpreted as masculine, but I forced myself to think "gender neutral" and it actually worked pretty well. With just a few tweaks, particularly the name, I think that WALL-E could have been portrayed without specifying a gender. Of course, there are some visual gender cues, such as his dirty, rusty exterior, lunchbox, and waste management job, but those things only read as masculine because of our tendency to think of the American "working class" as male. If the other aspects of this character were made ambiguous, I could argue that any gendering of WALL-E is totally on the audience, not the filmmaker.

EVE was trickier. Her voice and name are much more strongly female than WALL-E's are male. Then there's her creepy robo-womb. Still, until she uttered her first words, I was fairly successful at thinking of EVE as ungendered. Change the name, pitch the voice lower and with a little less giggling, and you've got a genderless robot.

I tried to keep an eye on the other characters too, and was pleased to find that many of them are actually not gender-specific. The cockroach, MO, Gopher, and the rogue robots are all neutral. And they still have personality (at least, MO and the cockroach do), which proves to me that it is possible to have an anthropomorphized object or animal that does not have a clear-cut gender.

With all this in mind, I want to bump WALL-E's rating to a 7/10. Not a perfect 10, since we can't get around the fact that WALL-E and EVE are given very clear genders and I stand by my earlier call of bullshit. But I want to give credit for having lots of gender-neutral characters and for making the two main characters so close to neutral. The points off are for not taking it all the way. And for having only one female captain among 5 or 6.

If you haven't seen WALL-E yet, I recommend trying to think of the characters as gender-neutral as much as possible — it was a great thought exercise and helped me reflect on how much gender the filmmakers gave to each character and how much I was putting on them by using the visual cues etc. as shortcuts.

107 comments:

Hypatia said...

Very interesting. I, too, went to go see Wall-E and was trying to figure out exactly what I thought about the gender roles. I think its relevant that EVE is also portrayed as the more persevering character. Wall-E adopts her quest instead of the other way around. However, Wall-E is still clearly the protagonist.

Overall, Pixar's record still sucks. Is anyone ever going to make "family" or "kid-friendly" movies that truly challenge gender construction? Disney's Mulan is like the only thing that I can think of that even comes close, and there are significant problems with that movie as well...

arisu said...

Kick-ass post! I'd never actually looked at Pixar movies this way but you are totally on the money here. Just kind of shows how ingrained it is though when I'd never even considered how skewed the gender balance is in this particular corner of pop-culture. Nice work.

lauram said...

I think Cars maybe earns a little more than a zero since the female car (blue porsche?) is the one who is the attorney at the beginning, struts her stuff on the open road, and seems to get to tell the moral about running down small businesses for the sake of "low prices" and big boxes and convenience. I know, it's not great, but maybe a 2?

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Good point, lauram. I'm willing to give up a point or two on the lawyer issue.

Ben Varkentine said...

First, instinctive reaction: You have no romance in your soul.

Second, more thoughtful reaction: I can't help thinking that Wall-E would get a lot more points with you if it were just called Wall-E & Eva.

Because in terms of the changes they both go through--which I've always felt is the best way to tell your protagonists--they are just about equal.

In fact, Eva may change more than Wall-E over the course of the film.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Ben,

You'll note that I didn't say I don't like Pixar movies. In fact, I love most of them (all except Cars, really). That's why it makes it that much more disappointing that the company's decisions reinforce the awful, destructive idea that male is neutral and female is particular.

The point, which you are missing, is not that there is a problem with having an individual movie with a male protagonist or a focus on male experience (father/son, male buddy films, etc.). The point is that Pixar's creative team seems to go to male characters as a default, never reflecting on their own gender assumptions. They seem perfectly content to stay stuck in a late-20th-century mindset that says that as long as the token female character is sassy and spunky, everything will be a-ok.

I wouldn't want the movie to be called "WALL-E and EVE" because it isn't about WALL-E and EVE. I'm not sure your method of identifying protagonists works as well as this simple test: how much screen time does one character get while not in the presence of the other? By this metric, a character like Helen Parr scores fairly high (even though she is always acting in response to Bob's situation), but a character like EVE or Dory doesn't do so well. That's not to say that the main character is always the one with the most lines or most screen time — but it is important to think about whose experience is the main focus of the story.

Actually, all of that is beside the point in reference to WALL-E, since I was arguing in my post that the brave choice would have been to leave both robots genderless, which could have been done quite easily by giving them gender-neutral voices and names and doing everything else exactly the same.

Whatever your thoughts on this issue, please take a moment to examine the structure of your comment. It may seem petty and unromantic to you for me to point this out, but I can't help but notice that you led off with a belittling comment and never really get around to grappling with my central argument. I can only guess as to whether or not you understood what it was.

As for your comments on my soul, you will notice from other posts on this blog, I am an atheist, so I'll go you one better and declare myself entirely soulless.

Mnemosyne said...

I think you're discounting one big reason why Pixar makes movies they way they have: they are, very deliberately, rejecting the female-centered fairy tale paradigm for animated movies that has been around since "Snow White" and before. In 1995, it was pretty revolutionary to have an animated buddy film that didn't have a romance or a musical number.

That doesn't mean that they need to continue following that paradigm, but that was the original aim.

Oh, and Violet should get at least 1 point for "The Incredibles," don't you think? She goes from being a shy social zero to saving her entire family and asking her crush out to the movies. And she does it by discovering her own innate powers, not by falling in love.

Dawn said...

I think Violet adds at least 2 points to the Incredibles and I think Edna adds at least 2 more which gives that movie a 9 out of 10.

BTW, I'm convinced that Disney kills off the mothers in all of its movies because little kids know with their souls that nothing bad will happen to them while their mothers are around. The characters can only have adventures because their mothers aren't there to protect them from peril. In a weird way, the absence of mothers in Disney movies is a compliment to mothers in our culture.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

For me, a 10/10 would be a movie that really challenged assumptions about gender in a meaningful way. Examples might include a WALL-E in which gender-neutral characters fall in love, a Bug's Life with a biologically appropriate female-dominated cast, or a hypothetical female-dominated movie that is marketed with the assumption that the audience will be 50% male.

Half of the awesome characters in The Incredibles are female. That's why I gave them half the possible points. The other 5 points remain unearned because it doesn't go beyond that in challenging the trend. Having a half-female cast is kind of a baseline, not a cause for 10-star status.

barenakedlady81 said...

Agree with you 100% on all the ratings (think Toy Story 2 was even a bit generous) except the Incredibles. The good thing about this one is that Helen and Violet do both break the 'stereotypical' feminine mold in a few ways.
Violet begins as a character whose predominant power is her invisibility - she's painfully shy, and we can see that this is holding her back. She really discovers herself during the film, learns to use what is arguably the most kickass/useful/live-saving power out of the whole family, and ends up with *asking a boy out*. I can't think of another film where I've seen that done in the matter of fact way in which it is here.
Helen begins the film with a career, gives that up because of public opinion, goes through being a wife and stay-at-home mother and ends up back with the superhero career at the end of it. It's not groundbreaking, but at least it's being explored.

Okay, massive amounts of points lost for Bob and Helen's gendered superhero names, and for the name of the film/family. And for the very gendered Bob-as-provider, Helen-as-housewife roles they play in the middle of the film (although it does touch on their dissatisfaction with this, and part of what the film is about is them breaking free of this).

But still, at least it's looking at something a little deeper than the other films!

Emme Erics said...

I work for Disney, and just wanted to mention that Wall-e and Eve were both first mean to be genderless, but executives at Disney felt they wouldn't appeal enough to the children. So they made Wall-e a safy, sweet, nerdy "boy" to appeal to girls, and Eve a flashy, hi-tech, cool robot to appeal to boys.

Did anyone else notice that most people on the Axiom ship were white? Perhaps a criteria to get onto the ship...

And sorry, I am no big fan of Cars either - but Cars 2 is in the making and will be coming out in 2011.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

That's very interesting, Emme. I wonder why they assume that kids wouldn't warm to gender-neutral characters. It seems a little silly when you think about how appealing a genderless character like Mo or the security robot with the binary keyboard can be. I wonder how much of their concern was for kids' preferences and how much they were worried about parents.

When I took my 12-year-old sister to see WALL-E last night, I asked her (without prompting!) why she thought they made WALL-E a boy and EVE a girl. She said it's because boys wouldn't see it if it were a movie about a girl, duh, and the filmmakers obviously wanted to make as much money as possible. So nobody's fooling the media-savvy 7th graders of the world.

Kaethe said...

I'm just reassured to discover that other women find it possible to love Pixar films and hate the way they ignore females.

Great job!

bluestareyed said...

As an add-on to the various gender issues that you have presented here, may I also point out that the constant devaluing of just the concept of "female" in "A Bug's Life" should push it into negatives IMHO.

Just think of the ladybug character, and the flies who think he is female.

the whole thing made me so irritated that it took me a week to watch the film in its entirety.

Alice Howlett said...

