Monday, January 24, 2011

Chicks & Pixar: Lady Protagonists Onscreen

 Yesterday, a friend of mine shared with me this open letter a woman wrote at, to the minds behind the Pixar movies.  The piece basically states that, while Pixar movies are great, and have great female characters, there are still no female protagonists.  She was way nicer about it than I would be, and still got lambasted in the comments.  Cinematical posted about it here, and then you can read my friend's thoughts here.

Now, this article was originally written in the summer of 2009, and clearly it's gotten a lot of attention - but I still feel the need to add my two cents.  Because essentially, I agree with Linda Holmes and would like to back her up against the bombardment of townspeople crying, "Angry feminists!" at us.

Here's the thing.  Pixar actually has a lot of great female characters.  Most of them are strong, outspoken, intelligent, and independent.  But they are all peripheral.  You can make some arguments about the female characters inciting the story or being integral to the plot - which is great!  But they are not the protagonists.  Let's break it down:

1. Dory, Finding Nemo.  Dory is fantastic.  She's not pigeonholed into any gender roles or stereotypes.  She's endlessly optimistic, and her relationship with Marlin treads mostly in the realm of balancing his neurotic crazy with her own brand of neurotic crazy.  It's sweet and lovely, and no one's complaining.  But Finding Nemo is not Dory's story.  It is Marlin, and Nemo's.  

2. Jessie, Toy Story.  Jessie is hyper, sassy, independent-minded, and outspoken.  Great!  Young girls should know that it's okay to be all of those things.  But is it Jessie's story?  Nope.

3.  Colette, Ratatouille.  Who? you ask.  Ah, yes, that female chef who serves (no pun intended) as a love interest/foil for Linguini.  She's the only lady chef in the place, and is a total badass with her motorcycle and don't-cross-me attitude.  But I'm betting that most of you had to take a few seconds to remember who the hell she was.  Hence, not her movie.

4. Boo, Monster's Inc.  I don't care if the story doesn't exist without the girl.  She does not talk.  She is tertiary to Mike and Sully, as far as I'm concerned.

5. ElastiGirl, The Incredibles.  I love this lady.  She's a wife and mother whose husband's actions drag her back into a lifestyle she willingly gave up - and she kicks ass.  She's whip-smart, quick on her feet, creative, sensible, and exhibits no damsel-in-distress qualities.  She's a pivotal character in the film, but the central emotional conflict is between Mr. Incredible and Buddy/Syndrome, and it's these two who progress the action.

6. I cannot for the life of me remember the girl ant from A Bug's Life.  So there's that.

7.  EVE, Wall-E.  The movie is called Wall-E.  Do we need to argue this?  EVE is great - and her existence helps usher in the message of the movie, and the whole second act - but a) she's a robot, and b) the movie's called Wall-E.  It's kind of a moot point.

8. Ellie, Up.  Ellie is a lovely female character.  She's scrappy and hyper and outgoing and adventurous, and without her, the plot of the film does not exist.  However, she dies within the first 20 minutes.  She is not present for the rest of the film.  She does not make any choices to progress the plot.  She is onscreen only as an ideal.  It is very blatantly Carl's story.

9. Sally, Cars.  All I remember about Sally is that Bonnie Hunt voiced her and I had no complaints about the character.  But that's all I remember.  So is it her story?  Not so much.

The throughline between all these characters is that they are accessories.  They instigate the plot, or they aid the main character, or they set a goal for the protagonist to achieve.  I don't care if they are all kickass female characters.  This is not good enough.  Because even if it's a good representation of a strong female role, she is still not the subject.  She is the object to the subject, and that is still a damaging manifestation of inequality. 

No little girl should be watching a film and thinking, "One day I want to grow up and help my best friend achieve his goals!" or "I hope someone goes on an adventure on my behalf one day!"  No.  No one is a sidekick in their own life.  So what do we do when all the protagonists are boys?

It's mentioned as well that female protagonists are historically represented as princesses.  Hell, Disney lumps all their lady protagonists together and markets them as "The Princesses."  There are a few exceptions (hey, Lilo and Mulan!) but for the most part, lady heros are "princesses."  And if you didn't start as a princess (hey, Belle and Tiana!) you sure as hell ended up as one by the end of the movie. 

And it's okay to like the princesses.  If your kid likes Ariel or Pocahontas or Aurora, that's awesome.  Your kid is allowed to like those things.  But I was not one of those kids.  I was not a Disney Princess child.  I wasn't even really a "Disney kid" because of this.  I loved 101 Dalmatians, largely because there were no "princess" roles in it.  And when I got older I loved Mulan, and Lilo & Stitch, and Emperor's New Groove, because the gender roles weren't really there in their traditional forms.

