Is Pixar a ‘boys only’ club?

This entry was published at least two years ago (originally posted on May 20, 2006). Since that time the information may have become outdated or my beliefs may have changed (in general, assume a more open and liberal current viewpoint). A fuller disclaimer is available.

Honestly, I’d never even thought about this until Prairie brought it up after we watched one of the trailers for Cars, when its predominantly male-centric theme got her started thinking about the rest of Pixar‘s oevure. We got started talking about it again this morning, after I noticed this quote from Bonnie Hunt excerpted on the Luxo weblog:

One night John [Lasseter] said to me, “The next movie I’m writing, you’ll be the girl in it.”

See that? The girl. Really, that sounds about right. Just where are the girls in Pixar films? Let’s take a quick look…

  1. Toy Story: Bo Peep, Andy’s Mom, and Hannah (the infant sister). All definite supporting characters. Andy’s Mom and Hannah are barely there, and Bo Peep is little more than a cute flirtation gag.

  2. A Bug’s Life: More women, but more characters overall, also: Princess Atta, Princess Dot, The Queen, Gypsy Moth, and Rosie the Black Widow. It’s still a male-dominated cast — even the ladybug is a boy (it’s a great gag, but when looked at from this context, suddenly it’s not as funny).

  3. Toy Story 2: Jesse, Mrs. Potato Head, Tour Guide Barbie, Bo Peep, Andy’s Mom, and Hannah. Jesse, admittedly, is a wonderful character, but still definitely a supporting character — this is still Woody and Buzz’s story. The other additions are an overbearing housewife and a dim blonde. As Prairie said, “Hooray for womankind!”

  4. Monsters, Inc.: Boo, Celia (Mike’s Medusa-like girlfriend), and Roz (the supervisor/secretary). An infant, a neglected love interest, and a stereotypical crone of a secretary (voiced by a man, no less).

  5. Finding Nemo: Dory, Peach (the starfish), Deb/Flo (the fish whose ‘sister’ is her reflection in the tank), and Coral (Nemo’s mom). Dory’s certainly a major character in the film, but still essentially a supporting character (this is, after all, Marlin and Nemo’s story)…and she’s addled to boot. Sweet, lovable, and funny…but addled.

  6. The Incredibles: Helen Parr (Elastigirl), Mrs. Hogenson (who?), Violet, Mirage, Edna Mode, Kari (the babysitter), and Honey (Frozone’s wife). To date, Helen is Pixar’s strongest female character, and the closest they’ve come to a female lead, but again, the movie is about how Bob (Mr. Incredible) adjusts to the changing circumstances in his world. We certainly can’t ignore Honey, who is only present as a voice haranguing Frozone as he tries to find his costume.

  7. Cars: Sally’s the only female character in any of the previews. According to the IMDB, there’s also a Lizzie and a Flo. Until the movie appears, we won’t really know just how strong of a character Sally is, but the trailers make it obvious that this is, once again, a boy’s movie (to the point that Prairie isn’t looking forward to Cars as much as she has other Pixar films, due to the automotive theme).

  8. Ratatouille: This one’s so early in development that the only definite information to date is that it’s about “a rat named Ratatouille who lives in a upmarket Parisian restaurant run by an eccentric chef.”

To date, there’s not a single Pixar film that has a female main character: The Incredibles comes the closest, but even there, both Helen Parr/Elastigirl and Violet are supporting characters, and it’s Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible that’s the hero. Look at the ‘poster wall’ on Pixar’s website. None of the poster designs feature a female character…even the rollover effects exclude every female character save Dory.

As Prairie pointed out to me, where there are plenty of Disney films that girls can spend hours playing and pretending to be the Disney Princesses in (most of them, at least), there isn’t a single Pixar film that she would have wanted to play as a child.

