To Pixar: Next Time, Could You Add a Girl?

Since I brought up the subject of gender and women's roles in animation and cartoons, I thought it only fair to link to this 2007 article from Salon. Catherine Price followed up on another short essay, written by Liz Kelly at the Washington Post. They both stress that they are great Pixar fans, and are thrilled by their many terrific movies. But why are the leads always boys? Why can't a girl be the main character?

I think this clip from Liz Kelly's article sums it all up:

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. The fact that most of the Pixar filmmakers behind these flicks are male could be part of the problem. Interestingly, none of this seems to bother girls, who seem to flock to and adore these movies just as much as boys do. Perhaps to them, watching an animated toy or fish or rat transcends gender. Maybe they see these characters as just beings, neither male nor female. Perhaps there's a lesson there.

I remain thankful that we have such a successful animation studio in Pixar, that we can sit and debate the finer points of gender equality and who gets a seat at the table. 15 years ago, I would have been happy for anything that just didn't suck. Thank goodness song-and-dance numbers have been done away with. No one over the age of six ever liked those stupid singalong songs. I know I was sick of 'em by the time I was seven.

And I remain an optimist on this issue. It's downright bizarre that half the population is being ignored by most Hollywood movies. Then when you add in recent animation films like Sita Sings the Blues, Paprika, Persepolis, and Studio Ghibli, this simply becomes a no-brainer.

If I were in charge of hiring new talent at any of the major studios, here's what I would do: hire talented female artists, graphic designers, graphic novelists, and animators. Hire women and women only, and bring the gender ratio to an even balance. How important is that? Consider this fact: one half of the staff of Studio Ghibli is female. And you wonder why their films are so overwhelmingly feminine?

Just sit back and watch Momose's Piece again, and think to yourself, "Why isn't this happening over here? We should be the ones creating movies like this."


Adrienne said...

Haha. You can almost hear the investors shaking in their boots at the prospect of doing much that is different, let alone making an animated film that is distinctly feminine in sensability.

Though, lately, I've been pondering, "what exactly is femininity anyway?"

As a little girl, I would have *loved*, *loved* to see an adventure series with a female lead. Even at 7, I sensed the comparative coolness of the boy-centric shows that were out at the time compared to crap like "My little pony" or "Rainbow Brite", haha. Even I felt alone in my love of LEGOs. How come there're no girls in LEGO commercials...haha, unless the building blocks are pink.

In the world of movies, it all comes down to money, doesn't it though? Appeal to the widest audience possible, especially when the budget for one's film is +150M. But hey. You could say the "princess" films that have been produced over the years were girl-centric, just not in that fun kinda way.

Sometimes I wonder if American animated films (even full, 24fps character- style) really need to be so darn expensive. 4 years? 180 mil? Is all that absolutely neccessary? Especially since it's not like the end product is usually all that revolutionary or anything...the preproduction artwork is more interesting. Miyazaki once wrote about the process of animation turning "both the good and the bad into the mediocre." He has a point.

Does anyone remember an animated TV series that was supposed to come out in the 90's called "The Legend of Calamity Jane?" Here's the Youtube link to the opening:

I remember liking the designs and looking foward to seeing it--but it was pulled without any explanation, and never got to catch it. You mean an American animated adventure series, with a woman as the lead? Wow.

Ah, new it was too good to be true.

Malik Ming said...

Incidentally, Pixar's first female director, Brenda Chapman, will have Pixar's first female protagonist in The Bear and the Bow. It's also their first fairy tale, so... I don't know. I think that a little progress.

Studio Ghibli's high number of female employees may be another attribute to the universality of their films. More diverse worldviews flying around, something has to stick.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

I've never seen Calamity Jane, but I've gotta admit - it looked pretty good. It has that WB cartoon look, with the sharp angles and macho poses and caricature frames, yadda yadda. It's a visual style I'm not all that fond of. But any blow for women in animation is one I'll gladly cheer.

You've got a lot of great points, Adrienne. And I'm reminded of Pauline Kael, who railed against the corporate devolution of the movies. That's why she finally retired in the end.

One of her long essays, "Why Are the Movies So Bad, or The Numbers" really hits the reality of the business home. And this was written around 1980, when the age of blockbusters and corporate conglomerate takeover of everything was beginning.

Still, I try not to be too pessimistic. Just look at what Nina Paley is achieving right now. Or look at Marjana Satrapi. Or look at the many brilliantly talented women working as artists and graphic designers. This is a tide that is turning, and opportunities have never been better.

It's true that money rules all in Hollywood. And yet the studios focus exclusively on teenage boys. What about everyone else? I'm pretty sure the rest of us have money to burn, too. And everybody still loves the movies. It's just that everything has become so base and so stupid. Idiocracy, indeed.

I don't know why animation films are so expensive. But it's very true that CGI is a far more expensive enterprise than hand-drawn. The numbers are a bit misleading, though. Edward Jay Epstein wrote an excellent book on the movies where he breaks down the budget numbers, and how much today's blockbusters really cost. I think Tomb Raider, after all the accounting was done, cost less than $8 million.

