Wall-E: The Gender-fication of Robots

Movies featuring anthropomorphic non-human characters are nearly always rich with questions about “gender” roles, since the assignment of gender onto such characters – especially inanimate ones – is entirely based on the writers’ imaginations, and the features selected to gender something “male” or “female” often reflect assumptions, stereotypes, and conventional gender roles. Pixar’s latest, Wall-E, is a love story between two robots working in an environment following the evacuation and abandonment of Earth under piles and piles of trash, and as such – since the very thought of a same-sex or even ambiguous, non-gender-specific romance, even between robots, is far too much to ask from Disney – raises exactly these questions.

Overall, I really liked Wall-E, not least because it was exciting, funny and full of action while at the same time being sentimental and cutely romantic. Too often, the “romance” element of a storyline feels like it’s just been thrown in carelessly – it doesn’t feel real, it doesn’t have a significant impact on the main plot, and it’s treated as trivial. That’s “girl stuff”. In Wall-E, the love story helps to drive the plot and the action, and both elements are given equal weight in importance.

I also appreciated that even though the physical elements of “Eve” and “Wall-E” were drawn to clearly indicate specific genders (Eve being more smooth, curved, and having a higher-pitched computerized voice), many of their personality characteristics reversed conventional gender expectations. Wall-E was the naive one, the hopeless romantic, and the one who was portrayed as having something “missing” in his life without love. Prior to meeting Wall-E, Eve seemed to be doing just fine independently. As the story progresses, Wall-E is the one who most often needs saving, and Eve is frequently the one to rescue him.

These dynamics in the movie did get me thinking about whether or not Wall-E’s actions would have been interpreted differently if “he” had been gendered female. Movie tropes dictate that a male character who makes sacrifices for love is heroic and romantic, while a female character who does the same is needy and pathetic. One scene in particular – showing Wall-E clinging to the outside of a rocket that has absorbed Eve automatically and that is taking off with her inside, desperately shouting her name – had me asking whether I would have felt as sympathetic towards a female lead doing the same. My reactions are, of course, not universal, but I do think that the marketing strategies and movie conventions have a lot to do with how these elements would play differently. I strongly doubt that Disney would have felt comfortable with the idea that this same movie, except with a female “Wall-E” lead character, would have been quite so marketable to kids of both sexes, or could have had quite the same level of balance between action and romance. And that, in itself, emphasizes the unequal treatment of male and female characters, even when they’re robots.

–Ed. Note: Also see Melpomene’s review here.

Comments

  1. thisisendless says

    You know, its interesting. My first thought when I saw EVE was “oh man really? Gendered robots? How do robots become gendered?!?” But as the movie went on I managed to get past that and I appreciated that since they were going to gender robots at least EVE was a bad-ass.

    The movie was so delightful and wonderful and had so many great and layered messages that I couldn’t help but love it. And while the robots were gendered, as you said they were not traditional gender roles.

    I really loved this movie and will definitely be owning it when it comes out on DVD.

    I had remind myself it was a children’s movie and not necessarily a sci fi movie. Hence we didn’t need explanations for gendered robots. :)

  2. Melpomene says

    That actually brings up a debate we had briefly over in Books about whether or not a feminist author inherently produces feminist works. I think that there are feminist authors/companies and feminist products and that one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other. In the same way, Pixar might not deserve feminist cookies because it’s not a feminist company, but Wall-E might deserve one or two because it can be read as a feminist product. Not a whole bag, by any means, but maybe one or two.

    I also am a bit weirded out by you saying little girls like Disney because they ID with the main character. In my experience (and granted, I’ve only worked with gifted and talented kids so maybe they’re all just weird) little girls like Disney films for a myriad of reasons, including awesome song-and-dance routines, kick-ass villains, intense marketing campaigns specifically oriented at their age group, and a general market lock-down. I don’t think it’s as simple as Disney offering more heroines, especially since a lot of these heroines end up not being the real movers/shakers of their own films.

    Like, all this might be changing with Disney beginning to push the Disney Fairies line (if I recall correctly, Tinkerbell’s going to be pretty cool because she’s a tinker/fixer fairy which is a nice non-gender norm touch) but I don’t know if you could say that about the CGI movie (which I didn’t see) or the book line (which I haven’t been following recently… Gail Carson Levine has been penning them, tho, and she’s responsible for Ella Enchanted which is like, my favorite young adult book ever).

  3. says

    Hmm. I’m 35, so a different generation, but I despised Disney because I perceived all the female leads they offered as weak.