While some might argue that Disney as a whole is sexist, I don’t quite see that. Disney’s older works are often based on traditional fairy tales, where the missing mother/evil step-mother is an integral part of the tale (as is the handsome prince coming to the rescue); newer films have been much better. Tarzan, for instance: while Jane’s mom is conspicuously missing (presumably permanently, and not just left behind in England, as Jane’s father cheerfully joins her in remaining in Africa) and Tarzan’s parents (mother and father) are killed, Kala is a very strong and loving mother figure, and Jane — like Megara, Mulan and Kida before her — is a deliciously strong woman in her own right.

It’s a pity that, as one commenter posited on the Feministing weblog, movie studios in general are both constrained by and unwilling to challenge what appears to be a very male-dominated movie audience, even for children’s movies.

The two big reasons for the dearth of females in G-rated films are that a lot of the source material (childrens’ books, fairly tales) feature male protagonists, and more importantly, a number of very well-made childrens’ films featuring female protagonists underperformed at the box office (A Little Princess, Matilda, Because of Winn-Dixie…), leading a lot of executives to believe that boys won’t watch films with female protagonists. So while studio executives bear a large measure of responsibility for not pushing harder, they’re also reacting to the market in this case.

So how about it, Pixar? You’ve shown the world that not only does Disney not have a lockdown on animated films, but that “children’s” films can be made that are good family films as well, rather than aiming the films so low that the unfortunate parents have to grit their teeth for an hour and a half whenever they take their kids to the movies. For over a decade now (since Toy Story‘s debut in 1995), you’ve consistently produced some of the best films — not just animated films, or children’s films, but best films — around.

How about letting the girls in to play as well?

iTunesAnother World” by Beborn Beton from the album Tales From Another World (1997, 4:25).

27 thoughts on “Is Pixar a ‘boys only’ club?”

  1. Hear, hear!

    I’ve commented on the sexism in Monsters, Inc here.

    (I think Dory is a stronger character than Elastigirl, but then, I think she has a greater act of violence performed against her by Marlin.)

    But if you want actual girls – and lush animation, and deep emotions, and rich stories – Hayao Miyazaki’s movies are the place to go: My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away… In the non-animated realm of children’s films, the first two Spy Kids films are good for girls too.

  2. I think you’re headed in the right direction but picking on the wrong people, Pixar is not the problem but rather a small piece of the overall pie.

    Lets look at The American Film Institute greatest 100 films of all time.

    You see a pattern here? Out of the top 100 I see three, THREE with solid female leads that carry the movie.

    6 THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) Judy Garland

    31 ANNIE HALL (1977) I’ll give this one to Diane Keaton

    91 MY FAIR LADY (1964) Audrey Hepburn

    Yes there are others where there is a strong female character such as Katharine Hepburn in 17. THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951) but it wasn’t her movie, there was a strong male character right beside her.

    Even listing ANNIE HALL is questionable because it was then, and still is, known as a Woody Allen movie not a Diane Keaton movie.

    Worse yet of the three all of them at 29 years old or older. Do they really mean there hasn’t been a great movie where a strong female lead carries the movie in the last 25 years?

    Personally I’m tempted to list 65. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) as a Jodie Foster movie because I believe it is, but my understanding is the rest of the world sees it as a Hannibal Lector movie. And I must admit that Anthony Hopkins did a fine job and to the rest of the world its more his movie than her movie. (YES! I feel vindicated, while looking up awards for THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS I see several film critic awards gave Anthony Hopkins the award for “Best supporting actor” Jody Foster was never nominated in the supporting role only the lead)

    So while you’re calling PIXAR to task (rightly so) I suggest to you that PIXAR isn’t the problem but rather a symptom of the disease.

    Interesting side note, as you peruse through the greatest 100 movies, solid movie stars like Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Brando, Bogart, DiNiro, Elizabeth Taylor, Faye Dunaway show up again and again (as you would expect). But who would have thought that Diane Keaton would be in three of the top 100. How many great actors never made it to three? And what rare group made four or more? A tip of the hat to Ms. Keaton for outstanding performances throughout the years and being a great movie star without ever being a ‘Movie Star’

    Going back to successful and well known movies where a female character is the lead and pretty much holds the movie on her own (that I can think of).

