Up – by Pixar–SPOILERS and a small rant

Up was a heckuva lot of fun.

It did get a little toothgrinding, though, that Ellie, Carl’s wife, ended up dying before she could have HER adventure, and it was a little too pat that, once he actually looked through her adventure book, he discovered all the pictures she of the two of them together with a message to him “I’ve had my adventure [being with you], now go on and have some of your own!”. As if THAT hadn’t been an adventure for him, also?

I’ll admit that I cried a fair amount..okay, an effing lot, because Pixar manages to push all the right buttons of, “They Really LOVED each other“, and okay, that’s fine. That’s what these movies are supposed to do.

But it rankled afterward upon reflection that there were no other women in the movie until the very end, when Russell’s stepmother? mother? nanny? –it’s never made clear– makes her presence known in the audience at the very end when he gets his Explorer Badge. How hard could it have been for Russell to be a little girl? After all, Ellie was a spunky, lively, funny, intense and amazing little girl (we only get to know her as an adult through a montage). Did the filmmakers think they shouldn’t repeat it with a different little girl? I guess that’s what they were going after. Why not have the boy’s troop be a Campfire troop with both girls and boys in it? Only boys are allowed to have real adventures that take them all over the globe? Girls are satisfied with the adventure of marriage and relationship bliss?

There’s a huge pack of dogs in the section of the movie that takes place in Venezuela. Can you believe that the dogs were all male, too? How did they make more dogs? Where did the puppies come from for all those years? Were they all hidden in some secret whelping cave dutifully making puppies by the score?

I don’t want to make it sound like I hated this movie: No, I liked it, a lot, and it’s gorgeous and the story just whisks you along with poignant character moments. And it is nice to see Carl’s devotion to Ellie, his dead wife, throughout the movie.  I think it is wonderful that there’s a decent animated movie with a geriatric main character. It was also great to see them meet as children, and then spend their entire lives together. That’s the kind of marriage that I think everyone who’s married wishes they could have.

But I am disastisfied, once out of the theater, at the message below all the fun in this movie: Girls, you can dream about having an adventure; Boys, you can actually LIVE the adventure.


  1. Eileen says

    It makes it hard. It makes me love the movie a little less, and it makes me decide to put Pixar on notice. Try to include women as central characters who have adventures of their own, or learn to live without my money.

  2. says

    Did you notice this stuff while you were in the theater, or once you were out of it?

    What harm would it have been to the story if they’d had children? Was that to point out that Ellie was a Good Little Wife who really really really wanted kids and missed that part of her adventure with Carl?

    Even as the movie was getting the emotional reactions out of me, I was getting unhappier and unhappier with the message I was getting.

  3. says

    Man, every review I find of this move is *exactly* what I wrote! I had the very same problems with this. I am glad I am not the only one – I mean I LOVED this movie and it just kills me that stuff like this still bugs me in these awesome, awesome films.

    @Gategrrl – I notice stuff like this the whole way through. I’m usually sitting here, very aware that I’m waiting for a woman to show up. In this case, once they were in the clouds I knew a woman wasn’t going to show up (you kind of knew the old timey explorer was going to be the villain), and just tried to not let it spoil the movie for me.

    The fact that there is a prominent Asian character who is not a stereotype has mollified me somewhat. But I mean, I can’t sacrifice one for the other. Why couldn’t he have been a girl!!

  4. says

    Also! Did anyone else think it was a little weird that the two characters in the short before the movie were male? I mean technically, who knows what they were, but I felt they were both coded as male. And like – were they in a relationship or what? I really liked the short, but it was totally about love and acceptance and families. If they wanted to show two males loving each other unconditionally and making families together, despite how hard it is – awesome. (Actually now that I’ve written that I wonder if that really was their intent, and I kind of like it).

    BUT I think it would’ve been more interesting if the cloud had been a female. I think only one of the clouds we saw was female. I mean, I got all these vibes of creation and motherhood and, like, this cloud not being able to do it “right”, not be able to produce and nurture the right kind of baby, and being rejected by everyone else because of it. Except for the stork who really loved the cloud.

    I guess either message is okay. What do you think?

  5. says

    To some extent, I think your criticism is slightly off-target. Up is a movie about an old man who befriends a young boy. It is narratively cohesive, internally consistent, with generally well developed characters. Just because the film happens to show males having adventures does not logically imply that females can’t or shouldn’t have adventures as well. Taken on its own merits, the film isn’t a put-down of women; that the story features a man and a boy does not count against the film it and of itself.

    It is entirely fair, however, to point out that the industry continues to favour male characters over female characters. There are dozens of Ups for every Coraline. I too would like see more female character, although personally, I’m tired of seeing female character cast as violent action heroes – as if being equal to men means sharing the same capacity for violence.

    Speaking of violence, I think there lies my biggest peeve with Up. But since I’ve already written about that elsewhere, I’ll shamelesslyplug my review at The Front Page Online.

    @TallyCola: I don’t understand why it would be more interesting for the cloud to have been female. Why is it that when it comes to children and creation, the first association to be made is with motherhood? What about fatherhood? Except for Finding Nemo, I can’t really think of many positive expressions of fatherhood, Just my two cents, though. I don’t know that it makes sense to assign gender to clouds.

  6. says

    I have no complaints with the character development, or the internal consistency, Frederick. That was not at issue, and has, really, nothing to do with my complaints about the film.

    By sliding Ellie into the dead magical presence who guides Carl (through her My Adventures scrapbook) at the end, and ends up getting her dream *postmortem*…it reeks of the same sort of denial that women have had to endure for ages. Other than Ellie, the absence of any other woman or female figure–Dug the Dog could have been female, but wasn’t–why? is keenly felt and realized after you realize…hey, there’s only one woman again, toward the end of the movie.

    Oh, there IS the bird, a female, named *KEVIN* a male name; Russell assumes it’s a male before thinking of anything else. And then, not only is it discovered it’s female-it’s only female because we learn the bird’s main motivation is its *babies*.

    A man and his boy and his dog and his male-named bird.

    Sure. I’m off target. Not.

  7. says

    And let’s see…other movies that Pete Doctor has had story credits for:

    Monsters, Inc..a favorite of mine, with three female characters in it. A buddy film, like Up.

    Wall-E- story credit-another well-done story in a universe that hangs together, with genderized machines (see the articles related to this here on Hathor)

    Toy Story, and Toy Story 2, story credits. Plainly, Pete Doctor loves buddy stories. *Nothing* wrong with that; many women love buddy stories, too.

    With the exception of Wall-E and Toy Story 2, however, the women in these stories are minimal, usually relegated to minor side-roles or romantic roles…just like many other dozens of films Hollywood churns out.

    That Pixar makes fantastically animated CGI Buddy movies doesn’t take them out of the running for criticism.

  8. says

    It is entirely fair, however, to point out that the industry continues to favour male characters over female characters. There are dozens of Ups for every Coraline.

    I’d say there are hundreds of Ups to every Caroline, actually. Movies targeting kids seem to be especially dedicated to leaving girls out of the adventure roles, which I find even more troubling than the tendency of movies for grown-ups to do the same thing.

