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Pixar and the Smurfette Principle (and other tropes of women in media) - Accretions

Fata Morgana
2011-05-03 16:12
Pixar and the Smurfette Principle (and other tropes of women in media)
Public
It's been a long time since I've written about this, but a couple of links showed up on my RSS feed today that made me curious about the actual number female characters in Pixar films. I adore Pixar's films, but I've long felt irked by the lack of women in them, particularly in major roles. But just what are the numbers? Are they bad enough to fulfill the Smurfette principle (where there is only one token female)?

So I spent one of my work breaks today looking over the Wikipedia pages for these movies, which include a list of the voiced characters, and catalogued instances of women in one of these three categories:
  • minor roles (in just a few scenes, not really part of the story)
  • supporting roles (important to the story and appearing in more than just a few scenes, but not the main character)
  • main roles (plot focused on their perspectives)
It wasn't quite as bad as expected, but it's still nowhere near 50%. Here's the list:
  1. Toy Story: 3 of 17 voiced characters female (all minor)
  2. A Bug's Life: 6 of 18 voiced characters female (EDIT: 2 supporting: Dot and Atta)
  3. Toy Story 2: 5 of 19 voiced characters female (1 supporting: Jessie)
  4. Monsters, Inc.: 3 of 12 voiced characters female (EDIT: 1 supporting: Boo)
  5. Finding Nemo: 5 of 25 voiced characters female (1 supporting -- Dory -- but she fills the manic pixie dream girl trope)
  6. The Incredibles: 4 of 14 voiced characters female (EDIT: 1 supporting - Violet - and 1 pretty major - Mrs. Incredible - though the lead character is still Mr. Incredible because it's mostly from his perspective)
  7. Cars: 3 of 16 voiced characters female (1 supporting: Sally)
  8. Ratatouille: 1 of 18 voiced characters female (supporting: female chef Colette)
  9. WALL-E: 2 of 8 voiced characters female (1 supporting: EVE)
  10. Up: 2 of 15 voiced characters female (both pretty minor: Ellie and Kevin the bird)
  11. Toy Story 3: 11 of 39 voiced characters female (1 supporting: Barbie)


MovieTotal charactersTotal femaleMinor femaleSupporting femaleMain female
Toy Story173300
Bug's Life186420
Toy Story 2195410
Monsters Inc123210
Finding Nemo255410
The Incredibles144211
Cars163210
Ratatouille181010
WALL-E82110
Up152200
Toy Story 339111010
TOTAL2014534101


So overall, only 22% of characters are female and 75% of *those* are minor, only appearing in a few scenes. So they're pretty darn close to the Smurfette Principle.

It's not just about count, of course. For example, Disney, while guilty of often populating supporting roles with male characters, have more leading female characters -- but most of them are princesses and often reinforce victimization and a focus on beauty. Pixar's female characters, as sparse as they are, are at least better role models than *that.* But do any of Pixar's movies pass the Bechdel Test? Alas, I have procrastinated too much already, so I won't be able to verify this now. But in scanning the list, I suspect not for all but The Incredibles. Anyone else want to check?

Another rather disturbing link I came across today was the "Women in Refrigerators" principle (a.k.a. normalizing violence against women in comics). It's one of the main reasons comics have never appealed to me, even when I was part of subcultures that celebrated them, and I'm annoyed that so often freedom of speech arguments (especially about comics, but also in general) are at least in part about the freedom to depict violent degradation of women. While I'm an avid supporter of free speech, that's not what free speech is or should be exclusively about, and I'm disappointed that I don't hear as much about other causes such as censorship of political speech that I consider much more important.

Okay, back to work. I passed my dissertation proposal defense yesterday (yay!), on the condition that I give a better description of the findings from my fieldwork in Paraguay that could be chapter themes. So lots to do!
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carinda
eeyore_grrl
2011-05-03 23:48 (UTC)
(no subject)
Don't forget where Disney kills off the moms and often adds the evil stepmother...
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Leora: ouroboros
leora
2011-05-04 00:59 (UTC)
(no subject)
picture_keywordouroboros
That makes a certain degree of sense in some of the stories, as they are based on fairy tales that either require that element or have morphed into doing that (Snow White really requires it and Cinderella pretty much needs it too). But the first few I thought of were the more modern movies I am familiar with, The Little Mermaid (does Ariel have a mom? I don't remember... I don't recall the story well enough to remember if she should anyway and they mutated it so much). Beauty and the Beast, where there is no justification to kill off the mother, although I do like their portrayal of Beauty, her father, and the Beast for the most part. Aladdin, where again, I don't think there's a reason to kill off the mom. The Lion King killed off the dad though. Maybe killing moms just gets to be a habit that's hard to quit.
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The Water Seeker
plymouth
2011-05-04 00:15 (UTC)
(no subject)
I am reminded of this NPR piece from a couple of years back:

Dear Pixar, From All The Girls With Band-Aids On Their Knees: Please make a movie about a girl who is not a princess.
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2011-05-04 01:06 (UTC)
(no subject)
Wow, nice! Thanks for posting - I hadn't seen (or heard) that.
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fanlain
fanlain
2011-05-04 01:31 (UTC)
(no subject)
I passed my dissertation proposal defense yesterday (yay!),

congrats!
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2011-05-04 01:47 (UTC)
(no subject)
Thanks! :~) One more hurdle ...
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2011-05-04 01:36 (UTC)
(no subject)
A fellow dancer who works at Pixar pointed out that their upcoming movie Brave does have a female main character! Pity she's a princess, but we can hope that they shake up the "princess" category by making her a convincing tomboy.

http://insidemovies.ew.com/2011/03/28/brave-pixar-first-look/
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Robynne
corpsefairy
2011-05-04 01:56 (UTC)
(no subject)
Congratulations on passing your defense!

"Lilo and Stitch" passes the Bechdel Test several times over. Much of the movie is about Lilo's relationship with Nani, and Lilo has a couple of conversations with other little girls.

"Pocahontas" might pass, but just barely. It's been a while since I've seen it, but I think Pocahontas and her friend Nakoma have a conversation about how Poca is always running off.
...Oh wait no, it does pass, because Pocahontas has a conversation with Grandmother Willow, and it's before she meets John Smith.
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Kris
anemone
2011-05-04 01:58 (UTC)
According to bechdeltest.com...
According to bechdeltest.com, there are two passes and the rest fail.
Toy Story: Fail (1/3) (disputed)
A Bug's Life: passes.
Toy Story 2: Fail (1/3)
Monsters Inc: Fail (1/3)
Finding Nemo: Fail (1/3)
The Incredibles: Passes
Cars: Fail (1/3)
Ratatouille: Fail (0/3)
Wall-E: Fail (1/3), disputed
Up: Fail (1/3)
Toy Story 3: Dubiously passes.
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2011-05-04 02:31 (UTC)
Re: According to bechdeltest.com...
Nice, thanks! :~) It sounds like I might have missed Atta as a supporting character in A Bug's Life, and Boo in Monsters, Inc. The list has been edited, but it's still 75% male.

Edited at 2011-05-04 02:46 am (UTC)
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ianhickson
ianhickson
2011-05-04 02:02 (UTC)
(no subject)
The new queen-to-be (Atta) in A Bug's Life is female too, doesn't she count as a supporting role? (She's billed third, before Dot.)

In Wall·E, EVE is technically not female (but then the lead character is technically not male, either). Neither had voice actors (they were voiced by sound effects).

Also, technically Nemo's dad is female since when the lead female in a clownfish group dies, the lead male turns female. :-)

I love the Bechdel test (and reverse Bechdel test, where you check the same thing for male characters). Wall·E fails both the Bechdel test and its reverse counterpart, as far as I can tell.
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2011-05-04 02:27 (UTC)
(no subject)
I didn't remember Atta being a very major character -- she was around for a bit at the beginning and end, but it was Dot that went with Flik, right? It's been a really long time since I saw it, though.

Nemo's dad retained a masculine voice throughout and continued to be referred to as a dad, so it doesn't seem like they intended for anyone to think he had turned into a female clownfish.

Similarly in WALL-E, though the robots don't actually have sexes, they can have genders in our perceptions of them, and WALL-E is pretty strongly gendered male while EVE is gendered female. ;~) Also, Elissa Knight is credited as the voice of EVE, though the voices of WALL-E and many other robots were generated by Ben Burtt. According to Wikipedia, her voice was digitally altered, but they still used her for it.

