Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Pixar and girls in movies

I love Pixar. Always have, always will. Finding Nemo, Toy Story and Cars are some of my favourite films ever. In fact, wonder boy loves especially the latter two (now five, really) so much that our household, actually make that the whole family, has a more than slight obsession with these films and their characters.

Speaking of characters, what bugs me about Pixar films (and the film industry as a whole) is the lack of  (fully realised) female characters. Girls and women alike do not find adequate representation on screen in either quantity or quality. Girls and women on screen are most often stereotyped and/or only serve the purpose of helping the male protagonist in his journey throughout the film.*

Pixar movies are not free of that fault. Just think of Sally, in Cars, who's only purpose it is to be Lightning McQueen's love interest and the one showing him that he needs to slow down to get an appreciation for life. All the other female Cars characters, who are by FAR outnumbered by male characters in any case, are really only side notes. Holly Shiftwell in Cars 2, while kind of cool because she can fly, doesn't have any storyline or character development of her own and again is really only there as Mater's love-interest. All the really cool stuff is reserved for the boys and the girls are nothing more than token minorities and teacher-therapists.

There are no noteworthy female characters in Up, one story-less female in Ratatouille and the two female characters in Monsters Inc are the stereotypes of the whingy, needy girlfriend and the ugly, manlyish boss lady.

Finding Nemo has Dory, the loveable side-kick with memory problems. Don't get me wrong, Dory is funny and I can't help but love her but again, she has no story of her own. We don't even know why she has memory problems, and her disability only exists for laughs and not to deal with Dory's own story and struggles. She remains no more than a side-kick and guide - both in terms of physical direction through her capability to read and to speak 'Whale', and in terms of challenging Marlin's attitude and beliefs, so he can experience change and growth.


A Bug's Life has three female characters amongst a sea of male characters: Atta, Dot and the ant-queen. Not much to say about the ant queen, except that at least it's biologically correct. Unlike Jerry Seinfeld's Bee Movie, which completely changed the gender characteristics of an entire species just so the main characters could all be boys. Mind you there's enough of that in A Bug's Life (and Disney's Ants) as well! Then there's Dot, the little sister-sidekick character, who's only function, aside from providing the cute-factor, is to get the hero back onto his hero track and to get rescued. Atta, is another love-interest character, who doesn't really do much more than to make the hero's life harder and through her disbelieving in him forces him to come into his own.

Then there are the Incredibles, who have more female characters than any other Pixar film both in terms of the actual number and in relation to the number of male characters. However, there's not much good to say about the characterisation of those female characters. There's not much to say at all about the babysitter, she's basically an animated stereotype of her 'profession'. Edna is the mad genius designer of superhero suits, a direct reference to Hollywood costume designer Edith Head by the way. She's super cool, a technical genius and takes no crap. She is also so de-feminised that I would not have recognised her as a woman, had it not been for her name. She's even voiced by a man. Mirage is the sexy, seductive villain (with a change of heart), basically the bad Bond-girl type of the film, and an extremely overused stereotype of a 'female' villain. 

Then there is Helen, the mom, whose superpower as Elastigirl is the ability to stretch very far and very thin and make her body into all sorts of useful shape (a parachute, a boat, a slingshot). As the mom, again her gender roles are manifest in a very stereotypical happy home-maker manner. After all, she's the one who is content with just being a housewife after all superheros are forced into secrecy. It is her husband who hates being 'normal'. While the way she uses her super-powers are really fantastic and fun, the powers themselves are stereotyped as well. All females are flexible (in the wider sense) you know, and it's really handy being thin, too. The only cool thing about Mrs Incredible is that she's an excellent spy and jet pilot. Mind you, the film's writers didn't even let her land the plane, it just had to crash.

Lastly, there is teenage daughter Violet, who is a 'typical' teenager, wants to blend in with normal people, not stand out and really wants a boyfriend. Her super-powers are invisibility and the creation of force fields. Oh, come on already! How many more times do we have to suffer a female character that tells us to blend in, not stand out, not make any trouble - that it is good to be (essentially or actually) invisible?! I wonder if Pixar added the force field power (which is actually really awesome) just so that Violet wouldn't be entirely annoying and badly stereotyped? On any account, they have failed. She's still annoying the heck out of me. Not because of who she is, mind, but because of what she shows her audience a 'teenage girl' to be like. That's what her audience is asked to identify with. Like her mother, who is not allowed to dislike domesticity or to have the power of being super strong because that 'obviously' had to be reserved for her husband, Violet is not allowed to be a strong (mentally and physically) young woman who doesn't mind sticking out and who's not obsessed with boys. 