You mentioned WALL-E copying the male dancers in "Hello, Dolly!"; perhaps it's worth noting that EVE responds to WALL-E's invitation to dance by enthusiastically headbanging/pogoing/whatever you want to call it, causing the whole truck to shake- not a dainty, "ladylike" way to dance. It seems as if Pixar had the opportunity to reinforce EVE's characterisation as female, but decided not to, which is encouraging. Perhaps I'm reading far too much into this, though.

k gunderson said...

Great post!
And don't forget about Horton Hears a Who. Peter Sagal wrote a great essay about it here.

"In a new subplot added by the filmmakers, the mayor of Whoville has 96 daughters. He has one son. Guess who gets all his attention? Guess who saves the day?"

COMALite J said...

Perhaps Pixar could make a home-DVD film entitled EVE which tells the same story from her POV? We start on the Axiom and see EVE sent off on “her” mission to Earth to find evidence of biosynthesis. “She” has several adventures and interactions along the way, then meets WALL-E on Earth and from then on it’s basically the same story and reusing much of the same footage, but all told from “her” POV.

Hixie said...

No offense intended, but seriously, I think you're projecting your own gender issues onto Pixar's movies. Who cares whether the roles are male or female -- let the story dictate who is what, and don't worry about it. Would you be complaining if all the characters in a movie were black, or had red hair, or liked to play golf?

These movies are for entertainment, not for political statements. Personally I hope Pixar continue to do whatever they want to do to tell their stories in the most compelling ways possible and hope that they don't give two hoots to political correctness.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Movies are the popular literature of our time. I am an academic and I will continue to analyze them because that is my job.

I wrote this post as a Pixar fan (Nemo is my favorite), but also as someone who tries to interact with the world with my brain turned on. Everything we do and everything we make embodies our assumptions about the world - that's the whole premise of material culture studies (one of my major fields). While I sometimes have to explain to people how a gravestone or a teapot can reveal something important about a culture, arguing that movies convey cultural meaning is fairly uncontroversial. Everyone understands that Birth of a Nation is an important text - I'm merely arguing that kids' movies are no less interesting/revealing.

Besides, the whole "feminists should stop whining and just try to enjoy life" argument is pretty sexist. It's like arguing that African-Americans should just try to stop seeing race everywhere and then everything would be hunky-dory. You can't blame the messenger for describing what's right in front of your face. There's a word for telling people they're making a big deal out of nothing: privilege. Note: this observation applies even if you are a woman.

Now, if you have an alternate reading of these movies, that's a conversation I'm happy to have. But just saying the subject is off-limits is not even an argument.

Hixie said...

I don't think the topic is off-limits, I just think it's not a big deal. :-) But ok, let's examine the premise that there is a gender issue -- what is it? Pixar movies have plenty of women, and they are almost uniformly more competent than the guys. If there's any gender issue at all, I would argue it's the other way around -- these movies stereotype guys as bumbling fools in comparison.

To give some examples:

In One Man Band, the girl is shown to be orders of magnitude more competent and ethical than the two guys.`

In Monsters Inc, the bad guys are both male, supported by an incompetent male sidekick. The good guys are both pretty incompetent at dealing with the emergency. The main girl (Boo) is shown to be far more intelligent and resourceful than pretty much anyone else in the movie, despite being an infant. The most important position in the government association is a woman. The main love interest is a woman.

In Finding Nemo, both the mother and Dory are shown to be highly caring individuals (the mother runs to save her kids, and Dory spends the whole movie being helpful even in the face of dismissal).

In Knick Knack, the only male character that I can recall is the snowman, who is shown as incompetent.

In Jack Jack Attack, the main character is female and shown to be highly resourceful in the face of a crazy male character.

In both Cars and Wall-E, the main female character is again apparently more competent or powerful than the main male character. In both, the "evil" decisions (arresting McQueen, abandoning Earth) are done by male characters.

In A Bug's Life, the leaders of the good team are both female; the leader of the bad team is male.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

I agree with you that Pixar's gender problem goes far beyond the way that individual female characters are portrayed — see my discussions of A Bug's Life, WALL-E, Newt, etc. The problem you've identified with male stereotypes is also important — it's the fat manchild/hot nag pairing that drives so many American sitcoms and it hurts both women and men. It is definitely a gender problem.

But we have to be careful about being unqualified in praise of "spunky" female characters, especially when they fall into some of the well-worn sexist tropes.

One is the problem you identified: competent woman takes care of emotionally stunted man. I'm not arguing that women should not be portrayed as competent, but that casting women as "moms" to their immature (and often fat) husbands reinforces the idea that boys will be boys and can't be expected to take care of themselves. It's demeaning to men and unfair to women, who are expected to be superwomen (in this case, literally).

The roles available to women are circumscribed. As you observed, Nemo has two important female characters: self-sacrificing mother and dumb-but-emotionally-intuitive helpmeet. These are set roles that you can find in any work of didactic, nineteenth-century fiction.

I think the problem with Pixar movies and your reading of them is that they take a 20th-century view of feminism that says that if you just make the female characters spunky and sassy, everything will be ok. More than ok, even - praiseworthy.

But the fact remains - these are movies about male characters that present a unified vision of male neutrality and female particularity. Even though the leaders of the ant colony are female, Pixar went out of their way to make main characters male when biology made them female. They spent extra energy altering the reality-based elements of their storytelling in order to privilege male characters and perspectives (enough has been said about the ladybug elsewhere, so I won't get into that). WALL-E presents a similar problem.

Pixar has a gender problem and it is, paradoxically, based on a lack of imagination. They seem not to be able to imagine a general audience responding positively to a female-centered story. They have trouble imagining female characters who break out of the well-traveled ruts of traditional roles (Jessie is the best of the bunch). They go out of their way to make sure that main characters are male, even when that doesn't necessarily make sense or when having a female character would be equally effective (Flick, WALL-E, Remy, Newt).

I'm not singling Pixar out because they are uniquely bad. They make popular movies that I enjoy watching (exception: Cars. Once is enough). And I think it is important. Popular culture both reveals the gender stereotypes that pervade our national mindset and socializes children to accept those norms as natural. Movies are not merely entertainment - they are cultural texts. If we accept that texts like Uncle Tom's Cabin or The Jazz Singer or the plays of Shakespeare can tell us something about the cultures that produced them, the same standard applies to the cultural productions of our own time.

Hixie said...

There are plenty of female characters in Pixar movies that don't fall into those categories, e.g. Colette and the old lady in Ratatouille, Edna in The Incredibles, Kari in The Incredibles and especially Jack-Jack Attack, the niece in Finding Nemo, all the characters but the main one in Knick Knack, Boo in Monsters Inc, etc.

My reaction to these movies is not any kind of feminism. The whole point is that I think that these movies are neutral in that sense. They have female roles, male roles, rat roles, robot roles, you name it. They are set in the US, they are set in France, they are set in different times, different universes, they have black characters and white characters, they cover all manner of parts of society. I would welcome a Pixar movie with female lead character just like I'd welcome one with a pineapple as lead character or a male rat, robot, or ant as lead character -- I just don't think that matters. They're stories. As far as I'm concerned Flik was male not to make a political statement, but because he happened to be male.

I understand that it is your job to look for such issues in the media, but here I think you are reading far more into the Pixar movies than they actually warrant.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

I think that, perhaps, you are not understanding the crux of my argument. Do you know what I mean when I talk about the neutral/particular construction of gender?

When "male" is presented as neutral or normal, "female" becomes a special case. Think back to what you may have learned about Galen and the one sex theory of human anatomy - the idea that every human body is really male, but the female body is an immature version of its perfect form. Equating "human" with "male" (or "newt" with "male," as the case may be) advances an idea that maleness is the defacto neutral state of people and anything female is a variation on that norm. If you don't see what I mean, think of an analogy to race: there is a very strong association in our national culture between "American" and "white," while everyone else is a special case. For evidence, see the collected public remarks of the McCain/Palin campaign.

This is the crux of the problem. Flik does not "just happen to be male." Someone made him male. He has no independent existence outside of the actions and intentions of his creators. And those actions and intentions are not, in fact, neutral.

You think I'm reading too much into things, but I would encourage you to consider the broader implications of what you see and hear in popular culture on a regular basis. You seem to be taking the position that stories and characters just are what they are and are somehow organic or natural, rather than created. But no story exists in nature - people tell stories that resonate with their audiences and, in order to be effective, they have to communicate something genuine about the culture or society. And gender is part of that.

And don't defend Colette as a feminist high point. That romantic subplot is so unbelievable, unnecessary, and distracting, but hey, they had a girl in the movie, so she had to end up paired up with someone. As for your other specific examples, I'll concede that Edna is probably up there with Jessie in the better-than-the-rest range. I'd have to watch the shorts again, though I suspect that naming the babysitter in The Incredibles is reaching pretty deep into the bench for examples.

Danny Cohen said...

When making a film requiring the capital that Pixar does, they can't take risks from the traditional story telling formulas. Also, your grading is very unfair, considering that The Incredibles gets only 5/10... so, for a film to get 10/10, it needs to show only women? Where's the equality there?

