Warning: serious criticisms towards popular Pixar films. If you can’t handle that, don’t read. This post will likely also go through several revisions, so try not to take EVERYTHING to heart.
As a child, I absolutely adored the vast, creative world of Pixar. With lush animation, fun and often compelling characters, intricate worlds, and original stories, it was the perfect outlet to satisfy my love of imagination in animated form.
But even as a child (re: as a little girl), I had one major problem that nagged me and wouldn’t go away, no matter how much I loved these movies (and the creative forces behind them).
Where were all the female leads? From 1995 all the way to 2011, all of Pixar’s films had been led by male characters (either white male human characters or anthropomorphic objects and animals coded to be male). Yes, there were awesome female secondary and supporting characters (some of my favourites including Atta, Edna, and Jessie), but it still irked me that there wasn’t a character like them who could be the main star.
So, when Brave was announced for 2012, I was hyped as hell. Pixar was finally going to have a female character in the starring role! And from the looks of the trailers, this female character kicks ASS. Oh boy, this is going to be amazing and wonderful and…
Oh, they (the all-male team of executives) kicked off Brenda Chapman (who envisioned the film in the first place and was going to be Pixar’s first female director) due to creative disagreements and replaced her with a man? Well, okay, at least she’s still credited as a co-director. Plus it’s entirely possible that she’s not the best person to work with. Not to mention she previously worked at DreamWorks Animation (aka Pixar’s biggest rival), so that could have added some tension for all I know. No matter, let’s see how the film plays out!
Ah yes, a lovely movie about the relationship between mother and daughter. And Merida’s a pretty interesting character, though maybe not the badass I originally thought her to be. Still, the movie managed to deliver not one, but TWO well-written female characters with a great relationship and didn’t totally rely on sexist tropes. Great! Except…
Well, I’m not the first one to point out that the film doesn’t exactly have a well-crafted story. Of course, just before this film, Pixar had created the much-maligned Cars 2 (which had come out right after the masterpieces Up and Toy Story 3), so it’s possible that Pixar’s creative juices were starting to slow down. However, one must wonder what Brave would have been like had Brenda Chapman (who based the story off of her relationship with her daughter) not been kicked off the project. One also wonders why Pixar chose to replace her with a man and not another female director (they are rare, but they do exist) to try to (arguably haphazardly) recreate her original film. In fact, why did this have to happen for their first female-centric film? And how come in the end they delivered a movie that is rather underwhelming for Pixar standards? Especially when they needed to patch up their damaged reputation after Cars 2?
Oh well, even if the film itself wasn’t the best (or at least, the best of Pixar), it still managed to deliver two great female leads. Merida was bratty and brash at first, but matured, realized the errors of her ways, and chose to make amends with her mother, Queen Elinor, who, despite being a bear for most of the film, was still a multifaceted character in her own right. That’s pretty impressive, especially given Pixar’s track record of making so many male-centric films.
Then I watched Wreck-It Ralph.
I know feminist critiques for Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 2012 film range from favourable to unfavourable, but if you asked me, I must admit, I found Wreck-It Ralph more empowering and—dare I say it—feminist than Brave. I could go on for hours on end why I love it so much, but for now, I’ll focus on one very crucial aspect: the character of Vanellope Von Schweetz.
Vanellope is a little girl character who, despite being programmed to be a princess, has her position of power forcibly revoked from her (by an older man no less), most of her memories swiped clean, and is pigeonholed into a position of essentially poverty and is made into a glitch in her own game. She faces what is implied to be several years of bullying, hatred, and neglect from absolutely everyone in her world, and is forbidden from racing (even though she only tries to do so to become a respected member of society). Everyone assumes that she will never be able to control or to maintain her ‘glitching’ and is therefore undeserving of a second chance. Yet despite all the odds, she perseveres, becomes snarky yet still optimistic rather than cynical or downright aggressive and loathing, and does whatever she can to make her dreams come true. When she forms a great relationship with the titular character, she slowly becomes a sweeter person. She is confident in who she is and who she wants to be, decides on her own to maintain her glitching, and ultimately saves her friend, fulfills her role as the greatest racer of her game, and chooses to become a president rather than a princess and keeps a close relationship with her male friend and reconnects with her citizens. She is not a supporting character or sidekick; I argue that she shares the role of ‘protagonist’ with Wreck-It Ralph himself.