    I don’t think Gategrrl was arguing that it puts women down in any way. It doesn’t need to. It sidelines us and reinforces the idea that boys “do” and girls are content to just “be”, and that’s troubling enough right there.

  9. says

    Oh, and, just to mention it, there is a new Disney movie coming out featuring…a Princess! The promotion for it was shown just before Up started. This time, however, it’s an inversion of the Princess and the Frog story moved to New Orleans. The bad guy looks like a crazed New Orleans voodoo caricature.

    Once again, if you’re a girl, you’re gonna get adventure—ONLY if you’re a Disney Princess with a Prince on your hands!

    Where are the Coralines, please, even if they happen to add male characters into the storyline for fear of offending or chasing off the boys from the theater?

  10. says

    TallyCola, the short that played before Up was another expression of the formula that Pixar has so excellently exploited so far (to varying degrees): the Buddy Story!

    It was charming, it was sweet, it was perfectly timed with its jokes. I have no complaints about it, per se. It’s been a few days now since I’ve seen it, so I don’t recall whether or not the all the other clouds were coded male or female or not. Many of them seemed to be coded male–it was obvious which ones were coded female.

    But it did set the tone for Up very well.

  11. says

    I’m sorry if suggesting your criticism is off target offends you, Gategrrl. Not my intention; I apologize. But…I still maintain that your argument only makes sense within the pattern of how the film industry operates. On its own, the film does not make any grand points beyond what you interpret it to make. The exclusion of female characters does not, in itself, imply that female character SHOULD be excluded. And just because something, like Ellie’s note in the album, happens (or doesn’t happen) doesn’t mean it should (or should not) happen. The point is that individual characters and stories are not symbolic of universal characters and stories. What you see is what you get; what it means is open to interpretation, which can never be fixed.

    Your example with Kevin is, I think, a case of this kind of overinterpretation, especially considering we’re talking about a bird and not a human. A boy sees a bird, calls it Kevin, and later learns she’s a female because she has babies to defend. Seems like a perfectly sensible way to tell what sex an animal is – many animal species cannot be differentiated by looks alone, and in many bird species, it’s the male that is colourful while the female will have duller plumage. From a biological/zoological standpoint, the scenario works, and I think it pokes fun at Russell’s assumption rather than reinforces the maleness of it all.

    My disagreement is not with the idea that Pixar is guilty of doing too many buddy movies – it is, and Disney is far worse – or that there are disproportionate amounts of male-centric films, which of course there are, but with the notion that Up, itself, has a message that “Girls, you can dream about having an adventure; Boys, you can actually LIVE the adventure.” Or, as Jennifer puts it, that “It sidelines us and reinforces the idea that boys “do” and girls are content to just “be”. What we see is an old man and a boy going on an adventure after the death of a much-loved woman. The movie’s meaning lies in what we see.

    In fact, I would argue that Up isn’t so much a problem in terms of female stereotypes but a problem in that it perpetuates negative male stereotypes – that male adventures must involve violent chases (dogs biting birds), guns (must have guns!), and a callous disregard for human life (Muntz trying to kill everyone, maintaining an army of slave dogs, Carl and Russell causing Muntz to fall off the airship without so much as a blink of the eye). The film’s violence and animal abuse, in my view, is its worst offense.

  12. says

    What we see is an old man and a boy going on an adventure after the death of a much-loved woman. The movie’s meaning lies in what we see.

    Yes, and what we don’t see. A man on an adventure with a boy. Women … not having adventures. What isn’t said is generally just as important as what is said. Everything is a deliberate choice in filmmaking.

  13. says

    TallyCola: Just because we see men having an adventure doesn’t logically entail that men should be going on adventures. Similarly, not seeing women go on an adventure doesn’t logically entail that women shouldn’t go on an adventure. There is no logical, causal connection between what *is* and what *should be.*

    By your line of reasoning, Coraline is saying that boys should be passive sidekicks to girls. After all, we don’t see a strong adventurous, well-mannered boy. What we see and what we don’t see are not equivocal.

    And you’re right, everything is a deliberate choice in filmmaking but those choices are irrelevant and inaccessible – the author is dead and has no more claim to a true interpretation of a work than anyone else.

  14. says

    I wanted to go back and edit my post, but I can’t. Sorry to post again so quickly.

    @ Frederick: your main defense is that Up is a movie about an old man who befriends a young boy.

    No, not really. It’s about an old person who befriends a child.

    The movie would have been *exactly the same* if either of these characters’ genders had been reversed. You wouldn’t even have to change ANY of their lines, except to account for some gender pronouns maybe.

    If Russell was a girl, the only difference this would’ve made to the movie was that it showed a male and female going on an adventure, not just two males. The heart of the story – about letting go of baggage, about what really makes a family, about an old person and a child having a friendship – would be exactly the same.
    (An Asian girl scout would’ve also set up the fact that times have changed since Carl was a kid the same amount, if not more so, than an Asian boy scout.)

    Re: the short- I’m not assigning genders to the characters, the makers did. Most of the clouds are shown as male, except for one or two, notable the one that helped the stork. Both the stork and the stormy cloud had masculine voices. Again, deliberate choices. If any choices in a film *aren’t* deliberate, then they’re just sloppy.

    I’m not necessarily bagging on them for making the cloud a male. I agree with you that there aren’t enough positive portrayals of fathers. They mostly show up as deadbeats, as was the case with Russell’s dad.

    But the stormy cloud wasn’t a positive portrayal of fatherhood – the point was, all the other clouds thought he sucked at making babies. The cloud that was best at making babies was a female. The only person who thought the stormy cloud’s babies were okay, and that *he* was okay by extension, was the stork. And I mean, I loved it, but – sometimes mothers find it hard to be mothers, and they are shown almost no sympathy, either in real life or in film. This cloud got more sympathy than “bad” mothers generally get.

    The cloud short was cute, but I would’ve found it a lot more refreshing if it was a female, that’s all. I think it would be more interesting if it was female because, well, I want to see more females in mainstream film. There are, statistically, hardly any. That’s why I’m on this website.

    (I’m sorry if this post comes across as a little snarky, I don’t intend for it to be. I’m not trying to attack your views or anything. And, the tagline for this blog is “the search for good female characters”… so I don’t see how Gategrrl’s review or comments can be off target at all.)

  15. says

    By your line of reasoning, Coraline is saying that boys should be passive sidekicks to girls. After all, we don’t see a strong adventurous, well-mannered boy. What we see and what we don’t see are not equivocal.

    Except that, as was pointed up above, we get one Coraline for every hundred (or hundreds) of Ups.

    Yes, these films should be judged on their own, and Up is a great movie.

    But, films are cultural transmission, and they’re mostly all transmitting the same damn thing. This is a problem because the overall messages that films, in general, portray, are what society holds as values.

  16. says

    Violence, animal abuse…those are the aspects of the movie which concern you (and I did read your review, btw).

    The aspect which concerns *me*, and which does not make it any less than yours, is the exclusion through the storyline of women in any sort of adventure role. Now, should Pixar turn out a female buddy movie, with sidelined male characters, would that make me happy? Perhaps. If Pixar churned out as many of those as they have based on their male template.