    • Milla Jovovich- Joan of Arc 1999

    • Sigourney Weaver-Alien 1979

    • Sigourney Weaver-Aliens 1986

    • Sigourney Weaver-Gorillas in the mist 1988

    • Geena Davis- Thelma and Louise 1991

    • Geena Davis-Cutthroat Island 1995

    • Geena Davis-The long kiss goodnight 1996

    • Susan Sarandon-Thelma and Louise 1991

    • Susan Sarandon-The Client 1994

    • Sally Field-Norma Rae 1979

    • Goldie Hawn- Private Benjamin 1980

    I see but one comedy?

    Do you see a pattern? I do. Were I able to line these movies up based on nothing but the money they brought in I’m willing to bet the more violent movies would rise to the top. Look at the list again. How many of these movies do NOT include at least one violent death, Norma Rae? Private Benjamin? (even here her husband dies at the start)

    We do like our violence, and our women (like our men) need to be ready to kick ass at any second. You might think Norma Rae, Thelma and Louise, Gorillas in the mist and The Client weren’t violent but look again they were fighting, but instead of fighting some evil doer they were fighting the system. Even Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin had some of that.

    PIXAR isn’t a boys only club, its a movie making business and as such it know exactly what it needs to do to become successful (obviously). The problem isn’t PIXAR but us, the movie going public. Why do we insist that our men be manly and our women stand quietly behind them, and if they do dare to step out and take charge they best be prepared to kick some ass. Why do we do that? Why do we insist upon it? Why do men get to decide which movies will be blockbusters.

    There are, and were movies that focused on feelings, not violence and with strong female leads, Beaches, Terms of Endearment, Steel Magnolias come to mind but for whatever reason the movies while good can’t break out of good and become blockbusters. Sadly these are considered ‘Girls” movies as if only women have feelings?.

    Don’t blame PIXAR they’re only following a formula they know will work.

    Its us.

  3. In general, girls are expected to be able to relate to boys better than boys are expected to relate to girls. I have heard it theorized that because girls tend to be more skilled at empathy than boys, it is easier for girls to put themselves in boys shoes than vice versa. So really, the male of the species is at fault, not Pixar.

  4. In general, girls are expected to be able to relate to boys better than boys are >expected to relate to girls.

    bullshit. it’s just bias and prejudice.
    you are in fact telling because I am a man I’m just a moronic closed mind with no empathy for women. that is I am reading.

    some examples :
    I like japanese animation and comics because there also dramatic stories and violents stories with both woman or/and man , strong or weak, or whatever and I do not feel less manly than an other.
    people will speak about Hayao Miyazaki movies, but there are many funny or serious japanese animation movies with girl lead.

    in France, I can remind of “Amelie poulain” is a huge succesful movie with a woman.
    there are also “un long dimanche de fiançailles” with a strong woman
    and “la cité des enfants perdus” with a little girl. these 3 movies were from the same author.. of course.

    but,In fact, mostly all western culture lacks freedom of thought.

    it’s just that : public and productors are retarded.

  5. This doesn’t really contribute to the argument other than to point out a small fact:

    One Man Band- the latest Pixar short features a young girl as the protagonist, for whose quarter, two aggressive men fight.

  6. I think you’re headed in the right direction but picking on the wrong people, Pixar is not the problem but rather a small piece of the overall pie.

    Lets look at The American Film Institute greatest 100 films of all time.

    My worry here is that we risk entirely derailing my point — that being, that Pixar could be doing a lot better in creating strong female characters in their films.

    Sure, this is a long-standing problem, but there’s a big difference between looking at Pixar and looking at the entirety of the movie business since its inception. Pixar is a single company that have been creating their own movies with original scripts for the past decade, during a time where women are (theoretically, ideally) seen as equals to men (albeit something of an Orwellian Animal Farm form of equality)…or at the very least, closer to being socially equal than at any point in the past.

