Pixar and Feminism

(Matt DeButts)– For the last two Augusts, late in the month, I find myself crouched over construction paper with a glue stick in my hand. I’m engaged in the yearly ritual of a residence counselor: the creation of door signs. This year, the RCs in my dorm decided on a Pixar theme. All well and good, yet as we attempted to match the gender of the Pixar character to the gender of the resident, we encountered a significant problem. There aren’t many female Pixar characters.

In an effort to demonstrate my point, I’ve created an unofficial list of all Pixar movies and their correspondent protagonists. I’ve been generous with the designation “protagonist” so as to capture as many characters as possible:

Toy Story (1995): Buzz (M), Woody (M)
A Bug’s Life (1998): Flik (M)
Toy Story 2 (1999): Buzz (M), Woody (M), Jessie (F)
Monster’s Inc (2001): Sully (M), Mike Wazowski (M)
Finding Nemo (2003): Nemo (M), Marlin (M), Dory (F)
The Incredibles (2004): Mr. Incredible (M), Elastigirl (F), Violet (F), Dash (M), Jak Jak (M)
Cars (2006): Lightning McQueen (M)
Ratatouille (2007): Remy (M), Linguini (M)
WALL-E (2008): Wall-E (M), Eve (F)
Up (2009): Carl Frederickson (M), Charles Muntz (M)
Toy Story 3 (2010): Woody (M), Buzz (M), Jessie (F)
Cars 2 (2011): Mater (M), Lightning McQueen (M)
Brave (2012): Merida (F)

In the past seventeen years of beautiful Pixar animation, there have been six female protagonists. One is an amnesiac fish, one is a robot with a nebulous gender identity, and two are more-or-less stereotyped family figures. (The stay-at-home-mom who empowers herself; the shy teenager who learns to assert herself—we’ve all seen it before.) This year’s Brave is the first to star a female character in isolation. After eleven academy awards and a Best Picture nomination, one has to ask: what took them so long?

I’m not sure I have answer to this question, but I’d like to hazard a guess. It seems to me that Pixar is interested in questions of human, rather than specifically male or female, importance. Consider Up. Up is a sensitive paean to the loneliness of old age and fulfillment of childhood desires. Although Pixar chose an elderly man and young boy to live out their story, could they not have just as easily chosen an elderly woman and girl scout? In the film’s opening montage, could it not have been Carl Frederickson dying at his wife’s side, rather than vice versa? I would argue that there is nothing irretrievably masculine about the story arc of Up. At no point does the story take a turn that could only have happened to men. Up is a human story that happens to star a male character.

The Toy Story series is a bit more challenging. It is predicated on the notion that boys (Andy) play with cowboys and spacemen, while girls (Andy’s sister, Molly) play with Barbies and Bo Peeps. There is certainly some gender stereotyping going on here. The main message, however, is the aging of youth and the slow loss of imagination that accompanies it. Pixar chooses Andy to live out this story arc, but it could have just as easily been Molly. Like in Up, Pixar chooses male characters to illustrate a fundamentally human narrative.

Pixar makes this same choice—male represents human—again and again. Why couldn’t Flik (A Bug’s Life) have been female and Atta been male? Why did a barracuda kill Nemo’s mother, rather than his father? Why not Maia, rather than Mike Wazowksi (Monsters Inc.)? These characters’ genders could have been swapped without compromising the poignancy of the story or the integrity of the characters. It would have been simple.

Instead, Pixar has neglected the female protagonist for seventeen years. When she finally arrives, in the form of a red-haired quasi-Viking (Brave’s Princess Merida), she bears the weight of two decades of anticipation. Merida is implicitly tasked with embodying a conception of femininity that Pixar had previously neglected to sketch out. That’s a tall order for a teenager. One has to forgive her if she sputters on that front and Brave (2012) isn’t the movie it might have been.

Pixar’s disuse of the female protagonist is not problematic in any given movie, or even in any series of movies. It’s not wrong to cast a male character in the titular human role, just as it is not right to cast a woman. It is only when Pixar’s films are viewed in aggregate, and the lack of female protagonists becomes systemic, that my scruples begin to arise. Or to put it in the rarefied speech of Generation Y: it’s a thing because you made it a thing. It is important to portray both sides of the human coin, lest we mistake one face for the coin in its entirety.

In their next movie I would hope that Pixar designs a female character who is significant not for her femininity but for her humanity. The lessons of Toy Story, Up, Finding Nemo, and WALL-E can and do apply to the other 50% of the human population. It’s about time that Pixar proved as much.