That being said, "meh."

the Rising Jurist said...

I am seconding Danny Cohen, here. The Incredibles not only has a large female cast, but they have central roles in the story. One would think this was the ideal you seek, or at least close enough to warrant a 9/10, if not a 10/10. Instead, it appears you want a female-dominated film. And that's really no better than what you already dislike.

Eric Orchard said...

Well, I think this is over-analyzing it a bit. I get the idea that John Lasseter and Brad Bird are a lot like the male protagonists and that's the kind of characters they write the best. Maybe Pixar needs more female writing staff. I'd hate to see these wonderful stories compromised by ideology(more then they like already are by Disney)but I don't think you're suggesting that. Also, this al feels like a red herring; I think it's far worse the way female protagonists are portrayed in most Hollywood films.

You're going to have a field day when Pixar releases John Carter of Mars if they're at all faithful to the book.

Joel D said...

I am so sick and tired of all art being viewed through the sacred prism of Race-Gender-Sexual Orientation. A movie or book can be entertaining, rich with meaning on so many levels, and yet it always comes back to being scored on those same three things. Do you realize how aesthetically bankrupt this is? Everyone knows that Pixar is the best in the business and here they can't escape this mindless browbeating for their failure to properly pay homage to the Three Sacred Cows of modern secularism. Unbelievable.

frederik said...

very good post,

this list of the top pixar staff could give an explanation to their lack of gender creativity in storytelling, they don't seem to have it in their employment policy either

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Pixar_staff

Zeke Smith said...

I think the discussion is more than warranted, considering the clear observations that no Pixar movie has a female as the central character - it boils down to something as simple as that. Obviously Caitlin isn't demanding a boycott of Pixar as a result, considering they continue to make great movies, but questioning why all the main characters have to be male. I have to admit I am a huge Pixar fan (Nemo's my favorite, too) and never even considered this, and felt a little sick to my stomach reading this post as it was finally brought to my attention. It is a little curious, and brings to mind tons of other questions - are there scripts written with girl leads, and they just get shot down? Is it a result of a majority of male employees by Pixar? Is there some marketing inequality that motivates this, like girls will go see movies about boy characters but the reverse isn't true?
I'm definitely intrigued...

Oh Typography said...

Probably a little late on this, but why exactly is this post directly toward Pixar? How about nearly every film that is released in a years time, year after year?
You've got a damn mountain of gender neglect to climb through.

These are such tired arguments and of course I'm "biased" because I'm male, but I don't think a female or male would go see many movies if the gender in the roles were reversed. You're contending with thousands of years of learned social behavior. I have sympathy for the idea of Wall-E and Eve having the potential to have been gender neutral, but it practically goes against our nature to quantify categorize and theorize about anything, just as surely as you've written this post.

What are your counter examples? To me the gender doesn't make much of a difference in whether a film is good. Perhaps the issue is more indicative of a societal change that hasn't happened. More women have been going to higher education, getting advanced degrees, gaining "status" amongst men and have triumphed over the fact that a male was once known as the provider. So cliched gender representations may be forever blurred, but ideas remain that obfuscate large scale progress in seeing women as taking on lead characters outside of cultural stereotypes. I mean if women keep taking themselves and their men to movies full of cliches and stereotype, it's just another impression of the exact stereotypes you speak of being further ingrained into both. This is like touching the stove even after you know it will burn you.

Your argument is sound and factually based on your examples, but to simply suggest they make films with strong female characters arbitrarily to match each male featured movie is unrealistic.

What about Waitress? Loads of females and critical praise...but is that full of cliches and stereotypes as well?

robby said...

I have heard people argue, quite convincingly, that WALL-E could easily be read as a genderless butch/femme story.

http://katebornstein.typepad.com/kate_bornsteins_blog/2008/07/walle-a-butchfe.html

Elaina said...

A lot of comments seem to be missing a central point of your argument. Namely, that while it's fine for any particular one, two, or ten movies to have a male protagonist and male-dominated plot, looking at the overall picture reveals an extreme male bias.

If, as one poster continues to suggest, characters just "happen" to be one gender or the other, then we would expect roughly half of all Pixar movies to have female leads, assuming we tell interesting stories at relative random and there's no inherent reason why men are more interesting than women. Clearly this isn't the case, so I think a closer look is warranted.

Jason said...

Even though you bumped WALL-E up a few notches, i think you can bump it up even further still. I'm not sure if you've seen the deleted scenes on the DVD, but the end sequence (where EVE saved WALL-E) was actually swapped so that EVE was the one that was electrocuted and WALL-E came in and saved the day. But at the 11th hour the Pixar folks switched it out. doesn't that count for anything?

Eric Orchard said...

I disagree with that assessment Elaina. It in no way bothers me that Hayao Miyazaki's films(also distributed by Disney)have mostly female protagonists. This is all a lot of noise about nothing.

joanna said...

your arguments are retarded. way to look way too far into enjoyable disney movies.
if buzz was a space ranger woman he wouldve been seen as bitchy and not badass. i like the male characters and am so glad theyre not women.
i am a female by the way. get over your thoughts that movies don't use stereotypes. boooo you! PIXAR IS THE BEST

Elaina said...

Eric,

I find it interesting that Miyazaki's wikipedia page has a whole section on "feminism," citing in part his use of strong female protagonists. Which leads me to conclude that creating central female characters is somehow statement-making.

Do you also think racism is a bunch of noise?

Michael Hanscom said...

You're _definitely_ not alone in this line of thought -- it's a conversation my girlfriend and I have had many times, and I've blogged about three times before. Hopefully things will change at some point, though it's not looking promising so far.

Eric Orchard said...

Elaina-good point about Miyazki's Wikipedia page. And please don't put words in my mouth, i never said feminism is noise but this dissection of Pixar. My point with miyazaki is some people write certain types of protagonists better and there's no point in making it into something it isn't. like an issue.

Dr_Destruction said...

You, like all feminists, are making something into a bigger issue than it really is. Maybe the reason for Pixar's "Gender Problem" is that all the directors have so far been male. Do you ever consider this "problem" in other areas of art. Aren't all of Shakespeare's female characters -- though well developed as they are -- subordinate to males? Think Hamlet; Ophelia and Gertrude certainly are well developed characters but doesn't the main struggle boil down to rivalry between two males warring for the throne. Even in Romeo and Juliet, a play which revolves around a balanced relationship between a male and female, the main conflict is subordinate to warring factions, mostly controlled by men. Anything that comes to mind, written by males, is inherently biased toward a male perspective. Hemmingway's The Sun Also Rises, features Lady Ashley (Brett) as nothing more than an object of lust over which the males battle. Aren't the only featured women in The Godfather either subjects of domestic abuse or an obstacle that Michael Corleone must eventually brush aside in order to assume the more important responsibility of running the family business? Maybe if its too much you should just stick to Beauvoir.

Maybe you'll argue that animation is different and that while the aforementioned examples explore gender relations realistic worlds, Pixar films are purely fictional ones which could just as easily feature female protagonists? Maybe you're right...but honestly, who cares? What are you so worried about? Of future generations of young females having their self-esteem and identity retarded by male dominated media? Does this really concern you? Gender relations are the product of eons of human evolution. Women are effectively as equal as they want to be. If you can give me one good example maybe I'll change my mind but otherwise I don't see you arguing against Pixar anything other than a misplaced sense of self-righteousness.

Carrie said...

Although I'm a woman, I wouldn't call myself a feminist. And I would like to say that I love pixar movies. However, I have noticed the gender skew in pixar movies and I think it's worthy to point out.

First of all, please don't excuse male directors for making male dominated films. I think Henry Selick did a wonderful job with Coraline (original story by Neil Gaiman). If you don't think a male director/writer can make a good story about a female character, then how do you expect a girl to play make believe with a story with male main characters?

Young girls don't see the world as male=neutral and female=particular. A girl won't pretend to be buzz lightyear or Mr. Incredible, with a little imagination she can pretend to be a robot, or a fish, but she can easily pretend to be Jessie. Anyway, its just something I noticed when I was a kid while watching American cartoons. There just weren't any good characters to pretend to be.

BenandCoopersDad said...

@Dr. Destruction: Really? Hemingway and Shakespeare are your examples of writers without gender bias issues who just write more male characters? Do you know anything about Papa Hemingway's life, or his self-analysis of his own work? (or how to spell his name?)

@Caitlin: You're spot on with most of this, but push your point too far by including The Incredibles and Wall-E, as most of these comments show. It should be obvious that there are 3 fully realized strong women in Incredibles. As for Wall-E, let me propose ...

Did you notice that none of the other Eve-bots were "female," and this is an important point, neither was Eve until after she began to have feelings for Wall-E. Go back and watch it. In fact, it could be argued that the two lead characters are inherently gender-neutral, but have chosen their sexuality; Wall-E because he identifies with the male lead in his favorite film, Eve because she chooses to be his sexual compliment.