    It is a systemic Hollywood problem. But I’m talking about the specifics of *this* particular film. It *has* females in it. None of whom (the human ones) were able to have an adventure while they were alive–unless it was the adventure of a happy relationship, which, sorry…as happy as I am with my husband, if I hadn’t my own adventure to foreign lands when I was younger, I wouldn’t say I’d be as happy now. I’d be wondering, What If. But that’s me.

    A movie’s meaning doesn’t just lie in what we see. It lies also in what we do NOT see. The absence of something is as telling as its presence. Directors and storytellers use that technique all the time (just as Hitchcock or any mystery or adventure or thriller writer)

    I find it as valid as examining a film for what is there. And, by the way, I’m not asking for my opinion to be validated and okayed. It is what it is. As wonderful as this film is, it still misses the mark on other scorecards.

  17. says

    I don’t think there is any “transmission” going on. That’s the point; there is no message to “Up.” To say there is is just as mistaken as saying that a strong female character is a coded transmission to have all men castrated. (The butch-dyke cliche).

    The fact that there is one Coraline or a thousand, one Up or a thousand doesn’t change the logic of drawing a specific interpretation from what we see on screen.

    I agree, of course, that there is a cultural component and that films, to varying degrees, can reflect the broader culture. But that doesn’t override the individuality of the film or filmmaker. It’s like the nature vs nurture debate; it’s not one or the other, it’s one through the other.

  18. says

    There’s no message in Up?

    What about the message that memories are things that you have *lived*, not things that you have bought, saved, or recorded? I mean they only laid that metaphor down with a trowel. What about that families are made by choice, and that love can continue even after a loved one dies? What about the message that just because one journey ends, THE journey is not over? Those were all pretty glaringly obvious messages to me and everyone I saw the movie with.

  19. says

    Sure, we could make an argument that meaning is constructed out of a system of difference in which case a particular meaning gets its force in part through what it doesn’t mean. (And argue about the role of causality in all of that.) But that’s an entirely different order of omission than seeing storytellers like Hitchcock omitting something as a means of emphasizing it in the story. This is like not showing the murderer plunge the knife in a victim’s chest as opposed to showing flesh tearing and great fountains of blood gushing out.

    By your reasoning, the fact that a story about a man and a boy is questionable by its exclusion of women, taken to its logical conclusion, means that no story is valid because it doesn’t fully encompass everything it excludes. The flaw with relying on omissions as indicative of some sort of deliberate exclusion is a lot like asking to prove a negative. We can’t prove that X doesn’t exist, therefore we allow for the possibility that X exists regardless of whether the concept of X is sensible or not. Again, a film that’s about an old man and a boy (yes, man and boy, not person and child) only means that it’s about a man and a boy. The rest is interpretation.

    If you’re saying that there is a lack of films with strong female characters, I agree completely. But all I’m saying is that I don’t agree that Up’s individual focus on male characters carries a message about whether or not girls should be adventurers. In other words, there’s a difference between a systematic exclusion and an individual exclusion. Up’s exclusion – and I don’t think exclusion is the right word – of women from the storyline is not the same as studio executives choosing films that feature male characters over films that have female protagonists. That is why I said “off target” because I think the wrong target is being criticized.

    Which brings me to TallyCola’s points: there is no message because films don’t mean anything. There is only the interpretation we ourselves bring to it. Again, the film depicts a *particular* love enduring after the death of a loved one. That says nothing about the universality of love, the desirability of continuing that love, or whether or not a journey continues. The individual is not symbolic of the collective.

    Just my opinion, though. My concern is asking for strong female characters on a premise that undermines the very possibility of strong female characters.

  20. says

    there is no message because films don’t mean anything…The individual is not symbolic of the collective.

    Well, your fundamental understanding of what film and art is is obviously VASTLY different from mine, and we’re just gonna have to agree to disagree on that.

  21. says

    Hmm. Exclusions.

    Let’s back up. My review, a rant, focused on the *role within the film* of Ellie, and the entirely specious *exclusion* of any female characters, such as in the dog pack.

    The focus of Hathor is on the systemic exclusion of good women characters in the media and on finding out where are they are. That’s what I am talking about with Pixar’s Up. It is included among ALL those others thousands of films that exclude women or girl characters without any good reason.

    You may find fault with my reasoning, or my point of view, but that’s seriously not my problem. Films do contain messages–with Pixar and Disney, that’s guaranteed–and messages that aren’t right up there on the placard.

    Up says to me that, within any buddy movie, and particularly in *this* one aimed at little kids, that girls can want to go on adventures all they want, but it’ll be the boys who actually get to go.

  22. sbg says

    Up says to me that, within any buddy movie, and particularly in *this* one aimed at little kids, that girls can want to go on adventures all they want, but it’ll be the boys who actually get to go.

    This. A great, tightly written and plotted story does not mean there isn’t room for criticism. There’s also the fact that if we dismissed the issues, be they feminist, racist, [insertyouristhere], in every movie that is otherwise good, then we are saying-without-saying that it’s okay to keep producing movies with these “ist” problems instead of pushing for MORE.

  23. says

    Frederik, when a film repeats the usual exclusions, it is adding its voice to the enforcement of that norm. It’s as if it’s voting, “Yes, it should be all about boys/white people/middle class people/able-bodied people/whatever.” Defaulting to the status quo IS supporting it. Or at least that’s what I would think if a black American said to me, “As a child, I wanted so much to like Father Knows Best, but there were never any black people on it, even as gas station attendants, and that made me feel so invisible.”

    The reason I’m using race as an analogy is that you and I are both white, and neither of us can really imagine how “disappeared” a black kid in the 60s might have felt from the culture when TV swept up the nation in a sea of white people with white problems. But I do know how it felt to be a girl in the 80s and have the nearly agency-free Princess Leia as the most active female in movies. Things have not changed very much since then in film – young girls still have a shitty assortment of role models unless, like me, they scandalize the family and neighborhood by openly embracing male characters as role models instead.

    Gategrrl calls this a message; you don’t. But that aspect of this discussion is feeling pretty semantic to me. As a girl, I saw movies like this and I did get the “message” that I was supposed to occupy the traditional gender role, and if I found myself yearning to be a pilot, archeologist or Jedi Knight, I was defective in some way. I didn’t get it in so many words, but I would leave these movies elated, picturing myself in the role of one of the men, only to get angry and frustrated a few days later at some nebulous something I couldn’t identify: the deliberate frustration of my ambitions by a culture that still believed women had no right to compete with men.

    Your arguments are academically correct, and I don’t dispute that. To imply that this movie, all by itself, is furthering sexism does seem over the top. But Gategrrl’s article is targeting people like me, who intuitively get how the movie made her feel, because we’ve had the same feelings every time we want to love a movie, but yet again, see that it doesn’t love us back.

    Please note that there are also a lot of reviews around here where we almost pathetically congratulate some movie for kind of hinting that one of the female characters was capable of something worthwhile. Those movies cannot *really* be interpreted as supporting the opposite of the status quo, but we are so pitifully grateful when they just fail to support it whole-heartedly that we often give them more credit than is probably really due.

