Pixar may have a problem with a lack of female representation among its directors, but that’s not the case with many of its female characters. The concern over the disparity of active female characters in mainstream filmmaking has grown (rightly) louder over the last couple of years; though this has been a problem in big-budget films for a very long time, it’s become truly galling because it shows a perceived lack of progressivism in a culture that is often painted as being potentially too progressive. No doubt, there is a disturbing inequality in the number of male versus female directors, writers, and producers in Hollywood. Pixar may not be perfect, but to presume, as some have, that it is similarly failing in representing strong female characters in its films is wildly inaccurate.
Brave is the best, most recent example of Pixar’s ability to develop unique, active female characters. The film, of course, is notable for a number of reasons: it’s the first Pixar film set in the past, the first that is closest to a fairy tale, the first whose main character was a woman, and the first that was co-directed by a woman. Of course, the last point sparked controversy, as Brenda Chapman was unceremoniously moved off the project despite retaining credit on the final product and coming up with its concept by herself. The rest, though, are all pertinent to the discussion about Pixar and female characters. Merida is proud and defiant of her elders, both at the beginning and end. Her mother wants her to choose a male suitor to whom she’ll be wed; one of the most striking elements of Brave is that Merida is not forced to give in, nor does she pick a groom even after she and Queen Elinor come to a more mutual understanding. Merida, while a teenager, doesn’t seem to harbor any burrowed romantic feelings for her potential beaus—perhaps because they are all such buffoons. This refusal to embrace a societal norm—what fairy tale does not end with the lead character living happily ever after with his or her true love?—is so daring that it inspired groan-worthy questions like this one. (It is for another column to delve into explaining why a protagonist not wanting to marry someone of the opposite sex by the end of a family film doesn’t make said protagonist homosexual. But so it is.)
Though she is the primary example simply because she’s the face of Brave, Merida isn’t the only positive female presence in Pixar’s features. The earliest example is something of a stretch, but not totally incorrect: Andy’s mom in the Toy Story films. As voiced by Laurie Metcalf, Andy’s mom is not the exemplar of a strong female presence, in that she’s never given a first name (just Ms. Davis) and has, combined in the trilogy, maybe 15 minutes’ worth of screen time. Specific to the first two films, this was partly because Pixar’s animators had not yet figured out all of the kinks of detailing human characters as well as they could animate toys and other inanimate objects. Even in the third film, when Ms. Davis has a little bit more to do, mostly welling up with tears at the thought of her eldest child moving away to attend college, she’s a minor-tier supporting character. So what makes Ms. Davis worthy of mention here? Something the Toy Story franchise casually infers, at best, is that she’s a working single mother. What is most remarkable about Ms. Davis’ relationship status is how it’s never called to attention. We, nor toys like Buzz Lightyear and Sheriff Woody, are ever privy to arguments or discussions that Andy and his mom have about where Dad is, or if he’s coming back, or whether her new boyfriend is a pill, or anything like this.
It should not, in 2013, be so surprising that a woman could work—and considering that Andy, his sister Molly, and his mom, at the beginning of Toy Story, live in a two-story house and are preparing to move to another that is, if not nicer, of equal stature, they’re not destitute—and support her children. In real life, this isn’t special. Single-parent households may not be an overwhelming norm in Western society, but they are not terribly uncommon, nor should they be treated as such. But in most films, especially those targeted at the family audience, parental status and presence is often deliberately emphasized. If nothing else, it’s rare that the Toy Story franchise presents Ms. Davis as a single parent with no fanfare. In an article for MSN Movies around the release of Toy Story 3, writer Mary Pols discussed this strange phenomenon with that film’s director, Lee Unkrich. Unkrich said, regarding the whereabouts of Andy’s dad, “It’s an oft asked question, but there is no concrete answer. We don’t mean to be mysterious about it. It’s just never been relevant to the story.”
Though, in the rest of the piece, Unkrich floats the theory that Woody may have been a toy Andy received from his father, that last sentence of the quote is key. Where is Andy’s dad? Why is Ms. Davis a single mother? It doesn’t matter. And that’s the truth: no one’s enjoyment of this series should be diminished by not knowing the full details of Andy’s lineage. That his father is absent may be key to why Andy holds tightly onto his toys, almost unwilling to relinquish them just before he heads off to college. But Ms. Davis represents a modern woman rarely depicted in family cinema. There’s no big deal surrounding her life and how she’s brought up Andy and Molly. She just is. Sometimes, in past columns suggesting that Pixar mold more female directors or that they make more adult-oriented films, responses often include phrases like “This should come about naturally, not be forced.” That’s why Ms. Davis is such a fascinating character. Her biography feels natural, not forced, a pleasantly surprising touch of reality.
