Thursday, February 26, 2009

On Art and Criticism

It's been quite a day here at VPI. I usually get fewer than 50 hits per day, mostly from people looking for gravestones or Puritan names, but yesterday, more than 3,000 people visited the site.

It seems that Internet Personality Jason Kottke linked to my old Pixar post, thus sending quite a flood of readers and commenters my way. Thanks, Jason — I appreciate the attention!

Many of the people who have commented on or linked to that post have engaged meaningfully with my central arument: Pixar movies generally present a male=neutral, female=particular understanding of gender. I appreciate the feedback and the constructive criticisms offered in good faith. Some good points from commenters/friends/linking sites include:
  • WALL-E has the potential to be gender subversive. 
  • The Incredibles might deserve more than 5/10. (This is a perfectly valid argument that hinges on criteria — I was thinking that 5/10 indicated balance and was a perfectly respectable score.)
  • Reading these movies through other categories of analysis might also be fruitful.
I'm happy to take a break from reading a foot-thick biography of Charles II to talk about gender in some of my favorite movies. It's like vacation.

Yet, there is one criticism I just can't wrap my head around. Several commenters (especially at sites that have linked to this one) have argued that Pixar movies are not appropriate texts for serious analysis. This generally takes the form of They're just kids' movies!!!! or Movies are just for entertainment!!!!, etc. These commenters usually accuse me of over-analyzing the films and/or projecting "gender issues" onto them. Occasionally, they accuse me of wanting to censor Pixar or enforce some sort of animation affirmative action policy.

These people are not arguing that my analysis is wrong, they are dismissing it on the grounds that Pixar movies can bear no serious analysis.


I firmly belive that cultural productions (movies, novels, art, clothing, furniture, architecture, etc.) embody cultural values and are appropriate texts for analysis. The idea that a movie is "just entertainment" makes no sense to me. A film's primary purpose can be to entertain or to make money for a studio, but it is also a rich cultural text.

Do these commenters go into museums and limit their comments on Monet to, "Ooh, pretty?" Do they read Longfellow and say, "Yay, it rhymes!" I know that my definition of "text" is fairly broad — as a material culture person, I believe that anything from hairstyles to bones in a trash pit can be read for cultural meaning — but surely we can all agree that fine art, books, and films can bear critical analysis, can't we?

By treating Pixar movies as serious texts, I mean them no disrespect —in fact, I would argue that I am showing them more respect than people who seem to think that they are mere baubles for distracting children (I also have a healthy respect for children and their capacity to look beyond "shiny"). Maybe people heard "criticism" and thought "hate" rather than "a meaningful engagement with the ideas presented in this piece of art."

What do you think? Are all artifacts fair game for cultural analysis? Or is a talking fish just a talking fish?


Jen said...

that just sounds like the classic 'high culture' vs 'popular culture' argument!

Robert J. said...

Now if we could just get Pixar to make a movie about the influence of the Foster workshop on the early stonecarving of John Dwight....

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...


Could you elaborate a bit more? I don't generally see myself as drawing a distinction between high and popular culture — I'll accept nearly anything made or modified by humans as an appropriate cultural text.

Anonymous said...

Of course all artifacts are fair game! What is culture if not the aggregation of exchanged narratives and ideas expressed in both tangible and intangible form? A survey of children's books can, among other things, indicate what our culture collectively thinks of children - thinks they should be reading and learning, and attempts to impart to/imprint on them. In particular, children's media can provide powerful insight into our notions of gender norms, as we seek to instill conforming impulses in our little ones.

Unfortunately your old Pixar post can't be read now, so I can't comment on your original position. Suffice to say that, based on second-hand commentary, I attribute the male-dominant nature of Pixar's movies to the male-dominant composition of Pixar itself. Something about high technology seems to drive women away (perhaps the bad hair of geeks and the social deprivation writing code for hours requires?), and Pixar has had equal amounts investment in high technology and art.

The rectification is for more women, dissatisfied with the representations they see in media, to create their own stories and direct distribution channels. Circumvent Hollywood, which is filled with value-detracting "managers" and "producers" who seek to justify their salaries by "tweaking" the product - usually to the point of inane blandness - and can't leave well enough alone. Go digital. Go direct. Your online following on YouTube and Vimeo will eventually spill over into physical sales if the content is good. This is the strategy for all maligned and marginalized groups.