  24. says

    I just edited part of my above comment – the second to the last paragraph. When I wrote it the first time, I kept editing, ended up omitting something important, and then when I fixed it, I found a short way to get across the whole thing.

  25. Madelyn says

    I notice in the review that you aren’t sure who the woman at the end is, but she is not really discussed in any of these comments. I had a lot of the same problems with Up as are discussed here, but the movie really lost me during the badge ceremony at the end.

    If Russell’s father was absent (so he lived with his mother, who was at the ceremony), why couldn’t his mother go up on stage to pin on the badge? I’d say that’s pretty realistic– in Boy Scouts, if your dad’s not there, your mother fills the void, not some old man you recently befriended.

    Are we really supposed to believe that Russell’s mom isn’t closer to him than Carl is? That she wasn’t the one who helped him get all those badges? I know he wasn’t taught to build a tent because his dad wasn’t there, but was his mom never involved anywhere else in his life?

    Apparently not… in the picture montage at the end, Russell’s mother was not present in a single photo. So I’d say Pixar very clearly reinforced the message that women do not go on adventures (because these photos were added to the “Adventure Book,” and billed as adventures). They stay home, even in their own city, whenever adventures are happening.

  26. says

    I saw it last night and I enjoyed it. I do think Ellie is pretty exceptional as Pixar characters go. She was pretty clearly the pro-active one in the relationship and she probably had the job that involved more expertise at the park they both worked at. I did get the vibe that Ellie’s caring about birds was part of what got Carl going after Kevin. That said, would have been nice if there were a few non-couple pictures in the adventure book.

    Anyhow, I quite agree with Gategrrl and particularly since I tend to use the point of reference of other Pixar films (that I’ve seen) rather than all films as a whole. They’ve had a lot of chances to make a film starring an Ellie or any number of other Miyazaki-style female leads, but they don’t really take them. Perhaps I’m being unfair to even compare to some of the Studio Ghibli output, but I consider putting them in the same league to be a compliment.

  27. says

    I loved Up, and I agree that both of the main characters, or either, could have been female, but in a society that is alert to the problems of child molestation, it might have been disturbing to many members of the audience to have the child be female. Old man + little girl too often equals Creepy.

    Yes, I know it would have been perfectly innocent, and it is certainly a comment on our society that we no longer trust anyone around our children (many other societies are not so paranoid), but it was perhaps the safer choice to have both characters be the same gender.

    Old woman + little boy would perhaps not have been so bad, but it wouldn’t have been the same dynamic, either, since the boy’s issue was that his father had essentially abandoned him and he needed someone to fill that role.

    That still leaves the discussion of why they weren’t both female (old woman + little girl = kickass fun, as far as I’m concerned), but others commenting here have been quite eloquent about that. I just wanted to bring up this one aspect of our society’s fears.

  28. says

    but in a society that is alert to the problems of child molestation, it might have been disturbing to many members of the audience to have the child be female. Old man + little girl too often equals Creepy.

    It strikes me as exactly the opposite. I mean, Lolita is a celebrated novel about an old pervert and a young girl. People who worry aloud about pedophiles to me almost invariably start framing it as something men do to boys. In fact, I often get frustrated because they seem to dismiss men molesting girls as a lesser crime (presumably, they consider same-sex relations wrong, and therefore see same-sex molestation as a compounded act of evil).

  29. says

    Old woman + little boy would perhaps not have been so bad, but it wouldn’t have been the same dynamic, either, since the boy’s issue was that his father had essentially abandoned him and he needed someone to fill that role.

    That’s easily fixed though – have the mother be the one who left the family. If people can’t accept that a mother would take her son camping, have the single dad be too busy to do stuff with Russell, ’cause he’s a single dad.

    I also agree with Jennifer. I have heard people defend old man – little girl molestation with such gems as “grass on the field” or “at least it’s not crossing swords.”

  30. says

    Balancing Lolita a bit, the play/film Doubt (which I haven’t seen) has been pretty prominent of late. Based on the film reviews it sounded as if there the mother of one possibly molested teenage boy did weigh that against the advantages he was receiving from a better education. Similarly, again I haven’t seen it but I believe History Boys involved a somewhat over-affectionate (but not outright molesting) older male teacher with exclusively male students).

    Also, I think that one of the most notorious possible molestation cases was the death of Jon Benet Ramses (sp? I don’t really want to Google to check).

    I do think there’s doubtless bias there, but I think it is fair to say the entire culture seems to be fairly freaked out about such risks. One way to test the hypothesis would be to watch the Law & Order SUV type shows and see what shows up more. That said, I prefer not to watch those shows, so I can’t speak to the data there.

    That said, screw the culture, do any pairing you want for such a film.

  31. says

    Jennifer–good point about Lolita, though I am not sure it was acclaimed because people approved of the idea. Though maybe they did. Ick.

    TallyCola, also a good point! Though in all conversations I’ve had, the universal sentiment from men and women both has been that child molestation is an unforgiveable crime regardless of the gender of the child. I am astounded and educated that people would make the kinds of comments you’ve heard.

    The story of a mother abandoning her family or, worse yet, being the devouring mother who eats her children (figuratively speaking) seems to be told much less frequently than the story of a father abandoning his family. I think it is a bit scary to a lot of people to think that a mother can do harmful things to her children, especially if she is doing it deliberately. A mother is “supposed” to love her family and children; for fathers, it is more often considered optional, with little blame attached if they don’t.

    I love the television miniseries, The 10th Kingdom, in part because it tells of a kind of mother that isn’t often portrayed–deliberately deadly and poisonous. I love it not because I approve of such a mother, but because it can be very healing for people, especially women, who have had such mothers to find out that there wasn’t something wrong with themselves, after all, but with their mother.

    Greg is right. This story could have been told with any combination of genders, if it were kept sweet and innocent. The issues might have to change some, as mentioned by TallyCola, but they would still all be viable. However, in practical terms, I can almost see storyboarders presenting some of the combinations and being vetoed out of fear of what the public might think.

    Taking a step back from the “could have beens,” I think the movie is just fine as it is–children do have fathers who have abandoned them, and the movie handles the topic very delicately. Children who haven’t experienced it will get it without being too saddened, and children who have, will perhaps feel some relief in knowing that it isn’t about them.

  32. says

    Jennifer–good point about Lolita, though I am not sure it was acclaimed because people approved of the idea. Though maybe they did. Ick.

    Well, some people see it as a hot romantic story, so I think there is some approval going on there. But I also meant that even when people are upset about male-female sex abuse, it just doesn’t seem to upset them as much as same-sex sex abuse. Consider the most appalling example of mass reaction to sex abuse stories in the news: the recurring tales of female teachers having affairs with barely pubescent male students, and 90% of the pundits and audience cheering for that lucky young stud rather than seeing him as a victim/survivor of sexual abuse.

  33. sbg says

    But I also meant that even when people are upset about male-female sex abuse, it just doesn’t seem to upset them as much as same-sex sex abuse.

    Never mind how people seem to not realize that Lolita might not have been a precocious little vixen who lured Humbert Humbert into doing the things he did – the story was told from his rather twisted POV, and it seems rare for anyone to consider her an actual victim. At least as far as lasting cultural reference goes – I doubt people think “sexually abused victim” when they use the term Lolita to describe someone.