In Toy Story 1&2 there are Bo Peep, Mrs Potato Head and Andy's mom (who does not even have a name), who are really only there, with no own story or character development whatsoever.  Jessie in Toy Story 2 is a fully realised character with her own back story, her own troubles, realisations, and developments. I love that about her! A girl character in a movie who is more than just a talking prop. What I don't like about her is that she has no active driving force at all to the story development. It is her back story that drives Woody to make the decision that changes the direction of the story but Jessie doesn't take any action to change the story herself. Instead of rescuing herself from her sad imprisoned situation, she needs a male character to help her out. She's essentially the Damsel in distress. Also all of the Toys who go to the rescue of Woody are male characters. 

In Toy Story 3 Jessie is the one who convinces the toys to go to Sunnyside day care centre to escape getting binned. She creates the starting point of the whole prison escape adventure but that's as far as her story-driving powers go. For the rest of the film she is nothing but Buzz Lightyear's love interest. Toy Story 3 also has Barbie,  Mrs Potato Head, Bonnie, Trixie and Dolly. The latter two characters' purpose is to help Woody on his way and Bonnie is the character that is needed to provide the toys with a new home and the character of Andy the chance to grow up and let go. I do think it's really neat that the toy's new owner is a little girl though and I love the way she plays with them. Of the gang of toy escapees there are only two females and only Barbie takes any kind of initiative to help in the escape. However, she does so by essentially seducing (in a very PG way) Ken into trusting her and then betraying that trust. That's a very stereotypical way of representing a female character. It is the very light version of what's called the 'evil demon seductress'. For some unexplained and unexplainable reason you never see male character use their seductive prowess (PG or XXX) to get their way. It is only ever female characters and as Toy Story 3 and The Incredibles, with with Mirage, prove this stereotype is even used in kids movies!

So, at the end of the day, female characters in Pixar movies are completely under-represented and have no stories, character developments or driving force of their own. Where they do, their stories, developments and driving force are subservient to the male characters stories and needs, and where they don't, Pixar's female characters aren't even fully realised characters at all. Sadly, all this is true across the board, whether we're talking about animated or real action films, shorts or features, TV, books or video games. Of course there are notable exceptions, there always are notable exceptions to the rule.

This all probably makes me sound like I hate Pixar's guts. Believe me I don't! As I said at the start, I love (most of) Pixar's films. I have been taught and gotten used to identifying with both female and male characters. Through what I see on TV and in films, what I have read in books and experienced in computer games, I have been conditioned to see it as the norm that the overwhelming majority of fictional (and fictionalised historical) characters are male. I can watch films that tell boy's and men's stories, I can even love them. But it doesn't mean that I have to be content with and not resent the fact that girl's and women's stories have always been and still remain largely untold. That our stories are marginalised and that we are constantly told our stories aren't worth telling (as much as boys' and men's stories are) because  of what exactly? Because our stories would not yield as much profit for the companies that produce and publish them?

Tthe reason for girls' and women's stories being perceived as 'risky investments' is not because our stories are less worthy of being told, or are less exciting, important, amazing or challenging. The reason for our stories to remain marginalised lies in something so sad and so simple as this: While girls are encouraged to identify with both female and male characters, boys are actively discouraged from identifying with them. If little Lottie came home to her parents and said, 'Mummy, daddy, Buzz Lightyear is the most amazing toy in the whole wide world!' what would they say? And if little Larry came home and said the same thing about Jessie or Barbie or Mrs Potato-Head, what would they say? As long as boys and men are discouraged to identify with or at least take an interest in female characters, in their stories, opinions, struggles and successes, our stories will remain largely untold.

Until production companies, publishers and games producers start taking a leap of faith and just dig into the potential of 'female' stories, this conditioning of boys only identifying with boys will not change. In the end, the use and characterisation of females in Pixar's films is only symptomatic of the condition and the conditioning.

That's why I relish every movie that comes along telling a girl's or a women's story. That's why  I cannot wait for Pixar's new movie in the works Brave. That's why I hope to whatever higher powers may exist that this film will be amazing and it's female lead will be a brave, non-stereotypical girl who is cool and awesome and wonderful because she is who she is, not because and not despite being a girl. And I hope they market the hell out of it.

Go on Pixar, I dare ya!









*I'm leaving WALL-E out on purpose because it's been way too long since I've seen it and I want to watch it again before I say anything about E.V.E. In the meantime there is this.

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