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.