Holy shit! Where has this character been all my life? Speaking as someone who has felt often felt awkward, out of place, and also ‘glitches’ when I get very upset or very excited, I could have used this character growing up.
And here’s where the biggest paradox comes in. While Merida is still a character I love to death, it does feel irksome how her main conflict at first revolved around her trying to avoid getting married and feeling out of place in traditionally femininity. That’s not necessarily bad, but Vanellope’s conflict doesn’t feel as gendered; the fact that Vanellope is a girl makes the conflict more compelling and interesting, but it doesn’t totally depend on her being one.
So what’s my main point, you may ask?
Merida feels like a character that could arguably be more at home at WDAS, the company that has been widely decried as reinforcing old story formulas and rigid gender roles and stereotypes and only taking baby steps to progress. Yet Vanellope, whose character is very groundbreaking in more ways than one, could arguably be more at home at Pixar, a company that has been widely praised for being innovate in story and characterization.
As you can see, this would boggle my mind. I should be extremely excited for Pixar finally making something that many feminists absolutely adore. Why do I feel more empowered from and satisfied with another film? Why does the Disney film feel more original and progressive than the Pixar film? Brave winning the Oscar for Best Animated Film only added to my confusion and frustration; on one hand, I’m glad that a female-centric film with a female director got awards and recognition, but on the other hand, Wreck-It Ralph had a better crafted story and arguably better female characters, and one wonders if Brave even won for its merits or if the Academy just picked the Pixar film (or the only animated film with a female lead to prove a point, if you know what I mean) of the year. Was it really a victory for feminism and Pixar?
So, that kind of soured my taste in Pixar a bit. But no matter, they could improve later on, right?
Unfortunately, no. Because right after Brave they released Monsters University, a movie which, while enjoyable and did have a great moral, did not garner the same praise as its predecessor, Monsters Inc. (a movie I hold dear to my heart). But what bothered me about this film is that, in addition to proving that Pixar hasn’t quite gotten its creative mojo back, is that, right after the portrayal of women in Brave, it becomes…really uncomfortably sexist.
For starters, the cast is almost entirely male-dominated. Celia and Boo are nowhere to be seen, Roz makes a brief cameo, Dean Hardscrabble desperately needed more screen-time, and Sheri Squibbles, while funny and likeable, serves mostly as supportive comic relief (and nothing else). Worse still, there’s an entire sorority team of female monsters that all look exactly the same and fall into the negative (and overused) stereotype of ultra-girly, ultra-spoiled, vapid brats. The other sorority teams and female characters have no real development and one-dimensional characterization, and there’s even a(n unnecessary) scene where Sulley does his ‘cool shtick’ of pointing at someone and making clicking noises at two passing female monsters…and they don’t seem remotely bothered by this gesture at all. And it’s not like they are alarmed at first but then realize who he is and be like “oh that’s just Sulley being cool and all”, they immediately react positively. Maybe this is just a personal issue, since men have made creepy, threatening, and/or unsettling noises at me, but ultimately, it became the cherry atop a stale, sexist cake.
What the hell? You were finally starting to make progress with Brave, why did you regress so drastically? I tried to keep my hopes up for the studio, but things only started to get worse.
I kept hearing cringe-worthy news on how a film initially slated for 2014, The Good Dinosaur, was going through major developmental and story problems, to the point where it was pushed to late 2015, the original director (Bob Peterson) was kicked off midstream in August 2013 and a new director (Peter Sohn) wasn’t announced until October 2014. After the fiasco with Brave and its creators, I wasn’t holding my breath that Sohn (Pixar’s first non-white director) and crew would be able to properly construct a good film.
