Over the last two decades, Pixar Animation Studios has been able to top its competitors by reaching an almost unattainbly high level of quality. Pixar isn’t worried, it seems, with topping DreamWorks, but topping only what they’ve done in the past. Those rival studios—really, any studio making a family film, animated or not—are judged against whatever Pixar makes, but the Emeryville, California company raises the bar mostly so they can clear it before anyone else does. We may become rapidly disappointed at their output when they release something like Cars 2 after Toy Story 3, but it’s only because when Pixar delivers on a promise of brilliance, they do so in such unbelievable, ridiculous, unexpectedly moving ways. Their various consecutive runs of quality are unparalleled in the modern film industry, which they’ve worked hard to be separate from. Pixar works with Disney, fully ensconced in the culture of Hollywood, but being placed hundreds of miles north makes them feel totally separate, even now. And yet, there is one disturbing trait they share with the greater film industry, one that needs to be fixed soon: Pixar has a woman problem.
We are not, today, discussing the representation of women within Pixar’s films—though Brave was the first such movie to feature a sole female protagonist, their history of female characters is not as woeful as others would have you believe—but the women behind the computer. Brave was presented as revolutionary during its lengthy production process because it would be the first Pixar film directed by a woman, Brenda Chapman. Because of creative differences, she essentially left the project in 2010 but enough of her indelible stamp was present within the tale of Princess Merida that she got a co-director credit, still a first in Pixar’s history. Pixar, at least when seen through the prism of media profiles, can pat itself on the back for having its first female protagonist and co-director, until you look at your calendar and remember that it’s 2013, not 1993, 1973, or further back. And considering Pixar’s immediate future, they really shouldn’t be too proud at all.
Hollywood, as a whole, is guilty of being a boys’ club, especially for a culture that is often perceived—positively or negatively—as being exceptionally progressive. It’s hard to call the industry forward-thinking if you consider Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar, for The Hurt Locker. She’s only the fourth woman to get nominated in the category; the first nominee, Lina Wertmüller, was honored in 1976. So Pixar isn’t unique in not having a wealth of female directors; maybe that’s why they’re rarely taken to task for such an absence. But if we hold Pixar to such a high qualitative standard, wishing them to represent a creative apex, shouldn’t we expect them to be equally influential in who’s chosen to direct new films? It’s because Chapman left Brave and, eventually, Pixar itself that this dearth of diversity feels so heightened.
What’s more, Pixar’s known future doesn’t feature any women directors. Monsters University is being directed by a first-timer, Dan Scanlon, but neither that, The Good Dinosaur, Inside Out, Finding Nemo 2, nor their Dia de los Muertos-themed film have a female director or co-director attached, at least as of this writing. Although Pixar’s films often have female producers—Darla K. Anderson is a great example, having produced or co-produced four of their films, as well as doing the same for the aforementioned Dia de los Muertos movie—they rarely have female writers, let alone directors. To this point, there have been four credited writers on Pixar films, two of whom, Chapman and Irene Mecchi, just worked on Brave. Pixar isn’t lacking for women in impressive positions on their films, from producer to cinematographer—Sharon Calahan held that spot on Finding Nemo and Toy Story 2, among others—but none but Chapman have even been co-director.
It is far more depressing to see such a gender disparity at Pixar than to know that they’re working on Finding Nemo 2 or that Planes, not technically from the studio but tied to the Cars universe, is heading straight for us this summer. Chapman, in an article written by Nicole Sperling of the Los Angeles Times, commented back in 2011, after having left Brave, “We’re in the 21st century and there are so few stories geared towards girls, told from a female point of view.” While she’s not wrong, it’s important to remember that Pixar shouldn’t be promoting women from within to direct or to hire outside animators to do the same, just to tell stories about girls or women. What matters most is those last five words from Chapman’s quote: a female point of view, which is sorely lacking at the top of Mount Pixar. To have this sensibility doesn’t automatically mean subsequent films are female-centric; simply, the storytelling will be different even if a woman directs a film about male characters.
