Finding Nema - Where Are The Girls in Pixar Films?
Monday, June 08, 2009 | Author: Mad Typist
Pixar studio burst onto the movie making scene in 1995, releasing the classic Toy Story, the world's first fully computer-animated feature film. It was an instant hit, and changed the face of animated films forever. Since that first movie, Pixar has since released 9 feature-length films:
  • A Bug's Life (1998)
  • Toy Story 2 (1999)
  • Monsters, Inc. (2001)
  • Finding Nemo (2003)
  • The Incredibles (2004)
  • Cars (2006)
  • Ratatouille (2007)
  • WALL-E (2008)
  • Up (2009)
Looking at the 10 films Pixar has released, a few similarities pop out almost immediately. First, all are uniformly excellent (save, perhaps, for Cars, which I personally found to be extremely mediocre in comparison to the others). Second, not a single film on that list features a lead female character.

This realization occurred to me personally when I went to see "Up" this past Saturday (review: A-). The film quickly introduces us to a spunky, adventurous female character, only to dispatch her within the first ten minutes. After that, it's an all-boy adventure (unless you wish to count "Kevin" - the female bird who doesn't speak - as a character).

This is not to say that Pixar doesn't include worthy female characters. But these characters are never the main focus - they're there to support the lead male character in whatever quest he's on. Most often, if you see a female, they're there either as a wife, mother or love interest.

Here's a breakdown of the notable female characters from each film, plus an overall feminist grade on the quality of the female characters:

Toy Story (grade C):
  • Bo Peep. Classification: Love Interest
  • Mrs. Potato Head. Classification: Shrill Wife
The girls just don't have a lot to do in this movie, frankly. The main characters are all male, and they are the property of a rambunctous boy.

Toy Story 2 (grade B-):
  • Bo Peep. Classification: Love Interest
  • Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl: Love Interest.
Jessie is a pretty good character. She's spunky and cool, plus she gets a good solo montage (complete with Sarah McLachlan song) that totally made me tear up. But in the end, she still mostly takes a second seat to Woody/Buzz and company, and must be rescued in the end.

A Bug's Life (grade: N/A):
I have to admit, I only watched this once, and barely, so I won't comment on the quality of the female roles. However, the protagonist of the film is clearly the Dave Foley character, and we're meant to see the action mostly from his perspective. I will give the film credit for having several female actors of note in the IMDB entry.

Monsters, Inc. (grade D):
  • Boo. Classification: Child in Peril
Another all-boy film for the most part. Boo, the human girl, doesn't speak in full sentences, and is sort of just there to get in trouble, so Sully and Mike can rescue her. She's adorable and hilarious, but isn't a particularly strong character.

Finding Nemo (grade B+):
  • Dory. Classification: Partner
Of all the Pixar films, I think Finding Nemo has the strongest female character in the form of Ellen Degeneres's blue regal tang Dory. She's not there as a stereotypical romantic lead, nor is she a mother. She's Marlin's wacky sidekick for most of the way, and she gets some of the best comedic moments in the film. Of all the Pixar character, Dory is the one I could most picture starring in her own story.

The Incredibles (grade B):
  • Elastigirl. Classification: Wife, Mother
  • Violet. Classification: Daughter, Petulant Teen
Elastigirl gets some good moments, and is a pretty excellent female role model. But ultimately the story is about a middle-aged guy getting his mojo back. Yes, Elastigirl and the kids learn to embrace their powers and Elastigirl also rediscovers the joy of crime-fighting, but I still feel like the real core of the story is about male midlife crisis.

Cars (grade D):

  • Sally Carrera. Classification: Love Interest
Look, I really am not a fan of Cars because it's mostly a Doc Hollywood ripoff. The main female character is just there to convince Owen Wilson's Lightning McQueen of the pleasures of small town life.

Ratatouille (grade C):
  • Colette. Classification: Love Interest
There's only really one female character of note, and she's not even the love interest for the central character. Colette gets points for being a strong woman (calling out Alfredo Linguini for messing up, etc). However, there are no female rats (as far as I can tell), and Colette is only there to support the other characters.

WALL-E (grade B):
  • EVE. Classification: Love Interest, Killing Machine
I can't really fault EVE for not speaking much, since neither does main character WALL-E. EVE at least seems like a formidable robot, judging from the destruction her laser beams did.

In my research for this post, I came across information that Pixar WILL be featuring a female character in a lead role for the film "The Bear and the Bow." Here's the rub though: she's a princess. Granted, from the description, at least at seems like she'll be somewhat feminist - the story involves her desire to be an archer, instead of just lounging around doing princess stuff all day - but ultimately this is still looking like a traditional fairy tale. It's tentatively scheduled for Christmas 2011, so we'll have to wait awhile before we can fully pass judgment one way or the other. However, I must say that I'm a touch apprehensive about the description that it's "Pixar’s first fairy tale." What I've loved about the Pixar films is that they aren't just for kids - there are some very adult themes in their works. I'd hate to have the first Pixar film featuring a female lead to be just another fairy tale.

Lastly, it appears I'm not the first person to notice the lack of female leads in Pixar's stuff:
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On 11:20 AM , sideways_teacup said...

I've got nothing against the princess movies, because little girls actually like them, without any encouragement. At least my niece does, and her parents were the 'as if we'd -ever- dress her in -pink- or anything' type people. A lot of little girls (3yr olds) just -like- fairies and pink and sparkles and ponies and kittens. And that's great. There is media for just boys (like dragonballZ) or just girls (tinkerbell movies) and that is fine. But pixar's films aren't just for three year olds, they're for everyone, male and female. The trouble is they seem to think that for a movie to be 'for everyone' the main character needs to be male, the 'neutral gender'.
They really do need to get realistic and just make half of their neutral characters female. You can be female and not make a big deal about it, be female and neither a stereotype nor a feminist. Best example was aliens vs monsters. It wasn't a movie 'for girls' it was for -people- and had a female lead, who was just your regular 49ft woman. Neither a stereotype nor making a statement.
If you raise gender themes in the narative every time you have a female main character you're just going to keep reinforcing the 'male-is-neutral' idea.
The trouble with making a thing about the character being female is you're either gonna target the movie to a female audience, or you're going to reinforce the male-is-neutral idea. You don't need to do that, as so evidenced by monsters vs aliens. It'll just take time for pixar and Disney to realise what the monsters v aliens people have shown, that you can make a main character female without raising gender themes in the narrative, and without making it a 'film for girls'