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All The Pixel Ladies

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

I watched Pixar’s new movie Up at the weekend, and I think I now have a new favourite Pixar film. Previously that sought-after accolade went to The Incredibles, but Up is so wonderfully eccentric and unexpected, and so beautifully heartfelt, that it may have edged The Incredibles out. There aren’t many movies that can make audiences cry with laughter and sadness in the same 90 minutes.

It seems extroardinary that a story about an old man and some balloons should be so compelling, but this is Pixar. Though they’ve only released ten movies in fourteen years, their hit rate is astonishing. All their movies are either near-perfect (The Incredibles, Monsters Inc, Toy Story 2), brilliant (Ratatouille, Wall-E, Finding Nemo), or… Cars. (Cars is terrible, but even it made money, so now they’re making another.)

Their films are so good that I hadn’t even noticed what they were missing. Women.

pixarladies

OK, Pixar movies do have some well-rounded female characters, like Toy Story 2’s Jesse, The Incredibles’ Elastigirl, or Ratatouille’s Colette. But how many Pixar movies have a female character as the principal lead?

None. Out of ten. Woody, Flik, Woody, Sully, Marlin, Mr Incredible, Lightning McQueen, Remy, Wall-E and now Carl Fredricksen; all male. That’s a poor score. Compare that to Disney, which has given us numerous female leads from Snow White to Lilo by way of Cinderella and Mulan, and it looks really bad. Admittedly Disney has had seventy years, and its perepetuation of the princess-waiting-for-a-prince ideal is not the best message to promote, but at least they’re in the game, and wouldn’t it be nice if another animator was out there putting out a different message?

pixarladies2

Even in the secondary lead roles, Pixar peforms badly. Disney gave us the likes of Perdita, Lady and Miss Bianca (all animals, but still female), while Pixar has given us Buzz, Atta, Buzz again, Mike, Dory, Elastigirl, Mater, Linguini, Eve and Russell. Most of Pixar’s females exist only to inspire the hero, with sleek, silent Eve being the best (or worst) example of this, though it’s also prominent in Up.

Dory is one of the only gender-blind roles Pixar has ever created, where the character could have been a man but happens to be a woman, and apparently that’s because the part was written for a man. Even Dreamworks, which favours ensemble casts, scores better when it comes to making its women independent actors in the story.

There are plenty of explanations one can come up with for why women are underrepresented in Pixar movies. The most obvious one is that computer animation is a boys’ club, and these guys write about what they know. As more of the boys become fathers to little girls, we may see their focus change.

disney-princesses1

Then there’s the anti-Disney thing. A big part of Pixar’s philosophy seems to be that it doesn’t want to be Disney, relying on musical versions of old fairy tales with slapstick sidekicks and hero princesses. Girl heroes are the collateral loss. (That said, Pixar is releasing a movie with a female lead in 2011, and the hero is… a princess.)

Pixar also favours buddy stories over love stories, which could equally be an anti-Disney thing or a boys’ club thing, but the end result is that most of its movies are about an all-male odd couple. None of these explanations is meant to suggest that Pixar is sexist, and I absolutely do not think they are; they’re just a bit oblivious.

Regardless of why Pixar movies are so male-dominated, there is also the question of whether it’s actually a problem. The movies are still good, right? We don’t want to ruin them with a lot of politically correct nonsense.

But why shouldn’t there be more women in these stories? Sure, the girls in the audience can identify with male characters as well - they can love racing, or monsters, or robots or, gasp, cooking - but why shouldn’t they have the chance to see more characters like themselves on screen?

Lack of representation is a problem that a lot straight white men perhaps don’t understand. If you’re one of them, trust me when I say that, if you’re forever presented with a vision of the world that does not have you in it, where you can’t see any options or get any idea of where you might fit in, it does have an impact. And maybe if you’re, say, a redheaded guy, or a nerd, or a Canadian, and one day you see a hero up on screen who shares those qualities with you, then maybe  you do understand the difference it can make, at least a little bit.