People often like to pit, as discussed last week, Pixar against other animation studios. Quality aside, there is one place where Pixar loses unequivocally to its longtime rival. DreamWorks Animation isn’t as consistently excellent as Pixar—your mileage may vary—but with Kung Fu Panda 2, they broke new ground, as Jennifer Yuh Nelson became the first woman to solely direct a mainstream animated film. Though we should only applaud DreamWorks a bit for this decision—again, as with the examples of Ms. Chapman and Ms. Bigelow, Nelson getting this opportunity in 2011 shouldn’t get too many congratulations—they were able to top Pixar. (Nelson, it’s worth pointing out, will be directing Kung Fu Panda 3, also without a co-director.)
One of the truly gratifying moments of this year’s Oscars was seeing Brenda Chapman get the chance to thank her daughter, a direct inspiration for Merida, when Brave won the Best Animated Feature award. Chapman didn’t get that opportunity when Brave won the Golden Globe; because her departure from the film was so publicized, not being granted a voice in thanking those who honored what was once entirely her vision was heartbreaking. (All the more so considering that Chapman was invited to the ceremony, but not to the stage in the event that the film won. Because what awards shows need are shorter acceptance speeches and more flowery, pointless back-patting tributes.) That she could accept the Oscar, even if for a film that was no longer totally hers, was a boost and hopefully an inspiration to aspiring female animators—as well as working ones—around the world. This glass ceiling has taken too long to break, but it’s in the rearview mirror now. Here is another realm in which women can conquer as easily as men.
So, for Pixar, we can only wonder why women aren’t continuing to get that chance to further inspire their peers, and to be role models for those younger than them. Their upcoming films may be as beloved as Ratatouille or Toy Story or WALL-E, which were also directed by men. But the further we get into the 21st century, the more disheartening it is to see such a cutting-edge studio stumble, and do it so publicly. What would Brave have looked like had Brenda Chapman remained the sole director until its release? Maybe Reese Witherspoon would have voiced Merida instead of Kelly Macdonald, as was originally planned, a questionable choice considering the character’s Scottish heritage, and Witherspoon’s…lack thereof. Maybe it would’ve sated those critics who found the finished product unfocused or messy. Maybe those critics would’ve thought it worse than Cars 2. But we’ll never know. And you could speculate that a new animated film from a female director might be bad, and that giving a woman the director’s chair just to appease gender balance, to achieve some kind of affirmative action, is a creatively shaky idea. Hiring a woman to direct an animated film, some might say, only works if their vision is as strong as that of Pixar stalwarts like Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton.
If, however, we think of Pixar as a pioneering force in animation and filmmaking, then this is a frontier they need to face head-on.You may love Pixar for a variety of reasons, but what has helped cement their status as being one of the most beloved groups of filmmakers is that they take risks in the world of the mainstream. It’s risky to make a movie about an old man grieving his wife’s death by flying to South America via his lifted-by-balloons house. It’s risky to make a movie about a rat who wants to be a gourmet chef in Paris. And making a period piece with a princess, treading on ground that Walt Disney Animation Studios has worn down over 75 years, is a big risk, too. If these risks didn’t pay off enormously, maybe we wouldn’t love Pixar, but the very act of risk-taking is admirable. Releasing a movie directed solely by a woman is a different kind of risk, perhaps. Maybe such a movie wouldn’t rake in the same amount of cash Up or Ratatouille did. Maybe critics and audiences would think a female-directed Pixar film isn’t as good. But doesn’t every Pixar movie–every movie, really–have those risks inherent in their existence? By 2013, we shouldn’t have to lobby Pixar to let more women direct, to convince them this is a risk worth taking. But as long as the studio chooses not to, they’ll always be a little wary, a little unwilling to break another key piece of new ground. We want Pixar to do better, even when they seem perfect. Here is a very clear step in that direction.