Whether you accept this analysis, you should realize that Eve is the more dynamic of the two characters.

I'm not writing to refute your central point, although I do agree with several commenters that picking on Pixar is like a state patrol officer (trying hard to remain gender neutral here) pulling over the one speeder she could catch. (Okay, that last "she" was just pandering). The real problem is the mainstream entertainment industry's fear of taking chances with anything.

Melissa H. said...

I found this really thought provoking and a great read. Your arguments are strong and very clear. I am in fact an animation student, and enjoy Pixar's films very much, both artistically and in terms of story... But I understand what you are saying here. You also pointed out some things I had never noticed before. Thank you. I think sadly part of the problem is that as animators and storytellers we are told/taught to write/animate what we know, and are often discouraged from thinking too outside the box for fear that we will alienate the audience, and not make any money. Sadly I think the guys at Pixar have fallen into the habit of playing it safe in terms of gender issues. Couple that with money and demographics and you dig yourself into quite the rut. I do not think this is something to be ignored, or glossed over. I don't think you have over analyzed at all. Thanks again for giving me some new things to think about, and keep up the good work.

Dr_Destruction said...

No, it wasn't that they don't have male bias issues; its that every male author inherently looks at things from a male perspective, though its actually a pretty flawed argument because are males who tackle female protagonist, though I'd still argue that its technically from a male's perspective nonetheless. And no I obviously know nothing of Ernest Hemingway* because I left out an M. And I'd appreciate, BernardCoppersDAd, if you would actually critique certain parts of my argument rather than just offer the intimidating -- though hollow -- Do you know anything...; Really?...etc.

Carrie, as you just pointed out, Coraline proves that there are female oriented protagonists. I still think your looking too much into the matter. I honestly have no problem with the idea of a female protagonist, but lots of small girls love Pixar the way it is and I think its mostly because they're at the age where gender doesn't really matter. My 6 year old cousin is only really beginning to play with dolls and such and has just as much fun playing with her brother's toys. Also, when I was a small boy I had fun making up my own characters to pretend to be, but maybe that was just me...

sprae said...

Although I'm not convinced that Pixar purposely set out to create male-oriented films, I am however interested in your analysis/views of Hayao Miyazaki's animated films. These include recent Howl's Castle to Spirited Away to his first feature Nausicaa. The majority of his feature film characters has been females and I grew up enjoying all his anime.

Pixie said...

Hi Caitlin. While I respect your opinion about pixar I feel it's a selfish perspective.

I might be wrong but from what I read in your post and your whole standpoint on gender I can't help get the feeling you want Pixar to make movies with the "gender-neutral" standpoint as you put it.

I live in one of the most gender equal countries on the planet so maybe I don't see it as the same problem you do but regardless I believe in the freedom to tell a story how you like it.

I also feel it's a bit double-edged to say you love pixar movies but show hatred towards how their stories are composed.


I'm not sure I grasp the foundation of your argumentation. Do you feel forced to act in a certain way because you are a girl? In that case I can only advice you to free your mind. It's your life to live how you like it.


Lasty I don't believe in enforcing rules on Pixar (in this case) about how they should make movies. The best movies are made with creative freedom imho.

That means when there are directors and producers that share the passion you have about the "gender-issue" and also view it as a problem, (I assume you do from what I've read) there will be alot more movies that cater to this idea aswell as a bigger audience. (perhaps there is one just repressed?)

echelon321 said...

I feel a major part of these movies has been overlooked and that is the villain/antagonist. You make a clear case that is it unacceptable for the males to always have the dominant role as the "hero" of the film. However, what about the bad guys? Seriously, consider: Sid, Hopper, Al McWhiggin, Randall Boggs, Syndrome, Chick Hicks, Skinner, and AUTO
All of them undoubtedly the stereotypical self-interested, destructive, mustache-twirling male. Half of them actually have mustaches.

With the exception of Darla (in Nemo, your arguably 'preferred' Pixar film), I can't come up with any female that was seriously invested in the protaganists' failure.

Now contrast that with Disney's golden animation where nearly every film had the evil stepmother cliche.

Just once I would like to see Pixar write a strong female antagonist and challenge that hideous sexual inequality.

/tongue firmly in cheek

Readerbuck said...

I've enjoyed your comments on Pixar's works. I wanted to add that it's interesting that the Pixar crowd are such champions of Hayao Miyazaki's films. "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Spirited Away" (and many of his other films) have main characters who are female and who successfully complete their quests. Plus the films are so well-made that you can watch them again and again and find new things each time. You'd think Pixar would take a page out of Miyazaki's book!

Peter said...

Now I'm an engineer so I won't pretend to really understand the social queues you seem to notice in these movies. However this is the list of the people who created Wall-E:

Directed by
* Andrew Stanton

Writing credits
* Andrew Stanton (original story)
* Pete Docter (original story)
* Andrew Stanton (screenplay)
* Jim Reardon (screenplay)

From this list would it be fair to assume that these people are more aware of the male perspective than of the female perspective? It seems to me that the explanation for why these movies aren't told from a female perspective is because the authors are largely male and have had only male experiences.

Pixar was originally founded by engineers seeking to explore the technical challenges with these types of virtual environments and rendering them in an appealing manner on a computer within an acceptable time frame. Furthermore they were a division of Lucasfilm, an obviously male oriented film producer.

The issue is not with why Pixar is producing movies and products from a male oriented perspective but with why there are no companies producing films from a female perspective. If there is a market why haven't successful computer science females decided to form a company and produce quality titles? The issue stems from a much earlier period where females are channeled or drawn to "softer" areas. If you really want to solve the issue you need to look at and solve the reason for why there are so few female engineers and such a low involvement in hard sciences. In the end this all boils down to the same issues which have been discussed for about as long as I have existed. Your analysis is not targeting the root but rather the branches of the issue.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Peter,

I see your point, but I don't agree that male directors/writers/animators/producers can't be expected to move beyond the male=neutral, female=particular understanding of gender. It's not all about women telling stories from a female perspective — it's about everyone rethinking how gender is written into the stories they tell. That's why, for me, the worst offenders here are A Bug's Life and (potentially) Newt, movies in which the writers went to special lengths to reproduce the idea that male=universal.

That said, I agree with your point that part of the problem is due to the tech professions. My husband is a software engineer at Google, so I've seen how women are treated in undergrad/grad/workplace environments in the tech industry. I'd say that our alma mater and Google are among the friendliest places for women in this field, and they are still only so-so. The one computer science course I took in his department was taught by a prof who "encouraged" girls to wear bikini tops to class and I've overheard things in the Google cafeteria that made me want to douse engineers in their own free gourmet lunches. It's very important to encourage girls to go into computers/tech/science from an early age, and I'd like to think that some progress has been made on that front, even since I was a child.

Still, I'm not giving up on male writers/directors/engineers, etc. They're grownups and they're capable of stretching their brains in new ways. You don't have to be aware of the "female perspective" to wonder why it's important to gender-code robots.

Mathmo said...

I'm curious as to what you want from a film. Your posts seem to suggest that the only film you'd be happy with is a film centred around a purely female main cast, ideally with no male characters at all. But that would not be gender-balanced, would it now? Do you want equality, or do you want some sort of feminist revenge for the years of male misogyny in the media?
Because, really, I see very few people going to see this film of yours. People like to see a reflection of life in the media, and gender interaction is important in that. You don't like the fact that the protagonist is often male - but the authors in these cases are all male (excepting the bear and the bow), and as such are going to be somewhat predisposed towards writing male protagonists, who they can identify with.
I'm curious to know what your line would be if Pixar released film after film with all female leading roles written by male authors. I suspect that you would then be righteously enraged about the way they misrepresent females.
Why don't you put together a script and propose your perfect story? Or make it yourself - High quality 3D rendering can be done reasonably on modern desktop computers.
See if you can do any better, like. Just sayin'...
(yes, I am male. Sorry)
(no, I don't think that films with female protagonists are wrong. I might struggle to identify with them, or I might not. I would certainly struggle to write one)
(although I would certainly struggle to write any film)

sourcreamus said...

The problem with the analysis is that the movies are not just stories but are revenue generators. They exist to sell toys and merchandise as much as to sell tickets and dvds. Boys will support strong male characters much more than girls will support strong female characters. Cars is a perfect example. Sallie is superior to Lightning in almost every way. She is smarter, wiser, and more moral. She is a three dimensional character is complex motivations and an interesting backstory. He is just a selfish athelete who never has an appreciation for anything until he meets her. Yet all the boys bought tons of Lightning merchandise and I never see any girls playing with Sallie toys or merchandise. All the girls I see are playing with the princess toys from Disney. This is because of a biological difference in how boys and girls see the world and themselves. Girls want to identify with a girl who is young, pretty and on top of the social structure. Boys want to identify with someone who is doing interesting things. For Pixar to ignore this reality for the sake of political correctness would cost them millions of dollars.It is easy to spend other people's money on your hobby horses, but the guys at Pixar are too smart to spend their own money like that.

John said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Pixie said...

