More on Pixar (Or, Why I Suck at Soundbites)

A couple weeks ago, I got an e-mail from Jaime Weinman, who writes for Macleans (in her words, “sort of Canada’s TIME and NEWSWEEK”), asking for a quote for an article she was working on about Pixar’s future. I agreed, and in my usual style, sent her a small book. The final article was published late in June, and — proving yet again that I just cannot write for soundbites — my quote was boiled down to one simple line:

[Non-Pixar animated films] follow the Pixar example in some respects; they’ve especially learned from the fact that Pixar’s movies all focus on male characters and appeal the most to boys. (Michael Hanscom, a computer analyst who blogs at michaelhanscom.com, dubbed WALL-E “MISOGYN-E” and says that while he likes Pixar, he’s not going to see their movies in theatres “until we see some evidence that they’ve let a girl into the clubhouse to play.”) But for the most part, these movies are far away from Pixar’s artist-oriented approach.

Heh. Not at all inaccurate (except, perhaps, for titling me a ‘computer analyst,’ as flattering as that is) — and believe me, this is not a complaint, I don’t envy Jaime or her editors the task of boiling my response down to something that would fit within the scope of the article — but for the sake of completion, under the jump is my full response to her question. If you’ve read my earlier posts on this matter, there are no big surprises awaiting.

I have to give credit to my girlfriend, this whole train of thought started when we were watching a trailer for Cars and she wasn’t interested at all, in part because it was too much of a stereotypical ‘boy’s movie’. We got to talking about Pixar’s work, and started to realize just how ‘boyish’ they were as a whole (cowboys and spacemen, robots, etc.), and then continued on into taking a closer look at the few female characters that do show up. The more we looked at them, the more it seemed to us that Pixar is definitely a ‘boy’s club,’ in everything from their choice of subjects to the characters in the film.

Historically, while their portrayals have certainly often been rooted in the eras that the films were made in, Disney has at least been pretty good about presenting female central characters, and as the years have progressed, those characters have become progressively stronger and more independent. Even if the early Princesses (Cinderella, Snow White, etc.) aren’t the best role models for modern girls, they were at least central to the stories, and gave little girls good characters to play make-believe with. Modern Princesses (and characters who haven’t been added to the Disney Princess roster, like Jane in Tarzan, or Nani and Lilo in Lilo and Stitch) are much stronger, self-assured, and capable women, and are great launching points for the imaginations of little girls.

Pixar, on the other hand, seems to be having great trouble writing strong female roles. None of their films to date has had a female main character, and for the most part, the female supporting characters are an uninspiring bunch. As much as Dori makes me laugh in Finding Nemo, she’s brain damaged! Mrs. Incredible is a superhero, yes, but until circumstances force her to don her uniform again, she’s the perfect 1950’s housewife, staying home to do housework and watch over the children while Mr. Incredible goes off to work to support the family and be the breadwinner. Jesse’s cowgirl in Toy Story 2 is so traumatized by her abandonment that she’s paralyzed by fear, content to live out the rest of her life in a display case — on display for the admiration of a male captor. Princess Atta, in A Bug’s Life, is an incompetent busybody, unable to actually manage the colony on her own. In Cars, Sally comes complete with ‘decorative pinstriping’ — with a style of tattoo popularly known as a ‘tramp stamp.’ Ratatouille‘s Collette admits that she’s a woman trapped in the man’s world of professional cookery, yet she ends the movie in the same position she began it with — only by the end, she’s romantically involved with the owner of the restaurant she works at. Finally, there’s the blatant sexism of the Wall••E promotional website, in which the various robots are named by the roles that they are designed to do: Wall••E takes out the trash and Gar••E does the yardwork, while Sall••E vacuums, Nanc••E nannys, and Wend••E does the laundry.

I know all this tends to give the appearance that I dislike Pixar, or think their movies are crap, which couldn’t be further from the truth. On the whole, I think their movies are wonderful, both in terms of the animation (which keeps getting better) and the writing (with the sole exception of Cars), and I certainly don’t think that people should stop allowing their children to see them. My girlfriend and I still enjoy watching Pixar’s movies — I have their first six theatrical films (Toy Story through The Incredibles) on DVD — and I’m looking forward to renting Wall••E when it’s released to DVD. However, we’re holding off on giving any of our money to Pixar, either through ticket sales or DVD purchases, until we see some evidence that they’ve let a girl into the clubhouse to play.

We’re not hoping for a sudden retooling of all of their upcoming work or anything silly like that, but perhaps it would be worth looking at their films (past and future) and seeing if any of them would suffer if the main character were a girl instead of a boy? The Toy Story series may have some difficulties (Andy’s a boy, so he’s likely to have ‘boy’ toys), and as ant colonies are run by queens and use males as worker drones, A Bugs Life can’t exactly be shaken up too much — but couldn’t one of Monster’s Inc.‘s top operatives be a girl? Wouldn’t Marlin have been equally concerned about finding his little daughter? What if Mr. Incredible was content to hang up his cape, but his wife was having trouble coping with suburban life? Given Collette’s rant about the domination of male chefs, wouldn’t it have been neat if the restaurant’s saviour, in addition to being a rat, was a girl rat?