  34. says

    I really didn’t like “Up” — and not just for the reasons you mention here.

    I found “Up” extremely formulaic and predictable. Its “high concept” was “use computer animation to create stunning panoramic vistas — plus lots of balloons — kids love balloons!” Then they plugged that high concept into their computerized generic-script-generating program to create a story to fit. (To be fair, I’ll grant that “Up” is merely forgettable, not so-bad-it’s-painful-to-sit-through like “Thomas and the Magic Railroad”…)

    For all those who argue that all big-budget kids’ films are like that, I disagree. I’m a mom (who naturally ends up watching a ton of kids’ films), and they vary quite a lot in terms of the imagination shown in the story and script. Even within Pixar, there are films that have an interesting story that’s complemented by the amazing computer animation, and there are stories (like “Up”) where the amazing computer animation is the whole story. “Wall-E” was quite clever and entertaining, “Cars” has its moments (IMHO “Cars” falls somewhere between “Wall-E” and “Up”) in quality. Then there’s “The Incredibles” — my new favorite Pixar movie — which I’m planning to write about soon.

  35. says

    There is no doubt that male characters dominate children’s film and that females are rarely given the chance to be heroes. But what I found most troubling about Up were the messages sent by a character we never see – Russell’s dad.

    As was noted in at least one comment here, Russell’s father is portrayed as a deadbeat. He is the parent who left and promptly broke promises to his son. He is the parent who doesn’t show up on one of the most important days of his son’s life.

    In presenting fathers this way, Up continues a trend that is all too common in kids’ movies, books and TV shows.

    Paradoxically, his father’s absence shows not only that fathers can be heartless, but also that mothers cannot assume the mantle of the departed dad. At the Wilderness Explorers ceremony, it is only fathers on stage. Why couldn’t Russell’s mother stand up there with him? Why is she sitting passively in the audience while a man who is a virtual stranger to her takes the place of the boy’s father?

    Sadly, these mixed messages dominate kids’ TV and film. On the one hand, we see that men are pretty much useless as parents. Despite that fact, we also see that their absence can only be filled by a male role model – a message that certainly devalues females. For more evidence, just look at popular male characters who lose their mothers and end up in the care of one or more males – Anakin Skywalker, Nemo, virtually all superheroes – it is a very long list.

    Up is just the latest in a string of films to present negative ideas about both males and females. I keep hoping to find a film that gets it right, but it is tough. The Incredibles comes close, so I would recommend it.

  36. says

    In presenting fathers this way, Up continues a trend that is all too common in kids’ movies, books and TV shows.

    I really don’t think deadbeat dads are as common as the tropes of mothers who are rendered invisible or purposeless. It also serves more of a purpose than the invisible/purposeless mother trope: lots of kids have dads who failed them, and seeing that on screen is something they can relate to. But are invisible/purposeless mothers that common? I don’t get that sense from people I’ve actually discussed family troubles with. Now bear with me for a second – I’m not in favor of Deadbeat Dad becoming the next big obligatory stereotype. I’m just trying to describe something I believe underlies the whole problem and hurts representation of both genders:

    What’s going on in kids’ movies at the most basic level is not simply a collection of bad parenting tropes: it’s that kids are being shown men are effective and women are ineffective. Where are all the sadistically abusive mothers in film? They were in many of the classic fairy tales, but once Disney got done animating all those, they fell out of kids’ movies pretty much entirely. Can’t show them anymore than we can show the heroic mothers, because both would be “effective” (in the sense that they get results) and women must not be shown capable of effectiveness. Meanwhile, there are still a lot of heroic and terrific dads in fiction alongside the bad dads, but what all these dads have in common is that they get results.

  37. says

    To Jennifer Kesler, you are absolutely right about mothers. I was alluding to that point a bit here when I talked about Russell’s mom, but I amplified the point about fathers because I thought it needed to be heard.

    In actual fact, there are lots of problems with the way the mother/son relationship in particular is portrayed in pop culture aimed at young kids (my particular area of research). In many kids’ cartoons, she dies, leaving her son in the care of a male – either the father or a father figure – as though she needs to be removed in order for the boy to be raised properly. If she is there, she is typically shown doing domestic things and rarely working. She also tends to keep a distance from her son so she doesn’t impede his journey to manhood, often initiating an emotional break with her son with some kind of “you’re a man now” speech.

    This is just a brief post – the topic is huge and one that I am writing about in detail. Much of the pop culture aimed at kids presents terrible stereotypes of both genders, with women and girls devalued and treated as nothing more than supporting characters and men and boys presented as aggressive “warrior” types who avoid emotional displays and equate femininity with weakness.

  38. says

    In many kids’ cartoons, she dies, leaving her son in the care of a male – either the father or a father figure – as though she needs to be removed in order for the boy to be raised properly.

    That’s an interesting take on it. We discussed the disposable mother trope in Ice Age at length, and this was one of the angles we didn’t look at as much as we might have (the article got hit by trolls, which derailed some of the finer discussion points).

  39. Patrick says

    Achilles Effect, I’m curious as to the “virtually all superheroes” that you reference as losing their mothers and ending up with a male parent figure. The only ones I can think of are Batman, Robin/Nightwing, any orphaned X-Man (lose both parents, end up with a father figure), Daredevil (mother abandons the family, raised by his father), and the Ultimate incarnation of Iron Man (mother dies when he is a baby, raised by his father).

    Not saying that this isn’t a trend (and Disney is especially guilty here), but I don’t see it applying to superheroes in sufficient numbers to be a trend there.

  40. says

    Apologies. I got carried away by saying “virtually all”. I should have qualified it since I am talking about superheroes that young children would recognize (my area of research right now) and the situation I described applies to most hero characters.

    The most popular superheroes with today’s young kids are the ones that exist in animated form on TV – Spiderman, Superman, Batman, Iron Man and Wolverine. Other characters also fall into the category of “hero”, like Anakin from Clone Wars. In these cases the heroes lost one or both of their natural parents. The point is that the mother is rarely replaced. In the case of Superman and Spiderman there is a mother figure, but in the other cases, the mentor figures for the characters are male. In Superman’s case, the various Justice League storylines have him hanging around with a predominantly male group. The latest animated version of Iron Man also has the lead without parents. He has a close female friend but she is a stereotypical hyper-chatty teenage girl – not exactly a great female character.

    This trend to diminish the role of mothers is not exclusive to superheroes, and there are exceptions among the caped crusaders. That so many prominent ones follow the trend is a problem in my mind.

    Another problem is the consistency of the message, which appears in all genres of kids’ entertainment from superheroes to comedies. All kinds of male leads lose their mothers and never have them replaced – e.g. Ratatouille where Remy has no mother and befriends a motherless young man; Pokemon where Ash leaves his mother behind and is mentored by the motherless Brock (whose father abandoned the family); Ice Age 1 where the mother just slips away into the water, leaving the boy to be raised by his father; Nemo whose mother is eaten by a barracuda, leaving him with his father; Flint in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs who has a strained relationship with his father (his mother dies when he is a child).

    I think there is a definite trend and superheroes are a part of it.