Well, that's all I had to say. Cheers. :)

Unknown said...

People who say "oh, it's just for kids" really don't get how very important the stories we tell children are. That's a reason to make sure it's right, not ignore it!

Of course, these are probably the same people who don't understand/care about the lessons lurking under fairy and folk tales (the real ones, not sanitized Victorian versions).

Sean T. McBeth said...

Why *must* WALL-E challenge gender roles? Why can't WALL-E tell a story, and just so happen to arrange things as it does? Can anyone ever tell another story with a male protagonist and female romantic interest again and not raise the ire of chin-strokers and noggin-tappers? You were initially ready to completely dismiss a brilliant movie, one that tells an incredibly subversive story of environmental responsibility, non-conformity, and the triumph of liberty over the statist Leviathan, one that actually does a lot to reverse many traditional gender roles despite your protestations to the contrary, just because it doesn't conform to your world view in one minor, socially normative, unobtrusive, harmless manner. That's pretty darn prejudiced on your own behalf.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

". . . just so happen to arrange things as it does . . ."

This is the crux of my confusion. Does anyone out there truly believe that cultural artifacts "just happen" to be the way they are?

I don't.

The things people make reflect their assumptions, beliefs, and values. Computer animation is an especially intention-intensive endeavor — not a hair, a pebble, a sigh, or the blink of an eye ends up on screen accidentally.

Sean T. McBeth said...

I in no way meant accidentally, I meant incidentally. Regardless, you have addressed the most minor point of my comment to the detriment of the main thesis: what, separate from the context of society, is wrong with telling a story about a man and a woman? Because, if the action in and of itself is not unethical, then why does putting it into the context of our current society make it such? It's like complaining that a beautiful glass sculpture can be shattered and used as a dangerous weapon: you're search far too hard for something to dislike, to point your finger and to deride as yet-another-example-of-society-gone-wrong, that you've missed the good that is in the story.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Since this is a post/thread "On Art and Criticism," I responded on that point.

Who says "wrong"? I'm just saying "is."

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

I suppose I should elaborate — there's nothing wrong with an individual male/female or father/son story. That's why I looked at a body of work, rather than a single piece.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Also, anyone is free to write an essay on the other themes in these movies. I'm sure people have. I was doing a gender analysis, thus, I focused on gender issues.

I don't know why you are assuming that I "dismiss" these movies or that I "dislike" or "deride" them. I have a shelf full of Pixar movies and zero kids proving my admiration for the artists of Emeryville.

As cultural artifacts, they embody the assumptions/ideas/values of their creators. I find their take on gender both interesting and problematic, so I write about it.

This isn't criticism as hate, it's criticism as engagement.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Yikes. "They" the movies, not "they" the artists.

Sean T. McBeth said...

In the comments of your previous post, you said that the idea of "male is neutral and female is specific," which you have identified as being portrayed in WALL-E by putting the male character at the center, is "awful [and] destructive". I'm sorry, but that sounds an awful lot like you think WALL-E is contributing to a social ill. How can something so awful and destructive be unacceptable in the general case of the movie industry as a whole but acceptable in the specific case of WALL-E? In other words, if you believe it to be awful and destructive, then how can you abide by WALL-E at all? And given that you are evaluating this in the context of a greater whole, when will it be acceptable for Pixar to write stories centralized on male characters again?

Works of art do not just encompass the assumptions of the creators, they are expressions of the culture in which they are created. A work of art cannot ever invent cultural memes, it can only ever use cultural memes to attempt to convey ideas. Cultural memes are created by people within the culture and propagated by the artist, but the artist cannot unilaterally create them, because they would be meaningless without context. If the people at Pixar want to write an accessible story about love, our culture necessarily demands that they use socially normative gender roles in order to convey it. Using gender neutral characters would be telling the story in a literally alien language.

Regardless, the concept of love does not make sense in a gender neutral situation. Emotions of love and anger and jealousy and sadness are biological signalers to push humans towards genetically advantageous breeding habits. Even in homosexual couples we see one half of the partnership adapting to take on an anti-sexual gender role. These roles may swap during the course of the relationship, but they are never neutral.

Gender is an undeniable aspect of the human condition. To wish for gender neutrality is to wish for the impossible. In complaining about Pixar's lack of gender neutrality or gender diversity, you are de facto shouldering them with the responsibility of challenging socially normative gender roles. Why must they, just because few others do?

