After reading my post ‘Book of Life’ ticks off tropes in most sexist kids’ movie of the year’ a member of the movie’s crew, Romney Marino, defended the movie, debating with me on Reel Girl’s Facebook page. While I appreciate the passion and intelligence of Romney’s arguments, I can’t see “Book of Life” as feminist given the structural sexism of the plot. I started my blog, Reel Girl, because I wanted children to experience fantasy worlds where gender equality exists. Still, reading Marino’s comments, I was struck by how much not only she cares about gender equality but also, as you will see when you read her post, so does the director of the movie, Jorge Gutierrez. On Reel Girl’s about page, explaining why I started Reel Girl, I wrote:
Most of the time, I don’t think there’s a conscious sexist conspiracy going on. I just think that for thousands of years women have been living in stories written by men.
While I don’t believe Guiterrez intended sexism, his efforts at equality are confined to a sexist framework. As far as the arguments “that’s just how it is,” in children’s movies we see magic, animals talk, lions befriend warthogs etc, yet when it comes to historical sexism or the lack of females, suddenly we become sticklers for “reality.” It’s believable that a talking rat can cook, but a female led french kitchen? Now way! Besides magic, “Book of Life” has performances of contemporary music ( Radiohead’s “Creep” was one of my favorite parts of he movie.)
In the hope that we have the same goal, to create fantasy worlds– and ultimately a real world– where gender equality exists, I’m posting a blog written for Reel Girl by “Book of Life” crew member Romney T. Marino.
“The Book of Life” from another feminist’s perspective…
The reason for my writing this is in direct response to ReelGirl’s blog post calling The Book of Life ‘the most sexist kids film’ of the year along with linking it to her Facebok page with the comment: “please don’t take your children.” ReelGirl classified this film as another “Minority Feisty” or ‘MF’ film, defined when females in the cast are the in minority and only used as a tool to help the male protagonist achieve his goal. I will concede that The Book of Life is yet another animated children’s film whose protagonist is a male. Point made, ReelGirl, one more for the statistics. However, I think that is where the perceived sexism ends, and in fact, I’d go so far as saying Maria and La Muerte in The Book of Life are among two of the strongest written female animated characters I’ve seen in a long time, because they are played as equals to their male counterparts, Manolo and Xiabalba.
ReelGirls’ post missed this and so many other positive things about the female characters in The Book of Life and the movie as a whole, because all she focused on was that it was an ‘MF’ film. That classification flattens out the fully realized and dimensional characters of Maria and La Muerte, and minimizes their actions as taken only to forward the male protagonist and his goals. Do not forget, at it’s core The Book of Life is a *love story* set during Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, and both couples (Maria-Manolo and LaMuerte-Xiabalba) have their own unique dynamic. One where the women hold their own and at times best their men. I would venture to say that the women from the village of San Angel are “minority equals”.
When discussing Maria’s strong, independent character, director Jorge Gutierrez said, “If feminism means men and women are equal, then, yes, this is a feminist movie. And besides, romance is the new punk. It’s OK to be emotional. It’s OK to care.” 
I hope to defend the female characters in The Book of Life not only from the story told, how they are presented and their actions in the film, but also with some perspective from those whose passion brought those animated characters to life. I had a small part working with the Animation team in Production on the film, and know the film’s director Jorge and his wife Sandra, who designed all the female characters. Every step of the way, Maria and La Muerte, not to mention Manolo’s Grandma, his Mother Carmen, and his Cousins in the Land of the Remembered, are all strong female characters and positive role models for girls. From the beginning they were conceived to be that way, from the symbolism incorporated into their design, to their actions on screen.
However, I want to emphasize that at the end of the day, ReelGirl and I share the same goal, to get more female protagonists in children’s content, animated and otherwise. We just disagree about The Book of Life. So I say, ignore ReelGirl’s blog post, and watch the movie for yourself and make your own judgement. Below are some of the reasons why I believe this is the truth, or so help me La Muerte.