Personally I think it's unfair going to the movies and soley judge the movie by how many girls are seen in it aswell as how their roles are played out.

If you go to a movie with an agenda or worked out premise on how to judge it you will easily overlook or ignore points made in the general story and might not appreciate it as much as you would have had you went and seen it without a predetermined state of mind.


In this case I think your passion about genders is making you appreciate Pixars movies less then if you would just have let your mind go. I base this upon how you've changed your scores and the basis on which they were first set.
To me it seems you want to make a greater point then what is there.


As for what is said in a lunchroom or cafeteria.. People should be entitled to their own views and values. I'm not going to start to tell you about the skewed things I hear every day from the females at work. I don't judge them for their opinions on a single subject or think to myself; I somehow have to change their values.


I don't know what's eating you Caitlin but the Pixar gender problem theory doesn't quite add up.

Cassidy said...

This is a really nice analysis. I've felt the same way about the gender bias in these movies for years. We need more female protagonists, plain and simple. I'm a guy, and a feminist, and I work in the industry. I try to bring this subject up at every possible opportunity, but so far I haven't seen things changing very quickly.

I still have hope, though. What keeps me going are the handful of great animated movies with truly interesting protagonists who just happen to be female. Spirited Away is at the top of my list, followed closely by Lilo and Stitch.

I have a new baby daughter, and I'm going to be very careful about what movies she sees, because I want her to grow up knowing what I know: that she is not a minor character in her own life, and she can do whatever she damn well pleases with it.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

I reserve the right to delete comments that have no content other than personal attacks/vulgarity.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Thanks to everyone who commented here. I really appreciate your engaging with my argument and participating in this discussion. You've made some good points that I will continue to consider in my thinking on this issue.

keyframe said...

It's a problem in the entire motion picture industry. Geena Davis started an institute to study the problem, and it found "The highest concentration of [gender] imbalance is in animated films and G-rated programming, where parents might assume their children are safest."

Read about it here:
http://awfj.org/2008/02/28/geena-davis-forum-searching-cels-for-girl-mice-and-ninjas-sara-voorhees-reports/
Or on the official site here: http://www.thegeenadavisinstitute.org

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Thanks for the link!

mxcl said...

I think stuff like Battlestar Galatica shows how female characters can be the best and most interesting in the story.

But frankly I think most writers don't know how to make interesting female characters that aren't blubbery or romantic.

But at the end of the day, I don't really give a shit about the gender imbalance as long as I enjoy the show. It seems a pity to ruin a good movie by whining about this stuff.

Brie said...

Thank you for voicing so many thoughts I've had, but failed to communicate effectively. It makes me feel less alone and less crazy :-)

Manip said...

Except the main character in Wall-e (Wall-e) is female and the secondary Eve is male.

I'm kind of confused to how you came to the conclusion that she isn't?

Manip said...

Except the main character in Wall-e (Wall-e) is female and the secondary Eve is male.

I'm kind of confused to how you came to the conclusion that she isn't?

common sense said...

your comments are absolutely ludacris! the fact that you can find such absurd connections astounds me. in the time it took you to write that bullshit you could have

a) made me dinner
b )cleaned something
c) had my babies
d) gotten on your knees and sucked a dick
e) all of the above

p.s pixar has an "i" in it and it looks like a penis. is that offensive?
p.s.s if the lamp had a vagina would that make it any better?

thanks for your consideration

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Thanks, common sense!

I've taken a screen capture of your comment and put it on my fridge, right next to my framed portrait of Ludacris!

ashwaria said...

It is not a problem of a single person It is a problem of Entire Nation.Geena Davis started an institute to study the problem, and it found "The highest concentration of Gender imbalance.This Point is very much concern for us.
Gender Stereotypes

restodelmondo said...

Very interesting. I suppose that's just a reflection of a bigger problem - that is more in the head of the producers than in the viewers' mind (see Battlestar Galctica, Golden Compass, and others).

I too have a problem with "The Incredibles'" grade. Besides Edna, a strong woman, based on a real-life great woman (Edith Head), who furthermore does not need a man in her life (and jokes about supermodels being too skinny and not so super), we have how positively is seen that Violet becoming more confident (thus less "weak girly-girl"), and how Helen Parr escapes her role as a stereotypical mother/wife (and the movie is about that just as much as it is about Bob's midlife crisis).

Kaethe said...

I'm fascinated by the defensive comments that boil down to: Pixar's a bunch of guys, of course they can't write gals. That's not a defense, that's another aspect of the problem. Likewise the argument that the choice is about making money: because boys couldn't possibly be interested in anything that isn't about boys, but girls are expected to be interested in boys and not to complain at the lack of girl characters.

Pixar makes amazing films, but their obtuseness astounds me. On the other hand, they're somewhat less infuriating than the filmmakers who gave us Barnyard, drawing cows with milk-heavy udders (a result of pregnancy) and presenting them as male characters.

zmayhem said...

Great, great post, full of a ton of stuff that I've been mulling over for the past couple of years. My own child is just hitting the "must inhale every animated movie that ever existed, and each of those at least ninety times in a row" stage, and watching her watch these things (especially seeing them over and over) has made me really think about what she sees, what they tell her about the world.

I think you're dead-spot-on. And, to answer the commenters who want to know why you're picking on Pixar in particular, it's the fact that Pixar is so extravagantly imaginative, so creatively fearless and joyful and wide, wide open in so many ways that makes this one aspect of its films so incredibly frustrating.

This line of yours particularly struck me:

Pixar has a gender problem and it is, paradoxically, based on a lack of imagination. They seem not to be able to imagine a general audience responding positively to a female-centered story. They have trouble imagining female characters who break out of the well-traveled ruts of traditional roles (Jessie is the best of the bunch).

A million times yes!

At a recent kid-related social event I ran into a fellow parent who happened to be a top Pixar executive. I told him how much our whole family had loved WALL*E and how grateful my friends and I were for the glorious, complex, positively Aeryn Sun-ian badassery that was EVE. But, I asked, why couldn't there be more like her? Why can't we see an imaginary world whose gender spectrum more fully and richly reflects our own?

"Gee," he said, "that's something we wrestle with all the time. We're very aware of it and we're trying to change. But sometimes it's just so hard to find a way to justify adding a female character to the story. We want to be fair, but every character has to have a reason to be there."

At that, my heart shriveled up and blew away in the wind.

If a high-powered (good Bay Area liberal) creative team with a ginormous budget and access to the greatest writers, artists and voice talents on earth literally can't imagine a world like the world they're living in right now, what on earth can help them? Do they not see their own sisters, daughters, wives, mothers as anything but sisters, daughters, wives and mothers? Is our participation in Story, our ability to have adventures and dangers and agency unimaginable? Are we somehow essentially invisible?

And it's not like it can't be done; it's not even like it can't be done by men (see Miyazaki); hell, it's not even like it can't be done by American men (look at the luminous Lilo & Stitch). But damn if it's becoming seriously doubtful whether it can be done by Pixar.

emanonguy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
emanonguy said...

The notion that Pixar is a male dominated business that caters to market forces is really being written off, and, is half formed.

I don't think that you are positing that Pixar is saying "Lets make our leads all male and subvert the dreams of little girls worldwide, mwahahaha", but the arguments here seem to come close. Especially the ants/Bug's Life argument, when you say that Pixar goes out of their way. Yes, real male ants sit around and do nothing, but there doesn't seem to be any supporting evidence outside conjecture to the line that Pixar goes out of their way to make male leads. None of us (except, possibly commenter Emme Erics) were at Pixar meetings or in Pixar's studio's to be able to recant whether or not Pixar is actually going out of their way to do this. Are the bulk of Pixar's leads male? Sure, but this doesn't automatically prove anything.

The one thing no one has seemed to gather is that the Pixar guys are also nerds, and if there is one thing that almost all nerds have trouble with, it's girls. As a card carrying nerd myself, I see the way they write their female characters dripping with the nerd-centric view of females. Maybe I'm totally off base, but I don't think so.

The reality is that while there is a growing base of strong, educated women and girls with a desire for such roles in film - and a growing base of men who desire the same - there is millions of years of biological and social learning among the entire human race that leads people to lean one way or the other. I think the greatest anecdotal evidence of this is LGBT community, as most of the people LGBT I know identify with particular gender roles. It's blurred only to the extent that within the gay and lesbian community there are multiple gender roles - butch/femme/mixed/neutral - but almost all of the bisexuals I know are mixed butch/femme, and again almost all of the trans people I know are trans because they feel they are not only the opposite biological sex but gender as well. I've known maybe one hopeful pre-surgery transsexual who wasn't also transgendered.

This, to me, screams out that people, even in this post-modern world, play to certain gender roles and hence support the notion that Pixar is just doing what they know. Heck, 100% of the drag queens I know LOVE musicals and the gender roles within. Even though they subvert them when they do their own productions by playing female roles in drag, they also play the hetero male roles except the few times when drag queens and kings get together to put on a show. You too have fallen within a normal category, at least biologically, by marrying a man(though I suspect you've married a great guy who understands the gender inequality problem and gives you the respect any human should get :D ).

