With more marketing materials coming out for Pixar‘s upcoming movie Wall•E, it’s becoming quite clear that they are continuing with a trend that I’ve mentioned previously (briefly here, and in more depth here) of being extremely male centered in creating characters for their animated films.
At first, I thought there might be a little bit of hope, as while the main character is given a male name, it is a robot — and, further, as there apparently is little to no spoken dialogue in the film, one might (at this point) argue that Wall•E is technically sexless. Admittedly, it’s a bit dodgy, given our tendency to anthropomorphize mechanical devices, and robots in particular tend to be seen as male (seriously, has anyone ever referred to R2-D2 as a ‘she’?). Still, it was a possibility.
Then I started poking around the Buy n Large website that Pixar has set up to help promote the film. In Wall•E’s universe, Buy n Large is apparently the company that makes Wall•E, along with a host of other products, and there’s a lot of cute in jokes and jabs at today’s tech companies hidden (and not so hidden — just check out the disclaimer text at the bottom of the home page) in the website.
On Jason Kottke’s recommendation, I bounced over to the ‘Robotics’ section of the site and started browsing through the four robot models available for the home (no permalink available, thanks to the all-Flash presentation: click ‘Robotics’ on the top menu bar, then choose ‘Robot Models’ from the left hand navigation). Here’s a brief rundown of the four models that Buy n Large offers:
Sall•E: The Buy n Large Vaccubot. “Tired of cleaning the stairs and struggling to reach under your sofa to vacuum? With the BnL SALL•E Vaccubot, cleaning dirty carpets and drapes yourself can be a thing of the past.”
Gar•E: The Buy n Large Yardbot. “The GAR•E is ready to handle the most time-consuming and difficult aspects of keeping a yeard in tip-top shape, from lawn trimming and hedge shaping to barbecue cleaning and maintenance.”
Nanc•E: The Buy n Large Nannybot. “…with the new NANC•E Nannybot you can rest easily, knowing that every aspect of your child’s health and happiness has been addressed.”
Wend•E: The Buy n Large Washbot. “With the WEND•E, washing, drying, folding, and putting away your clothes is a thing of the past.”
And, of course, though it’s not listed on the site (or at least not this portion of the site), there’s Wall•E, the garbage collector.
Really, this isn’t even subtle. The traditional “women’s work” of cleaning, laundry, and taking care of the children is assigned to Sally, Wendy, and Nancy, while Gary goes out to do the yardwork and Wally picks up the garbage, typically “men’s chores.” These are stereotypes dating back decades — do we really need to be reinforcing them this obviously in today’s family films?
I also skimmed over the information collected on Wall•E’s Wikipedia page to get a better idea of what the movie’s about. Here‘s John Lasseter’s summary of the film while presenting to Disney investors:
WALL-E is the story of the last little robot on Earth. He is a robot that his programming was to help clean up. You see, it’s set way in the future. Through consumerism, rampant, unchecked consumerism, the Earth was covered with trash. And to clean up, everyone had to leave Earth and set in place millions of these little robots that went around to clean up the trash and make Earth habitable again.
Well, the cleanup program failed with the exception of this one little robot and he’s left on Earth doing his duty all alone. But it’s not a story about science fiction. It’s a love story, because, you see, WALL-E falls in love with Eve, a robot from a probe that comes down to check on Earth, and she’s left there to check on and see how things are going and he absolutely falls in love with her.
So much for the possibility that, despite the name, Wall•E might be sexless. Once again, the main character in a Pixar film is male, and any female characters are secondary. Furthermore, it sounds like this Eve character isn’t one that will immediately appeal to most little girls. According to Andrew Stanton:
…WALL-E falls head over heals with a probot named EVE. Now, Wall-E’s feelings aren’t reciprocated because, well, she has no feelings. She’s a robot, cold and clinical. WALL-E is the one who has evolved over time and garnered feelings. So in the end, it’s gonna be WALL-E’s pursuit to win EVE’s heart, and his unique appreciation of life to become mankind’s last hope to rediscover its roots.
What’s been frustrating so far is simply that in many of Pixar’s prior films, there’s no particular reason why one or another of their characters couldn’t be female rather than male — would Ratatouille have been any less well done if he were a she? Would the rescue of the ant colony be less spectacular if Julia Louis-Dreyfus had voiced Flik against Dave Foley’s Prince Atta?
As I’ve said before, I don’t at all deny that, with few exceptions, Pixar’s films are incredibly well done — they’re technological marvels, they’re written as gorgeously as they are rendered, and they’re some of the only family-friendly fare that’s out there that has real heart and is genuinely worth watching. I’ve enjoyed most all of them (with Cars being a notable exception). However, it continues to be rather disappointing that they’ve yet to do anything with a strong, central female main character, and it’s doubly distressing that the available information on Wall•E is traditionalist and very obviously sexist.
This looks to be the third time running (following Cars and Ratatouille) that I’ll wait to rent Pixar’s latest, rather than sending any of my money their way via the theater.
Lastly, a bit of a disclaimer: to be honest, I believe misogyny to be an overly strong word for what’s happening here. However, when searching for synonyms for ‘sexist‘ or ‘sexism‘, it was only one of two words that would mimic Pixar’s ‘-e’ naming strategy, and while ‘bigotry‘ is probably technically closer, it didn’t carry quite the emotional impact that I wanted for the title.
Addendum: Here’s something I dug out of my del.icio.us bookmarks — Washington Post guest columnist Jen Chaney raising some of the same questions I do.
Pixar has done it again. With “Ratatouille,” the studio has created another dazzling, clever, uplifting adventure, this time about a French rodent with a flair for food preparation. But Pixar also has done something else again: It’s delivered yet another kiddie-centric piece of entertainment with a male in the starring role.
I give Pixar much credit for breathing life into some gutsy, admirable females. Helen Parr of “The Incredibles” not only keeps her household in order, she can stretch her limbs to limits even the uber-flexible Madonna couldn’t reach. Sally Carrera in “Cars” is the spunky owner of her own business. And in “Ratatouille,” Colette (voiced by Janeane Garofalo) makes an impassioned speech about how, as the only woman working in the kitchen at the chi-chi Gusteau’s, she is tired of getting pushed around by all the men. She is femme, hear her roar.
But still, in the end, all of these women wind up playing love interest — and second fiddle — to the heroes.