Pop Culture

The Fall of the Female Protagonist in Kids’ Movies

There was a time, not too long ago, when two-dimensional, hand-drawn animation and computer-generated cartoons existed side-by-side. Every fall, sometime around Thanksgiving, Pixar and Disney would collaborate and release a family comedy featuring anthropomorphic creatures or objects rendered with state-of-the-art computer graphics. Every summer, Disney would come out with another one of its more traditional pieces, an animated musical based on some hopelessly depressing classic story made kid-friendly by the addition of rousing songs and sidekicks with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It seemed a perfect arrangement, one built to last. The two types of films were different enough that there was room for both–the classic adventure/dramas that earned Disney its name, and the edgier, more tongue-in-cheek Pixar films that were designed to amuse adults as well as kids.

The alliance was not to last. Slowly but inexorably, the new, computer-animated films drove their hand-drawn cousins aside, until now, hand-drawn children’s films are (at least in America) a relic of the past. All the major animated films of this year so far (Rango, Rio, Gnomeo and Juliet) have been made with computers.

It’s not entirely clear what killed the hand-drawn animated movie. Maybe it was Disney’s decision to abandon the musical format in its latest summer releases (Atlantis and Lilo and Stitch featured no songs, and Tarzan, while containing a fair number of songs, did not have any singing characters). Maybe it was the box-office triumphs of computer-animated films like Shrek and Monsters Inc. over their hand-drawn counterparts (Monsters Inc. trounced Atlantis, The Lost Empire in box offices worldwide). In any case, it soon became clear that the battle between the two forms of animation was over, and the victor clear.

In any battle, there are casualties, and the “animation war” was no exception. One of the most unfortunate (and surprising) side-effects of the triumph of computer-generated animation was the death of the female protagonist in children’s movies.

Think of all the female protagonists in Disney musicals. There are quite a number, almost as many as there are males–Cinderella, Belle, Ariel, Pocahontas, Mulan… the list goes on. Now think of female protagonists in Pixar movies.

There aren’t any. Not a single one.

In Dreamworks, the story isn’t quite as bad. But it still took them until 2009 to release their first movie starring a female character in a leading role (Monsters v. Aliens).

In 2012, Pixar, maybe having noticed the troubling discrepancy in its numbers, is aiming to change its game by releasing its first female-centric film, titled Brave. One has to wonder what took them so long.

It’s easy to cut Pixar a break. After all, they’ve made a lot of critically-acclaimed movies, the most recent of which (Up and Toy Story 3) were nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. They’ve combined state-of-the-art technology with skillful and emotionally resonant storytelling. And, despite the shortage of female protagonists, they have had a number of lot of strong, memorable female characters. Characters like Elastigirl from The Incredibles, and Eve, from Wall-E. Fernanda Diaz of FlavorWire argues: “For Pixar to have a gender ‘problem,’ it would have to systematically place women in subservient roles and make the male superior – something which none of the films actually do.” But is this really the only definition of sexism? Arguably, Pixar–and other similar companies–do show male superiority by showing, time and again, that the most important figures in a story are always male.

The most confusing part is that most of the stories in these animated movies would work just as well with a female protagonist. Is there any reason the rat in Ratatouille couldn’t have been a lady? Is there any reason Wall-E couldn’t have been the story of a female-voiced robot who encounters a male-voiced love interest named ADAM?  It’s not as though the gender of these characters is their most important feature, or indeed, very relevant at all to their personalities or the stories they are a part of. As Linda Holmes writes for NPR:

Russell, in Up, is Asian-American, right? And that’s not a big plot point; presumably, he just is because there’s no particular reason he shouldn’t be. You don’t need him to be, but you don’t need him not to be, either. It’s not politics; it’s just seeing the whole big world. Well, the whole big world has a lot of little girls in it, too.