In the end, despite a lack of solid proof that Pixar is going out of their way to make male centric leads, there is still a problem. I think commenter Peter gets this best, and I've seen such gender/science discussions on Slashdot several times. It seems to boil down to two things: 1 - boys tend to be boys, as girls tend to be girls, in spite of social pressure; 2 - social pressure and mores have continued, amazingly to push forth the notion that boys should be boys, and the same for girls. I think that Peter is dead on that the your argument misses the root of the problem, but I do recognize that you are arguing said points in the context of pop culture. I suspect you read Bitchmag, I'd be interested to know if you do. I also think that in spite of the frame of pop culture, the root issue remains the problems within society. The debate/war/whatever over Prop 8 in California is a great example, and though Prop 8's victory is multifaceted, conservatives have made every attempt to further drive a wedge into the fabric of America by noting the substantial portion of minority voters who supported Prop 8.

As you describe yourself as an atheist, and appear to be quite well educated, I figure you already know that religion plays a big factor into this supposed faction of minoritys against the LGBT community. Frankly, and sadly, I've seen this to be true, at least when I meet minorities who are opposed to the goals of LGBT activists. I don't know the real numbers, but I've seen a disappointingly large(though maybe not majority) number of minorities who feel this way.

How do we address this, and the problems of getting more girls(and minorities for that matter) into science majors? The root of the problem that plagues Pixar is the same all over the world. Even in the LGBT community, bias and bigotry exists, not only in hostile, antiheterosexual millitant factions, but even against their own community - a number of trans and bisexual people have recently commented on Dan Savage's "Savage Love" column, that certain gays and lesbians have openly hostile feelings towards them. I've even noticed this on the forums for Showtime's "The L Word", and if memory serves, this has even played a part in the series.

I think, if what I've brought up here is reasonably factual, that it becomes quite unfair to single out Pixar when the whole of pop culture and society in general has had, and is having, huge problems getting their shit together to just be fucking civil and equal to all persons regardless of gender.

Final note, I think the talking points and overall tone are slightly hostile, but I understand your frustration/anger and DO sympathize. I'd say however, that the article would be better served to have recognized what commentator Hixie and you noted in the deeper complexity of gender issues within Pixar's films - I also know a number of conservative feminists(yes, I know that's loaded to most left leaning folk, but we wouldn't be fair to deny them their outlook) and men who would note the bumbling father figure in a great number of favorites of pop culture: Family Guy, Simpsons, Married with Children, Coach, etc.

Thoughts?

Kaethe said...

Yes, real male ants sit around and do nothing, but there doesn't seem to be any supporting evidence outside conjecture to the line that Pixar goes out of their way to make male leads.

Well, they made a film in which the male ants do everything. Surely it would have been easier not to complete re-invision ant social structure?

The proof that Pixar is going out of their way is that the gender problem was first pointed out more than a decade ago, and they've done nothing to correct it.

The one thing no one has seemed to gather is that the Pixar guys are also nerds, and if there is one thing that almost all nerds have trouble with, it's girls.

The one thing you don't seem to gather is that the catagory nerds includes females, who mostly don't have trouble with girls. Nerdiness, is thus not an excuse for institutionalized sexism.

emanonguy said...

"Surely it would have been easier not to complete re-invision ant social structure?"
Couldn't they have simply written a story? Without thought of what gender? Applying Occam's razor, I'd guess that someone simply had a clever idea and was writing it from a male perspective well before someone said "Hey, but male ants don't do squat!" This is the crux of my argument against the notion that Pixar's writers are actively casting males in the leads of their stories. I simply don't think that anyone at Pixar put that much thought into it.

I'm not familiar with the critique of Pixar that you speak of. A google search for the same shows this very article as #1, and two of the articles included links on the first two pages. All of the editorials/critiques/etc appear to be no older than about two years old. I may have missed something, ADD doesn't really help :D I will however, take your word for it in so far as to say that if true, then Pixar certainly has some explaining to do.

Without taking your claim of a decade old critique of Pixar at face value, my nerd point still stands so far as I can tel. I'm not equating the men of Pixar and their status as nerds as an excuse, but rather a reason why they would write in the specific context of nerdy awkwardness with women. Again I figure Occam into this argument, because none of us have been at their studios and executive boardrooms to tell the tale. This argument has nothing to do with whether or not female nerds have problems or awkwardness with men, because of course they do. This is to me, a typical response and is discouraging. Never once did I say or imply that women aren't nerds, and I even went so far as to address the problem of getting more women into science/tech majors, a classically nerd dominated field.

So at what point does this equate to an excuse? I am patently acknowledging institutionalized sexism, but from the standpoint that it's a global, species-wide problem that affects more than just the hetero-guy/hetero-girl dynamic, and not one of "Pixar's bad". If you can provide a reference for this older critique of Pixar, then we have a whole new debate. This is why I criticized the parent post for a lack of supporting evidence. It's not as if we have to be in the building, listening to the heads of Disney and Pixar demanding male leads to know this, but something has to be provided to support the argument. Merely stating, "Their movies have male leads" and using that to segue into "Pixar is bad" is simply circumstantial and is, from what I can tell, a classic case of begging the question. Though someone with classical logic training would be better to analyze the parent post and judge this - I'm certainly not - what I was not trying to do was raise anyone's ire.

As I stated in my initial reply, I DO sympathize and simply think that this is likely more circumstantial and less conspiratorial. Andrew Stanton has written or cowrote two thirds of Pixar's feature films. Have you watched him talking about his movies? Seems like a decent guy to me, though I don't know him personally I have no reason to suspect that he has any kind of ulterior motive. He comes off like many of my own friends, affable, kind, and kinda awkward. So again, not "Hey girls, it's cool, he's a nerd and doesn't know any better" but "Hey maybe it's simply how things turned out, but this is a problem, and one that we can address".

Hope that clears things up.

emanonguy said...

Oh and what would a female nerd's non-awkwardness with women have to do with this debate of male against female sexism? And to boot, a key factor of nerdyness is a generalized awkwardness with most people, so I would question what basis you would have made that argument in the first place.

rollinsloane said...

Caitlin,

I was just about to write up an article about this obvious gender disparity and am thankful that you've already done such a thorough job both outlining and defending your points. I am also a tremendous Pixar fan (check out this cartoon - http://www.poe-news.com/forums/sp.php?pi=1001979235 - for an appreciation of Pixar's creativity over a certain other animation studio), and feel that a critical look at their story patterns is not the same thing as a hatred of their work. The dissenters on this thread seem to equate any gender-based challenge with raging hate-mongering anti-maleness, which is ridiculous; I would let them keep their heads in the sand. Thanks for this post, and for engaging with your readers with such a clear head.

eviltwit said...

You know what, I noticed this, too. I was just thinking about this the other day - how much I really enjoy Pixar movies, but that they never have a female character in the lead. Some of you may give any excuse you want - the studio is filled with males; why put a female in the lead "just because", etc. Well, why put a male in the lead, "just because". It's called money. Yes, even Pixar isn't immune to the call of the green. In this case, at the expense of girl's self-esteem and self-worth. They make movies for everyone, but kids are a big audience for Pixar. And what do you think all those girls out there are internalizing when picture after picture come out with a boy or man in the lead role, with the girl/woman relegated to sidekick or love interest - even if they are super spunky. There is no excuse for this. Women are half the population. In this day and age, it is inexcusable for such a studio, especially one that puts out such consistently good material, to ignore this.

sarah said...

Went to this discussion after seeing "Up" yesterday with my 12 & 6 y/o daughters and husband. A FABULOUS film and story overall, and Ellie tops Jessie from TS2 as a good female character. Still, the gender-analyst in me left with a tremendous sinking feeling -- not again, Pixar! For Ellie begins as the more adventuresome of a girl-boy buddy duo; they eventually marry and she dies, a new version of "the story begins when the wife/mom dies..." This is all right at the beginning. And then the ONLY other female character in the film is the Cassowary-like bird (S. America, though, I know...) the boyscout character mistakenly names, then continues to call, Kevin. This last detail suggests a the Pixar-dude-team is giving us a gendered-knowing wink, which is interesting. But if this is the case, couldn't just ONE of the dogs-that-speak, for example, have been female? I thought Alpha, the leader, would be female, but turns out her higher voice was just a malfunctioning collar her owner restores to appropriate-leader deep tones. When it malfunctions again later, all the boy dogs laugh at his feminized voice, and our hero-dog Doug discovers he gets to be the new alpha! All of this made me wonder if the Pixar dudes were saying: we're making a buddy film where male is neutral and female particular, and we know it, and if you don't like it, tough!
Two final points: 1) didn't read the above discussion to the letter, but never saw WHY it matters that only "marked" femaleness (mom, wife, love interest) appears. Developmental psychologists show us that in exposure to such roles, little girls see "neutral" roles -- police officer, judge, doctor, etc. -- as male (NOT me), as do boys (ME!:)). So, marketing aside (and the Miyazaki story shows there's feedback between product and market and art shaping society as society shapes art...) this stuff makes a difference in how our kids see themselves, and what they can in turn contribute. Lastly, for those who suggest engaged citizens can't have it both ways, and enjoy a movie while also bemoaning some sexist or racist or whatever aspect, you're just mistaken. in fact, I think that kind of ambivalent response comes with the territory of caring about and working for social change. Too, if we didn't love & appreciate the beautiful aspects, we wouldn't care enough to critique the parts where there's room for growth.

