Female Characters in Animation

From Australia: "The criticism (one example) of Pixar over the role of women in their films doesn’t sit well with me. Its a bit like being angry at Martin Luther King because he didn't do enough to help the environment... read more"

From the USA (Cartoon Brew): "As if the animation industry weren’t bad enough with people who don’t know what they’re talking about breathing down the artists necks now THIS? Arggh this is agitating! None of the famous characters were black, Jewish or gay either so why don’t we censor them for THOSE reasons too?"

Regarding Miyazaki: "Yes, the young women are, independent, powerful and instinctively in tune with what is the environmentally correct message."

I think this all started with a newspaper film review of Ratatouille that was pinned on the animation studio noticeboard this year. It focused criticism the lack of female roles/role models in that movie rather than reviewing the animation.

This isn't a Pixar stoning (would anyone dare?). It would, however, be interesting to snapshot opinion on the evolution of female character roles in contemporary animation. So make a comment.

Do animation female characters reflect society? Or is the industry lagging behind real life? Whose princesses do you prefer?


frank said...

The Dreamworks princesses in Shrek 3 were entertaining in that American condescending toward Asian martial arts way. They certainly broke the mould (probably with a karate kick)of the Disney princesses. It seemed to be a direct rip from Charlie's Angels. Who, you will note, are some male's Angels, not Angels's Angels.

frank said...

Having watched a whole bunch of Miyazaki films just recently, it's my observation that the Japanese princesses are a bit more independent than what I have been programmed with during the past 3 decades.

Many of them appear to be young teenagers, so (puprosely?) lack some of the 'consequences-of-my-impulsive-action' part of the brain. But that usually leads to learning a lesson the hard way and explosions. And they seem to get through disintergrating ancient cities and forests quite unscarred.

I imagine these princesses will turn into wise and just rulers.

Is there any proof of that?

from another thread said...

Ellie said...
Ian, I agree and disagree.
I agree with the fact that they have made ground with the story lines, and all that, and the animation its self is great (I re-watched Rattatouie the other day and was re blown away), but at the end of the day, I like to watch stories about girls. And there aren't any coming from Disney/Pixar.

12:59 PM


jane said...
hmmm, methinks there is a lot of sensitivity about Pixar 'being picked on' for it's lack of strong female roles in the storylines. No offence intended, and what of female roles generally in animated films ?(Frank)

I have been approached to respond to this issue. I'm not sure who else has drawn attention to this very touchy topic, other than myself and a newspaper critic who's name escapes me at the moment. And before I go any further - yes, I am a female putting forward my viewpoint so a bias exists, I guess it is unavoidable.

What we are really discussing here, is an issue quite complex. Gender politics in popular culture(as depicted in animated films for this discussion) is a massive and confronting topic, and there is simply not enough space here to address it reasonably.

But let me clarify, that it's not just Pixar who in recent years has displayed a gender/cultural bias in storylines in my humble opinion. I assert, and often relate to this in film awareness sessions, that female roles historically in the great majority of short animated films and feature length productions brought out by Disney, MGM, Warner Bros, Flieschers etc have been relegated to side kick role to central male character and a dominant male cast.

In some of these early films, there are no female characters at all.(Boy meets dog - Walter Lantz film is a classic example)When they were included in the storyline, female characters acted in distinct roles or a mix of these:
- nurturing mother;
- vampish sex siren/object;
- chaste and faithful partner/princess helpless and in need of protection or rescue by male character;
- evil and ugly witch/crone or a mix of these.

Mostly in the scene for her physical appearance/ attractiveness, rarely did she display any depth , intelligence or self sufficiency. Think Olive Oyl, Betty Boop, Minnie Mouse, Daisy Duck...

Can anyone think of any other female characters pre Pixar, DreamWorks, Blue sky etc that had a starring role?

The exception may be Betty Boop, bearing in mind that she was a classic mix of the sexy but otherwise morally upright decent female .

What female cartoon characters stand out in the Warner Bros era? Ok there was Granny-feisty and fearsome, but who else?

What standout female characters, stories and roles did we see in Ice Age, Ratatouille, Iron Giant, Toy story, lion King,Finding Nemo, Cars, The Inredibles etc? Yes, there were female characters, but who remembers them? (Chicken Run is perhaps an exception), what purpose did they serve in the storyline? What were their male counterparts roles? What and who were these stories about?

Who cares? I hear some people saying, what's it matter? Well imagine going along to see films that only featured female characters and interests, and if there were any male characters they had secondary roles.

Some may argue that I'm actually describing a classic 'chick flick'. The fact is, possibly as a male person (and female for that matter) viewing films it doesn't occur to you to consider these issues. But if you saw story after story, film after mainstream film that featured a strong cast of female characters and very few male characters you'd begin to notice something amiss I'm sure.

In fact you'd probably not relate to a lot of the storylines either, because they feature experience and perspectives from the opposite gender viewpoint. You would be dominated by a matriarchal, feminine perspective and react accordingly.

If this were the case you would have the opposite of feminism arising, if we could change history. We'd have the phenomenon of the 'bloke flick'appearing...which I would argue is what most mainstream commercial animated films are.(I exclude independent animated films from this viewpoint)

When a writing team is dominated by one gender you will see bias coming through. When it is dominated by one gender, and a certain ethnic background, you will see bias - so most films featured white skinned, male characters in the main role because that's who was in the writing group and that's who has the money (traditionally) to produce these films.

What's the big deal? Culturally, when you have a dominant group you get a dominant paradigm of behaviour, social roles, power, control of economy and expectation about how the world should be. If you don't fit into that paradigm you are on the outer, or you become secondary to the dominant power group.

You don't have a voice.

Popular culture -films, literature, the media are powerful mediums for carrying the message of the dominant group. History tells us who the dominant group is in western society, although this is changing. But this is generally why conflict arises. It's why Feminism eventuated - women revolted against the roles they were expected to play out by a dominant masculine standard. What is repressed by the dominant group eventually rises up to claim it's place and right to assert itself and have a voice.

Ethnic representation didn't exist in early films, except perhaps for the Van Beuren studio Uncle Tom series, which featured caricatured stereotyped negroes in less than favourable roles, and caricatured german and japanese soldiers in the propaganda films in the war years from Warner Bros. You will see the above mentioned stereotypical female roles played out here too.

If you are from a non caucasian background how would you feel having to watch popular films where you are a minority or non existant in the storylines? Or if you do feature in a storyline you are an object of derision and ridicule.

We live in a multi-cultural and diverse lifestyle society. Why shouldn't there be fair representation?

The audience out there doesn't fit into the dominant group that so often produces these films.

Commercial Animated film (in America, Australia, Europe ) has traditionally been dominated by male (and usually caucasian) directors and writing teams and animators. Women have been part of it, but in lesser roles historically, though this is obviously changing. It's natural that a dominant male, caucasian , heterosexual, christian perspective would come through.

I personally would like to see more of a balance in the roles and story content in feature films, an equal representation of genders, and breaking away from stereotypical gender and ethnic roles and storylines as perpetuated in some of these feature length animated films and TV series.

Mind you, I think The Simpsons is an interesting exception. Marge and Lisa actually have quite a strong presence and role reversal in the story lines and we get the opposite happening, where i think the male characters are represented in a less than favourable light - slobby, selfish, cowardly, reckless, emotionally challenged, stupid and codependent on their female cast mates (although Marge always falls back into the supportive, nurturing wifely role, feeding and soothing Homer's bruised ego, even though she sometimes breaks out of the family home to find another role in the world).

In fact, The Simpsons is a contemporary animated series that at least has storylines that give voice to not only strong female characters and issues, but includes ethnic diversity and alternative lifestyle choices among it's immense cast of characters, even if it is largely satire and caricature. Keep in mind that The Simpsons as the main characters in the series do perpetuate a caucasian, masculine, right-wing, christian perspective in the satirical storylines - great fodder for comedy all the same.

Let me stress that there is sometimes a purpose and necessity in having a gender/ ethnic/ lifestyle role and viewpoint dominant in a film. Depends on the story of course.

I will assert that in recent years there has been a spate of animated feature length films from Pixar, Blue sky, Dreamworks etc that while technically slick and faultless in the superb character animation and special effects , display an incredible gender/ ethnic/ lifestyle bias in the storylines and often rehash a story formula from a dominant caucasian, heterosexual, masculine, western world perspective. It gets a tad tedious, but these studio's break box office records with their films, the public love the stories.

My opinion is in the minority I'm sure, not a bad place to be though - it keeps you thinking and questioning the 'norms'you are supposed to just accept..because that's the way it is. hmmm

I don't have any stats on what the ratio is between male and female writers, producers and animators in this industry currently, but I think there will be interesting trends in the types of stories explored in future productions with more collaboration.

The male and female experience of life does have its differences, and therefore storylines and humour will reflect this but there are some stories that reflect our lives as humans, culturally diverse as we are.

I will also add you can't please or include everyone in every story.

There's just so much more that could be said here, especially on other issues such as story construction, themes, character development, plot, sub-text, conflict resolution and all the other technical aspects of telling a story in animated form, let's leave that to the classroom sessions for now.

To conclude, Miyazaki, is a master film maker to me, and yes Frank, he is well read and has stated in interviews that he likes to have strong female characters in his storylines. I think generally he is an exception to the rule, as a male director and animator.

2:23 AM