What finally reinforced the bitter taste in my mouth was Inside Out. For starters, something is wrong when your very first trailer relies on showing clips of your previous works in an attempt to say “You liked us before, please like us again!”; then you show that all your main characters rely on gendered stereotypes, from Sadness being fat, Joy being pretty, youthful, and skinny, Disgust being vain and haughty, Fear being emasculated and Anger being an aggressive male.
In fact why are there any males in this cast in the first place? This is taking place inside a little girl’s head, and, unless Pixar is bold enough to actually make Riley non-binary, none of these emotions in this character’s head should be male. Putting that aside, though, the whole concept was really disconcerting in more ways than one. According to the trailer, everyone is ruled by five basic emotions that dictate people’s thoughts and actions. So…how are you going to explain autism, neurodivergent people, and people with mental disabilities and mental health issues? Speaking as someone who is on the autism/PDD-NOS spectrum and has had experiences with anxiety and depression, I’m not sure if I like the idea that five little people inside my brain are the ones deciding that I don’t like myself, or that I NEED to do this in order to be stimulated or relax, and so on. It would be one thing if it the movie implied it was JUST Riley personifying these five emotions in her head, but the film purports that everybody’s brain works a similar way. Sorry, that’s not how it works. There are ways of showing children how emotions, personalities, and inner thoughts work without resorting to a simplistic and potentially offensive and harmful degree, especially when Riley is described more as a set piece for the emotions than a character actually going through emotional problems.
The first major peak at the film had an abundance of even MORE gendered stereotypes, from the intuitive but subdued Mom whose ruling emotion is sadness to the aggressive Dad who seems disinterested in his family to the exotified Brazilian pilot whom the Mom wishes she had…gross.
Then Pixar released the second, official trailer. From what I could discern, Joy (the ruling emotion) and Sadness (the perpetual fuck-up, apparently) get lost inside Riley’s head, and the rest of the emotions have to pilot Riley while they try to find their way back. Under normal circumstances, I’d be thrilled (two distinct women going on an adventure together, yay!), but in this case, I couldn’t. Not (just) because of the fact that the trailer includes a gay joke (“There are no bears in San Francisco” “I saw a really hairy guy, and he looked like a bear”) and Pixar has yet to actually include an explicitly LGBT character, or because of an unnecessary crack at DreamWorks Animation (Joy and Sadness go to a section of Riley’s head called “Dream Productions” and Joy says she loves a character from their role in their seventh movie; I have a problem with animation studios making fun of and antagonizing one another, but I’ll save that for another post), but the fact that, on their journey, Joy and Sadness end up accessing (and potentially damaging/altering) Riley’s thoughts, memories, and emotions.
Let me make this clear: as someone who suffers from severe mental health problems (in addition to my aforementioned diagnosed disorders), the idea of these sentient forces beyond my control messing with my brain is really, very, fucking, HORRIFYING. Like I can accept chemicals in my brain malfunctioning, or even a concept of how my body, mind, and soul are at war with one another, because it’s either still me who’s in charge or a biological force with no ulterior motive. But five little people controlling my every aspect and the slightest flub can severely mess me up? That came dangerously close to honest to goodness triggering me.
But, I decided to give the movie a go. Everybody was loving it, so I figured I might as well see it. Well, while my suspicions weren’t entirely correct, it still did one thing to piss me off: instead of focusing on the actual character with supposed mental health problems (Riley) and exploring how she overcomes them, we focus on this ridiculous adventure of two very unlikable characters (Joy was too pushy and mean for my tastes, and Sadness was more of a plot device than an actual character) messing around with her mind, we can’t tell how much control Riley actually has, and in the end everything is all better after some hugs and tears. THAT’S IT? Wow. I’m sorry. I’m tired. I’m bitter.