Joon said...

NPR has an article on this:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/monkeysee/2009/06/dear_pixar_from_all_the_girls.html

For what it's worth, it's interesting that all the previous Pixar directors have been male. The Bear and the Bow however is going to be directed by Brenda Chapman.

I also undertand your annoyance with the main character in the Bear and the Bow being a princess, and it *is* a tired animation cliche, but if Pixar is going to make a movie about challenging gender and class roles, I can't think of a better position for the main character to hold than a princess. It seems to me that Pixar holds the story to be the most important over all other considerations, and it's possible they chose a princess because it just...worked. Y'know?

I'm a little more annoyed by the assigning of gender roles to WALL-E and Eve actually. Perhaps they thought the audience wouldn't connect to the main characters, but that seems too easy of an excuse. They really could have done something great there.

Spderweb said...

Have you not noticed that in every Pixar movie, the main girl characters are ALWAYS portrayed as very strong willed people. And I cant see how Dory was not a main character. Sure the story was about Nemo and his dad, but it was a woman that led the way and pushed Marlin. Without her, the movie would have ended somewhere in the ocean with marlin just giving up.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Spdrweb,

You're right — many of the female Pixar characters (Jessie, Elastigirl, Atta, etc.) are strong women. I just saw Up and thought that Little Ellie was adorable — fun, intelligent, courageous, and energetic.

These individual characters are wonderful. The issue here is that Pixar's talented storytellers have never chosen to make one of these great female characters the protagonist of a movie. Usually, they exist to help a male protagonist realize his goals or complete his journey.

Dory is a great example of this woman-as-guide trope. Female characters are often used in literature as moral compasses, consciences, or caretakers who help male characters accomplish whatever it is they're accomplishing. Again, this isn't a bad thing on its own, but it becomes disappointing when an author/studio/publisher never imagines female characters as the ones with stories to tell.

As you say, Finding Nemo is Nemo and Marlin's story (and it happens to be my favorite so far). Dory is a great character, but she isn't the protagonist. She's certainly the most important secondary character, but the movie isn't about her.

In the end, I think that the Pixar storytellers are just lazy when it comes to gender. They are vaguely aware that it's important to have strong female characters, so they create spunky secondary characters, but seem to think that a female main character needs justification where a male main character is the obvious, neutral default (see zmayhem's comment and every commentary track on every Pixar DVD). Pixar didn't create this problem — it's a pervasive cultural assumption — but their movies provide particularly fruitful examples of the principle in action.

I'm interested to see what Pixar does with The Bear and the Bow, which will be their first movie to feature a female character in the lead role. I've got my fingers crossed for another Nemo-quality story.

Working Rachel said...

I can't believe all the comments criticizing this "silly" argument. Don't people realize that the very fact that they belittle feminist/gender-based arguments and think it's okay for kids' movies to have almost entirely male casts reveals how much sexism is still a part of our culture? And the fact that most of the creators is yet another example of gender bias--don't people think it's a little odd that almost *no* major Hollywood pictures are directed by women, and when a woman does direct a successful picture (Catherine Hardwicke and Twilight) she doesn't even get to do the sequel?

Well, I'm a hundred percent in agreement with you--Pixar does better than some, but I am so damn sick of seeing movies full of the Smurfette effect. There's a talking guinea pig movie coming out from Disney that features one female character, the "sexy" martial arts expert. A sexy guinea pig? Was that really necessary?

Masha said...

I think your post is great, and also that you must be a very patient person. Some of the comments make me so angry, I wouldn't be able to reply to them very calmly (like the whole "sit down and shut up, minorities!" thing)

Rustjive said...

@Working Rachel:

Speaking of Twilight - that series is just ridiculous for feminism. A lot of novels/movies (including Pixar's) can say that because the writer is male it's difficult to identify enough to write a compelling and realistic female POV, but with Twilight you have a fantastically successful series by a female author indoctrinating a whole generation of teenage girls by having the female protagonist pledge her unconditional love to her hero. The gender problem there is far more problematic.

Blue Mako said...

"Unfortunately, I had to deduct points for the writers' going out of their way to turn a female-dominated community into a male-dominated movie. To what end?"
To be fair, you shouldn't single Pixar out for this. Pretty much everybody does this with social insects...

VV said...

I'm a big fan of the Pixar movies, but I've always found it terribly disappointing that they seem to be so male oriented -- there's a stupid idea floating around Hollywood that girls will go see a movie about a boy, but that the reverse won't happen, and so the movies won't sell, and Hollywood being all about the money, these movies don't get made. I thought The Incredibles was the best woman-positive movie they've made. Elastogirl, Violet, and the wonderful Edna were all strong female leads, and this is the only movie I bought for my daughters. The other movies (with the exception of Cars, which stinks on ice, and Up, where we once more go to the male centric story) are pretty cute, but they're not very strongly on the female side. Even though they might have some goodish female characters such as Eve, they fall short because of the character being there as part of an unnecessary love story. I wish Pixar would get with the program -- they are very good when it comes to imagery and effects; but they neglect 51% of the population of the world. Having gender neutral characters who are strong and positive would be a gigantic step forward, and then they could grow up and start having good female leads. ~Charles

A.Lex said...

@Carrie Don't you think it's a little sad that Selick decided to add that goofy male character ("Wybee") into Coraline? Originally, Coraline was all by herself--all she had was that cat to help her. Why does she need that goofy male character? I applaud Neil Gaiman for having a strong central female character, all alone, dealing with those tremendously scary problems. (I think it also makes it scarier, which might be part of the motivation behind why Selick chose to add "Wybee," but it could have just as easily been a girl, fer chrissakes.)

Brady said...

Wow. Wow. Wow. Just found this while researching Pixar info for my own females-in-movies blog. I linked to you on it: http://msjonesmovies.blogspot.com/2010/06/i-must-be-on-pixar-kick.html

3 things:

1) You cannot understand how much I loved this post.

2) I'm amazed at how violently people argued against your ideas! Really eye-opening. And disheartening.

3) You're such a good, funny writer, you make me just want to quit my own blog. Could never be this awesome. :)

Brady said...

Also, I really loved your quip about Cars in the main post. I actually laughed out loud. But as a feminist, I have to object to the use of the word "douchebag."

As I said before, though, loved everything else about it.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Thanks for commenting!

I see where you're going with the "douchebag" comment, but I assure you that I use the term in a considered way. Since a douche is an cosmetic product that implies that vaginas are smelly and dirty and need to be cleaned out with harsh chemicals, I consider the epithet "douchebag" to be an appropriate synonym for "jerk," especially when the jerkiness is manifested in malice toward women. Douches are bad for vaginas, and douchebags are usually bad for women.

Brady said...

Ha! Very interesting. I never thought of it that way before. It did seem like an uncharacteristic "slip" from someone who thinks about texts and language so carefully. Thanks for clarifying!

Kyoshi said...

Part of the problem is that filmmakers are scared to do certain things to a female character. Female characters like Edna and Sally would be rejected by the public if they were swapped with the lead. Would the public accept it if Lighting mcqueen was the reason Sally was stuck with community service? Probably not. Also many these filmmakers come into a movie with a dream or set of ideas that have been with them since they were children. When they come up with the characters they relate them to their own experiences and changing them often causes their ideas to be ruined. Simple ideology such as "don't hit a woman" (which you still should never do)limit the flexibility of the filmmaker because their reputation and the profit of a movie are on the line. "Good" gender roles are often the ones that get in the way, not the stereotypes because the director is taught "how" to treat the other gender. Instead of respecting someone because of their individuality you respect someone just because she is a woman. Although I agree partially with you, the overwhelming amount of misandry found in filmmaking, causes me to think that this is not a feminism issue as it is people not acknowledging the variety of people out there and not respecting one because they are not an individual.

vic said...

Hi! I'm trying to write a research paper comparing the Disney movie and Miyazaki's movies in the influence it has over sex-role and gender stereotypes and how it may affect kids .. I found a lot of ressources of studies about Disney movies and their influence on children, but cant find anything about Miyazaki's work! I was wondering if you knew about articles or books that have been published about it; as I really enjoyed learning and thinking about those issues while reading all those different comments..
Thankyou!

Elaine said...

Old discussion, older thread, but oh well.
emanonguy, "Surely it would have been easier not to complete re-invision ant social structure?"
Couldn't they have simply written a story? Without thought of what gender? Applying Occam's razor, I'd guess that someone simply had a clever idea and was writing it from a male perspective well before someone said "Hey, but male ants don't do squat!"