So what is there for kids like me, nowadays?  Kids who don't want to watch a movie where the girl waits for her "fairy tale ending?"  Kids who don't want to put on a tiara and a poofy gown for Halloween?  Pixar is simply not delivering them, and these alternative female leads need to be there.

As much as I love Pixar's movies, they are not perfect, by any means.  I still don't think Up deserved the Oscar (unpopular opinion alert!).  I have no problems pointing out the shortcomings of the films they choose to make and how they make them.  They still tell great stories, and have undoubtedly had a positive impact on countless children's - and adult's - lives.

It's just, we need women onscreen in lead roles.  Everywhere.  It's not just Pixar.  You can't have a woman protagonist without it being a "chick flick" these days, which boils my blood to no end.  Yes, the storytelling in many romantic comedies has become trite and cliche, but where does that make it okay to denigrate all movies with a female lead?  I understand that there are some fundamental differences between men and women, but wouldn't it be nice if it were possible to write a movie with a male lead, and at the last minute switch it to a woman and not have to change anything else at all?

Remember that movie Salt, with Angelina Jolie?  That movie was originally written for a man.  Then, Angelina Jolie expressed interest, and the studio execs knew that she could draw an audience as an action hero, so they swapped the role.  But they made some changes.  The original script had the Male Salt saving his wife from the villains in some sort of dangerous, physically violent scenario.  Well, when they reversed the roles, they deemed that this action was too emasculating for the Female Salt's husband, and tweaked the script accordingly to preserve the good name of manhood.

Grumble.  I'm very quickly getting off track here, but the message remains the same.  We need women represented onscreen, fairly and objectively, without being the object of someone's desires, goals, or wishes.  She should have her own desires, goals, and wishes - that do not have to do with men, shopping, or marriage.  Women have problems that men have too.  We are all human beings.  We need to build a world for ourselves where there are not men's movies and women's movies, but human movies. 


  1. I love everything this article chooses to be. It's actually the thoughts that've been going through my head these past couple of days.

  2. Well, you know how I feel about this topic. All I have to say is, Eloquently stated.

    Also, I'm about at that point where when I meet people who say the sort of shit that the original article on NPR had all over the comments section, I'm just going to spit on them and walk away.

  3. Jean - thanks! Stuff like this, especially in media that's targeted to young girls, just drives me crazy. The people in charge need to get it together, for serious.

    Diana - hahaha. I will join you in this action. (And thanks.)

  4. Reasons I like you: See above.

    I am also of that unpopular opinion - along with a new addition of Toy Story 3 does not deserve a Best Picture nod. (Hi there, Academy? Please stop retro-awarding movies you like. kthxbai Jenni)

  5. Reasons I like YOU: See above.

    See, I haven't seen Toy Story 3 but I was kind of under the impression it didn't actually deserve the nod. And it's surely going to win as well, bah. Can't we go back in time and give the awards to The Incredibles and Finding Nemo?

  6. Seriously! How To Train Your Dragon was utterly charming, enjoyable and showcased the beautiful, unique animation style of Chris Sanders -- I mean, there was nothing cuter than Toothless last year! (Except maybe Maximus in Tangled... but he was more AWESOME) And yet, it doesn't stand a chance against rehashed-emotional-manipulation-ahoy Toy Story 3 in the Animated Feature category. And I've only heard amazing things about the Illusionist. I just want one year of Pixar BACKING OFF.

    And just to expand on my annoyances with the Academy, while I'm at it... It seems they are just trapped in a never-ending cycle of correcting past mistakes. Mickey Rourke should have won for the Wrestler, so they gave it to Jeff Bridges in his Wrestler-esque Crazy Heart role. And I love love love Jeff Bridges, but Colin Firth definitely should have won for A Single Man last year. So who's probably going to win this year? I'm betting on Colin Firth for A King's Speech. Will it ever end?!?!?!

  7. See, I actually haven't seen any of the nominees, so I can't make any judgments, but you know how I HATE feeling emotionally manipulated. I trust your opinions.

    And you're right, the Oscar wins are rapidly becoming "Whoops-sorry-we-didn't-give-this-to-you-last-time-when-you-actually-deserved-it-more" awards. Sigh.

  8. Brilliant article! I am very excited for Pixar's latest endeavor, Brave. A female protagonist, finally! And there isn't much information on the plot as of now, but it seems to focus on her and her adventure and not a solely romantic story. I'm not even sure if there is a love interest.
    Princess Merida is exactly what I have been waiting for Pixar to create and I cannot wait.

  9. Though, all the female characters always know better than the male characters. The male heros are learning something while the female characters all ready know better.


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