    • says

      Achilles Effect, you might want to take a look at anthropological literature before you commit too strongly to the idea that the theme of young men losing their mothers and being raised by men is a new and recent trend.

      For probably thousands of years, in cultures around the world, when young men and women were considered to be of the right age, they have undergone coming of age ceremonies. Often, these ceremonies involved being separated from parents and other adults of the opposite gender and being sequestered with their age mates of the same gender, with only same-gender adults around.

      Often (though not always) the young men and women would then pretty much stick with others of their gender, boys doing the manly things and girls doing the womanly things, with interactions with other members of their society happening as needed as they perform their daily chores.

      I am not defending the coming-of-age ceremonies, but I also don’t consider them sexist. The point here is that they have been around for a very long time, and coming of age is a long-running theme in humanity’s stories and literature.

      I have also read that psychological studies have shown that if only one parent is available, children usually are emotionally healthier, with stronger self-identities, if the parent who raises them is of the same gender.

      In response to what others have said about Russell’s father, it seems pretty clear to me that he has abandoned his son, ostensibly under pressure from Phyllis. This could mean he loves his son, but is too weak to stand up to Phyllis, or it could mean he doesn’t love Russell at all. In either case, Russell has been abandoned and he knows it. He still loves his father and misses spending time with him, but he has also resigned himself to a life without his father. That is also, I think, partly (but not completely) the reason he is so eager to help Walter: he is trying to affirm his own worth through continuing the activities he shared with his father.

      As for the badge award scene, I assume that a great deal of explanation has already taken place offscreen, especially since the mother had to have been frantic when Russell went missing. His showing up again in a giant zeppelin with Walter would go a long way toward proving the truth of their story, which would otherwise be pretty unbelievable. If the mother is now a better judge of character than she was when she married Russell’s father, she will see that Walter is a good man and is a good person to have in Russell’s life.

      • says

        Thanks for your feedback. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that the theme of boys losing their mothers and being replaced by men is a new trend. You mentioned coming of age ceremonies, but my area of focus is fictional portrayals. Certainly, the separation of boys from their families dates back centuries in myths and stories—the story of Achilles (the reference point in my book The Achilles Effect) is just one example.

        My concern with depictions like those seen in Up are that they continue the longstanding trend of diminishing the role of women in stories about boys. This theme is seen in many current films and television shows, and the consistency with which it is delivered is troubling. Mothers are removed from sons, male characters dominate virtually every film aimed at a mixed audience of boys and girls, women are depicted in highly stereotyped ways, and they are rarely given the chance to be heroes. Even those females who are considered “spunky” or “sassy” are typically cast only as love interests/damsels in distress. (The new release, Megamind, is the latest to include the scrappy but, ultimately, weak female.)

        The poor mother/son relationship, while certainly not universal, is portrayed frequently. It is one piece of a puzzle that, along with the others I mentioned in the previous paragraph, teaches boys to view women as less important or capable than men. Of course, one viewing of such a message is not enough to do lasting damage, but when this message appears regularly in TV, film, and books, it could start to colour a boy’s view of gender.

        In the documentary Mickey Mouse Monopoly: Disney, Childhood & Corporate Power, Cardiff University journalism professor Justin Lewis talks about an “environment of images that we grow up in and that we become used to and after a while those images will begin to shape what we know and what we understand about the world.” It is the environment of negative images about females in children’s pop culture that concerns me. (There are also many negative images of boys, but that is a topic for another post.)

        I didn’t elaborate enough in my original post, but I do not discount the importance of male role models in a boy’s life (whether he is fictional or real). I just wonder why, as happens so often in kids’ films, he has to come at the expense of the mother. And I am not saying that Carl would be a bad influence on Russell, I just don’t know why he has to supplant Russell’s mom in this important ceremony.

        One more point. I might be missing something here, but I’m not sure the comparison to coming-of-age ceremonies is relevant to this issue. We no longer live in a society that has such rigid gender roles. As we all know, women and men fill a wide range of roles in society, a fact that producers of kids’ pop culture seem a little slow to grasp.

  41. Patrick says

    There is a definite trend, but again I’m not seeing it the the superheroes. Of the five you mention Batman is the only one with an absent mother and a present father figure.

    Superman is almost always portrayed either with both of his adopted parents alive and present or with just his adoptive mother. He spends time around mostly male superheroes, yes, but none of them are mentor figures to him.

    Spider-Man is always presented with his adoptive mother, with his adoptive father dead by origin story.

    Iron Man’s parents are dead by the time he becomes a superhero, with no father figure. (Unlike Batman’s relationship with Alfred, Iron Man’s relationship with Jarvis is strictly employer-employee.)

    Same thing with Wolverine. He’s actually the big exception among the X-Men, since while Xavier functions as a father figure to most of the X-Men, he and Wolverine are treated as equals. (Backstory-wise, Wolverine is decades older than Xavier anyway.)

    So of the five most prominent superheroes that kids are exposed to currently, only one of them has a present father figure and no mother figure. That’s bucking the trend, not a part of it.

    I’m sorry to bring this further off-topic from Pixar’s general fail on the subject, but I just don’t see this trend in the last decade-plus of superhero cartoons.

  42. says

    Patrick, thanks for sticking to your point. I clearly have more research to do, especially in regards to the Wolverine/Professor X relationship. (I had seen the word “mentor” used but I will look into it more closely.)I don’t want to drag this post any further off topic either, so I will let it go at that. Thanks again.

  43. The Other Patrick says

    I just wanted to add to this discussion that I thought Russel’s dad wasn’t so much a deadbeat – yes, he was an absentee father, but there was a comment by Russel about his father’s new wife (girlfriend)… was it Phyllis? Anyway, I got the idea of the typical envious new wife trying to drive a wedge between father and son because she doesn’t want the old family around her new one – a trope that I have seen several times before, though often with the Dad belatedly realizing what’s going on and leaving the “shrew”.

  44. says

    Either way, it reflects badly on him. A father who really loves his son and wants to be with him would not allow that wedge to be driven. The father character is weak, no matter which way you look at it.

    Though it would be very typical of Hollywood to imply that it was the stepmother’s fault. Stepmothers are always evil. Just ask Cinderella.

  45. 2HathorHathnot says

    I couldn’t see any reference to it, you may want be interested in Linda Holmes’s (I assume) piece ‘Dear Pixar, From All The Girls With Band-Aids On Their Knees’ for national public radio. http://www.npr.org/blogs/monkeysee/2009/06/dear_pixar_from_all_the_girls.html

    About the lady at the end, I assumed it was his mum, supporting him and taking photos. But I also assumed the father was there because they were divorced, and the only time his dad really bothered to spend any time with him is through camping/scouts. The mother, although happy to celebrate this moment with her son and take lots of lovely pictures, isn’t really involved with the scouts side so didn’t know about the father-ceremony angle. Maybe it’s a big assumption, but its mine.

    And there is a chance, maybe, they thought if Elle and Russell were the same gender they WOULD blur. But probably not, I think the connection between lost youth would have been much clearer and it would have been quite nice. But the absent father plot, in my arbitrary opinion, works better with a boy. He’s not a born adventurer, he only came over to rake leaves.

