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Disney-Pixar and the Blank Canvas

Photo by Penny Mathews

Following the success of Toy Story (1995) Pixar, which was acquired by Disney in 2006, has produced a string of box office hits including A Bug’s Life (1998), Monsters Inc (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), Cars (2006), Ratatouille (2007) and Wall·E (2008) as well as two sequels to Toy Story. Snapping up Pixar helped to update Disney’s image, as the brand is synonymous with the very latest digital animation techniques. Disney-Pixar now produces movies that are the slick, modern, mainstream choice for family viewing, underpinned with morals and firing the imagination of children and adults alike.

But why are films with their feet firmly in the twenty-first century still struggling with something as basic as gender representation? Why are the creative teams at Pixar animation studios generally unable to take the average percentage of female characters in their films above 25% (With some, such as Ratatouille, well below this)? Surely, now that we are dealing with fish and monsters and robots, there are none of the narrative ties that kept, for example, the women of fairytale Disney confined to their passive roles? Female fish look and act the same as male fish, after all.

The main cast of Ratatouille is 88% male (the highest percentage of male characters out of the 12 films discussed in this article). Pixar Logos: http://pixar.wikia.com/Pixar_Animation_Studios

The lack of proportional representation in the last decade of Pixar films makes their all-male writing crews very suspect. Look at Andrew Stanton, the Director of Wall·E and Finding Nemo and a writer for many others: “I’m a family man, I have kids, and I go to the movies. And I’m just going to make the kind of movie I want to see.” So far, so first-person. But are a family man’s choice of movies what families really want?

Siobhan Taylor, a single mum with an eight-year old daughter and six-year old son, admits that she has never really watched animated films with a ‘gender head’ on, but says: “there’s a definite difference in the way my kids relate to men and the way they relate to women. My daughter is very drawn to films that are about females, like Cadet Kelly [Disney, 2002].” In the absence of a strong female lead, it is only natural that girls will still need someone to relate to in these films, and if the only females are sidelined into trivial roles, for the purpose of supporting the male lead as he goes on his journey, then young women will have to relate to that.

It is all very well for fathers and sons (a theme constantly revisited by Pixar), but when will mothers get a look-in? Perhaps the sort of films made by the ‘family men’ at Disney-Pixar are not cutting it for the rest of us. Is the ‘family man’ such a wholesome figure in any case? We are all familiar with hearing about female partners and their children who have been wiped out by a formerly doting father. Finding Nemo… and killing him. And what really happened to his mum?

It is time we had a few modern tales with a woman at the helm. Changing the sex of most of the recent main roles would not have presented any problems for the storyline—a monster, a fish, a rat, a robot… they need not have defaulted to masculinity. However, while central characters are needed, the last thing we want is an easy slippage back to the traditional Disney canon. Although the stories of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the like brought us plenty of women playing the leads, they all tread the same weary path of self-actualisation through the achievement of bagging a man. Even when Disney tried to upgrade this role after a few decades’ break, they came up with the Little Mermaid who, despite her sexy brassiere, is expected to sacrifice everything for the man she loves. The fact that she has to give up her voice in order to get legs is hardly aspirational.

Self-sacrifice is also a feature in Anastasia (1997), and both Snow White and Princess Aurora from Sleeping Beauty (1959), are only able to come alive once they are in a relationship. There is almost a cartoon within a cartoon going on in Disney’s debut long animation Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)—here we have a nice rainbow-spectrum of characters, who are even named after their characteristics: Grumpy, Sleepy, Sneezy etc… and alongside the rainbow, you have the blank page: snow-white. Her destiny is to play housewife to all the real characters and then lay frozen, patiently waiting to be released from the tyranny of singledom. Cast an eye back to Snow White, and suddenly Disney-Pixar’s more recent females, such as Eve from Wall·E, seem pretty progressive. After all, Snow White couldn’t blow things up at will.

But when it comes to character, is Eve really any more colourful than her predecessors? Wall-E himself is a lovable robot slightly reminiscent of “Johnny” Number 5 from the Short Circuit films of 30 years ago, only this time his journey through the bric-a-brac of human culture is more of a post-mortem. Unlike “Johnny” 5, however, a sort of love story is set up when Wall-E is joined by this newer, sleeker robot called Eve (or ‘Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator’). Of course, these are both machines, and therefore genderless, but features such as their respectively male and female-sounding robotic voices and names are clearly engineered so that an audience sees Wall-E as male and Eve as female.

The names themselves are a strange choice, ‘Wally’ being an everyday sort of name, while ‘Eve’ is overloaded with connotation. You have to wonder about these decisions, in a film that is so obviously sacrificing showiness for serious messages. Not that these always hit their mark; I spoke to a number of women with young daughters about Wall·E and one called this film: “So nondescript that I struggle to remember it.” Eve is a character that seems to appeal to many critics, being more powerful than Wall-E and notably unpredictable (could this express something about how these male writers view the female temperament?) But look at her in terms of character: Wall-E has a much greater apparatus of expression—more appendages and more expressive eyes—than Eve. Is Eve lovable and funny? Would the film have been such a hit if it was called Eve and starred this white egg of a robot?

We’ll never know, because the Pixar gang is seriously uninterested in handing the storyline to a female. Even when they do create mildly quirky female characters, such as Jesse in Toy Story 2 (1999), Princess Atta in A Bug’s Life and Dory in Finding Nemo, they are simply not important enough to play the lead. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, they are in a dismal minority, male characters outnumbering them three to one. In Monsters Inc none of the monsters who scare children appear to be female (Monsters Inc clearly not having a very effective diversity policy), and in Toy Story all the non-human toys such as the dinosaur and dog default to male. The trend is so marked that it really seems to say something about the process of character creation. There is a sense that even when Pixar have tried to slot in female characters it has been a struggle, because these kind of films need to have big helpings of comic relief alongside the main protagonists, watertight line-ups of the ‘unforgettable characters’ that every Disney trailer used to promise, and a female just isn’t the character-base of choice.

Why not just count off ‘one fish male, one fish female…’ when starting to fill the sea? If you are starting with a blank canvas, why not use either gender? Well that’s just the problem, because a female canvas is not blank. What artist would choose to begin their creative process on a sheet that is already covered with scribbles? A female canvas already has a character written across it—society’s idea of ‘the woman’. All too often these writing teams believe that if they try and install another character on top of this ‘woman’—say a Genius, Joker or Nutter—they will end up with a Woman-Acting-Like-a-Genius/Joker/Nutter. The more lazy the writer, the more you end up with a family film with a line-up of ‘unforgettable characters’, just one of whom is playing ‘the woman’.

This is not just a problem for the family men writing family films—ask any class of primary school children to create a basic genderless character, say an animal, alien or robot, and the vast majority will default to male. But if this class of children have had their imaginative experiences shaped by a Disney-Pixar world that is 75% male, the response is hardly surprising. It is up to the rising talent, particularly the women writers who are still struggling to break into Hollywood’s boys’ club, to erase our internalised definitions of ‘the woman’ (or, even more acutely, ‘the lady’) and seize on female blank canvases as a first choice.


Heather Child
Heather Child is a freelance writer and marketing specialist, based in Bristol, whose fiction and reviews have appeared in a range of literary journals and anthologies. She leads residential writing workshops at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre and received an MA in Writing from the University of Warwick in 2009. She is currently writing a novella about a Far Eastern Prisoner of War.
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