Girl characters lacking in animation movies

I wrote this for The San Jose Mercury news in 2007 when “Ratatouille” opened. The movie’s hypocritical reference to sexism helped to inspire my blog, ReelGirl. Please read and let me know what you think.

Phooey on `Ratatouille’: Female leads lacking in kid films

STUDIOS ACKNOWLEDGE, ACCEPT SEXISM

By Margot Magowan

Article Launched: 07/06/2007 01:32:35 AM PDT

“Ratatouille” made $47 million opening weekend, but as I watched the

film with my 4-year-old daughter, I felt depressed. There was nary a

female rat in sight. I’d forked over $9 so my daughter could get yet

another lesson in sexism direct from Pixar or Disney: No matter if

you’re a rodent, car, or fish – boys are the ones with the starring

roles while girls are relegated to sidekicks.

“Cars,” “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo,” “The Lion King,” “Monsters Inc.”

each features a male hero and multiple male characters; often a token

female is around to help propel one of the guys to greatness.

“Ratatouille” faithfully follows suit. Colette, a female human sous

chef, even justifies her secondary role in the film with a brief

monologue on misogyny: “Do you know how hard I had to work to get

ahead in this male-dominated kitchen?” she yells at our hero.

The speech is there to throw girls a bone, and you can find this

gesture in most modern day motion picture cartoons. It’s that nod to

the audience: unlike all those cartoons of yesteryear, we know this is

sexist, but there’s nothing we can do about it.

When I complained to my mom and sister: “Why couldn’t Ratatouille have

been female? Why no girls – again?” They said, “Didn’t you hear

Colette’s talk? That’s how it is in the real world.” OK, let me get

this straight: It’s just fine to stretch our imaginations to believe

in a talking rat who can cook, but when it comes to gender

roles, we admire realism and authenticity?

When my daughter goes to the movies, she sees animals talk, fairies or

unicorns prance around, witches cast evil spells, but she’s never

shown a magical land where boys and girls are treated equally, where

gender doesn’t matter. Why can’t Pixar or Disney allow her the fantasy

of equality?

After I saw “The Lion King,” I wanted to know: Why couldn’t the

lionesses have attacked weak, old Scar? Why did they have to wait

around for Simba to come back to Pride Rock to help them? I was told:

that’s how it is in nature – lionesses need a male to lead the pride.

So a lion can be best friends with a warthog and a meerkat without

gobbling them up, but a lioness heading a pride? That could never

happen in the animal kingdom!

Pixar has yet to allow girls any starring roles, but Disney permits it

if she’s a princess. Audiences can count on the contemporary princess

movie to throw girls their bone: Unlike princesses of the past who

happily went off with the first guy who kissed them out of

unconsciousness, these modern girls get to choose whom they marry.

Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine put up a huge stink, stubbornly refusing

betrothal to the obvious choice. But these elaborate shows of

independence are bases for entire plot lines, keeping the princesses

stories almost entirely focused on marriage: rebellion within the

safest possible framework.

When my daughter was watching “Mulan” – probably the most feminist of

all the motion picture cartoons – dress up as a boy to fight in a war,

she asked me, “Why can’t girls fight?” Before she can even understand

how Mulan is empowering, first she has to understand sexism. But does

she need to know, at age 4, about sexism? Does she need to know people

still believe girls can’t do so many things, like cook in a top-tier

French kitchen? Why can’t she just see a girl chef making great food,

receiving acclaim for her talent, being helped along by a girl rat or

sous chef boy?

The hyper-concern for gender accuracy in the fantasy world extends to

things like plush toys – when I refer to my kid’s animals as “she,”

adults invariably do a double take, checking for manes or tusks: even

female toys must stay in their place. And of course, toys are a big

part of the problem. With today’s mass marketing, all these movie

characters live on as action figures, dolls, games, on T-shirts and

cereal boxes. On my daughter’s kite, her beach ball, her pull-ups, the

trifecta of Jasmine, Belle and Ariel smile shyly. My daughter wasn’t

born with this fairy tale-princess fantasy embedded in her brain, but

like any kid, she’s self-centered. She likes the movies that are all

about her. Females are half of the population. We pay our $10 just

like everyone else. When can we get more representation in our movies?

How long do we have to wait?

Pixar is made up of a bunch of guy geeks. Disney’s top brass is

practically all male. Maybe when we get more female studio heads, more

female directors and producers and writers, we’ll see groups of girls

having adventures; girl heroes doing cool, brave things in starring

roles where marriage may never be mentioned at all. Maybe then people

will wake up, finally recognize the radical lack of imagination going

on in our make believe worlds; Princess Charming finally rescues

Sleeping Hunk.