She isn’t, however, the only notable female character in Pixar’s films. Within the Toy Story franchise, there’s also Jessie, a complex, defensive lead, every bit Woody’s equal. Some critics have deemed her to be unimportant because she’s seen as secondary (and has a smaller role in Toy Story 3 than Toy Story 2), but Jessie, for functioning as the warped mirror image of Woody, is as compelling as anyone else in the series. Woody and Jessie were, in essence, created in the same way, figurines to cash in on an early merchandising fad. One of them survived through the years—knowing, as we do, that the TV show which inspired them aired in the 1950s, it’s hard to imagine that Woody didn’t have at least an owner or two before Andy came along—and the other got thrown away by her first owner, thus inspiring her to become a desperate paranoid. But really, how different is Jessie from Woody? They both are in constant fear of being ignored, of being replaced. One has an owner, thus making his fears perhaps a little less founded in reality, but these toys are extremely similar in temperament. Frankly, Jessie is more courageous than Woody, to the point where she surprises her eventual love interest, Buzz. (This fact, too, has made some believe Jessie’s worth as a character is more minimal. That she has a love interest should not eliminate Jessie’s power.)
Outside of Toy Story and Brave, there is still not a lack of strong female characters. Though some of their other films either barely feature female characters (Celia and Dean Hardscrabble in the Monsters, Inc. franchise; Sally and Holly in the Cars films), and one in particular is almost entirely absent of living female characters—Up, but the lack of female characters is a very deliberate creative decision—it’s worth remembering such Pixar works as Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and WALL-E. Dory, Violet and Helen Parr, and Eve are all, to varying degrees, among Pixar’s most memorable, beloved, and vibrant creations. While arguably, of these four, Dory is most dependent on a male character—really, she’s dependent on anyone willing to tag along with her, male or female—her upbeat outlook on life is a necessary counterbalance to the hopelessly neurotic Marlin. There is, of course, a possibility that once we learn more about her family history in Finding Dory, what made her so special and unique in the 2003 original will be diluted. But right now, Dory is a distinctive, deep portrait of unbridled hope and honesty in the face of a world full of adversity and confusion.
Violet and Helen Parr may be the most obvious examples of strong female characters in Pixar’s filmography because of their literal superpowers. However, it is because this mother and daughter are so defined mentally by these powers that they’re so memorable. (Violet’s power of invisibility serves her for good in the second half, where in the first half, it merely enables her crippling shyness; Helen’s ability to stretch her body parts to an infinite degree comes at the expense of being a harried mother who finds it more challenging to maintain a household than to fight off Syndrome’s goons.) The Incredibles is masterful precisely because, though it opens by focusing primarily on Bob Parr, it provides each member of the Parr family agency and control. Helen and Violet are, in separate ways, independent of the men in their lives, and in charge. (Think of Violet’s last scene, when she leaves the boy she likes speechless because of how confidently she swoops in and plans their upcoming date. She is in control.)
Finally, there’s Eve, another literally strong character. (She is, of course, not so much physically powerful as mechanically so.) Even when she appears to WALL-E, like a vision of the divine, the character refuses to fit into his fevered romantic dreams. She may find the clip of young lovers connecting in Hello, Dolly! an amusing curiosity, but she harbors more frustration and anger, often transmitted through actual destruction. WALL-E is captivated by her, but Eve never totally fits his romantic ideal. If she did, she’d be less interesting a presence, and their relationship would be a wildly inaccurate portrayal of love. We may like the movies to present only the ideal, but reality—even this movie’s version of it—is often messier and more unexpected. Eve’s design may be sleek and elegant, but she is otherwise a self-aware and imperfect creation, as it should be.
Pixar has been taken to task in the past for focusing more on male characters. Certainly, it’s true that many of its main characters are men; as much as their most recent film, Monsters University, was a pleasant surprise, as mentioned above, there are very few female characters within. However, for once, this column isn’t going to advocate as strongly for Pixar to have more female main characters (it’s also worth noting that Inside Out is not only set inside the head of a preteen girl, but its lead character is voiced by Amy Poehler). Pixar should attempt to have more diversity and equality in its stories, certainly, but to presume that they haven’t already offered many impressive, multi-dimensional female characters would be an insult to some of their best inventions.