    Of course looking at the AFI’s top 100 list will paint a sad picture; the list covers essentially the US’s entire cinematic history, and will include examples of not just rapant sexism, but racism, classism, and most likely a veritable laundry list of other -isms that aren’t as tolerated in today’s culture.

    Pixar’s a modern company, making films for modern families, and they could go a long way towards being more inclusive than they’ve shown themselves to be so far.

  7. I think the thing that makes Pixar so outstanding is that unlike the majority of american animation their films aren’t run by a committee. Each one is built from the ground up by a director who is allowed to put his personal creative stamp upon it. Since Pixar is run by a bunch of nerdy, middle aged, white guys natually their films are all going to be about nerdy, middle, aged, white guys (or fish, or toys, monsters). Maybe this is a problem with mamagment, (maybe they should be gving more chances to female directors) but the bottom line is Brad Bird, or John Lasseter, or Andrew Stanton shouldn’t feel anymore complled to give their leads to females any more than Woody Allen, or Spike Lee or Pault Thomas Anderson.

  8. Really? Is there really this much concern over how many females appear in Pixar movies? Do you think the oppression and subjegation of women in Africa, the Middle East, Asia (japanese comics included) and Eastern Europe is because they are not getting good cartoon role models? What a wasted arguement.

    • Right. Because everyone should just drop everything and run to those countries to help out instead of try to address all these issues at the same time. Everyone. Including these Pixar animators who are probably more concerned about developing films than addressing the “oppression and subj[u]gation of women in Africa, the Middle East, Asia … and Eastern Europe.”

  9. Just for the record…




    …Roz is revealed at the end of Monsters, Inc. to be an undercover agent posing as a supervisor/secretary. Not that that changes your overall point.

  10. Actually, it might be relevant to consider that Pixar is and always will be a business. Their audience right now is young girls. Trying to expand that seems fairly obvious if they want to keep expanding the business– the obvious next target is young boys.

    Frankly, yes its intentional. And no, they won’t change that unless they suddenly lose the young girl audience (frankly, rather unlikely).

    Arguing it as sexist may be true.

    Saying that is anything other than a sane business practice is stretching it.

  11. How many women write for Pixar?

    I think this is a good point. It may be THE point. Computer animation is a young, male-dominated industry trying to find a greater foothold in the movie business. #1. I studied 3-D animation in one of the larger programs in the country, in the largest city in the country and the M/F ratio was maybe 15:1. #2. 3-D animation hasn’t lent itself very well to the “graceful, princess animation” that we see in so many Disney cel-animated pictures. Manly, the style is different. Characters are “circular, spherical” which is at odds with the long, leggy characters of Disney. #3. Profit margins are fairly thin at the Box office with these movies. Yes, they make gobs of money, but they cost gobs of money. Plus they take YEARS to make. Messing with the formula may lose not only the studio money, but the industry as a whole takes a huge hit.

  12. in pixar’s latest shortest film (to be released with cars), the two main characters are male (two ‘one man bands’), but the real hero of the story, and certainly controlling element of the story (ie. the two one man bands are battling for her attention) is a little girl.

  13. You see a pattern here? Out of the top 100 I see three, THREE with solid female leads that carry the movie.
    6 THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) Judy Garland 31 ANNIE HALL (1977) I’ll give this one to Diane Keaton 91 MY FAIR LADY (1964) Audrey Hepburn

    Yes there are others where there is a strong female character such as Katharine Hepburn in 17. THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951) but it wasn’t her movie, there was a strong male character right beside her.

    You can add SUNSET BOULEVARD, ALL ABOUT EVE, and THE SOUND OF MUSIC to that list, too. But your point is taken. Hollywood is incredibly sexist, and the geeks at the animation studios are among the very worst.

