Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pixar's Inclusion of Women Characters: Thanks but no thanks

My previous Pixar post has gotten quite a bit of attention, and is even being linked to from other forums and sites. And, as should be expected, there's the token dude in there telling all the ladies they're "looking too much into it," stating that there are plenty of female characters in the movies. So I will now express my problems with this "defense." First, I will restate my previous and non-wavering point: Pixar films are male-centric even to the point where the directors and writers of said films are predominantly male; thus, it's ALL about the dudes.

Now, I will discuss the problems with female representation in the films (which may be a bit of a reiteration from my previous post, but bear with me).

Generally speaking, the women characters in Pixar films are mere tools of the men. Though women are, to some degree, involved, the focal points of the conflict and plot are always men. The men must do the journeying to some goal. If women are privileged with inclusion on said journey, they have the chore of nudging the man along. They are thus objects; they are tools the man gets to use to achieve his manliness.

Here's how I break it down:

  • Bo Peep (Toy Story): Does she even do anything other than serve as the sexual prize upon Woody's return?
  • Helen (The Incredibles): she's the homemaker. It is her job to raise her kids and her damn husband. While her husband is off trying to relive his glory days with his buddy, she's at home, having given up her superheroine-ness for family life (please note how much ass she previously kicked). She only reclaims the identity of Elastigirl when her husband goes AWOL and she's got to go get him back.
  • Violet (The Incredibles): She's the angsty teen (or preteen--not sure how old she is) and seems to be happy at the end because she's accepted her superheroine identity. And how does this serve her? She is suddenly able to get the attention of a boy she's had a crush on. Wonderful. A boy legitimizes her identity (aren't we sick of this cliche yet?).
  • Boo (Monsters, Inc.): she's an adorable infant who is the center of the conflict in the story. She doesn't really count as a female character because she can barely speak. She's just the wandering cute thing. Though the story is based on her being in the monster-world, she's just a baby barely interacting with it.
  • Celia (Monster, Inc.): she's the love-interest of one of the male characters. The only thing she really does is cause a distraction--oh you badass!
  • Dory (Finding Nemo): Like Boo, she doesn't really count. Her failing memory is a huge issue and she's pretty much there for comic relief (though I recognize it is because of her that Nemo is reunited with Marlin--though also recognize that shortly after they must rescue her--I mean, what a dumb bitch, getting caught in that net. Her capture legitimizes the relationship between father and son, and teaches the father a lesson on parenting).
  • Sally (Cars): she used to be a successful lawyer, but gave that up for the allure of the small-town. In her seduction of Lightning, she also makes him aware of the beauty of small-towns. Her goal to bring success to Radiator Springs is not as important as Lightning's journey and success. Great job, Sally.
  • Colette (Ratatouille): she's a tough woman, driven by her desire to succeed in a man's world. But then comes along the adorable goofball and her desire suddenly shifts from her own success to his. So she teaches him the shit and becomes his shadow.
  • Eve (Wall*E): she's a trigger-happy badass lady-robot--but her mission is clearly the secondary one. Though she's constantly saving Wall*E's ass, the viewer still understands that she's not the important one (uh, hello--whose name is the title??).
  • Princess Atta (A Bug's Life): her life is centered around her eventually becoming the Queen. She has authority over the colony, like her mother, but the story isn't about that. She's first seen as Flick's adversary, then his lover (the prize thing again). Her story is not the important one.
The commonality shared by all these lady-characters is that they do not really have goals or missions of their own, and if they do it's overshadowed by the goals of the men. Take Eve, for instance. Eve's mission, getting the plant to the captain, seems like it's more important than Wall*E's mission to get some hot hand-holding action; but we as viewers are still perched on the shoulders of the males (Wall*E's hand-holding trumps Eve's saving the human race--and don't even try telling me that Wall*E found the plant first--he doesn't know what it is; just that Eve is happy when he gives it to her; also recognize the link between the femininity of Eve and her directive to find plants--links femininity and nature). The story we are allowed to follow is that of the males.

Helen going off to fetch her husband; Dory struggling with her own elusive mind; Colette's aggressiveness in the kitchen*; these are all unimportant side quests. What really matters is what Marlin, Sully and Mike, Woody and Buzz, Lightning, Wall*E, Linguine and Remy, and Bob are all busy doing. Even the rats in Ratatouille are all male--the only lady rats we see are at the end listening to the story or admiring the muscles of the males (couldn't Remy have had a sister--and where's his mother? Those rats didn't birth themselves). All Remy's conflict is male-centered. Even his imagination conjures a man.

The point is the inclusion of a female character is not the same as actually making a strong female lead. Creating side characters that are quirky and ass-kicking women does nothing to assuage the fact that what Pixar thinks is important and relevant in stories encompasses the actions of men. Women are just tools along for the ride.

Up doesn't give me much hope either. Hell, even the damn dog is gendered male. It seems that Pixar has decided once and for all that women don't matter enough to even give them their usual side-character representations. Fuck.

Oh, and let me point out how cliche it is to treat strong female characters as exceptions to the rule. Strong women are not anomalies, and our stories are just as relevant as any man's.

*Please note that the character of Colette isn't even all that fleshed out--we only see her in the kitchen--the one scene where she's not in the kitchen, she's contemplating the kitchen. We know nothing of her outside this setting.