[WARNING: Spoilers ahead]
THE WOMEN OF SAN ANGEL:
LA MUERTE – The beautiful, majestic ruler of the Land of the Remembered, La Muerte is a fierce goddess who goes toe-to-toe with Xiabalba, the ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, in their wager over which boy will win the heart of Maria. La Muerte choses her champion, Manolo, and blesses him to always be pure of heart.
La Muerte herself, is an important icon in the Latino community . Designed by Sandra Equina, the director’s wife and “muse”, she has created an new modern image of the Latino cultural icon of Death, and brought her to the screen as a beautiful sugar-skulled goddess. She is graceful, imposing, wise, fallible, and sexy. Her design uses marigolds around her waist and bodice signify the feminine power using the flower that is a symbol of Dia de los Muertos said to help guide the spirits. She is a character that both women and girls alike are drawn to because of her power and beauty, and they want to be her for Halloween, Dia de los Muertos, and in Cosplay . I for one would rather see little girls dressing up as more goddesses and less princesses, or ‘sexy’ whatevers.
MARIA – Does not just say she is strong, but her actions prove it every step of the way. Throughout the story she is no damsel in distress, and in fact she’s always been the leader of the 3 amigos. Both she and Manolo struggle to fight the patriarchy within their own family and be true to their own heart, (but more on that to come).
Maria’s costume is a “nod to Frida Kahlo who wore folkloric clothing as a statement of her rebellion and an embrace of the people’s culture in Mexico.”* Maria’s clothing as a child and as an adult symbolizes Maria’s strength of character. In the Director’s own words: “I asked Sandra to design young Maria’s outfit to be an exact kid version of what she wears as an adult. Unlike young Manolo and Joaquin when we first meet all three kids in the cemetery, young Maria has already formed who she is.”*
And who is Maria?
- She’s an animal rights activist and freedom fighter. Young Maria decides that she must save the pigs because they can’t be butchered, “not on my watch.” It is Maria who initiates the action, and Maria who the boys try to catch up to. She is riding the pig at the head of the stampede with her sword held high chanting for freedom, while Manolo gleefully hangs on for the ride and Joaquin tries to stop her. Later in the film during Manolo’s first bullfight, she visibly sneers when Manolo dedicates the bullfight to her, but then she is the only one cheering in the audience when he does not ‘finish the bull’ (or kill it, for those not up on the brutality of bullfighting, which Manolo fights against). She is not afraid to take the action that she believes in, and to stand up for those beliefs even in the face of opposition from the entire town.
- She is someone who not only fights against gender stereotypying, she wins in the end. One of the most important character arcs of the film is seen in the change in Maria’s father, General Posada. At the beginning of the film he is exactly the image of the overpowering father and cultural machismo that she must fight. After the pig stampede, the General sends Maria away to be taught by the nuns to “learn to be a proper lady” because “I said so!” and he embraces Joaquin as the masculine “Son I never had.” However, at the film’s end, Joaquin runs off to get his magical medal (which gave him his false strength) and it is Maria who is left behind to rally the village into defending themselves. General Posada finally sees the true strength in his own daughter, and says “You are like the son I never had, only prettier.” Posada follows his daughter into battle to save their town. When discussing Maria, this B-character’s arc can not be ignored.
THE ADELITA COUSINS – A brief moment that for most may go unnoticed, but is a huge feminist shout-out, are Manolo’s Adelita cousins. When Manolo reaches the Land of the Remembered, he meets a whole barrage of his ancestors. Two of which are tall women with sombreros and bandoliers, he is introduced to them,
“These are your cousins, they fought in the Revolution.”
“And we won.” they say.
These two minor characters are a tribute to the women, or soldaderas who fought in the Mexican Revolution. La Adelita was a folk song from that era about a soldadera, and her name came to symbolize the archetype of a female warrior in Mexico, a woman who fights for what she believes. 