Disney/ Pixar male execs stop movies starring girls

At first it seems like possible good news. Disney/ Pixar announces: no more fairy tales, code for princess movies. Great! No more damsels in distress who end the movie by landing a man. Now we’re going to have a slew of new movies with cool girl heroes who bravely rescue boys from peril, exuding power and beauty by performing all kinds of risk-taking tasks and challenges.

But, no.

First of all, the reason the fairy tale movies are stopping is because Disney/ Pixar executives have decided that little girls aren’t worth making movies for at all.

The LA Times reports the fairy tale movies “appealed to too narrow an audience: little girls. This prompted the studio to change the name of its Rapunzel movie to the gender-neutral ‘Tangled’ and shift the lens of its marketing to the film’s swashbuckling male costar, Flynn Rider.”

Can you imagine if Disney decided to shut down a genre because it only appealed to little boys? Or if they switched a movie title so it wouldn’t risk highlighting a male star? It’s awful that this kind of radical gender discrimination exists for our smallest people– little kids who come into this world with huge imaginations and aspirations, big dreams that get squashed by a bunch of billionaire guys who run massive entertainment franchises.

Disney bigwigs Ed Catmull and John Lasseterwww.businessweek.com Disney bigwigs Ed Catmull and John Lasseter

The LA Times reports:

Alas, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Jasmine and the other Disney royals were all born in the 20th century. Now, different kinds of Disney characters are elbowing their way into the megaplexes and toy aisles, including Pixar’s “Toy Story” buddies Buzz Lightyear and Woody, Capt. Jack Sparrow from “Pirates of the Caribbean” and a platoon of superheroes from the recent acquisition of Marvel Entertainment.

Do you notice something about the characters listed above? Because neither the LA Times reporter or the Disney execs mention in the article that we are losing girls (Snow White, Ariel, and Jasmine) and getting boys (Buzz Lightyear, Woody, and Captain Jack Sparrow.) The LA Times goes on to report the current roster of upcoming movies includes, surprise, surprise, three more movies with males in the title roles: “Winnie the Pooh” (along with his all male possy: Eeyore, Tigger, Piglet, and Christopher Robin?) and “Joe Jump.”

Disney/ Pixar execs at 82nd Academy Awardswww.zimbio.com Disney/ Pixar execs at 82nd Academy Awards

Remarkably, the men who run Disney/ Pixar, Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, go on in this article to congratulate themselves on their originality and creativity. I kid you not! This would be totally hilarious if these guys didn’t have such a hegemony on the kinds of movies– and accompanying toys and accompanying mass-marketing campaigns– our kids are exposed to. But because this boys club completely dominates kidworld, their privileging of males over females with no care at all, their disregard for half the population, is really sad.

Catmull said he and Lasseter have been encouraging filmmakers to break with safe and predictable formulas and push creative boundaries.

“If you say to somebody, ‘You should be doing fairy tales,’ it’s like saying, ‘Don’t be risky,’” Catmull said. “We’re saying, ‘Tell us what’s driving you.’”

>

Executives, Producers and stars of www.washingtonpost.com Executives, producers and stars of “Up”

Dude– could you be any more safe and predictable than putting out a line up of kids movies starring males? What’s driving you guys? Gender programming! And you don’t even see it! Or you are just pretending to be that cluless? Don’t you get that you are teaching and training girls starting at the youngest possible age that their roles will be only supporting? You are telling the girls of the world that they exist to make boys look good and to help them along on their cool quests and incredible adventures. How about some real creativity, Lasseter and Catmull? Can you try to imagine a magical world where girls’ stories are valued just as much as boys’ stories are? Where girls and boys are treated equally? Can you make a movie about that?

 

 

Rapunzel

Disney’s Rapunzel movie changes title and cast to attract boys

The LA Times reports that that after the disappointing box office for “The Princess and the Frog,” Disney is drastically remaking it’s new Rapunzel movie to attract boys. It’s now called “Tangled” and co-stars a “swashbuckling” male in the lead.

TangledTangled 

Some people are upset. Retired Disney/ Pixar animator, Floyd Norman, says, “The idea of changing the title of a classic like ‘Rapunzel’ to ‘Tangled’ is beyond stupid. I’m still hoping that Disney will eventually regain their sanity and return the title of their movie to what it should be. I’m convinced they’ll gain nothing from this except the public seeing Disney as desperately trying to find an audience.”

But Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios defends the decision. Referring to “The Princess and the Frog,” he says: “Based upon the response from fans and critics, we believe it would have been higher if it wasn’t prejudged by its title.”

Catmull is right about the prejudging. I’m worried that he’s wrong about who and why.

I prejudged “The Princess and the Frog” based on it’s title. I’m the mom of three young girls. I can’t spend any more money to see yet another Disney princess vehicle. (I was kind of intrigued by the first African American Princess, though I heard she spent most of the movie as a frog.) I think it’s great that Rapunzel is getting retooled, because the last thing I want to sit through, or my daughters to sit through, is watching a girl stuck in a tower, waiting around for some guy to rescue her.

But did they change that part? Or just the title?

I can’t tell. It’s ironic because the LA Times article is supposedly about Rapunzel being effaced by a boy but mostly all they report on is that boy, the title, the male executives, the male audience, and the male animators. What about Rapunzel? Here is what the article tells us about her: “The demure princess is transformed into a feisty teen.”

Steve Jobs,  Ed Catmull, John LasseterSteve Jobs, Ed Catmull, John Lasseter 

A good sign, I suppose. Though I’m not sure about “feisty.” Would one call a boy “feisty”? It seems to imply strong yet cutesy. Maybe the male equivalent is “jaunty.” I’m mincing words here, but this is all the information they’ve given me to go on. And my extensive, past experience with Disney’s treatment of girls, along the reporting here on Disney’s hyper-concern about attracting a male audience, worries me.

Note to Disney executives: your potential female audience is sick of the princess movies too. We’re not sick of girls, just princesses. We represent half the population, and we’d like to see some more variety in your plots, and we’d like to see multiple strong female characters in your movies.

Also, we’d like to know why you bend over backwards to make a movie appeal to boys (market research, plot and title changes, characters added) but don’t preform the same production gymnastics to attract girls. Or even try to figure out what girls want. Do all the male executives, animators, and directors at Disney just assume they know what girls want to see? Or will put up with?

ArielAriel 

The issue here is not putting “princess” in the title. The more controversial, unmentioned issue is that Disney executives are concerned about putting a girl in the title role at all. It’s prime Hollywood real estate because it means she’s the star of the show. Historically, Disney allows a girl to claim that space only if she’s a princess. It’s kind of like how you can win a scholarship if you compete for the Miss America title, but first you’ve got to parade around in your bikini.

Movies from Pixar/ Disney with strong females including “Monsters and Aliens” or “The Incredibles” usually have the power woman hidden in an ensemble cast. Can you imagine a movie blatantly touting its cool girl star, perhaps called “Fantastic Ms. Fox?” Do you see the gender divide here– it would be considered some crazy feminist art film.

If you’re going to comment that’s it’s in our DNA that girls will see movies about boys but boys won’t see movies about girls, please see my post here from a couple days ago. The basic point being girls don’t have much of a choice, and they’re just expected to suck it up.

Executives, Director, producers,  and stars of Washington Post 

Executives, Director, producers, and stars of “Up”

There’s some hope for the future though. Buried at the bottom of the LA Times piece is some incredible news, especially in the wake of Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar win, making her the first female director to win an Oscar in 82 years.

“Concluding it had too many animated girl flicks in its lineup, Disney has shelved its long-gestating project “The Snow Queen,” based on the Hans Christian Andersen story. “Snow Queen” would have marked the company’s fourth animated film with a female protagonist, following “The Princess and the Frog,” “Tangled” and Pixar’s forthcoming “The Bear and the Bow,” directed by Pixar’s first female director, Brenda Chapman, and starring Reese Witherspoon.”

Director  Brenda ChapmanDirector Brenda Chapman 

Did you catch that? Brenda Chapman is Pixar’s first female director. Yes, she’s making an androgynously titled movie, but it’s “starring” Reese Witherspoon, and there’s no indication that Witherspoon will be a princess.

I like the title “Tangled.” I have to admit, it’s witty. The LA Times elaborates: “Disney tested a number of titles, finally settling on ‘Tangled’ because people responded to meanings beyond the obvious hair reference: a twisted version of the familiar story and the tangled relationship between the two lead characters.”

And somehow, in spite of everything I know, the reconceived, witty title gives me hope that the movie is also reconceived in a way that could be just as imaginative and special. I mean, really, how much worse could the original plot be?

Disney should be re-imagining these misogynist fairytales. I’m just hoping that Rapunzel doesn’t disappear from her movie the way she has from it’s title and the LA Times article about it all.