Edited at 2011-05-04 02:27 am (UTC)
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Madman Across the Water: Hermit
madmanatw
2011-05-04 02:51 (UTC)
(no subject)
picture_keywordHermit
Congratulations on passing. :)

As for The Incredibles, I would argue that Elastigirl is a main character and Violet is a supporting character. Helen carries a significant enough number of scenes to be a main character, even though she, it's true, still isn't _the_ main character. Also, how major the woman working for Syndrome is could be debatable, but since I can't remember her name I don't think I can make a very compelling case one way or the other. :)
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2011-05-04 04:03 (UTC)
(no subject)
Thanks! And yeah, I could buy that about The Incredibles. I remember that Violet did have some character development, which is less common for supporting characters than for main characters, but it still happens.
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jillB
jilflirt
2011-05-04 03:01 (UTC)
(no subject)
Wow, your procrastinating is so much more productive than mine. :)

Yay for the proposal defense!
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rubrick
rubrick
2011-05-04 03:42 (UTC)
(no subject)
Wow, your procrastinating is so much more productive than mine. :)

I have said that about her many times. :-)
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rubrick
rubrick
2011-05-04 03:51 (UTC)
(no subject)
Dory is no mere manic pixie dream girl — she's an amnesiac manic pixie dream girl!
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2011-05-04 04:09 (UTC)
(no subject)
Interestingly, J disagreed that Dory fits that trope -- I'll have to ask him later why. She seems like a natural to me.
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catachthonian
catachthonian
2011-05-04 12:47 (UTC)
(no subject)
Congratulations on the defense! (And talk about burying the lede...)
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2011-05-04 18:07 (UTC)
(no subject)
Thanks! I do still have the main defense to go (next spring), but it's nevertheless a relief to have one more hoop jumped.
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Sam
etler
2011-05-04 14:13 (UTC)
(no subject)
I love your analyses here and in your Miyazake post. Animation in general is pretty horrible when it comes to representing women. I mean, look at the majority of stuff going back through Warner Bros. shorts, Disney shorts, etc.

Take WB for example. Out of the 1000+ shorts they produced how many lead women characters can you think of? None really. There's Pussyfoot, the kitten that appears with Marc Anthony the dog but no speaking role. There's Granny who is probably the most empowered WB female character. There's Witch Hazel though she's nearly unknown today and didn't make many appearances. In a supporting (again, non-voiced) role there's the black cat that Pepe Le Pew lusts after, recently named Penelope. If you want to go way back Honey appeared with Bosko very often. I believe this was to compete with Mickey and Minnie from Disney.

And it's not much of a surprise to me. The people behind WB while creative, witty, and hilarious were basically teenage boys who never grew up.

Disney is only marginally better. His very first shorts all centered on Alice though very few people know anything about those and they were all silent. There's of course Minnie Mouse, Daisey Duck, etc. So at least there were female characters with speaking roles from time to time.

Fleischer had Betty Boop of course but I'm not convinced that was a good thing. Hanna-Barbera did a lot with families that had women so that's a plus (Jetsons, Flintstones, etc.) Yikes.. you could write a dissertation on this :-)

Anyway my point is, women definitely get the short stick when it comes to animation. I wonder how it compares to non-animated movies over the same time period.

And congrats on the defense!
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2011-05-04 18:06 (UTC)
(no subject)
Nice examples -- thanks! :~)
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Lisa E.
lunacow
2011-05-04 17:52 (UTC)
(no subject)
Fantastic analysis. Thanks!
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summer_jackel
summer_jackel
2011-05-04 21:36 (UTC)
(no subject)
Congratulations on passing your proposal! That is wonderful.

Thanks for the table; I've been thinking about this recently, and it's nice to look at. The upcoming 'Brave' looks interesting, and will hopefully do a bit to balance Pixar's track record.

I recently saw "Rio" and it's trailers, and that way learned that there is a "Smurfs" CGI movie coming out. It looks generally awful, but certainly the worst bit is that, even from a short trailer, nothing has been done to render Smurfette any more palatable. She remains vacuous and singularly female as ever. Sad.

(Rio, fwiw, is a surprisingly good movie with two good supporting/leading female characters, and while there were problems, I was overall quite happy with it. It still fails the Bechdel test; the first female character is human and the second is a bird, and any other females are very minor. Still, if you're looking for a fun CGI film, I liked it a lot).
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