Pixar’s 2009 3D animated feature, the truly excellent Up, follows an old man’s bid to see out his deceased wife’s wish of living atop a hidden valley located somewhere in South America; accompanying him on his journey is a Wilderness Scout seven decades his junior. Eventually, they meet a talking dog, a highly intelligent and rare species of bird, and a crazed, stranded explorer of renown who is hell-bent on capturing the aforementioned exotic feathered beast. That beast, as it happens, turns out to be one of the only female characters in the movie; out of the rest, one dies in the first ten minutes of the movie, and the others appear or are mentioned in only brief, brief passing.
Up certainly isn’t the first Pixar film to be centered primarily on the exploits and development of male characters, and there certainly has been criticism of the studio’s seeming gender bias prior to this year, but Up, for some, seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Most noteworthy among the newly raised voices guiding the dialogue regarding the lack of female characters in Pixar movies: Linda Holmes, whose blog entry, “Dear Pixar, From All The Girls With Band-Aids On Their Knees”* brilliantly makes the case for the necessity of a strong female character in a leading Pixar role. From her article, she writes,
“Of the ten movies you’ve released so far, ten of them have central characters who are boys or men, or who are anthropomorphized animals or robots or bugs who are voiced by and imagined as boys or men. These movies feature women and girls to varying degrees — The Incredibles, in particular — but the story is never “a girl and the things that happen to her,” the way it’s “a boy and what happens to him.”
I want so much for girls to have a movie like Up that is about someone they can dress up as for Halloween, as Anika Noni Rose said about starring as the voice in The Princess And The Frog. Not a girl who’s a side dish, but a girl who’s the big draw.”
Pixar’s heroes hail from a wide and diverse range of backgrounds– they are failed chefs, toys both new and old, service robots, rats with dreams of chefdom of their very own. They’re superheroes, adventurers, heart-broken widows, salary slave monsters, and race cars. But as rich as their combined backgrounds are, they do share in common one particular thread, and that is gender. Where are the leading women in Pixar’s films? Where are the movies centering on female characters who young and impressionable girls can look up to as role models? Is Pixar, that bastion of creativity and imagination, really that much of a boys’ club?
In a word, no. Pixar is guilty of not featuring a female lead in any of their releases, an egregious error to be certain. But the studio’s works are brimming with strong and well-written female characters who do more than merely exist in the background, impacting the plot and moving the audience alike with their stories and personalities. They even bring to light the various struggles that females must face in the profession or realm of existence unique to their cinematic world; notably, Ratatouille‘s Colette enlightens Linguini on the difficulties facing women in professional kitchens. Pixar’s women often co-exist alongside men in worlds that favor the endeavors and talents of males, and they use their own exceptional skill and personal drive to frequently surpass the other sex in such pursuits. Credit should be given where it is due, and Pixar deserves a great deal of credit for making a point of writing female characters who do not fall into gender stereotypes– like the dreaded Damsel In Distress. (Hell, in The Incredibles that particular trope sort of gets flipped on its ear as Helen, the doting and concerned housewife, goes off to rescue Bob, the big, strong man of the household, from his nemesis. Helen actually might be more crucial to the plot than Bob is, and it’s his story that we’re being told.)
But with that said, Holmes makes a good point with which I agree wholeheartedly. Even though Pixar puts a lot of effort into creating stand-out female supporting characters, it is far past time that they put that very same effort into telling the story of such a character instead of simply including her in someone else’s. Girls, put simply, need to have leading characters that they can look up to just as much as boys do; they need to experience stories that are about a woman’s dreams, struggles, and trials. At the end of the day maybe we’re talking about animated children’s films**, but such media in at least some small respect has a part in informing the way that a child develops and begins to think about the world around them. In particular, that makes Bob Parr a fantastic role model for young boys; he’s tough and manly, traits which are encouraged in men from an early age, but he’ s also vulnerable, and the movie examines his deepest fears and greatest weaknesses. Ultimately this makes him a great icon for boys to look up to, representing typical male attributes while also emphasizing an emotional core that many similar characters are lacking, but more importantly his existence supports the case that girls need a Bob Parr of their very own.
Helen, as I’ve said, comes very close to being to girls as Bob is to boys, and as much as she is a good role model for girls, it just isn’t the same. As Linda says, the stories aren’t about girls and things that happen to them; those elements are certainly present but they do not make up the primary story arc of the movies they inhabit. There needs to be a movie that tells the story of Helen Parr, of Colette, of Up‘s Ellie, to go side-by-side with the movies that tell the tales of men. And fortunately, Pixar is thinking of telling that sort of story; in 2011, Pixar plans on releasing The Bear and the Bow, which is– drumroll– a princess story.
Here, Holmes and I regrettably must diverge on our opinions of this choice. Holmes laments it; I, on the other hand, think of it as brilliant. Pixar, as I’ve said previously, has displayed a knack for avoiding gender-based pitfalls and stereotypes in their characterization; a princess story, as strange as it sounds, is the perfect medium for them, giving them the opportunity to overturn one of the most prominent female character archetypes in a great deal of children’s entertainment. While details about the film remain scarce, it is hard not to be excited at the prospect of Pixar telling the story of a princess who does not want to be a princess, championing the dreams and ambitions of young girls who want to be something other than what is expected of them. Am I maybe jumping the shark in my excitement? Perhaps, but for good reason, I think. If anyone can make something positive out of the princess story, it’s Pixar.
I don’t want to sound like I’m letting Pixar off the hook; as much as I applaud them (and rightfully so) for their excellent female characters, the lack of a leading woman in any of their pictures is difficult to ignore. I remain confounded at the fact that it has taken them almost two decades to come up with a story that focuses on a female lead; The Bear and the Bow isn’t a case of too little, too late, in fact it’s a welcome change, but it’s hard not to wonder why this story had to wait until 2011. I’ll go into that film with high hopes that whatever success it achieves will see other children’s films slowly come around to the idea that animated movies don’t solely need to be for the boys.
*Linda posted her blog entry back in June, so I’m a little late to the party. Sue me.
**Not that films are just disposable fluff we use to kill a couple of hours. This is a notion I pretty strongly oppose.