  14. Does anyone remember “Chicken Run”, from 2000? Strongest female role of the year was Ginger, the lead, and she was an animated hen. Totally saved everyone, put the rooster (swaggering voice of Mel Gibson) completely in his place, and made me wish that she could have been Oscar nominated… much better female role model than Julia Roberts in “Erin Brokovich”, who eventually won.

  15. i would rather see a strong story line with a male lead than see a cliched, sexist story line featuring a female lead.

    while disney has created many animations with female leads, the only theme disney can seem to associate with female characters is that she’s on a quest for love and marriage. any strength or intelligence is lost when she becomes a simpering idiot in the face of a handsome man.

    there isn’t a single disney animation that has a female lead that doesn’t end up being about marriage. meanwhile, pixar has created several strong animations that have been about friendship and tolerance, not necessarily about the quest for love. i’d rather see the pixar films any day.

  16. Last I checked, women are a numerical majority that classifies itself as a minority group. They have a lot more to worry about than nit picking the quality and quantity of roles in children’s films. Pixar’s films, which almost exclusively rely upon a group of flawed characters of all types working together to collectively solve problems is hardly misogynistic by any stretch of the imagination. What a waste of brainpower.

    • “They have a lot more to worry about than nit picking the quality and quantity of roles in children’s films.” Ah, Fred. First, like men, women are permitted to worry about insignificant things. Many men I know worry incessantly about other men in form-fitting acrylic tights who throw balls across fields…all while the world is on the brink of nuclear armegeddon. Second, female representation in film is important. Movies reflect to us the values of our culture, and help us imagine who we might become. Third, if you think the topic unimportant, please just move it along.

  17. At a lecture, I asked Pete Docter, the main creator of Monsters, Inc why Pixar was so dominated by men, and he replied that animation itself is so much populated by white men. Girls (and minorities except maybe Asians) rarely go into animation. Just look at all the comic junkies – they are overwhelmingly male. He said that he’d love to have more women at Pixar – there’s just relatively so few that apply compared to males.

    Artists usually are best creating what they relate to and understand – what is meaningful to them. It’s easy to see each director’s alter ego in the main characters. Miyazaki seems the rare exception when it comes to a man creating great female characters. Until many more women start getting serious about becoming animators, it’ll be difficult for the female perspective to come to the forefront.

    I did, however, read that there were two female writers in either Ratatouille or a later Pixar project. We’ll just have to wait and see if that’s true and what effect that’ll have.

  18. I would hate to see Pixar go down the road of demographic pandering. If they make films with female leads, it should be for the right reasons, not what this article is calling for.

  19. I think you’re missing another perspective, here.

    I don’t think that Pixar’s films are as overtly sexist as many other companies, so much as they just fail to focus on female characters.

    By the same token, they do create very good male characters… very positive male models that defy traditional gender roles. Their male characters act in loving and sympathetic ways. They show emotion and create beautiful relationships without becoming at all emasculated.

    I’m a single father and Finding Nemo is one of my and my daughter’s favorite movies. There’s a lot of parallels for us in that film that I won’t get in to, but just to say that it’s nice to see a strong male character who so desperately wants to take care of his child, he’ll do just about anything to do it. At the same time, he deals with the problem of being overly protective and realizes in the end that sometime loving means letting go.

    When we deal with gender issues, it’s important to remember the boys, too. No one has issues with a film that portrays strong female characters to the exclusion of positive male characters. I think that for the most part the primary female characters in Pixar movies have been very good, just not central, and I don’t think that’s really an issue when you look at how good the male characters are.

  20. Do you realize that none of the Harry Potter Films have a female lead character?

    Oddly, written by a woman.

  21. Dittos to David’s recommendation of Lasseter’s pal Miyazaki’s movies. Great girl movies. Great movies period.

    For Halloween, my 6 year old is going to be Kiki, of Kiki’s Delivery Service, and she and her little sister spend hours playacting Satsuki and Mei from My Neighbour Totoro.

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