My favorite former professor Tim Carmody is guest blogging on Kottke.org this week and he has written an article that is right up my alley.
Tim takes on Pixar’s gender gap, inspired by Stefan’s article on Persephone on the same topic. It’s been mentioned many times before, but Pixar seems to have a problem featuring the ladies (though it’s worth noting that they’re in production for their first movie with a female lead, Brave). Stefan argues that this shift has come in that animated films tell fewer stories about humans (in which romance seems always to play a role and so few stories pass the Bechdel Test) and more about cars, animals, and toys.
Tim, on the other hand, has a different thesis. A father himself, he argues that Pixar focuses specifically on dads and the father-figure-like stories that result. If you can get the dads (and their wallets) to come to the movies, the picture will be a success.
Both of these arguments assume that Pixar’s storytelling model differs in a significant way from traditional Disney movies. I’m not sure that this is true.
Perhaps it’s semantics, but I think the difference lies in how you think about the term “protagonist.” A protagonist, by definition, is the main character in a story. Tim believes that characters like Dory in Finding Nemo and Eve in Wall-E are protagonists because they are main characters.
While I believe this is technically correct, I think these protagonists lack agency to a certain extent. Dory didn’t really find Nemo - Marlin did. And while Eve certainly helped to save the ship from being taken over by the HAL-like computer, wouldn’t most people say that it was Wall-E who saved the day? Pixar films have female protagonists who don’t do anything.
In traditional Disney movies there were far more female protagonists, but they follow the same pattern of lacking agency. Sleeping Beauty is perhaps the best example; even though she is without a doubt the main character of the story, she is literally trapped from doing anything to save herself. A prince must swoop in and save the day. Even in films such as Mulan and Pocahontas, in which females play more of a role in their fate, there are strong male characters without whom the happy ending could never have happened.
So I’m more of the opinion that not much has changed between the Disney movies of old and Pixar movies, except that they’ve switched around to focus on who is doing the doing rather than who is being saved. I don’t blame them, as I think this leads to more exciting films.
Brave looks like a step in the right direction, but Pixar needs to make sure that their female characters are actually doing something if they’re really going to count.