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...


I think you and I are actually agreeing on quite a lot. You're exactly right — the values/ideas/assumptions embedded in works of art are cultural values, not just individual values.

"In other words, if you believe it to be awful and destructive, then how can you abide by WALL-E at all?"
I do think that the male=neutral, female=specific is a destructive concept and that it is expressed in the unnecessary gender assignments in WALL-E. But must I therefore write off the entire movie, as you suggest? How could I live in the world — read, watch TV, interact with people, go grocery shopping — if I reacted so catastrophically every time I encountered an expression of male universality or female particularity? I notice and I often comment, but I don't detest people or artifacts just because they perpetuate/manifest a cultural norm. You would have me swear off all art from Family Guy to Faulkner.

"when will it be acceptable for Pixar to write stories centralized on male characters again?"
The problem isn't any individual story and it isn't a matter of counting male and female characters. Part of my problem is that Pixar has trouble presenting female characters who live in the real world, are the principal actors in their own lives, and are tasked with carrying a movie and its attendant merchandizing. The other part has to do with the A Bug's Life/WALL-E problem, that is, falling back on a male=neutral trope, even when that makes very little sense.

"Using gender neutral characters would be telling the story in a literally alien language."
I think that would have been a bold choice for WALL-E. It already tells a touchingly human story without humans — I don't think the gender hints were necessary to that story. It would have been just as good a love story if the robots were genderless and had pronounceable-but-alien names. In fact, I think it would have been subtly thought-provoking and, therefore, even better.

"Even in homosexual couples we see one half of the partnership adapting to take on an anti-sexual gender role."
I don't think this is necessarily true.

"Gender is an undeniable aspect of the human condition. To wish for gender neutrality is to wish for the impossible."
Robots are not human. Ants do not have human gender traits. These characters could indeed have been presented as gender neutral (or, in the case of Flick, sex-appropriate). That they were not reveals the cultural norms at work. My intent was to point that out and to question why it could not have been done differently. I'm not asking that movies be scrubbed of any assignations of gender — I'm questioning the process that creates the gendered characters we see in these films.

"In complaining about Pixar's lack of gender neutrality or gender diversity, you are de facto shouldering them with the responsibility of challenging socially normative gender roles. Why must they, just because few others do?"
Having a girl as a main character would challenge socially normative gender roles? Perhaps it would — it would challenge the idea that girls are bit players in boys' lives. That's not so much to ask.

If Pixar chooses to make movies with male protagonists and movies that continue to replicate social norms, rather than prodding them, that's their business. I understand that they are in the business of making money, not social activism. But as long as they make movies that perpetuate norms that are harmful to girls, I will continue to notice and to point out that they're not exactly striking a blow for social justice.

Sean T. McBeth said...

Again, I fail to see how the character of EVE is at all harmful to girls. In arguing the lack of spotlight for her character, you're implying active suppression of her character.

Let's assume for a moment that the gender roles were reversed -- because I still don't think that gender neutral is a workable prospect. These are very specifically anthropomorphized robots, i.e. they are stand-ins for humans. I'm pretty sure you would have a much bigger problem with a portrayal of WEND-E, a diminutive, obsolete, bookish little girl robot with swooning longings for an idyllic romanticism being left behind to clean up everyone else's mess while humanity goes off on a 500 year luxury cruise, only to have an aloof ADAM whisk her away on a Cinderella roller coaster, using his macho bravado and muscles to save the day, despite the well-meaning yet still annoying antics of WEND-E.

The movie does far more to challenge gender roles than you give it credit.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

EVE doesn't hurt girls.

Male=neutral hurts girls (and women and boys and men).

I think I've given WALL-E loads of credit. Did you read my update after I watched it a second time? I think that, of all the Pixar films, it offers the most interesting food for thought gender-wise.

I guess we just disagree on the robot thing — I don't want them reversed, but I do think robots named EELUM and SABOO (or something else non-specific in an English context) could have told this story just fine.

Kaethe said...

Really, I think the critics aren't dismissing Pixar so much as they are dismissing you. As Greta Christina points out in "Shut Up, That's Why", the point is to shut down conversation, without actually having to debate the merits of your critique.

What's funny is there will be just as many comments saying "it's only a kids movie" as there are comments saying "it's all about the million-dollar business".