    • says

      Thank you for that excellent link, 2HathorHathnot.

      Absent fathers affect young girls strongly, as well. It’s not only the territory belonging to boys. I think it’s possible to have to female characters in a movie, both female, both children (tho one portrayed also as an adult) and NOT have any character blurring. How cool would it have been if Russell had been a girl, carrying on Ellie’s legacy of adventure as much as Carl?

      I would have thought that Russell’s father if he was that involved in Scouts activities with Russell, would have known he should have been there with his son up on the stage, even if the mother didn’t know. It doesn’t make sense that he would be in the audience and not go up on the stage & let an old man he doesn’t know pin a medal on his son. Given the chance, his son would have told him. In any case, he’s a neglectful father. The filmmakers wrote him as a neglectful father, and that’s what he is, with no excuses.

      • Casey says

        “How cool would it have been if Russel had been a girl, carrying on Ellie’s legacy of adventure as much as Carl?”

        As I was watching Up, I thought that would’ve made much better thematic sense, I even pretended that Russel was a fat Asian girl just because.

        Hey, I’m not the only person who gender-flips characters as they watch a show, am I? 😀

          • Casey says

            Incidentally, I more often than not end up making ONLY the main character female (and maybe the second lead), which often ends up with me “watching” a lesbian romance if there’s a love interest in the show…NOT THAT I’M COMPLAINING BD

            (that emoticon has sunglasses)

        • Anne says

          I thought the same. I was actually deeply disappointed in Pixar for not going that route, and it actually made me pause and look back at all my beloved Pixar movies at the female characters and…well, if Pixar doesn’t start coming out with female protagonists (that aren’t princesses–I loved that article 2HathorHathnot linked to) I am going to start viewing Pixar as another problem in the film industry–and a huge one–especially considering how much Lassiter cites Miyazaki as a icon and inspiration. Does he not notice one of the HUGE themes of Miyazaki?

          • Casey says

            Maybe he’s one of those DOOOOOOUCHES (that’s becoming a meme for me, ROFL) that thinks they don’t have to write women/POC/gay characters in the lead because “Hey, Miyazaki/some woman/some POC/some gay person is already doing it! I can keep perpetuating the nice, safe, no strains-required boys’ club.”

  46. Cynthia says

    Up was excellent. The one female character (not counting Kevin, the bird), Elle, was brave, adventurous, funny, loyal, compassionate, and not eye candy. One can hardly criticize the men at PIXAR for making a movie that includes a positive representation of a girl-woman, and then goes on to explore male adventures, male identities, male thoughts on father-son relationships, can one?

    If it weren’t for the damn dogs. Why? Why were all the dogs male? As far as I know, security dogs are just as likely to be female as male. Why couldn’t Dug have been a sweet, dopey, but brave female dog? Why couldn’t Alpha, the Doberman, have been a (comparatively) bright, evil dog? Why couldn’t a single dog voice from within the pack come across as female? Did the whole bloody pack have to be male?

    Are the men at PIXAR incapable of imagining female characters? Is it a lack of imagination? Is it male privelege blindness? They were able to create at least one – Elle; can they not create more? Are they afraid of portraying females as dim-witted animals due to a fear of misogynist charges? Is it due to fear? Is their drive to explore male-driven narrative and stories so strong that they simply ignore the reality that security dogs are equally female and male? Is it laziness? Are they uninterested in or hostile to stories that include females’ relationships with other females?

    I don’t want filmmakers paralyzed in their story-telling by the need to ensure gender equality in their films, but I just can’t get those damned dogs out of my mind.

  47. says


    My answer to your questions here is based on my asking people in the industry point blank, “Why does it have to be this way?” and then reading their responses, which often included a lot of hesitations and various significant micro-expressions. This is just my guess, so make of it what you will.

    Their answers were that this is the formula, and it’s worked so far, so don’t mess with the formula. But I think it’s more that various prejudices create an atmosphere in which people expect movies to fail if they aren’t wildly male dominated. This is based on confirmation bias: every time a Jodie Foster movie flops, it’s because it featured a woman, but every time a Brad Pitt movie flops, they never even think “it’s because it featured a man.” And yet, when a Jodie Foster movie does well, it’s because of Hannibal Lechter, and when a Brad Pitt movie does well, it’s because of Brad Pitt.

    This deeply irrational way of evaluating movie success is as accepted in the film community as Jesus’ resurrection is among Christians. So think about it: when someone decides to make the typical wildly male dominated movie, they know there will be 100 excuses if it flops – bad timing, bad distribution, bad marketing, bad directing, bad acting… These excuses give each individual lots of ways to shirk off the blame. But if you make a movie that’s not wildly male dominated and it flops, you will be considered a total fool for doing the one thing that is considered a near guarantee for film floppage, and there goes your career.

    (And that’s why I left the film industry – even when people make successful movies with women, it doesn’t make a dent in the glass ceiling. I didn’t see any way to get anywhere from within the system.)

    So I would classify it as institutionalized sexism. Not everyone buying into this reasoning is a horrible sexist – it almost sounds logical until you really think it through. But sexism is what created this way of assessing success, and now it’s so ingrained in industry thinking that nobody has the power to break it down.

  48. Fairfield says

    I was wondering what the general feeling on Brave is? It seems — difficult to tell from the trailer, I know — to be focused on a girl having a proper adventure.

  49. says

    I haven’t actually seen Up, just read the screenplay, so I don’t remember the all male dog pack. But it could be worse. It could be male worker ants. (How did that ever happen???)

    I recently came across a site that claims to be able to quantify whether a film will do well or not, including a system for casting correctly (I think Jodie Foster was miscast in The Brave One). I think they’re on to something, and if it catches on, it will become harder and harder to make excuses. (They do claim that female and POC leads don’t draw as large an audience, but I’m ok with that – that just means they need smaller budgets to make a buck.)

  50. says

    Anemone: (They do claim that female and POC leads don’t draw as large an audience, but I’m ok with that – that just means they need smaller budgets to make a buck.)

    I’m okay with that too – but only as long as they acknowledge that this is not consistent on every film, and therefore it can’t simply be a uniform preference for white males. Some analysis is required, because other factors are at work.

    For anyone who hasn’t seen it, a few months ago I examined several female-led movies – two flops, and three big successes that led to franchises. Both flops had heavily sexed up leading ladies; two of the successes had women who weren’t so sexed up; and the final one was Lara Croft, a success with a very sexed up lead, but that’s the sort of movie I classify as “would you like some story with your soft porn” and compared it to Point Break. And then Anemone set up a poll to quantify the phenomenon.


    I wouldn’t argue that this is the ONLY factor – it certainly wouldn’t explain why some PoC films do just great while others flop. But somebody with some clout needs to be looking for REAL patterns. “Had a woman lead” isn’t a pattern, or Aliens and Underworld never would’ve spawned sequels. “Had a PoC lead” isn’t a pattern, or Eddie Murphy never would’ve had multiple franchises. And hell, I still don’t know what we’re supposed to do with Keanu Reeves, who is part English and part Hawaiian Chinese. When we brought this up in a screenwriting class at UCLA, there was a suggestion that most audience members mistake him for a plain ol’ white guy, so his success didn’t really venerate MoC leads. Really? His first agent persuaded him to use “K.C. Reeves” at first, to mask his incomplete whiteness. Why do that, if “Keanu” didn’t suggest non-white heritage? I think it does, and I think his success is indicative.

