(The following is a longer version of a piece that I posted to Cinematical, which I edited a) for space, and b) to make it a tad less ... strident. You can read that version here.)
Over at NPR.org, writer Linda Holmes dared to blog an open letter to Pixar politely asking to see a few adventures with, maybe, girls as the main characters. Her tone was set nicely in the opening of her piece, titled "Dear Pixar, From All The Girls With Band-Aids On Their Knees":
So I'm not complaining; I'm asking. I'm asking because I think so highly of you.
Please make a movie about a girl who is not a princess.
Holmes points out that of the ten features that Pixar's released theatrically so far, all ten have been boy's adventures. She acknowledges that the movies "feature women and girls to varying degrees -- The Incredibles, in particular -- but the story is never 'a girl and the things that happen to her,' the way it's 'a boy and what happens to him.'" She mentions again that she loves Pixar's movies ... she'd just like to see a character like Up's Ellie or The Incredibles' Violet as the main character for a change.
There are over 100 comments on the piece and, this being NPR, the overwhelming majority of the responses are intelligently expressed and in agreement with Holmes point of view. But if you skip over to Jerry Beck's animation blog, Cartoon Brew, you'll find a lot of readers with a different perspective.
It doesn't help that Beck's post, which links to Holmes' piece, immediately colors her thesis with its own title, “Dear Pixar, How About a Chick Flick?” (his emphasis) even though a chick flick was decidedly not what Holmes was proposing. And from the tone of many of comments that follow, you'd think she'd suggested that Pixar fire all the male animators and hire angry lesbians in big, stompy boots to wipe boys off the Pixar landscape by brute force.
"I suppose all the Disney Princess and Tinkerbell movies don’t count for anything? You have to try to force your P.C. B.S. on Pixar now?," writes one of the earliest commenters. "Come on! I’m sure when an interesting story with a female protagonist develops organically at Pixar, they will make that movie. Until that time, stop trying to ruin the fun for the rest of us." (Yes, it would seem that Pixar's films "develop organically," grown on a farm on the Pixar compound, perhaps, and no one there has any control over what gender the main character may turn out to be.)
"Let Pixar make the movies for boys and leave the chick flicks/teenybopper movies to Disney itself," writes another (male) reader, while yet another fellow says, "Everybody has an agenda. I’m sorry if this delightful movie didn’t service yours."
Why is it that when women -- who make up over half of the species, by the way -- respectfully point out that they're underrepresented in movies, it's seen as some sort of angry feminist screed? I've been writing about film for over ten years, and I've been hit with this accusation myself a number of times -- most recently, when I wrote here of my disappointment in that one aspect of the otherwise terrific Star Trek (and if you haven't read the comments there, check 'em out -- some of them are doozies.)
Some readers respond not with anger, but with puzzlement that we womenfolk aren't satisfied with the secondary roles that we continually play in films. Regarding Holmes' Pixar piece, one commenter wrote, "What about Jessie from Toy Story 2?? She is not the main character of the film, but her story is an integral part of the movie and I hope she will be back for Toy Story 3?. Eve also has an integral role in Wall-E."
Well, yes. But in each case, the movie isn't about them. It's not their adventure, any more than Finding Nemo is Dory's adventure, or A Bug's Life is about Dot. And the answer isn't sexing up Pixar to make girl's adventures for slavering pubescent boys, as one commenter suggested when he wrote, "Maybe Pixar should make a CGI adaptation of Tomb Raider or Aeon Flux. Those are franchises that feature strong, female leading roles that AREN”T princesses." Yep, that would be real progress, you betcha. And fun for the kids, too.
Pixar is a powerhouse in the entertainment industry. More importantly, they make family films that are watched, over and over, by children. And the prevailing message that Pixar's otherwise extraordinary body of work promotes is that males have adventures, and that females are second bananas or love interests. It doesn't take an angry feminazi to figure out that lessons -- both intentional and unintentional -- are being taught by their pictures, and this lesson, when combined with the overwhelming amount of "Disney princess" product being thrown at little girls, isn't setting an especially strong example.
A culture that promotes strong, adventurous boys while telling girls that their primary function is to be a support system and a pretty, pretty princess doesn't serve either men or women well. It also creates unrealistic ideas of what men or women are really like, as expressed in this comment on the Cartoon Brew blog:
Read that again. The writer believes that strong females -- even in the context of secondary cartoon characters -- exhibit "boy qualities." Because real girls and women are weak, and soft. And they don't have adventures.
This is a what Holmes was writing about, what women in our culture have to contend with, and what Pixar can, in a very real way, help to overcome.
For Christmas 2011, Pixar will release The Bear and the Bow, directed by Brenda Chapman, a woman with a long animation resume going back to Disney's The Fox and the Hound. It's an adventure-fairy tale about a girl who strives to become a great archer.
Oh, yeah ... and she's a princess. Of course.