Monday, March 23, 2009

Look out, here comes... Susan

At last. With the anticipated release of Monsters vs. Aliens on March 27th, DreamWorks Animation has beaten Pixar in the race to become the first of the two studios to release a computer animated feature film starring... a female. That's right: since Pixar's Toy Story in 1995 and DreamWorks' Antz in 1998, the two reigning producers of computer animated movies have yet to deliver a feature with a female main character. Hard to believe? Here are the lists:

CG feature films (and main character):

1. Toy Story (Woody)
2. A Bug's Life (Flik)
3. Toy Story 2 (Woody)
4. Monsters, Inc. (Sulley)
5. Finding Nemo (Marlin)
6. The Incredibles (Mr. Incredible)
7. Cars (Lightning McQueen)
8. Ratatoille (Remy)
9. Wall-E (Wall-E)
Next in line:
10. Up (Carl Fredricksen)

DreamWorks Animation
1. Antz (Z)
2. Shrek (Shrek)
3. Shrek 2 (Shrek)
4. Shark Tale (Oscar)
5. Madagascar (Alex)
6. Over the Hedge (RJ)
7. Flushed Away (Roddy)
8. Shrek the Third (Shrek)
9. Bee Movie (Barry)
10. Kung Fu Panda (Po)
11. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (Alex)
Next in line:
12. Monsters vs. Aliens (Susan, a.k.a. Ginormica)

It's not that these movies haven't had any respectable female characters; many of them have prominently featured strong, smart, and dynamic ladies. But they aren't leading ladies. There's no "Fiona", "Fiona 2", or "Fiona the Third" movie. It's Shrek's story, thus relegating Fiona to the role of an accessory--"Shrek's princess", atypical princess though she may be. And Fiona is not alone. The same is true in all of the two studios' computer animated features: a male leads, and females support. I suppose I might argue that the main character of Bee Movie was actually female. Though Barry B. Benson was referred to in the movie as a "he" and looked a bit and sounded a lot like Jerry Seinfeld, the fact that Barry was able to collect pollen and make honey and had a stinger means that in every honeybee-related way, Barry was clearly a female bee. But I doubt kids (and most normal people who haven't studied honeybees in biology) saw it that way. And that is the relevant point.

As the leaders in computer animated movies, Pixar and DreamWorks Animation are leaders in entertainment for young children. Kids are impressionable. That is part of the reason why parents fret so much about what their children are exposed to when they watch movies and TV. Parents worry about language and depictions of violence and sex, as well they should. But subtle things that may not be harmful on a case by case basis can add up to subliminal messages that shape the way children view the world. So what is the message being delivered here? Boys should be brave heroes. Girls should support them. This message and what it says about kids movies today is shameful. Where are the role models for today's little girls?

Now, I grew up with Disney's hand-drawn features from the 1990s, from The Little Mermaid (which actually debuted late 1989) and Beauty and the Beast to Mulan. While I wouldn't say that Ariel was an ideal role model for little girls, she was the lead role. Sure, she fell in love with a man she hadn't met and didn't defeat the villain herself, but she was an independent thinker who successfully followed her dreams. Belle also may not have been a physical match for her adversary, Gaston, but she was an intelligent, fair, and strong-willed protagonist. And Mulan is a heroine who certainly qualifies as a strong role model. Of course, the '90s had its share of questionable gender messages. I mean, what is the deal with The Lion King? Sure, Nala can do that fancy move and pin Simba in a one-on-one match, but a dozen lionesses had to submit helplessly to Scar and watch him destroy their home until the one true king came to save them. Really? This is what we're teaching little children? You can't do anything, girls, wait for the boys to come. If you want to argue that The Lion King was upholding some sort of ecological truth in lion pride structure, then I want to see Wanda Sykes replace Jerry Seinfeld as Barry B. Benson, pronto!

Lion King rant aside, there is a tradition of gender bias in kids' movies that Pixar and DreamWorks Animation have thus far exhibited prominently. Why, in a supposedly progressive society, would this be the case? The problem seems to be this: If the main character in a children's movie is a girl, the movie will generally be branded a "girl movie", and boys will be less likely to want to see it. A movie with a boy main character, on the other hand, is... just a movie, giving it a better chance at a wide audience. And this doesn't stop at children's movies. Practically any movie that has a female lead who is not an action hero is automatically labeled a chick flick (yes, I am making a lot of sweeping generalizations here, and all generalizations are false, of course, but stick with me here). Guy flicks are much harder to come by; they don't carry the same stigma that chick flicks do, and they tend not to skew as far toward their "target" gender as the chick flicks. It seems women are not as opposed to watching a guy buddy movie as men are to seeing a movie about a group of girl friends. Why would that be?

The best reason I can think of for men being unwilling to see female-centric movies is that they simply can't relate to them. Women are willing to see guy movies because they can relate to them. From childhood to adulthood, girls seem to be better at relating to boys than boys are at relating to girls. Is this an innate inability in boys, or has society developed in such a way that boys aren't taught to relate to girls in the same way girls are taught to relate to boys? I don't have an answer. I'm not a psychologist or sociologist; I don't know if anything I've said is flat-out wrong or already confirmed. I'm just a girl who likes movies and wants to see a few more women up on screen.

It's hard to say what the movie business can do about the gender bias in movies. The movie business is just that--a business--and as such they have to make money. If movies about male characters tend to make more money than movies about female characters because more people are willing to see them, then they have to make more movies about male characters (and then express extreme shock when a chick flick makes huge sums at the box office). But maybe it's a chicken-and-the-egg issue. Do they not make as many female-centered movies because guys won't like them, or do guys not like them because they don't make enough of them. Young boys do not become accustomed to seeing female heroines in movies, so they don't need to learn to relate to them, and they never come to see female heroines in the same light as they see male heroes. So throughout their lives, they show a strong preference towards male protagonists. Young girls, on the other hand, become accustomed from the very start to relating to male heroes, and thus they don't have such a strong preference for whether movie protagonists are male or female. If this is the case, it's not any weakness on the boys' part. Someone just needs to break the cycle.

I've never considered myself any kind of raging feminist, and I don't usually like to get into such touchy subjects. But it is clear that movies and the movie business, like many other businesses of course, lack gender equality in many ways (I'm not even going to touch the business demographics). If I had any say in Hollywood--which I don't, beyond the single ticket that I might buy for Monsters vs. Aliens if it gets good reviews--I would challenge it to confront these inequalities and fix whatever ones it can. Pixar, everything you touch turns to gold. DreamWorks, the kids eat up everything you serve them. Take more risks, and show a little faith in both girls in the movies and boys in the audience.


Sebastian said...

Very interesting, well written, and probably very close to the mark!

There's no doubt some inherent differences between men and women -- it's genetic! -- but certainly, you put forward a strong case for the chicken-and-the-egg theory. We'll have to see how well this new 'chick flick' animated feature is, I guess :)

I stumbled across an interesting link on differences between girls/boys (from the perspective of relationships, but it's still quite apt):

Eleni said...


That's an interesting article. Potentially quite helpful, for whenever I finally find myself a relationship.

Allison said...

Great article, Eleni.
Very well said