    So, whatever. The general numbers do suggest that “women and PoC leads draw less box office”, but the actual reason why is not simply the presence of women or PoC, and I’d want to see some acknowledgement of that.

  51. Alara Rogers says

    A few things I wanted to say:

    – I can see why having an old man and a little girl would have been problematic in our culture, at least to risk-averse Hollywood. But you know what, in real life, women have a life expectancy of 6 years more than men, and there are a lot more elderly widows than widowers. Why couldn’t the elderly person have been an old woman, whose dead husband encourages her to go on adventures, and who goes on them with a little boy? It’s like, when real life favors there being a woman in that position, the filmmakers want to go all edgy and transgressive and subvert the dominant paradigm, and when real life favors there being a man, the filmmakers go all traditional and realistic and stereotypical.

    In other words, in real life, there are a lot more women raising children alone than men. So filmmakers write about men because that’s unusual and different. There are also a lot more men being firefighters than women. So filmmakers write about men as firefighters because that’s realistic.

    Heads men win, tails women lose.

    – Along a similar note to the dogs, in Toy Story 3, it is extremely important to the plot that the villain, his sidekick and another character were all the favorite toys of a child who lost them. The child was a girl. All the toys were presented as boys, INCLUDING THE BABY DOLL. I’m sorry, baby dolls are almost never male, and you have to work hard to find one who’s male, and they generally have “I am a boy” markers painted all over them so the little girls who buy them can tell that they’re male. And the average little girl genders most of her toys as female, especially her favorites. The villain could realistically have been a favorite toy who was male, but Big Baby and the other lost toy who isn’t living at the child care center, the one who tells Woody and co the story, should both have been female, BECAUSE THEY WERE LOST BY A LITTLE GIRL, and also because BABY DOLLS ARE GIRLS EXCEPT UNDER EXTREMELY UNUSUAL CIRCUMSTANCES. Yes, Big Baby was muscle, because Big Baby had a different form factor than the action figures and Barbie dolls, and was much larger. This doesn’t change the fact that Big Baby would logically have been female! A baby doll who is three times bigger than a Barbie is *still* a girl baby in the eyes of approximately 99% of the children who play with her.

    Big Baby being male is actually so weird it requires an explanation… like if Big Baby had had rocket hands (something baby dolls would pretty much never have) or something. But we don’t get an explanation. Big Baby is male because Big Baby is a thug, muscle for the bad guy, and that’s a male role. Well, you were *already* going for something weird and transgressive by making a beaten-up baby doll into the muscle, and having the heroes defeat the villain by convincing said muscle that its lost owner really loved it, whereupon it cries (like a baby) and lets them go. But at least, that was weird and transgressive in a way that made sense, because baby dolls are in fact often much bigger than action figures, so Big Baby being much stronger than most other toys and therefore being able to be the villain’s muscle makes sense. Big Baby being male… does not.

    Pixar isn’t completely horrible… the dinosaur who lets one of the toys use her computer is female, the random child who rescues and plays with Woody is female (and doesn’t just make him go to tea parties), and Barbie actually gets important stuff to do in this plot (and besides the very existence of Barbie in a collection of a little boy’s toys is unusual). But the failure to have female characters in situations where both stereotype and basic logic suggest the character *ought* to be female annoys the shit out of me.

  52. Maria says


    Haven’t seen it yet, but my two cents is that a big part of what’s driving the plot is that SHE’S A GIRL OMG WHO WANTS TO DO BOY THINGS (WHICH ARE CLEARLY MORE WORTHY THAN GIRL THINGS). That’s one of the reasons Tamora Pierce’s stuff is so interesting: there are several types of POV female characters who approach femininity in different ways, AND definitions of masc and fem change based on class identities. So Beka being a member of the Watch, for example, and her girlfriend who’s a baker/baker’s wife/small business owner are doing things that in “our” present day imagining of the Middle Ages we associate with “man stuff” even tho working class and middle class women challenged what we imagine labor norms to have been.

    Right now, Brave does not even look as transgressive as Mulan (…which wasn’t a transgressive film) since Mulan was not good at being a boy OR a girl, and where her victory was achieved by becoming fluent in both roles (…except then there was drag!fail), and without insulting other women’s life choices.

  53. says


    Yes, yes, I love Tamora Pierce’s approach to femininity and its variations.

    Another red flag with Brave is that Pixar has said it will be focusing on the mother-daughter relationship which, you know, at least it’s not romance – but when you make the mother the embodiment of patriarchal oppression, there’s always the temptation to let men off the hook and play it like “silly wimminz are always catfighting with each other and dudes are totes hot for anti-feminine girls anyway”.

    Like I said, this is just a red flag – they might be able to pull off a nuanced discussion of how the mother is genuinely trying to prepare her daughter for the realities of life in a male-dominated society. I just suspect they won’t.

  54. Dani says

    I have my concerns about Brave as well. Don’t get me wrong; it looks beautiful and I’m dying to see it, but, in the back of my mind, I’m concerned. There are elements of the movie that I love, but I’m afraid that they are going about their first (hopefully really) female-centered story in the wrong way. I mean, of all the main characters introduced so far, only two – Merida and her mother – are female (correct me if I’m wrong); which means it will barely pass the Bechdel test. Plus, it’s a little irritating that Pixar chose to make their first female lead…a princess…in a fairytale. I love fairytales – I find them fascinating, especially because there are so many different versions of them; plus, the capacity to rewrite them and retell them to critique and reflect cultural values is awesome (Jim C. Hines’ Princess series is a great example), but…really, Pixar? The male leads in your movies are all types, ones that haven’t been done to death (I don’t hear the words “male lead” and automatically think of a fish, or a toy, or an old man)…but you’re first female lead is a princess? Really? (I could also go on a rant about how Celia, the “nagging girlfriend” figure in Monster’s Inc, was the only monster to have a traditionally-feminine-humanoid character design – complete with breasts, hips, a mini-dress, pale purple skin, and Medusa hair (oh, the Medusa hair…)! – while all of the other (read: male) characters had character designs completely anatomically unrelated to their gender, but I won’t) I feel like Pixar can do better than that, and I wish that they would take the same diversity of character that they give their male characters and extend that to their female characters.

    Something else: Merida’s supposed to be a “strong female character”, but I get the impression (and I desperately hope I’m wrong), that the only reason she’s “strong” is because she does traditionally “masculine” things. I appreciate that she is not traditionally “feminine”, and that she will actually DO something instead of waiting for some guy to do it for her. I also love that she’s an archer. But does she DO things, is she strong, because that’s just who she is? Is she an excellent archer because she likes it and practices her butt off? Or is this a return to the “spirit of a man in the body of a woman” philosophy? Is she strong and skilled only insofar as she acts “like a man”?

    This whole movie is shaping up to be an “I like this, but…” sort of thing. I hope Pixar won’t let me down, but, considering that their female characterizations are the weak links in their storytelling…

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