Then what stops them from, as you say, simply writing a story...with a female lead? There is nothing so outrageous about the characters of women that in the course of writing the tale of Awesome, Interesting Protagonist, that the protagonist must be and remain male. I'm not saying women and men are interchangeable, but when developing a hero's story of adventure and development and growth...what does the hero do that requires "him" to be a "hero"? When they were thinking up A Bug's Life, what is it about the main ant that it had to be a guy? What about that character was uniquely from the male perspective? (A separate issue: Why write a whole story about male ants before someone decides to do a small iota of research before dismissing the idea of a female-dominated world? OR why not write from the perspective of more familiar creatures who aren't clearly based in reality as female-leading?)

Mason said...

I want to clear up some things about "a Bugs Life."

You're all right about the fact that an ant hill is a female ant dominated community... Er, Empire?

The reason the story works with a male ant lead is because male ants aren't the leaders. Flick is a nobody. A worker ant. A SERVANT. The opening scene (I'm LOST!)establishes that none of those worker ants are free thinkers. They must be guided in every step.
Flick is a free thinker. He creates things. He wants to improve the harvests for the grasshoppers so they can spend less time gathering.
So, we've already established that a female ant can't be the lead of "a Bug's Life" because THERE ARE NO FEMALE WORKER ANTS. It's as simple as that.
It's a story about a lowly slave solving a problem that his leaders were too afraid to deal with.

People will probably say "Why didn't they get a different person from the colony that was a female? The lead doesn't have to be a worker ant."
Yes he does. A worker ant is the lowest on the ant totem pole. That gives us the lesson that no matter how unimportant you may seem, you can change the ideas of everyone around you. No matter who you are.

You can ask "Why couldn't 'Toy Story' have been about two females?" all you want. But "a Bug's Life" is exactly the way it should be. The facts are there. The only thing that's different is this is a cartoon.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Mason,

You are mistaken. Worker ants are sterile females. Male ants are drones. It's the same way with bees. This is elementary-school level biology.

You are absolutely correct that the narrative demands that Flik be a worker ant. In nature, worker ants are female. In order to satisfy their wish to have a male lead, the writers ignored what they learned in 3rd grade and created a male worker ant.

Mason said...

Sorry, I was mistaken.
But if flick was a female then you can't establish a relationship with Atta.

Sure, they could've been friends. But that doesn't impact me as much as an actual love relationship between a male servant and a princess.

Mason said...

I actually would like to take back what I said about people saying what they want about Toy Story. Woody and Buzz are males because their owner is a boy. I already know what you're thinking.

Why does Andy have to be a boy?

Because the director was based Andy off of himself. He's said many times that he is Andy. He was that kid who didn't like breaking or blowing up his toys.

So, that logic is sound.

Monsieur Clopin said...

'But if flick was a female then you can't establish a relationship with Atta.
Sure, they could've been friends. But that doesn't impact me as much as an actual love relationship between a male servant and a princess.'

So you're saying it would've been impossible to have had an 'actual love' relationship between two female characters? Because... children don't believe in lesbians? Not only can you see massive problems concerning gender when looking at Pixar films, but also concerning sexuality. Pixar protagonists are not only always male, but the implication is that they are also heteronormative. Of course, while I'm sure this is how the creators intended the characters to be perceived, there's no reason to assume they are straight, rather than bisexual (in those films where this a female romantic interest- in those without, the characters could be as easily read as being gay).

For an interesting anylsiss of sexuality and gender in WALL.E, I'd seriously recommend reading Kate Bornstein's blog article: http://katebornstein.typepad.com/kate_bornsteins_blog/2008/07/walle-a-butchfe.html

captain said...

Thanks for this spot-on argument. I couldn't agree with you more. I love Pixar movies, but it becomes so tiresome being told over and over again by our culture that women and girls' stories aren't worth telling.

To all the commenters who mentioned that we will only be happy with a 100% female cast: No. We want SOME Pixar films to SOMETIMES have a female main character. Of their current movies out, there are exactly 0 female leads... that sounds fair to you? Women don't deserve to be the main character ever?

Athena Andreadis said...

Terrific article -- though it's disheartening to see the same old, tired non-arguments trotted out in Pixar's defense.

All Pixar films are bromances of the fat slob/hot nag variety. It’s indicative that the sole Pixar film with original plans to have a female director and hero first underwent a gender change in its director, then got shoved off to Disney. Perhaps in fear of giving the rest of the Pixar works and crew girl cooties.

A bit more on the non-arguments:
Is It Something in the Water? Or, Me Tarzan, You Ape

Kevin said...

Hey -

I'm regrettably late to the party, but I just want to voice my support as a male. People can dismiss this all they want but it is a very serious systemic problem with our society, and the people who act like it's nothing, or worse yet some form of zealous, irrational feminism, are egregiously ignorant of its broader implications.

The male = default/female = special case thing is absolutely out of control in our culture, and it's something that attention needs to be given to. This occurs to such a ridiculous level that "girl" is often treated a as a character archetype alongside "smart guy", "funny guy", "dopey guy", and "strong guy"- there's this ridiculous presentation that diversity only exists among males and that females are very homogeneous by nature. Contrary to what most Americans seem to think, the US is behind most of the developed world in most forms of social progress, including the eradication of the dominant/subordinate construction of gender. A far greater percentage of foreign films have female protagonists as well as better ratios of male to female characters; and Disney/Pixar are among the worst offenders of perpetuating this goofy, nonsensical paradigm by having 4:1 ratios of males to females in all of their movies and having females only play one of two or three roles (sacrificing mother, obsessive love interest, or moral support).

Someone earlier brought up the Peter/Lois dynamic that has become very popular in American comedy as a defense of the portrayal of female characters. In fact, it's the opposite. The reason you see this so often is because women are never considered to be capable of carrying the humor of a show or an act, so that (dominant) role is given to the man while the woman plays his (subordinate) straight-man. It's every bit as insulting to women as to men if not more so.

There's also no reason at all why men can't or shouldn't be able to write really good female characters or good stories that revolve around female characters. It isn't that difficult to relate to someone of the opposite sex, our society fabricates that difficulty by exaggerating and endlessly reinforcing stereotypes of gender constructs.

Honestly, I find the whole thing completely ridiculous.

Reina said...

It's not just in Pixar Movies. Video games also suffer from the male heavy aspect with more male leads than female leads, and most female leads being little more than support roles or made to cater to a male fantasy of how what they want women to be.

Rockstar for example ahve never once had a female lead in their games, they've always gone for males.
They tend to make woman as targets and sex toys for males, it's pretty much gone to show that they are a pretty sexist company with a deep hatred towards women.
The same with Activision who refuse to have female characters in games unless they're made to be sex toys for the males.

The media is largely run by males who tend to be sexist towards any female who tries to offer ideas, suggestions, anything to offer new ideas to a stale media full of male centric views and ideas.

Sadly it's not looking like the media will ever grow up beyond the 'Be a man!' mindset for a very long time.

lemonlye said...

Heh! Thanks for writing this. I was going to make a similar post, until Googling it and realizing you'd already made these points three years ago. I was feeling optimistic about 'Brave' (formerly The Bear and the Bow), but that princess thing does reduce my enthusiasm a bit. I even really *like* Pixar's movies, it's just...*sigh*. Yeah. Why don't they have a clue on this one point?

-Molly (mollyringle.com)

Carrie T said...

I came upon this after reading a few other more recent blog entries, and all I can say is wow! I think I love you. Especially after the comment about And about thinking critically about the culture we are submerged in, and Galen and whatnot. I have been thinking those same things about gender and have struggled so much to put them into words! I had never thought about Pixar movies in that way, but, man. Spot on. Totally spot on.
And I say nertz to all the haters tellin' you that you have some "issue" with gender and "why can't you feminists just relax and stop seeing gender everywhere? everything is already how it's supposed to be, now stop making me upset." Keep doin' your thang.

Anonymous said...

I feel like there are many other films such as all the musical movies such as beauty and the beast, cinderella, snow white, sleeping beauty, alice in wonderland, the aristocrats, the princess and the frog, and many others that are directed towards the female protagonists. No one is making a big deal about that... Pixar decided to take an opposite role and make it about the male gender too, I don't see a problem with this. I feel if you do you are making a silly feminist issue.

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Jennifer said...

I would love to hear your thoughts on Brave! While I still want to see Pixar tell a story about a non-princess girl who goes on an adventure, I was happy to see them look at mother/daughter relationships (there's a lot of good scholarship on fathers in Disney and on the absence of mothers).

oomu said...

it's now 2012 and I still think the issue is important.

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Brave is the only ONE pixar's movie with concerns of a LEAD female characters.

the only one

and for that, they needed to make her a "princess".

I will welcome Brave: the character is genuinely interesting, red hair as I'm fond of, and the movie is about HER.

but truly, I just would like a movie about common "people" in their world, and the lead is just simply a woman.