Thursday, July 3, 2008

Pixar's Gender Problem, 2nd Ed.

I'm bumping this to the first page, since it is by far my most popular post ever. Thanks, Mr. J @ Feministe! Make sure to read the updates at the bottom.

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! Sweet Flying Spaghetti Monster on a stick. 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.


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

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.

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