More on Pixar (Or, Why I Suck at Soundbites)

This entry was published at least two years ago (originally posted on July 3, 2008). Since that time the information may have become outdated or my beliefs may have changed (in general, assume a more open and liberal current viewpoint).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.

A couple weeks ago, I got an e-mail from Jaime Weinman, who writes for Macleans (in her words, “sort of Canada’s TIME and NEWSWEEK”), asking for a quote for an article she was working on about Pixar’s future. I agreed, and in my usual style, sent her a small book. The final article was published late in June, and — proving yet again that I just cannot write for soundbites — my quote was boiled down to one simple line:

[Non-Pixar animated films] follow the Pixar example in some respects; they’ve especially learned from the fact that Pixar’s movies all focus on male characters and appeal the most to boys. (Michael Hanscom, a computer analyst who blogs at, dubbed WALL-E “MISOGYN-E” and says that while he likes Pixar, he’s not going to see their movies in theatres “until we see some evidence that they’ve let a girl into the clubhouse to play.”) But for the most part, these movies are far away from Pixar’s artist-oriented approach.

Heh. Not at all inaccurate (except, perhaps, for titling me a ‘computer analyst,’ as flattering as that is) — and believe me, this is not a complaint, I don’t envy Jaime or her editors the task of boiling my response down to something that would fit within the scope of the article — but for the sake of completion, under the jump is my full response to her question. If you’ve read my earlier posts on this matter, there are no big surprises awaiting.

I have to give credit to my girlfriend, this whole train of thought started when we were watching a trailer for Cars and she wasn’t interested at all, in part because it was too much of a stereotypical ‘boy’s movie’. We got to talking about Pixar’s work, and started to realize just how ‘boyish’ they were as a whole (cowboys and spacemen, robots, etc.), and then continued on into taking a closer look at the few female characters that do show up. The more we looked at them, the more it seemed to us that Pixar is definitely a ‘boy’s club,’ in everything from their choice of subjects to the characters in the film.

Historically, while their portrayals have certainly often been rooted in the eras that the films were made in, Disney has at least been pretty good about presenting female central characters, and as the years have progressed, those characters have become progressively stronger and more independent. Even if the early Princesses (Cinderella, Snow White, etc.) aren’t the best role models for modern girls, they were at least central to the stories, and gave little girls good characters to play make-believe with. Modern Princesses (and characters who haven’t been added to the Disney Princess roster, like Jane in Tarzan, or Nani and Lilo in Lilo and Stitch) are much stronger, self-assured, and capable women, and are great launching points for the imaginations of little girls.

Pixar, on the other hand, seems to be having great trouble writing strong female roles. None of their films to date has had a female main character, and for the most part, the female supporting characters are an uninspiring bunch. As much as Dori makes me laugh in Finding Nemo, she’s brain damaged! Mrs. Incredible is a superhero, yes, but until circumstances force her to don her uniform again, she’s the perfect 1950’s housewife, staying home to do housework and watch over the children while Mr. Incredible goes off to work to support the family and be the breadwinner. Jesse’s cowgirl in Toy Story 2 is so traumatized by her abandonment that she’s paralyzed by fear, content to live out the rest of her life in a display case — on display for the admiration of a male captor. Princess Atta, in A Bug’s Life, is an incompetent busybody, unable to actually manage the colony on her own. In Cars, Sally comes complete with ‘decorative pinstriping’ — with a style of tattoo popularly known as a ‘tramp stamp.’ Ratatouille‘s Collette admits that she’s a woman trapped in the man’s world of professional cookery, yet she ends the movie in the same position she began it with — only by the end, she’s romantically involved with the owner of the restaurant she works at. Finally, there’s the blatant sexism of the Wall •E promotional website, in which the various robots are named by the roles that they are designed to do: Wall• E takes out the trash and Gar• E does the yardwork, while Sall• E vacuums, Nanc• E nannys, and Wend• E does the laundry.

I know all this tends to give the appearance that I dislike Pixar, or think their movies are crap, which couldn’t be further from the truth. On the whole, I think their movies are wonderful, both in terms of the animation (which keeps getting better) and the writing (with the sole exception of Cars), and I certainly don’t think that people should stop allowing their children to see them. My girlfriend and I still enjoy watching Pixar’s movies — I have their first six theatrical films (Toy Story through The Incredibles) on DVD — and I’m looking forward to renting Wall• E when it’s released to DVD. However, we’re holding off on giving any of our money to Pixar, either through ticket sales or DVD purchases, until we see some evidence that they’ve let a girl into the clubhouse to play.

We’re not hoping for a sudden retooling of all of their upcoming work or anything silly like that, but perhaps it would be worth looking at their films (past and future) and seeing if any of them would suffer if the main character were a girl instead of a boy? The Toy Story series may have some difficulties (Andy’s a boy, so he’s likely to have ‘boy’ toys), and as ant colonies are run by queens and use males as worker drones, A Bugs Life can’t exactly be shaken up too much — but couldn’t one of Monster’s Inc.‘s top operatives be a girl? Wouldn’t Marlin have been equally concerned about finding his little daughter? What if Mr. Incredible was content to hang up his cape, but his wife was having trouble coping with suburban life? Given Collette’s rant about the domination of male chefs, wouldn’t it have been neat if the restaurant’s saviour, in addition to being a rat, was a girl rat?

Yes, I know, there are many counter-arguments for all of these points, and I throw them out mostly as a thought experiment. The main point — if I haven’t beleaguered it enough — is that, much as I enjoy what Pixar does, I think they’ve got a pretty big blind spot here, and I’m waiting for them to give the girls a character they can relate to that isn’t traumatized, brain damaged, or shuffled off into some secondary role. Unfortunately, after a quick peek at the IMDB briefs of Pixar’s upcoming films through 2012, we’re going to be waiting a long, long time.

Y’know, I just cannot write about this concisely. I need an editor! ;)

I was also wondering whether you think the increasing length and message-y tone of Pixar movies, at a time when everybody else has moved toward the comedy/wisecrack tone of other computer-animated films, have the potential to hurt the studio at the box-office in the long run.

I don’t think so at all — in fact, I think this dedication to and concentration on strong stories is one of Pixar’s big strengths. As funny as the Shrek movies are (well, the first one, at least, and the second to a somewhat lesser degree…the third was dreck), they’re so reliant on pop-culture references and wisecracks that they’re going to seem incredibly dated in just a few years. I see a lot of this in many of the other ‘family’ (animated and live-action) films as well, where the quick laugh is getting priority over a deep, meaningful story. While I may find some disturbing sexist tendencies in Pixar’s films, I will never deny that their storycrafting is generally incredible, and a huge part of why their films do so well. Their films are much more able to stand the test of time than almost anything their competitors are coming out with, and — were I in Pixar’s shoes — I’d be far happier with a film that had lasting strengths than one that blew away the box office for the four weeks it was out, and then disappeared into obscurity as the years went by.