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I had the pleasure of spending last weekend in the presence of Isla, a four-year-old who LOVES Toy Story Two and LOVES Jessie even more. When the scene highlighting Jessie’s back story came on, she jumped off the couch and ran towards the television with a look of rapture on her face. Once the song finished and the main narrative resumed, she chanted “More Jessie, more Jessie!!!”
Sadly, if her parents bring home Toy Story 3 for her to enjoy (released on DVD November 2nd), she will find there is not more Jessie. Rather, the male toys are still front and center. Meanwhile, the female toys have gone missing (Bo), fallen in love with Ken (Barbie) or gone soft for Latino Buzz (Jessie).
Though Toy Story 3 opens on a female-empowerment high, with Mrs. Potato-Head displaying mad train-robbing skills and Jessie skillfully steering Bullseye in the ensuing chase, from there, the bottom drops out of the film’s female quotient. Out of seven new toy characters, only one is female – the purple octopus. This is far worse than the one female to every three males ratio documented in children’s media by The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media.
When I first viewed the 3rd film, I was almost giddy as Mrs. Potato-Head and Jessie chased a train in the opening scene. Alas, after this first scene, the movie went back to its male focus, throwing in rather sexist and homophobic banter along the way. For example, Mr. Potato Head says at one point “No one touches my wife, except for me!” while another character suggests she needs her mouth taken off. As for Ken, he is depicted as a closeted gay fashionista with a fondness for writing in sparkly purple ink. Played for adult in-jokes, Ken huffily insists “I am not a girl toy, I am not!” when an uber-masculine robot toy suggests as much during a heated poker match. In the typical way homophobia is paired with misogyny, the jokes about Ken suggest how funny and scary it is for a man to be either feminine or queer. Admittedly, Barbie ultimately rejects Ken and is instrumental in Woody and Co’s escape, but her hyper-feminine presentation coupled with Ken’s not-yet-out-of-the-toy-cupboard homophobia make this yet another family movie that perpetuates damaging gender and sexuality norms.
Though the film ends with young Bonnie as the happy new owner of the toys, Woody would have to become Wanda and Buzz become Betty in order for the series to break Pixar’s male-only protagonist tradition. Finally a female-helmed film is on the horizon though – Brave – too bad the protagonist is a princess (how original!) and Pixar recently fired the female director (it’s first ever).
This is not to say that Pixar’s films are not funny and clever. And I would agree that in many regards Pixar films are an improvement on Disney. But need we settle for “better than Disney”? Can’t we ask they also make films with female protagonists, with racial and class diversity, without homophobic jokes, and, ahem, with FEMALE DIRECTORS?
Some 43 years after Mowgli’s love interest in The Jungle Book sings of her future daughter, “I’ll send her to fetch the water, I’ll be cooking in the home” her metaphorical daughters populate not only Disney films, but also those of Dream Works and Pixar. Alas, not only do these animated daughters still accord to gender norms for the most part, so too do their creators – most animators, screenwriters, directors, and producers are still men, completing Mowgli type adventures in the Hollywood jungle, adventures that still place boys front and center while keeping their female counterparts as figurative water fetchers.
Brenda Chapman, the female director who seemingly broke away from the sticky Cinderella floor to slipper through the glass ceiling into what is reportedly the Pixar boys club was sadly turned back into a non-directing pumpkin– no fairy tale ending for her as the director heroine of Brave, a film she wrote and has been developing for several years. Instead, Mark Andrews has reportedly taken over director duties. The title of his Pixar Short, One Man Band, is a fitting way to describe what seems to have become Pixar’s one-note ode to male helmed and focused films.
While changes in directors are common in the film world, Chapman’s firing caused quite the stir as she was Pixar’s first woman director – all eleven previous films were directed by (and featured) men. Pixar is not unique in this regard: As Sharon Waxman & Jeff Sneider write, “The animation industry is not known as a warm and fuzzy place for women.”
And, it was only this year that a woman finally won Best Director at the Academy Awards, despite the fact women have been involved in filmmaking since its beginnings in 1896.
Tracy L., a former film development executive with 12 years experience in the industry, responded to Chapman’s dismissal as follows:
“The bigger issue here is not the firing but why Pixar has never had a female director to begin with. The bigger story to my way of thinking is the utter lack of female input behind the scenes and the lack of female protagonists on screen.”
In films, this lack of women behind the scenes seems to translate to a certain type of woman character on screen–one who is less heroic, adventuresome, independent and important than the male robots, toys, cars and humans that surround her.
With Disney figuratively cutting Rapunzel’s powerful locks by making Tangled more boy-focused, and now Pixar taking away Chapman’s directorial wand, what’s next–a film about a female warrior who suddenly becomes a gooey-eyed animal lover? Oh, that’s already been done (Pocahontas). How about taking a you-go-girl patriarchy-defier and stealing her voice? Oh, that one is taken too (Little Mermaid).Wait, I know: a movie about a matriarchal society filled with female power-players that have to be saved by a tremulous boy. (Oops, that’s Bug’s Life).
So, I want to add my virtual voice and echo four-year-old Isla “I want more Jessie!” Come on, Pixar, get with the Bigelow effect already: encourage more women directors and more female friendly story-lines! Really, now, let some women lead your (or at least play in) your one-man band, would you?