Yes, I know, there are many counter-arguments for all of these points, and I throw them out mostly as a thought experiment. The main point — if I haven’t beleaguered it enough — is that, much as I enjoy what Pixar does, I think they’ve got a pretty big blind spot here, and I’m waiting for them to give the girls a character they can relate to that isn’t traumatized, brain damaged, or shuffled off into some secondary role. Unfortunately, after a quick peek at the IMDB briefs of Pixar’s upcoming films through 2012, we’re going to be waiting a long, long time.

Y’know, I just cannot write about this concisely. I need an editor! ;)

I was also wondering whether you think the increasing length and message-y tone of Pixar movies, at a time when everybody else has moved toward the comedy/wisecrack tone of other computer-animated films, have the potential to hurt the studio at the box-office in the long run.

I don’t think so at all — in fact, I think this dedication to and concentration on strong stories is one of Pixar’s big strengths. As funny as the Shrek movies are (well, the first one, at least, and the second to a somewhat lesser degree…the third was dreck), they’re so reliant on pop-culture references and wisecracks that they’re going to seem incredibly dated in just a few years. I see a lot of this in many of the other ‘family’ (animated and live-action) films as well, where the quick laugh is getting priority over a deep, meaningful story. While I may find some disturbing sexist tendencies in Pixar’s films, I will never deny that their storycrafting is generally incredible, and a huge part of why their films do so well. Their films are much more able to stand the test of time than almost anything their competitors are coming out with, and — were I in Pixar’s shoes — I’d be far happier with a film that had lasting strengths than one that blew away the box office for the four weeks it was out, and then disappeared into obscurity as the years went by.

0 thoughts on “More on Pixar (Or, Why I Suck at Soundbites)

  1. I wanted to comment, because I’m taken aback by your observation that WALL E is misogynistic. Baffled really. And it is also unfair to target Pixar for being too boy centric, when the problem isn’t Pixar, it is our male dominated culture. Pixar is no different than anyone else making big budget movies for huge, American release. Just look at the films in theater right now. There are 2 female centric movies in theaters; Kit Kittredge: An American Girl and Sex In the City. To find movies with a female focus, you have to look long and hard as they are rare and usually independent or foreign releases. And when it comes to films and books targeted to children, they are almost universally about a boy. I’ve heard this is because children’s books/movies with girl characters don’t sell.

    But oddly, having seen WALL E, it is not at all as you describe. While WALL E is portrayed as a “boy” robot, I wouldn’t call the movie sexist or even boy centric. I have a hard time seeing any super sweet romance, even a robot romance, as very boy centric. And this specific Pixar Inc. movie happens to have a huge soft spot for the musical Hello Dolly. Much of the plot revolves around WALL E’s love of Hello Dolly. A particularly odd choice for a “boy” centric film. I don’t know many boys who are obsessed with old, Hollywood musicals.

    And of the woman centric films to choose from at the moment, I would pick WALL E over Sex in the City. I cannot say anything negative about the G rated Kit Kittredge, other then that is is intended for a younger audience than I, so I won’t be seeing it. But maybe the reason I’m not seeing it is that marketers are right, everyone is interested in seeing a movie with a main character that is portrayed as male (WALL E), while many fewer are interested in seeing a movie about a little girl during the Great Depression. Shrug.

    But if you want to see a perfect and more adult example of sexism in marketing, see a movie that received only a direct to video release called Smiley Face. It stars Anna Faris as a stoner. Actually, it is in the classic stoner comedy tradition. I’m not big on movies of this genre, but found it very funny. Probably as funny as Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. But no one will see this movie, because the studio didn’t release it. And the reason is because it is unthinkable to have a comedy about a girl being stoned. Who would want to see such a thing?

    So people are making movies about women and girls, but they aren’t getting to audiences. But WALL E may in fact be a chick flick. I cried. Seriously.

  2. Well, since we’re on topic, perhaps we should address the wonderful female characters available to girls, like the previously mentioned Disney princesses.

    It seems to me that the modern ‘strong’ female character portrays women, for one, as vain and extremely materialistic. For instance, all the Disney princesses are… well, princesses. Sure, they go through adventures and stuff, but in the end, they still end up beautiful, fashionable, pampered and RICH! Of course, little girls love their princesses and fashion (evidently, if you look at Disney Princesses, Barbie, Bratz; even the new trend in comics with manga, which are strongly directed to girls and most often feature heroines who are fashion icons, rich, pop idols… but I digress). But why is it that we deem ‘girl-oriented’ image-centric, materialistic material and topics as positive while attacking boy-oriented stuff?

    Another issue is that even a ‘strong’, positive female character has to be beautiful, attractive, intelligent, brave, tough, independent… In other words, a female character HAS to be perfect nowadays.

    For instance, the character of Dori, the likeable but somewhat impared female fish, was earlier shot down because she was essentially mentally ill. So here it is: A female character cannot be weak, ugly, stupid… In my opinion, that makes for pretty boring characters, after a while.

    Even though I do enjoy (most) Disney movies, you could pretty much swap Ariel, Belle and Jasmine in each other’s roles and they have pretty much the same personality: spunky, cute, intelligent… perfect!!

    I personally thought Dori was a great character because she wasn’t perfect; but in the end, she still contributed despite-or perhaps because of- her quirks. I thought she nearly outshone the other ‘main’ characters.

    In short (trying, anyways ;) ), I think one should create characters to suit a story; or, even better, allow whatever character to speak for itself and grow its own characteristics rather than fill some quota or politically correct rules.