Pixar’s Female Problem: Please Stop Asking Me, “What About Jessie?”

Awhile ago I posted some art for Pixar’s upcoming film Brave, its first with a female protagonist. And, naturally, I pointed out that Pixar has seemed almost perversely incapable of creating a female protagonist and how utterly offensive that is since they’ve made films about

Anyway, among the comments someone inevitably asked “What about Jessie?

What about Sally in Cars?”

 

I started to answer and then realized this deserved its own entire post. So here goes.

Let me begin with this: if a studio as innovative as Pixar made 12–that’s TWELVE– films with female protagonists and a few had perhaps 1 or 2 strong tertiary characters were who were male and maybe 1 in 10 male characters with ANY speaking parts at ALL  wouldn’t you think that was a teensy-weensy bit disproportionate, minimally a failure of imagination and maximally openly hostile  in its dismissal of boys and men?

Would it feel an adequate comeback if I shrugged and said, well, there were kick-ass guy side characters who was love interests in one or two films. Jessie is great, yes she is. But guess what: THE FILM IS NOT ABOUT JESSIE. It’s about Woody. And Cars is not about what the comment referred to as the “Spunky Attorney Car” (Jeez, does she even have a name)? It’s about Lightening McQueen. It is NOT the same thing, and to even intimate that it is shows how inured you have become to the fact that  female characters so rarely play the central role. We are happy with the crumbs of being “strong” but completely unnecessary (really) side characters.

In Pixar’s films, maleness has consistently been presented as “universal” as neutral. while femaleness is singular, and–even when a character is “strong”–she is  inevitably imbued with those particular stereotypically female characteristics: she is a love interest or a helper. She is caring. She checks out her butt in the mirror. It has never once been HER experience, HER feelings, HER complexity or crisis that drives the narrative. If it were the opposite and Pixar had NEVER made a film in which a male character’s quest drove  the story wouldn’t you find that a smidge odd?

In a marvelous post on this subject which I have only just now found, the blog Vast Public Indifference , written by a former elementary school teacher, asks: Why did Remy HAVE to be a male rat? Couldn’t  Linguini have been female? What if Wall-E were a female robot? Or had no sex?

This blogger goes through every Pixar film, cleverly breaking it down for you so I don’t have to. In fact,  I’m just going to repost her rundown here (it’s from 2008. so before Up and Toy Story 3) I wish I knew her name, but I hope that posting this with her blog linked above counts as giving her credit where it is amply due. She says:

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. [note from me (Peggy)-I point this out ALL THE TIME. Any ant you see out in the world is female. Same with Bees. So that Jerry Seinfeld Bee Movie? All those bees would beeeee female. Not in this man’s Hollywood, though. Transgender bees! What next?] 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.

This is where the blog post becomes out of date. She surmises (correctly) that Up will be “another buddy movie about two guys. See: Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc.” What she did not realize, of course, was that the only female character in the film died after the first 10 minutes. Nice.  And of course there was Toy Story 3. Jessie is back, this time more actively girlie. And Barbie, though amusing, is Barbie. I imagine her score would hover around 3/10.

And that brings us up to Brave (I am ignoring Cars 2 for obvious reasons. I talk about Brave in CAMD. Maybe it will be a great film–it probably will be–but it still irritates me that a team as creative as Pixar’s, which has imagined so many extraordinary male characters, can’t imagine a female protagonist unless she’s a bloody princess. On this one,  Vast Public Indifference says:

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.

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…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.

I love this woman.