I would go into the characters of Carmen, Manolo’s mother, who plays a significant and pro-active part in his journey through the lands of the dead, or his Grandmother who is a stoic voice of wisdom, and who used to be “a beast in the arena,” but I think I’ve made my point. The women in The Book of Life may not be the protagonists of the film, but for a modern day romance set in Revolutionary Mexico, I think both Maria and LaMuerte, and the rest of the women of San Angel are unforgettable and to be admired.
Maria is ALWAYS her own woman, as a little girl and even after she gets married.
I specifically want to address a comment that “Maria says she is strong, but never shows it.” Absolutely false, she shows it time and time again in what she stands up for and the actions she takes. I also want to address my point that Maria is more of an equal to Manolo in both their actions in the film. I’ll try to be brief, but here are some specific moments from the film:
- IN THE CEMETERY, the boy children, Manolo and Joaquin, are already play acting their future battle for Maria. Young Maria jumps in and declares, “I belong to no one.” The three friends laugh together and then both Maria and Manolo get called home by their fathers.
- THE PIG STAMPEDE, is all Maria’s idea. When the three amigos run into the square she leads them, this was by design. She knows the future for the pigs in the butcher’s pen, “not on my watch,” she says. Then she breaks the lock on the pen liberating them. In the chaos of the stampede she is riding the lead pig, sword held high declaring “Freedom is coming through!” Manolo is just happily along for the ride, while Joaquin is trying to stop it all.
- GENERAL POSADA, Maria’s Father comes to having missed most of the action, but attributes the solution all to Joaquin, who is “So like [his] Father.” When Maria faces her father’s anger, the first thing she notices is Manolo’s broken guitar for which she feels guilty. The General declares that she will be sent to the convent so the nuns can straighten out her “rebellious nonsense” just because “I said so!” He then embraces Joaquin as “The son I never had.” When Manolo protests sending Maria away, his own father reminds him that “Fathers do what’s best for their children.” Both Manolo and Maria fight their father’s ideas for their own future the entire film.
- SAYING GOODBYE, when finally “the three amigos would be no more” Maria does more than simply face her exile to boarding school bravely. First of all she takes responsibility for breaking Manolo’s guitar by replacing it. Manolo in turn gives her the little pig she saved, Chuy, to remind her of home. Second of all she parts by giving each of the boys sage advice knowing their true spirit, and then runs to the train hiding her tears. Manolo’s future mantra is inscribed on the guitar she gave him “Always play from the heart. – Maria”
- DIFFERENT FROM THE CROWD, In Manolo’s bullfight celbrating Maria’s return, Manolo dedicates the bullfight to her. Maria, still the animal lover, visibly sneers in disgust. At the moment that Manolo must make the critical decision it is Maria’s reflection in his sword that he sees, and he decides not to finish the bull. Maria stands up and applauds Manolo, while the rest of the crowd boos him. She is not afraid to stand up for what she believes in, even against the entire arena.
- LA MUERTE’S WISDOM, After Manolo’s defeat Xiabalba thinks he’s won, but La Muerte knows better, “it’s not over,” she says. Thinking he is alone, Manolo proceeds to sing from his heart, but Maria returns to retrieve her fan and sees his true self. Manolo, singing his heart out in the ring and not fighting a bull. It might be said that it is here that she falls for him. Even Xiabalba asks, “What just happened?!” and LaMuerte remarks, “You don’t know women, my love.”
- THE DINNER PARTY, is thrown by General Posada in honor of Maria’s return, though he is scheming to connect Joaquin and Maria. At the dinner table when Joaquin compliments her beauty and says one day she’ll make a man very happy, Maria mockingly says how she’d love to cook and clean for him. When he clearly doesn’t get the joke, she immediately puts him in his place, “Are you kidding me? Is that how you see women? That we’re only here to make men happy?” She then dismisses herself from the table, in order to be surrounded by someone “more civilized,” her pig, Chuy. She insults Joaquin, and walks out on the entire affair with her head held high.