Just as it’s easy to defend Pixar, it is fairly easy to criticize Disney films for being sexist. And to be fair, there’s a lot about Disney’s past portrayals of women that’s deserving of criticism, beyond the fact that almost all its female characters happen to be princesses. A disturbingly large percentage of their female leads end up getting saved by a man at some point, usually the climax. Ariel is rescued from the villainess by heroic prince Eric; Jasmine is rescued from the villain by Aladdin. Furthermore, a pretty big percentage of the female leads in Disney musicals seem to have only one goal–to get the guy. Their desire to obtain a man seems to be the most important motivating force in their lives, and the drama of the films often revolve around that desire. There is Ariel, in The Little Mermaid, who gives away her voice in order to obtain the love of Prince Eric. There is Cinderella, whose escape from her family lies in getting the prince to fall in love with her. Is Disney portraying women as weak, dependent people dependent on a man’s love for their happiness and well-being?

Well, Disney might not be quite as sexist as it first appears. After all, when it comes to the focus on finding romance above all else, it’s pretty much the same deal with the male protagonists. Though the girls seem to be driven by a desire to get the guy, the guys also seem unable to find happiness unless they get the girl. A lot of the male-centric story lines mirror the female-centric ones in key respects. In place of Cinderella, we have Aladdin, who pretends to be a prince to get the princess just as she disguises herself in order to get the prince. We have Hercules, who gives up his godhood to be with a woman, just as Ariel gives up her kingdom under the sea to be with Eric. Tarzan is only really happy when he gets to be with Jane. Often, when we see a Disney princess pining over a man, it’s not really sexism on display–it’s just the romantic nature of Disney movies. The men are just as single-mindedly obsessed with romance as are the women.

Admittedly, this defense doesn’t address the fact that so many females in Disney movies need rescuing during the big action scenes. Yes, Disney has a justified reputation for sexism. But it was improving with the times. Mulan and Pocahontas were certainly more proactive characters than Belle and Ariel, just as these characters were stronger than Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. And the fact is that Disney had a much higher percentage of female protagonists than Hollywood as a whole. That has to count for something.

It’s not that hard to argue Disney is no more sexist than Pixar or Dreamworks. After all, if little girls fifteen years ago were left with somewhat stereotypical princesses as their role models, girls today have to come to grips with the fact that the male character is almost always the center of attention.

Surely such a striking trend has to be due to more than coincidence. So, what exactly, killed the female animated protagonist?

The answer may lie in the few female protagonists there have been since the rise of Pixar and Dreamworks.  Susan Murphy of Monsters vs. Aliens, Rapunzel of Tangled, and Mérida of the upcoming Brave all share a striking characteristic–they are human.

Whereas most of the Disney movies of the ’80s and ’90s focused on human characters taken from classic fairytales and from history (people like Tarzan, Pocahontas, Quasimodo and of course, the Little Mermaid), the vast majority of computer animated films these days tend to revolve around anthropomorphic animals and objects ranging from toys to penguins to cars. Maybe it’s because humans are harder to animate realistically with computers than cute talking critters; maybe it’s because early CGI animated films like Toy Story and A Bug’s Life set a trend that later movies just happened to follow. But it’s odd that when female protagonists do show up in modern animated films, it’s almost always in the ones starring actual people. There are exceptions, like Mala in the somewhat lesser known Battle for Terra. But the statistics are still pretty striking–and pretty intriguing.

Why is it that anthropomorphic creatures are far more likely to be male? It seems to suggest that our conception of the heroine is somehow linked to the physical. Why is it so important that a heroine have an attractive human body, while a male hero can be a rat, penguin, or robot?

Though we’d all like to think we’ve taken strides forward in terms of sexism in children’s movies, it seems filmmakers are having difficulty separating the concept of “heroine” from the concept of “sexiness.”  But  if most kids’ movies are going to be about animals and objects, rather than human beings, that’s what needs to happen if the female protagonist is to finally be revived.