    I agree that I wanted to perceive myself as the lead in those movies I did like, however. I just ignored gender and identifying with an interesting lead that happened to be male rather than a female lead who was bland and boring.

  4. says

    “Gail Carson Levine has been penning them, tho, and she’s responsible for Ella Enchanted which is like, my favorite young adult book ever).”

    FYI

    Levine wrote the book that kicked off the series, and a sequel to that. The shorter beginning chapter books, each focusing on a different character, are written by a couple of lesser known authors.

    “I just ignored gender and identifying with an interesting lead that happened to be male rather than a female lead who was bland and boring.”

    I could never do that, and I’m not sure why. But I often had a hard time imagining myself as the female co-stars as well, since they tended to be downright annoying. So I’d just be myself, but pretend to be a part of the story.

  5. Chris says

    I have to say, I love the film, but I didn’t take EVE as a woman, or WALLE as a boy at all; and neither did my kids. Since it was pretty well explained that WALL*E was Waste Allocation Lift Loader thing, and E*V*E was Extraterrestrial Vegetation Extractor, we just thought of them as robots.

    In fact, my kids were pretty sure WALL*E was also a girl, or at least made that reference when WALL*E opened up and “gave birth” to the plant, so to speak. At least that’s how a 8 year old viewed it.

    In the end, I’m not sure whether Boy/Girl was at all important, as much as it movie of love between two very different friends.

    And, if WALL*E is the super-male character that’s being asserted (I didn’t think he was) then I’m surprised no one has made the assertion if it’s a he, he would be gay, or a fetishist if nothing else. Let’s go over the fact.. if he’s male, then they do everything they can to establish that:

    (1) WallE works to recreate the choreography of “Hello, Dolly” which WallE watches incessantly.

    (2) WALLE puts on women’s undergarments at one point.

    (3) In an almost shot-by-shot recreation, WALLE uses the same Christmas lighting effect in his loft, with the same pattern, as seen in the movie & Play “Rent” to spice up the home.

    (4) Pixar has a far greater history of characters people feel are associated as “gay” rather then stereotypical male/female romance stories.. (See: T-Rex in Toy Story; several characters in Monsters, Inc.)

    If you chose to see WALL*E as a straight male, which is never once really asserted, then he must be one of the great to see a woman in the true power role (as above, EVE was the badass of the film).

    WALLE was the best story/film of the year so far, IMO.

  6. Torri says

    this is something I’ve noticed in myself recently while watching anime.
    Some recent anime characters I’ve loved/hated have been Haku, a small arch character from early on in Naruto, and Utau, an antagonist in Shugo Chara.
    I loved Haku because he was completely devoted to Zabuza (sevrves him in a ‘battle butler’ fashion), who took him in when he was young and going to die, he then uses him as a tool and only comes to care and acknowledge his love for him when Haku has died.
    I did not like Utau much at all because she was obsessed with Ikuto (fellow antagonist potential love interest of main character). Utau is doing everything she does for him and is affectionate towards him and jealous of the main character getting some of his attention while Ikuto seems totally romantically uninterested in her.
    As I was watching Utau and noticing my dislike of her as a character I did notice that aside from a few differences the characteristic which made me love one character made me hate another…. I’m not sure if the fact that I started to like Utau more when she was not thinking about Ikuto makes this better or worse…

  7. Canomia says

    The big problem isn’t the gendering of the robots. I mean, did you miss the rape scene? WALL-E has a rape scene!
    There’s a section of the film when EVE is unconscious. WALL-E tries to wake her up but when he can’t do that he takes advantage of her state and takes her on dates and, this is the rape part, he puts her on a bench and bends her arm open so that he can hold her hand. She didn’t want to hold his hand, he has tried to do it a few times during the film and she refuses. Holding hands is the physical act of love, as he has learned in films. So It’s date rape. For children.

  8. Harrumph says

    Canomia,

    I thought I was the only one who’d noticed this! This scene irked me a great, great deal. Actually, if I’m honest, almost the entire movie irritated the shit out of me.
    Reason being: the plot is very contrived, the ‘morals’ supremely middle class and totally miss corporate involvement and government involvement in the obesity and climate crises; it’s as if these situations came about through the combined will of all individuals, rather than by deliberate design (profit, profit, profit). Plus, like only a left-leaning middle class animated film could do, it manages to make crossing someone’s boundaries when incapacitated like something a romantic might do, not a creepy asshole.

Trackbacks

  1. […] and female in a heteronormative fashion, in some ways traditional gender roles were reversed (see this article for a discussion of this). Wall-E can even be reinterpreted as a butch-femme love story: WALL•E: […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>