These are lucrative franchises we're talking about. The amount of profits to be had is immense. Which, of course, brings us back to square one with our problem of bringing about the change.

I don't know why so much production artwork for feature animation looks better thanthe final product. Heck, I don't know why "full animation" has to be 24 drawings per second. It seems to me that it works for some things, and doesn't for many others. And the Japanese masters learned how to effectively use tempo changes for dramatic effect. I think Miyazaki and Takahata know a thing or two about making movies.

So why aren't we seeing an American Heidi or Anne? I wouldn't expect an American Omohide Poro Poro tomorrow - although, frankly, that's exactly what we need. I'm really very curious to hear more ideas on this topic.

Malik Ming said...

I think Pauline Kael also said in that article that, maybe more importantly than better directors, we need better producers. The American New Wave in the 60s was the result of many directors and producers suddenly clicking to the radical notion of how much more could be done with American film. Once Bonnie & Clyde got the engine running, everyone wanted to follow suit: "Let's do what the Europeans do, only better!" I don't see any other time period in which Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, Francis Coppola, and others would ever have had a chance to establish themselves. Then, thanks to commercialism in the movies (Jaws and Star Wars get the biggest grief for this), Hollywood sunk back into formula mode, having had the new kids set the formula for them.

In the same fashion, I'm not sure American will get on the bandwagon until they see how successful female protagonists can be in animation. We've gotten plenty of hints from Japan, especially from Ghibli. Some animators have taken the hint: although still secondary, the females in Avatar: the Last Airbender are the strongest and most independent I've seen in any recent animated show (too bad the overall show wasn't that great).

Hopefully some new, unaffected producers will come along and allow new artists to do their stuff. Hell, the artists need to gather their resources and collaborate with each other to make the next New Wave. Or is that a long shot, too?

OldEuropean said...

Are you people blind? There've been plenty of female protagonists in American animated films. There's a reason Disney fairy tales have a reputation for having bland Prince Charmings. Who do you think the Princess films are aimed at, little boys? C'mon.

TREASURE PLANET turned out to be a massive bomb not because it was a terrible film (it's not a masterpiece, but I rather like it), but because it was marketed towards girls, even though it's very definitely a boys' picture.

Sure, except for Pocahontas, Disney's female protagonists usually end up marrying their respective male counterparts, but they're still more often than not the actual leads of the film, in screen time and characterisation. And while Belle and Mulan may not be as independent or as fully rounded as Kiki or the main character in OMOHIDE PORO PORO, they're not exactly 50ies housewife caricatures, either.

Look, I know it's the traditional pastime of people on this blog to villify Disney, and not without good reason, but don't ignore them just because it suits your argument.

Malik Ming said...

Daniel may have posted this before, but this article sums up the difference between Disney heroines and Miyazaki's:

So we're close, yet off by a mile.

OldEuropean said...

The fact that an analysis, short as it may be, can be made, speaks for itself: modern Disney movies are not as shallow and one-dimensional as people often claim. There's no need to beat up on Disney just to elevate Miyazaki; Miyazaki can handle the comparison nicely without an unfair advantage.

Anyway, I never claimed that Miyazaki's heroines weren't more complex than the Disney ones (in fact, I openly stated that I acknowledged this fact). I was only bothered by the claims that a) American animation is principally geared towards boys, and that b) American animation doesn't have female protagonists.

Admittedly, I'm a dude, and therefore likely have a different perspective on this, but Belle or Mulan marrying their "princes" in the end doesn't bother me. It doesn't take away from the courage and the strength of character they displayed earlier in the film. In ALADDIN, the very marriage is an act of defiance against tradition. So I draw a different conclusion than Kraemer (that's permissible, you know).

I recently re-watched MULAN, and gained a deeper appreciation of the film. It's still not a favourite, but I don't consider it an abysmal failure anymore. Two reasons: One, I've decided that the film's curious illogicalities are due to the creators hewing to the source material, not exactly plot-wise, but in terms of feel. It's like a slightly modernized medieval romance, which is why the disparities in army size don't bother me at all anymore. And two: my then 8-year-old sister was in attendance. She liked the film, and yes, I really do think that Mulan is a good role-model. I think what my sister took away isn't that you can be as courageous as you want, in the end you aren't allowed to take up politics and you have to marry, simply because of your gender. I think she took away that women can do just about anything men do, *willingly* refuse to do things they do not want to do, and just as willingly choose their suitors, instead of having them chosen for them. Maybe Mulan will stay at home, but she'll be doing it on her own terms.

I also watched KIKI with my sister, so I'm not Disney-exclusive. I can't see myself giving her NAUSICAA or MONONOKE, though, because I don't think those films are suitable for children. Maybe when she's 15, but by then, hopefully she won't need role-models anymore. So the very premise of Kraemer's analysis is questionable, at least from a European's perspective (I guess our priorities are more "shield the children from violence" than "shield the children from bad words and sex").

jFan said...

Just because YOU don't like musical numbers, Daniel, doesn't mean certain animated films haven't done them quite well, in terms of both animation, style, and even service to the story. If Studio Ghibli did a musical, I wonder if you might change your tune.
I'm pretty sure there are several musical theater appreciators over seven years old.

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