I was listening to the Slate’s latest (very enjoyable) Culture Gabfest today and was disappointed to see (well, hear) their discussion of the absence of women in Pixar movies (it’s roughly 33:00 to 37:00). First they establish that, indeed, the heroes in Pixar movies are always men, never heroines. But then Julia Turner interjects that, merits of the criticism aside, “I just resist the sort of close political reading of children’s entertainment,” offering as an example the “flap” over Disney and race – first, Disney was criticized for offering its multi-ethnic audience only Caucasian protagonists (I remember when I was in the Disney demographic that the bad guys in Aladdin had Middle Eastern accents, but not the good guys), and now that Disney is making a movie with a Black heroine, people are criticizing the portrayal. Turner and her fellow gabfesters don’t like this criticism. What makes their criticism of the criticism especially annoying is that they’re not even arguing Disney’s critics are totally off-base. Turner concedes that:
this one actually did seem sort of objectionable: part of the twist of this movie is that when she kisses the frog, she turns into a frog instead of him turning into a prince, so we don’t even get to see the Black princess on screen for half the film because she’s going to be a frog, so all of these points are incredibly legitimate, but there’s something pedantic about incredibly close reading.
This strikes me as a particularly weird kind of triangulation that tends to crop up when some liberals approach race: I wish this institution could do a better job in terms of racial equality, and I wish people would stop calling so much attention to it. Turner doesn’t suggest that activists are calling for boycotts of Disney or kidnapping children of Disney executives or otherwise acting out of proportion. She just takes issue with finding fault – even if the fault is there – in the racial undertones of well-intentioned entertainment, especially children’s entertainment. I know not everyone relishes rooting out political meaning in kids’ movies as much as I do. But shouldn’t we be more concerned, rather than less, about how movies portray race or gender when the people consuming the product are children? If, say, obscene language would bother us more (or only) in a kids’ movie, why should these movies be immune from criticism for only showing Caucasians or men or Caucasian men as heroic?
If it’s good for millions of children who consume these movies (including the White ones) to see heroes who aren’t all White, how is it bad to call attention to it when they don’t? Does the perceived bad of talking “pedantically” about race, or “politicizing” kids’ movies, outweigh the bad of kids seeing only White heroes, or only seeing a Black heroine when she spends half her screen time as a green frog? As this article (in Slate!) on the paucity of Black college football coaches reminds us, for decades business people who think themselves race-blind have still seen White as the safe choice to avoid alienating racists. If Disney worries about losing the business of some White people by offering non-White protagonists, shouldn’t they be made to worry at a minimum that only having White heroes will subject them to “close political reading?”
As the podcast closes, Dana Stevens worries about Disney executives holding “focus groups” about race, rather than having the freedom of Pixar to “just come up with a story and do it” in a way that isn’t “sanitized” (must we choose between sanitized and whitewashed?). Stephen Metcalf agrees, as does Turner:
I wonder if it will be depressing when Pixar eventually does have a female protagonist, because it will feel like the boys of Pixar capitulating to criticism instead of following their whimsy.
Stevens responds that “it’s just going to take someone coming along with a great story that’s about a girl.”
Saying that none of Pixar’s ten movies so far feature a female heroine just because they happen to keep coming up with great stories about boys strikes me as about as exculpatory as saying your friends – or your country club, or your Senate – are all White because you’re just waiting for a great worthy person of color to come along and join the group. If the “whimsy” of Pixar’s boys guides them exclusively to stories about other boys, and critics get together to challenge that, why should we root for the boys’ club to win out? Does whimsy trump equality?
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I hate to spoil the party, but I think Slate’s theory rests on a faulty foundation. Maybe I’m the only one to notice, but the hero of The Incredibles is Elastigirl/Helen Parr; the second lead is Violet.
Yes, I know it’s not immediately obvious, and superficially it looks like it’s Mr. Incredible’s movie, but really it isn’t. Consider:
– Helen initiates all the major plot points in the movie. The initial crisis is prompted by her failure to notice that her husband has gotten by far a worse bargain in their domestic lives (the movie contrasts her happy home life with his soul-sucking work). The plot moves along with her suspicions about Bob, her visit to Edna, her pursuit of Mr. Incredible… Isn’t it remarkable that Mr. Incredible is captured and she rescues him, not the other way around?
– Helen, not Bob, is the one who has a character arc. She evolves from settling for fake domesticity and suppressed tensions to rediscovering the value of her husband and children, and finding an accomodation that allows everybody to express their true selves — including her. By contrast, Bob is essentially the same person at the end that he was at the beginning, only happier (note that we never see how his workplace frustrations are resolved).
– To underline Helen’s position as the hero, Violet’s role “echoes” that of her mother in many ways. The second time the family is captured by Syndrome, she’s the one who sets them free. She comes up with the idea for taking a rocket. At the climax of the movie, it’s her powers that save the whole family from the falling burning debris. And then she wins the boy, not by being meek and passive but by being self-confident and assertive and asking him out on a date. She probably has the largest character arc of anybody in the movie. And by contrast, her brother Dash really has none: like his father, he is essentially the same person at the end that he was at the beginning.
So in summary: Helen’s actions move the plot, and her character is changed by her experiences. In my book that makes her the hero; Mr. Incredible exists essentially to give Helen someone and something to save, so that she’ll rediscover who she really is.
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