- MARIA IS NOT THAT EASY, up in her room alone, Maria hears Manolo and the mariachis’ attempt to serenade her. More than one thrown vase discourages the 3 mariachis, leaving Manolo alone to serenade her from the heart. At the song’s romantic climax when everyone from Manolo to the audience is expecting them to seal it with a kiss, Maria lays a finger on Manolo’s lips, “Did you think it was going to be that easy?” and playfully pushes him over.
- MARIA IS MORE THAN JUST A PRETTY FACE, she goes down stairs to help Manolo, but is surprised by the General and Joaquin who pops the question to her just as a dazed Manolo stumbles in. The two men begin to fight over her, and she yells “you two are acting like fools” before she takes her own sword, disarms them both and breaks up the fight, letting everyone know that she “also studied fencing.”
- A PROPOSAL BETWEEN EQUALS, When Manolo proposes to Maria, notice that she also goes down on one knee when she responds to him. When the snake comes out Maria pushes Manolo out of harm’s way and is herself bitten. She acted to bravely and instinctively to save her love from harm, and she took the hit.
- A PROPOSAL TO SAVE HER TOWN, When Maria wakes up and finds that in fact Manolo is the one who has died, her Father the General pleads with her to marry Joaquin so he will stay to defend the town. Joaquin knows where her heart truly is and even he protests, but she finds the strength within and accepts the proposal solely to help save her village. Even Joaquin can see she is putting duty before herself.
- THE SON HE ALWAYS WANTED, at the wedding ceremony with Maria and Joaquin, the banditos attack. Joaquin realizes his magic medal is on his other coat and bolts leaving everyone behind. Maria does not miss a beat, and it is she who makes the rallying speech to the village. It is she that convinces them to fight for themselves, and it is she who opens her father’s eyes to the strength that has always been within his own daughter, “We can fight them together, Papa.” The General recognizes this in his own way, “You are like the son I never had, only prettier.”
- SHE IS RIGHT THERE IN THE FIGHT, its the third act climax, Manolo has just returned from the dead, Joaquin is back, but is Maria who gives their familiar rally cry, “No Retreat!” and Manolo and Joaquin return “No Surrender!” And the 3 amigos go into battle. At one point, Chakal has Manolo on one arm and Joaquin on the other and each guy is telling the other, “I got this.” Maria comes in with a flying kick to Chakal’s face, which lets them regroup and lets us know she also studied kung-fu. In the bell tower, she and Manolo fight together in a dance that is both beautiful and painful for Chakal. At one point, she takes the lead and says to Manolo, “Pretty good, guitarista, now it’s your turn,” and she pushes him into the fray.
- SHE KISSES HIM, when Manolo returned from the land of the dead, he swoops Maria in a passionate kiss. When they are married SHE swoops HIM up in a kiss. Their final song is a duet from Us the Duo, that is all about supporting each other as equals. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S6_-JoC8jpw
ONE LAST THING: You would never know this unless you worked on the film, but Jorge Gutierrez, the film’s director valued the female perspective so much that he insisted that all female characters have female Animation leads. This might not seem like a big deal, but in my years experience in feature animation, I’ve never known a director to care, let alone insist on female artists for more of the female perspective in the female characters. So I say, hats off to The Book of Life and especially its creator Jorge Gutierrez and his wife Sandra Equihua. They are an incredibly talented team, and I hope we will see more from in the future.
Please note my opinion does not represent that of the film makers, or any studios associated with the film. I simply had a small part in it’s production, and now The Book of Life has a big place in my heart.
Romney T. Marino is a is a Director of Development and Associate Producer at Powerhouse Animation. She has worked in animation production for over 15 years at both independent and major animation studios across CG Features, VFX, and Television. A long time member of Women in Animation, Romney hopes to bring more women to the table and on the screen in animation, and more amazing cartoons and memorable characters to audiences. You can follow her on Twitter @RomneyTM
*from the Art of The Book of Life
 La Muerte references:
 La Muerte cosplay: