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This weekend I saw Pixar’s Brave. When I sat down in the theatre I thought: I’m seeing Pixar’s first female protagonist, this is so exciting! The previews had been epic; the amazing red hair, the scottish accents, the archery. I was pumped.

But then, as I sat there waiting for the movie to start I thought: Pixar’s FIRST female protagonist? It’s 2012… the first Toy Story came out in 1995. So it took 17 years to come up with a good story that was about girl’s journey. Interesting. Ok.

Wind went out of my sails a bit. But! Brave was written by Brenda Chapman (wrote and directed Prince of Egypt) – sounds promising. Although she was replaced as director by Mark Andrews (no notable director experience) in 2010 due to creative disagreements.

And then I watched the movie and it was pretty and I laughed, and I was held in mild suspense and given mild relief. It was a good children’s movie, but I left underwhelmed. Where was the depth that Pixar is known for? Where was the subtleties, the complications, the adult overtones?

Sometimes it’s hard to see the cultural norms because they are… well… normative. They are every where and expected so asking for something different can feel unnatural. Like Yoga. You had no idea your body could bend that way! Oh, but it can… if only you attempt it.

The first Pixar female protagonist is a …. Princess?

For 17 years Pixar has had the creative vision to come up with believable stories for:

  • Toys that come to life (3 times)
  • Monsters from under the bed and the back of the closet (prequel coming soon!)
  • Cars that drive themselves (Pixar’s biggest commercial success)
  • Robots (a movie with barely any dialogue)
  • Fish (where is THIS sequel??)
  • Old people and talking dogs (A single tear rolls down my cheek)

And the best that Pixar could come up with for a girl is…. A PRINCESS! Let’s give them a big fucking round-of-applause for the most over-written story on the planet. Well, I take that back. The second most over-written story. Because instead of the “Princess is swept off her feet by prince” schtick, it’s the “Princess rebels from societal norms, witchcraft and tom-foolery ensues”.

When I asked Kamel if he liked the movie he shrugged and said, “Yeah, I liked it. I thought it was a good movie.” Really? REALLY? I do not believe him. This movie has the same skeletal frame as every major animated movie about a girl (maybe except for the Princess and the Frog… in that one she isn’t even a Princess and she really just wants to be a  business owner). When we left the theatre Kamel even said the story reminded him of Tangled. But when I pointed out that we talk about weaknesses in movies all of the time and about movies being shadows of other movies and how that’s a cop out frequently, he said, “But… these are just a certain kind of movie. The princess movies, they all go in the same category. It’s still good.” And then my head exploded. What if every animated movie about a boy had them as a prince trying to capture a princess’s heart? Is that just a “type” of movie? The Princess movies in one category and then all of the other interesting adventures involving boys in another. Obviously, my mistake. What bullshit!

And then I remembered a few years ago Kamel was in a Q&A with Pete Docter (the director of  Monsters Inc. and Up) and Kamel asked him “Why hasn’t Pixar ever had a female lead character?” And first he responded with a joke (obviously… because it’s just so fucking hilarious), he said, “Because No Girls Allowed!” and then he said, “Just kidding.” And went on to explain that they realize it’s a problem but, “they just aren’t good at making great stories for girls.” He told Kamel they were working on it by hiring Brenda Chapman.

Hearing this story again, my head exploded for the 2nd time. What a crock of shit. Boys just can’t write girls? Girls are so confusing! We only know how to make them Princesses and have them fall in love with roguish men, and when we’re really pushing the envelope we give them a masculine skill like archery. So, if Wall-E had been a curious and spunky girl robot who fell in love with a determined and grumpy boy robot named Eli, the story just wouldn’t have made any sense? What if Nemo had been a daughter and not a son? Are there no girl monsters? Oh right, I forgot… women are just too difficult to capture outside of the tried and true Princess money-maker. My bad.

And even if I put my bra-burning feminist “I’m sick of princesses and I demand more” flag-waving aside… the movie was meh. It was just ok. It was pretty and comical and they already have someone who dresses up as the girl at Disneyland with giant red curls, so I guess all is well in the predictable universe. But I expected more. Where was the warrior? Where was the invention? Where was the story I hadn’t heard before? Pixar wins because it is not just about good animation, it’s about excellent storytelling. And this fell flat. As the first Pixar movie with a female protagonist it fell flat, because it focused on the story of a girl? No. It’s because they didn’t think beyond the predictable, gendered, boring box.

There was absolutely nothing Brave about this film, from concept to closing credits.

And if you haven’t gotten enough rage for one Monday, 2 years ago I was talking about some Crazy Bitches. Yeah.

23 Comments

  1. Umm. but in Up, isn’t it the girl who was the crazy, adventurous one, the one who started all the huge travel plans?
    And I know it is not Pixar, and I may not remember well… but isn’t Mulan about a girl warrior ? Maybe they should just make a movie about Joan of Arc…

    • The main character in Up was the old man. The “adventure” meaning, the story or the character development was all about the old man and the boy. The wife was a catalyst, but not a protagonist.

      • Agreed. I feel like there wasn’t a plot-related need to have the Kevin character be a boy.

        I was expecting to weep openly like I did at Up (and Wall-E), but Brave didn’t deliver. The conflict seemed a bit forced, and the story wasn’t as amazing as I thought it would be. I’m glad you felt the same way–I thought maybe my experience (sitting next to a rude bitch in the theater) might have tainted my perception…

  2. I think Kamel has a point about “princess movies” being a genre. That doesn’t make all stories about girls princess movies, but it’s definitely valid in and of itself.

    The problem, as I see it, is that Pixar didn’t look beyond the princess genre, when searching for their “girl” character. They went the easy, tried-and-true, guaranteed to make them loads of money route. As such, they gain my (and your) scorn.

    The second part of the problem, is just how many of the films aimed at girls today ARE in the princess genre. It’s as if filmmakers have forgotten that there’s anything besides it. Like you said, if Wall-E or Nemo had been female, the story would have still worked just fine. But no, if it’s about a girl, that girl must be (or become, or want to become) a princess.

    And THAT is a total failure.

  3. Is it because we can’t be heroes unless we are secretly already great? That is a princess?

    Perhaps that should be the message, we are all capable of greatness. Princesses get the media attention because of their history. Every other girl is so capable. (I got that message as a child. Although I’m not really sure I got that from my parents, perhaps my Grandmamma).

    Or perhaps it is truly impossible, at this time, for there to be a truly individual woman who is successful without her history? We may know it is theoretically possible but we do not live in a world that this can happen. Hopefully our theoretical grandchildren will?

  4. So Mulan still wins the animated decent female character award? (At least she went to war to help her father…she just ended up with the man as a side note.) Although… I still might have to see it in the theater–I don’t think we’ll have Netflix by the time it comes out on video!!

    • Now I’m pondering how easy it would have been to make Nemo a girl.

    • I’d give that award to Belle (from Beauty & the Beast) — she read books all the time, the whole town thought she was strange, she wouldn’t marry the town jerk even though he was super hot, she fought off wolves, braved the woods to save her father, and then became a prisoner to save him again. She stood up to the Beast when he was unreasonable, and fell in love with him in spite of herself (and without changing anything about herself). She never had aspirations to be a princess, it just happened, and only at the very end of the movie.

      • Hear hear! I love Belle.

  5. Was Cars really Pixar’s biggest hit? That surprises me. It’s the one Pixar movie I could NOT get through. Just didn’t have that special spark for me.

    Wall-E and Up! on the other hand….two of my all-time favorite movies. I mean, that opening scene in Up. Geez.

    It sounds like Brave can be a rental one, though.

    ““Just kidding.” And went on to explain that they realize it’s a problem but, “they just aren’t good at making great stories for girls.” He told Kamel they were working on it by hiring Brenda Chapman.”

    You know, I will say, while this is maddening, it at least rings of an honest answer. I feel like a lot of movie companies would come up with some BS PR response. But “we aren’t good at it” at least seems…introspective? I dunno. At least recognizing the problem means you can work towards the solution.

    • Oh, and PS, I saw the other day that Finding Nemo is COMING TO THEATERS IN 3D!!!

      Yes, I am SO there.

    • Oh, I hate Cars. It is Pixar’s biggest commercial hit, meaning it makes them the most money out of toys and ads and blahblah.

      I think saying “we aren’t good at writing girls” is a major major major problem on a bigger level than just their ability to be creative. Writing women characters isn’t a priority, it isn’t necessary to make money or win over audiences. And I don’t believe that they aren’t good at it. These are some of the best story writers out there, and they are telling me that gender is just too difficult, that gender is what they trip on? I don’t buy it for 1 second. Women can write for men and men can write believable women. They just have to want to.

      • I don’t think the “we’re not good at it” is a terrible response, so long as they work to fix it.

        As someone who reads for a living, I can say with confidence that, more often than not, men don’t understand how to write women (or don’t care to). Women and men speak differently, use different words, a different cadence, and think of different things to say and different ways to approach problems. Because most produced films feature a male main character, there’s no true need for a man to understand how to write a woman (which is a real shame), so these male writers don’t usually consider the differences in how men and women present themselves.

        Most times, it is painfully apparent when you’re dealing with a man writing a female main character because she ends up sounding like some man’s fantasy/idea of a woman. I, personally, would rather there be fewer stories with female main characters than stories where a woman speaks like a combination of a porn star, comic book hero, and frat guy.

        And as far as women writing men, there are certain inconsistencies, but for some reason, whether it’s having a plethora of examples, or the fact that women tend to be more observant of certain tics, women can write believable men much better.

        Let me note that when a script is written by a skilled, observant, and careful writer, their gender isn’t a factor, but for every 1 script I read with that characterization, there are 15 others that make me want to gouge my eyes out.

        • I think that part of the reason that “men don’t understand how to write women (or don’t care to)” is because lots of women (and men) let them off the hook (“I, personally, would rather there be fewer stories with female main characters than stories where a woman speaks like a combination of a porn star, comic book hero, and frat guy”).

          And “for some reason” women are able to write men successfully more often? It’s because women have an abundance of examples of men’s lives, points of view and a lifetime of viewing men as the default to work from.

          I don’t mean to pick on you, Paige, but it’s not exactly a mystery as to why this happens, and there isn’t an explanation out there that should excuse us from wanting (and asking for) it to be BETTER.

          • I think we’re on the same page here. When I said, “I, personally, would rather there be fewer stories with female main characters than stories where a woman speaks like a combination of a porn star, comic book hero, and frat guy,” it was not to excuse lazy writers, but to make a distinction between quality and quantity and to champion quality over quantity.

            When a female character crosses the line from woman into male fantasy, that is the same thing as an absence of a women character, except worse, because the presence of a pair of breasts gives the illusion that a woman is in the film and creates/reinforces societal expectations of female behavior and appropriate female storylines. And all that does is put more examples of wooden, unreal women in the ether, women that writers will draw from to create their characters…and so the cycle will continue.

            Accepting nothing but the best and most real in terms of female portrayal, even though it will continue the disproportionate ratio of heroes to heroines, is crucial to finally getting writers of all genders to write 3-dimensional female characters who talk, act, and think like real women, no matter the genre.

  6. Another thought: I worry that people will remember Brave as the weak Pixar film and people will say it’s because it was about a girl instead of just being a lame-o story. Or people will think it’s a lame-o story because girls are boring.

  7. I haven’t seen Brave, and I doubt that I will, but I bet I’d agree with your impressions. Really, I’d just like to see a story about a girl in which her gender is unimportant, and in which she doesn’t end up serving as a catalyst for some profound change in a male character. The woman in Up might have been adventurous, but it wasn’t her story, she was an object for male enlightenment. Belle’s main purpose in life was being a dutiful daughter and saving the Beast from himself. Mulan literally had to lie about her identity, which is not exactly a positive message (be just like boys!).

    Is there a single animated/children’s movie with a significant girl character in which the girl doesn’t sacrifice part or all of her life and identity in order to save a man (her father/husband/brother)? (I’m actually asking, because I don’t know, though I have a guess.)

    • I thought the protagonist in “The Princess and the Frog” was pretty good. Strong character with her own goals and dreams.

    • Fern Gully! It has a female protagonist who is out to save the forest.

  8. I always thought Japanese anime has strong female characters: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Spirited Away, The Legend of Korra (not really Japanese), Howl’s Moving Castle, to name a few.

  9. I can’t tell if I’m just willing myself to like this film (I’m terrified that I’m just wanting to like it because of GIRL POWER), but I actually found aspects of it pretty subversive. Is it the greatest Pixar film of all time? Nope, because the supporting cast and the world that surrounds it are not nearly as fully-realized as the best of Pixar.

    However, I think the film did a really interesting job of examining the tension between familial duty and individualism and finding a way to make those not be at odds. I also dug that the film embraced both the physical power of women and emotional power — the mother and daughter were constantly switching who was being the warrior and who was being the nurturer, and I think the point at the end was “HELL YEAH, WE CAN BE BOTH!” That, I dig.

    In any case, I sympathize with your analysis, and it’s entirely possible that I might be looking for depth where there is just a princess story.

  10. I honestly don’t know what to say to this. There are great female characters in most of Pixar’s movies. There has not been a female lead because, until now, none of the leads of Pixar itself have been female. It’s hard to write a movie that feels true, if you’re coming from someone else’s perspective.

    This kind of thing always falls into the category of a question that was never asked. I always hear, in my line of work, that it’s boy-centric. “Why aren’t there any female programmers? Why’s it such a boys club?”

    As if it were intentional, and planned, which of course it isn’t.

    Have you met women? How many of you want to be programmers? Join us! What’s stopping you?

    The heads of Pixar were former computer nerds who loved animation. In the early eighties! The fact that they’ve created an atmosphere where any comers can have a stab at a Pixar-method story is amazing.

    And…I sympathize with you. That the story turned out to be about the relationship between a princess and her mother…well…yeah, not great. We gave you the keys to the porsche and you decided to go to Orlando. Okay. You know about Vegas, right?

  11. Oh! Oh! MY internet is back!

    Good conversation over here. It’s funny – despite being raised by a single mother who instilled rawr feminism in me, who also showed me (more by example than anything) that I did not need to be in a relationship to be happy and that I could do and be anything with a little hard work and elbow grease (blah blah blah etc.), I totally had a superhero/prince charming obsession. I wanted my Prince Charming/Snow White story to look more like Clark Kent and Lois Lane, but let’s be honest. I wanted to be Lois Lane when I grew up.

    I mean … for a while there Disney was big on having 16 – year -old girls go get MARRIED. I mean, I know that’s what the original fairytale script said, but Andersen also killed off The Little Mermaid at the end, so clearly they don’t mind changing the plot where necessary. 16?!?!? Are you joking?

    I think because I did have strong role models growing up, I survived the Knight in Shining Armor crap. Most women do. We all did, here! Even so, as an adult I can see how harmful this rhetoric can be. How great would it be for Disney/Pixar to have a strong female character that wasn’t “rescued” by a guy? I think they’ve come close on some – Belle, Mulan, Giselle, Tiana – but it’s Not. Good. Enough. Disney used to be cutting edge – Walt created an entire new genre of film when Snow White was released. It was incredibly groundbreaking. I would expect a corporation with this heritage to do better, and they haven’t yet.

    And we all wonder why we haven’t had a female president yet …

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Who the hell is she?


Lauren

I am a writer living in Seattle and I believe that life is a grand adventure and only boring if you believe it to be. Plus! You don't need money to have fun.

I live with my husband, a photographer by education and a maker-of-video-games by trade, and a baby named gabe in an apartment on the hill.

I am romantic about most things and I cry... about almost anything. I tell stories to entertain you, I spread stories to keep you in the loop. I am not a grammar freak, but I do know how to spell it. I am exceedingly proud of my scrambled eggs and I really could eat an entire pan of cupcakes. If I met me, I would be my best friend. I tend to be irreverent.

If you would like to chat with me or see what else I'm up to you can follow me on Twitter (betterinrealife), on facebook, or email me at betterinrealife at gmail.


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