18 replies on “The Fall of the Female Protagonist in Kids’ Movies”

The thing with Disney is that generally they just re-hash old fairy tales, which did contain princess characters that needed rescuing etc. That’s not Disney’s fault, it’s just how the story goes. It is their fault however that they end up bland and soul-less after being ‘Disneyfied’. I appreciate the comments about Pixar, but surely Eve must be female, as she has a ‘womb’ which contains the hope for all future life as well as ironic humour for ‘Mother’ Nature being mechanical, whereas Wall-e’s cavity just compresses rubbish – not such nice imagery!

This is very perceptive. I have had a problem with Pixar ever since Ratatouille. Which I loved and which made me want to be a chef.

But it was really annoying that they had that awesome female chef, who gave a big speech about being a woman in a man’s world–I loved that–and who proceeded to fall in love with the goofy kid and just…became the girl in love with the goofy kid. Such a depressing fall. Also, she was better than he was at cooking, but he still gets the accolades because of the rat helper. Unless I want to read it as a metaphor for a phallus–the man wins because he has an unfair advantage in a sexist world, i.e. a rat/penis–the movie is a feminist failure. It’s too bad because I love pixar.

Which is why I loooved Don Bluth. I’m a stickler for old school animation. His stories were always so original, and he always had really strong female leads (Anastasia), or made sure that his female characters weren’t drowned out by their male counterparts.

But you forgot the latest Disney musical strong female lead creation – The Princess and the Frog! Disney would do far better to keep going back to it’s roots, as far as the animation and quality musical scores go. Churn out some quality story lines and they’d be more profitable. To me, part of the problem seems to be that Disney just chose stories that weren’t as “good” to animate by hand than what Pixar was churning out. Is Lilo and Stitch better than Toy Story? I don’t think so. Disney is turning more and more to cheap gags and cutesy stuff. Looking back at the classic movies like Aladdin and the Lion King, there’s plenty of stuff that entertains the adults that goes over the heads of kids.

Pixar might have stayed away from female leads so as to distance themselves from Disney, which we all know is famous for it’s female leads. That doesn’t excuse them, of course, because even though Disney has a bit of a princess monopoly, there are plenty of female characters out there who aren’t princesses.

I don’t know why Pixar don’t make more female characters if only from a marketing perspective. My kids LOVE the Pixar movies and my little boy has roughly 2,000 of the cars from Cars, plus Buzz Lightyear and Woody dolls (all of this is from the grandparents, btw). His sister loves those movies just as much and she’s left with a solitary Jessie doll. Her best friend wants a Jessie doll too, but the manufacturers are so sold-out they’re back ordered until June. Create more female characters and please more feminists and you can sell more dolls, Pixar! Girls buy stuff too!

Thank you.

“One has to wonder what took them so long.”

At that line I just kept thinking about the history of Pixar itself. A bunch of hetero bro-dudes who wanted to make 3d movies. They were sexist men for excluding women because they didn’t THINK of women. Sorry, as cool as the stories they created are and I’m suuure they’re really nice guys if you meet them in person; but it doesn’t matter. They’re still sexist for excluding women.

Can I get a hell yes!

My goal is to own every film he’s ever made by the time I have children. I think his storytelling is brilliantly creative and he shows a wide range of strong female and male characters alike! It tickles me to think of my future daughter(s) imitating Sheeta, Chihiro, Ponyo or even a Catbus!

Thank you for this. I have been confused and unable to discuss this, as I keep wondering why Pixar movies are about dudes finding their way. Then I realized, Pixar is heavily populated with middle-aged white doods who are….trying to find their way.

After Wall-E, I realized Pixar, whose movies I genuinely love, makes ‘spunky’ and independent female characters, but their films so obviously are about men who are lost and the women who save THEM. I’m not so sure that’s an actual reversal of themes than the save the princess girl Disney theme.

Pixar films still place the importance on the man’s work and the woman is there to bail him out and I find that kindof odd. That isn’t an empowering role for a woman and furthermore, seems to place everyone in really awkward relationships.

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