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Pixar’s gender gap

posted by Tim Carmody   May 05, 2011

Persephone Magazine’s Stefan on “The Fall Of The Female Protagonist In Kids’ Movies,” specifically the last fifteen years of CGI animated film:

Think of all the female protagonists in Disney musicals. There are quite a number, almost as many as there are males—Cinderella, Belle, Ariel, Pocahontas, Mulan… the list goes on. Now think of female protagonists in Pixar movies.

There aren’t any. Not a single one.

This claim’s hedged a little bit, pointing to The Incredibles’ Elastigirl and Wall-E’s Eve as “strong, memorable female characters.” I’d say these two definitely count as protagonists, but there does seem to be something of a two-to-one rule: Finding Nemo’s Dory is a great protagonist, but she has to be paired with Marlin and Nemo (and Gill, and Crush…) The Incredibles is almost balanced. Almost.

Note that Stefan is far from the first person to point this out: these are just the links from the kottke.org archives:

Stefan thinks it has to do with the shift in animation from human characters (and their attendant romance plots) to the animals, toys, and robots that dominate Pixar and co. There’s something to that — a new research paper shows that not just in movies but in children’s books, animal characters are much more likely to be male than female:

The tendency of readers to interpret even gender-neutral animal characters as male exaggerates the pattern of female underrepresentation. The authors note that mothers frequently label gender-neutral animal characters as male when reading with their children, and that children assign gender to gender-neutral animal characters.

Here’s a different interpretation. Pixar’s movies are usually not just focused on men, but specifically on dads. Finding Nemo and The Incredibles are the best examples of this, but even Up and Ratatouille traffic pretty heavily in father issues, if not fatherhood outright.

Traditional Disney movies were really kids’ fantasies, even the ones seemingly targeted for boys, like The Jungle Book or Robin Hood. Pixar seems to have realized that if you can get the dad to come to the movie and love the movie, the whole family will come. Maybe more than once. And they’ll probably buy the DVD and the video game, too. That’s the formula.

And of course, it doesn’t hurt that the people making the movies are largely dads and young men who seem to probably be working out some issues with their dads. Pixar’s John Lasseter has five children, all boys.

They’re great movies. I love them. But I can’t deny that’s partly because they’re made for me.

(Via @araqueltrubek)

Update: As many people have pointed out, Pixar has a forthcoming full-length movie, Brave, about a Scottish warrior-princess. It was slated to be directed by Brenda Chapman (Pixar’s first female director), then was replaced by Mark Andrews, with Chapman as co-director.

Also, my friend (and former student) Kaitlin Welborn nails me: I used “protagonist” in its debased modern meaning of “sympathetic character”/”agent for good,” not its original sense as the first/primary character of the drama — which is also just a better definition. In this sense, the protagonist of Finding Nemo is definitely Marlin, The Incredibles Mr Incredible, Wall-E Wall-E, and so forth.

I also agree with Kaitlin that Stefan also overstates how much of a substantive change there’s been from the hand-drawn Disney animated films, and Pixar/Dreamworks’ computer-animated films.

First, there’s the obvious point that the older Disney movies were pretty ideologically screwed-up. I think this is well-known. And well before Pixar came along, Disney was already moving towards male protagonists: Aladdin, The Lion King, Hercules, The Emperor’s New Groove.

I’ll stick by my main point, which is that 1) an overwhelming number of Pixar movies focus on dads and fatherhood (biological or symbolic) and 2) this is not an accident.

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