If this is a movie about mental health, it does a terrible job at it. I hate how, in order to sympathize with people (especially women) going through serious mental health issues, we can’t actually deal with and sympathize with the character; we have to see them through a neurotypical-friendly lens. Instead of focusing on a little girl going through trauma and hardship, we need to go inside her head through five hideous and annoying ’emotions’ that seem more like separate entities than extensions of her. Riley isn’t treated like an actual person going through a difficult time; she’s a vehicle for other characters who do a terrible job at keeping someone mentally healthy in an incredibly bland and boring landscape. But it’s okay, we won’t ACTUALLY focus on the mental health and the recovering process, we’ll just make it a silly adventure for the kiddies! Can you imagine what Frozen and Big Hero 6 would be like if, instead of actually looking at the characters of Hiro and Elsa as actual characters and witnessing them dealing with their mental issues, we kept going inside their minds and finding out they’re not REALLY angry and sad, it’s people inside their brains saying so? As you can see, I don’t like this movie. Not one bit. And I wouldn’t mind so much if this movie was looked as solely as a story about puberty and growing up (which makes more sense and makes the film MUCH less problematic), but SO MANY PEOPLE are praising it as the beacon of depicting mental health correctly, which ultimately cements my distaste for it. (Even if most people understood that it was a movie about growing up, I’m still uncomfortable that we can’t actually focus on Riley and the emotions aren’t very good characters; and if the movie is about how sadness is a necessary emotion, the director made a sweeping statement on how too many people take medications to not feel sad. You can understand how I might have a problem with that. Not to mention people who do feel sad all the time don’t need to be told that sadness is necessary.)
The final nail on the coffin came with the release of The Good Dinosaur. Like…what is this movie? It’s literally nothing but a serious of events where Arlo gets beaten, bitten, bruised, threatened, traumatized, knocked out, or otherwise hurt or scared. How is that entertaining? This movie could’ve been redeemed if he actually got to stay with Spot and we could actually explore a potential idea of humans and dinosaurs working together, but nope, we can’t have that apparently. Not to mention, again, the cast is male dominated. And with that, my unquestionable love for Pixar evaporated.
Basically, I’m really disappointed in Pixar at this rate. They have the power to marry awesome storytelling, themes, morals and animation with awesome representation of women and minority groups, and I’m so very TIRED of seeing them ultimately not bothering. Female representation is still flimsy, racial diversity is practically nonexistent (Frozone, Mirage, and Russell are the only prominent characters of colour from Pixar I can name off the top of my head, and you wouldn’t know that Edna Mode was half Japanese until you checked out the supplementary material), fat and disability representation are few and far between and aren’t always flattering (it’s a little upsetting when the more respectful depictions of disabilities are handled with talking fish, and do we NEED Mr. Incredible’s weight to be the constant butt of jokes?), and it’s really sad when fans speculating that Edna is a trans woman because she’s voiced by a man and that two cars are gay because they spend so much time side by side is the only smidgen of LGBT+ representation (that people will argue isn’t even representation in the first place) you can crank out, especially when we live in a world where other shows and movies aimed at younger audiences are trying to incorporate inclusion given their restrictions. Don’t even get me started on the lack of mental illness representation. It says a lot when Walt Disney Animation Studios (the people behind the classics from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to Zootopia), which has frequently been labelled as racist, sexist, homophobic, fat-phobic, ableist, etc., somehow manages to have more visibility of minority/marginalized groups than Pixar, even if they aren’t the best portrayals.
I’m not saying that I completely hate Pixar or look at their past works with scorn. Many of them will forever remain my favourites and are classics in their own right. But I must admit that I can no longer hold them to as high a value as I did before, and I can’t really get excited for any of their new films unless they do something honestly groundbreaking. Like making a film about a well-written, multifaceted, likable and uniquely designed woman of colour going on adventures with all the humour, heart, and creative storytelling that we’ve come to expect for Pixar (and whose mental issues are dealt with respectfully). But since we’ve proven to Pixar that we’re satisfied with reserving that for white or nonhuman men, I won’t hold my breath.