Note: To all the menz who I'm sure are going to whine at me--go ahead. Argue with me. Your arguments are unfounded and blind.


Unknown said...

Eve (Wall*E): she's a trigger-happy badass lady-robot--but her mission is clearly the secondary one. Though she's constantly saving Wall*E's ass, the viewer still understands that she's not the important one (uh, hello--whose name is the title??)."

And there's where you misunderstand completely. EVE and WALL-E are both the main characters of the film, equally. It may be a bait and switch with the title, but it *is true*. Ask anyone who their favorite character in the film was, and you'll probably get at the very least a slight majority saying EVE. EVE carried the film and anyone that's *not* just trying to create a gender bias in the name of "equality' can see it. Period.

Unknown said...

"Note: To all the menz who I'm sure are going to whine at me--go ahead. Argue with me. Your arguments are unfounded and blind."

Hahahahahahahahaha. Even most women fans I know do NOT think Pixar is sexist or that there's anything wrong with their female characters. I've heard quite a few females tell me they think this argument itself is unfounded and blind. Deal with it.

FilthyGrandeur said...

i already told you to stay out of my space.

but, again, i'll allow your ignorance to illustrate my point:
Eve was not the main character. people can still decide that she's their favorite even though she's not the main character. that has nothing to do with the actual story. if it was about both of them then both their names would be the title.

also, women saying that it's not sexist does not mean it isn't there, asshole. that's the same logic used when invoking the "my black friend" argument. further comments from you will not be published in my space.

carovee said...

Thanks for writing this. I saw the new star trek movie. If I recall correctly the previews were for Terminator: Salvation, Transformers, Up, and something else. At any rate, I have never felt so invisible as a woman. Not one preview showed women *doing* anything at all, and most didn't even show any women (I'm looking at you "UP"). Seriously, it's like hollywood execs live on some other male only planet.

wondering said...

Leave us not forget Pixar's reworking of female gendered creatures to male gendered creatures.

Foolishness like making the majority of ants and bees male, or cows, complete with udders, male.

When you take that shit into consideration, it's impossible to ignore that they are deliberately disappearing female characters.

Lauren O said...

it's impossible to ignore that they are deliberately disappearing female characters.I don't think they're doing it deliberately. I think they just really don't conceive of women as characters. The idea of male as default is so entrenched in society and in their minds that when they think "I need a character who goes on an adventure," they just can't think of a girl/woman. It just doesn't even occur to them.

Fran said...

Well said! Although, it's not so much Pixar films as almost every film.

I had to laugh at Midgard Dragon, though. "I disagree with you! Deal with it!"

FilthyGrandeur said...

yes, the majority of films do not have women characters. i chose to examine Pixar films because, in my refusal to grow up, I've seen all of them. plus they're essentially children's films, and i'm always interested in presentations of gender in children's films.

Lauren O--
the fact that they may not be aware of it isn't any excuse. erasing women completely from their films is insulting--if a woman is included, it's as the uplifting love interest. in UP, you have an old man, a young boy, and a dog. apparently none of them need a love interest, so there's no ladies. apparently it also never occurred to the makers of this movie that boys and girls can be friends without becoming intimate (note: my childhood playmates all consisted of boys; i would tear around the neighborhood with my brother and the boys across the street--i had no interest in playing dollies with the girls, but apparently these gender roles are so ingrained in Pixar's makers that going beyond them is like pulling teeth).

Patrick said...

I remember thinking after seeing WALL-E that it was interesting that the character WALL-E is basically gender neutral -- just a robot -- until the sleek and sexy and explicitly female girlbot arrives. Suddenly, you're forced to assign a gender to WALL-E.

You're absolutely right about the dearth of strong female characters in Pixar films. Not one female lead in the bunch. And what females there are adhere to a few basic stereotypes.

Turtle Wexler said...

Don't forget their shorts. I stopped seeing Pixar movies in theatre after my irritation with The Incredibles, but I did eventually rent the later ones.

They have an adorable short about an alien learning to drive with an adult. Neither alien speaks. Entirely gender neutral on its face. But then in the credits, the aliens are named Stu and Mr. B. The short before Up is about a MALE cloud who makes babies and gives them to a male stork.

As a general rule, the main characters are male, one sidekick is female, and the supporting characters are 75%+ male. In any single movie, this might be understandable, but over a dozen Pixar films, it's not just a coincidence.

(It appears that their next non-sequel movie after Up will have a female director and a female main character.)

Titanis walleri said...

Why did you skip Toy Story 2?

FilthyGrandeur said...

because i'm not as familiar with it. i have only seen it once, and that was years ago. but if memory serves me, woody and buzz are still the main menz.

stufflikemikans said... definitely make some great points. It's hard to argue with this.

I think one thing Pixar needs to do to solve this problem is to actually get some women writers. If you notice, all their movies have been written by men. So naturally, all the stories revolve around men. Granted, this isn't a great excuse. Miyazaki is a man, and every one of his movies has a strong female lead. (They all consider Miyazaki a huge influence makes me wonder why they would have a lack of strong female characters then.) Still, I think having some women help write these movies will help them a lot.

However, Pixar is still pretty young. I'm willing to forgive them (mostly because they make such damn good films), and hopefully we'll see them improve in the future.