Fresh Out of Perspective: Why There Are More Important Things Than More Female Characters in Animation
By Corrine Stein, Editorial Staff Writer
Since the birth of animation, it has been agreed that one of the medium’s greatest strengths is the freedom it gives filmmakers to set their stories from any perspective imaginable, and in any world they have the creativity to dream up. Looking at the filmography of just one of America’s most prominent animation studios, Pixar, you can find films featuring characters as diverse as a neurotic clownfish who wants to find his son, a blue monster who befriends a toddler, and a rat that rises to prominence in the world of haute cuisine. However, as much as we love these characters and the inventiveness with which their tales are told, we can’t help but notice that there’s a certain type of diversity lacking from them that hits a little closer to home.
On November 3rd, Caroline Siede of the AV Club published an article titled “10 of 14 Pixar Films Fail the Bechdel Test,” which presents a well-formed gateway for a conversation about the responsibility a studio with such influence to better represent women in their films. To review, a film that passes the Bechdel test includes:
. Two named female characters
.Who engage in a conversation
.About something other than a man.
True to the title of Siede’s article, only four Pixar films live up to that relatively low bar of representation: The Incredibles, Brave, Toy Story 3, and A Bug’s Life. Now, the Bechdel test is often criticized for being too general to focus on nuanced criteria, and it’s also true that Pixar’s films have introduced us to a number of quality female characters over the years. No discussion of Pixar’s best is complete without a reference to Dory, the forgetful fish from Finding Nemo who turned out to be such a fan-favorite that she’s slated to star in her own movie premiering in 2016, which will then be Pixar’s second female-led movie. Pixar’s first female-led film, Brave, also had the distinction of being the first of Pixar’s films to focus on a mother-daughter relationship, and the first where I really felt a natural equality in the amount of central female and male characters. On the surface, Brave seemed a step forward in female-inclusive storytelling, but the production of Brave tells a different tale, and serves as a window into the real problems that plague the animation industry. Despite its female-centric plot, Brave was written by Pixar’s usual male staff, and while it was originally to be directed by Brenda Chapman- the woman who had come up with the film’s original concept-Chapman was let go from the project over a year before its release over “creative differences.” Though the number of females onscreen in a movie may not be indicative of its overall diversity or progressiveness, it’s definitely a barometer for diversity where it matters most, which is behind the screen.
While Pixar has been taking small steps forward in recent years (Brave, Finding Dory)Pixar is going nowhere fast in its inclusion of diversity in creative positions, such as writing and directing. What Siede’s article does not get to touch on is the fact that 0 of Pixar’s 14 films were directed by women, and only two of them have been co-written by them (one of which is Finding Dory, which has yet to be released). The inclusion of women in meaningful behind-the scenes roles makes all the difference in the characters and messages present in the work, and that’s why we at Fusion believe what we do is so important. Filmmakers want to produce stories that they are passionate about, and our passions come from our experiences. Living as a woman is an experience no male director has ever had, and regardless of the subject matter, each female filmmaker adds a touch of her own perspective wherever she handles the material. When we settle for less diversity than is possible in our films, and go to the theater year after year to see movies written and directed by white, American men, we’re going to start sensing a degree of homogeny in the perspectives being presented, regardless of the skill of the storytellers. Though the stories of two monster roommates who collect screams and a rat who trains a hopeless chef to five-star skill have nothing in common on the surface, they are, on some level, nontraditional telling of a traditional story of male friendship, as are most of Pixar’s wonderful offerings. The formula has worked for Pixar in the past, but white, male perspective is limited.
While I love Ratatouille, I have to agree with the film’s own Anton Ego when he calls for “some fresh, clear, well-seasoned perspective.” I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to see an animated film about friendship, be it male/male, female/female, or something different altogether, being told by a woman. Good female representation onscreen will come from female power behind it, and when a woman has the opportunity to lend her experiences to a world, her influence will touch the story in a more meaningful way than a male filmmaker writing in a few more females for diversity’s sake. The same goes for the representation of any minority, whether racial, sexual or religious.
Now, since Pixar is just one part of the trifecta that I see controlling the American animation market, I took it upon myself to do some research into the track records the two other giants, Disney and Dreamworks, and the results were as follows: Disney animation’s first female director was Jennifer Lee on 2013’s Frozen, and the studio has featured female writers on their staff regularly since 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. Dreamworks has done better in the directorial department, with Prince of Egypt, Shrek, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Shark Tale and Kung Fu Panda 2 all being female-directed. However, not a single Dreamworks animated feature has had a female screenwriter. On one hand, both Disney and Dreamworks seem to be pointed in the correct direction for diversity, much moreso than Pixar. Notably, both Dreamworks and Disney have movies in production featuring a Black American and Polynesian girl as their respective main characters, both films are being produced by women, and Disney’s Moana boasts a writer who is a New Zealander of Polynesian descent. On the other hand, neither of the two have female writers or directors, nor is the amount of women in the records of all three studios anything too impressive. In 2014, I can think of only one major American animated film this year with a female in a major production role, which is Laika Studio’s The Boxtrolls, written in part by Irena Brignull.
In my first screenwriting class at NYU last spring, I learned fairly quickly what the real strengths of animated filmmaking are. When someone presented an idea and was told “you could animate this,” what their classmate meant was that their idea was so imaginative, so fantastic, that it would be hurt by the limitations of live-action budgets, sets or physics. This limitless facet of animation is also what makes it so enticing to children, who do not have to grapple with their pride when they profess their endorsement of a film about talking cars. The executives in the animation industry are used to going up against people who believe that the genre is lesser simply because children are often the most vocal consumers, and proud to flaunt their boundless imagination. It’s disheartening to have to fight these same executives on the need for change, when we know that the target audience has already proved their acceptance of situations that are nowhere near as seated in reality as “a woman writes a relatable story.” In a world where we’ve long accepted the influence of magic spells and talking animals, it’s time to accept the hand of women who have been waiting a century to lead us to our happy ever after.