Monday, June 15, 2009

Dresses Are for Girls, Swords Are for Boys...

...And ne'er the twain shall meet. Or so a bunch of people on the internet would have us believe.

I wasn't sure about posting this right out of the starting gate, but honestly, this one hit me close to home. I'm hoping to go into animation in the next few years, and regardless of my success in that endeavor, it's still my favorite storytelling medium. I never outgrew my love of watching drawings run around on a screen and have adventures, even though I went through a phase when I was around 12 where I tried to convince myself that I had. There is just something in me that craves it, that delights in seeing it in its many forms. So when I saw some of the responses posted to Linda Holmes's (I thought) very polite and respectful desire to see Pixar deliver a movie with a female leading character (that isn't a princess, since there's already loads of those), I was, to put it mildly, shocked and dismayed.

In retrospect, I suppose it was naive of me to think that because I'm fully aware of the fact that girls like adventure stories just as much as boys, are just as capable of being interesting and enjoyable, and like seeing people they are inspired by and can identify with up on the big screen, that most people had come to the same assumption I did. Thank you, internet, for pulling me back down to planet Earth and reminding me that there are still a lot of people out there who have trouble with the foreign concept that women are, in fact, people.

Over at Cartoon Brew, a blog all about animation that I used to really enjoy perusing but have recently lost my taste for, there was a particularly high volume of outrage at the idea Ms. Holmes posited. In their brief article, entitled "Dear Pixar, How About a Chick Flick...?", responses ranged from supportive, to neutral, to downright hostile. One poster responded to someone's comment about not understanding what was wrong with wanting to see a story about a girl and the things that happened to her instead of a boy and the things that happened to him with, "The lady in front of her in line got the pair of shoes SHE wanted at Payless. The girl in the cubicle next to hers keeps laughing on the phone all day and getting on her nerves. She starves herself all weekend and yet gains 2 pounds! All exciting and true topics to be sure (courtesy of my wife) but I can’t say as I’d like to see them animated with 3-D characters." Another poster had this to say: "Everybody has an agenda. I’m sorry if this delightful movie didn’t service yours. Perhaps we should petition President Obama to oversee the animation industry, and appoint a Gender Equity Czar to implement “representational justice” on the silver screen. I nominate Barney Frank for the position." But far and away the most common sentiment I saw expressed there (and on other sites as well), was essentially this: "The real reason behind Pixar having never released a film focusing on a female character is because all of their films thus far have been directed by males." That sentiment is further encapsulated by this from another poster: "As is said above, you can’t pay most men and boys to go to movie about a girl. While I respect the drive for equality and am willing to stand up and be counted when it comes to supporters of both equal opportunity and equal wages, I am among those who could not be payed to go see a movie about a female unless it had an incredibly compelling story and was superbly done." There were even a small number of more hostile people who saw the letter as a declaration of female superiority and an effort to exclude the male population from movie viewing.

Now, this really made me stop and think. Why is it that the mere mention of the idea makes so many people uncomfortable, makes them automatically assume that it's part of a PC ploy, or that it's even female superiority rhetoric? I read the same letter they all did and I didn't see any angry accusations of sexism, no war cries, no knashing of teeth, no criticisms of the company's movies, nothing. I saw a respectful letter written to a movie studio that the author obviously respected a great deal, expressing a wish that she (and frankly, many other women) have had, not because of something wrong with their movies, but because of everything they do right. Women are not given leading roles in films very often in Hollywood, and it's not because male writers are fundamentally unable to write women well, nor is it because male viewers are fundamentally unable to connect to a female protagonist, but because somehow the idea that those two things are true have become "common sense". The problem with common sense is that it isn't necessarily built on real truths, but on the popular opinion that something is true. 'But women are so alien and unfathomable' male writers cry, 'how can we do them justice when we don't understand them?' The fact of the matter is, men and women have far more in common than not, but we culturally focus on the differences and blow them out of proportion which leads to this mindset that 'men are from Mars, women are from Venus', when really, we're all from Earth. There are differences, yes, psychological and phsyiological, and the genders do identify more strongly with their own than with the other, but that does not mean it is impossible to do so. If that were the case, then female movie-goers and literature-readers over the vast passage of time would not have enjoyed the vast majority of produced works because they wouldn't be able to identify with the male lead. And yet we have and we continue to do so, as box office returns will tell you. A movie like The Dark Knight doesn't become the biggest movie of the year and one of the highest-grossing of all-time on the sale of tickets to men alone, and that goes the same for any other hit movie.

So what this tells me, is that men who protest so vehemently against the idea of seeing a leading female protagonist in a film are either a.) not impressed with most of the representations of leading women in films, or b.) don't like the idea of surrendering their gender-perspective for an hour and a half. (There's probably more to it, too, but I have no idea what it might be, so give me a heads-up if anyone might know because this stuff fascinates me.) Maybe a lot of the outrage was stemming from the idea that Ms. Holmes had accused Pixar of being sexist, or was demanding that they change how they make movies to fit some personal agenda, but I'm somewhat at a loss to explain how many people came to that conclusion based on her letter. Personally, I can't speak for her, since I don't know what she was thinking when she wrote it, nor will I ever, because I am not her. But I can speak for what I saw when I read it, and what I saw was not anger, but hope. We ladies adapt to a male viewpoint for the duration of most media forms because very often they're made by men for men. And there's nothing wrong with men making movies for themselves, at all. But there is a serious deficiency in the other viewpoint, too, and after a while, we start going, 'well where's my story?'

I think Pixar was chosen for this focal point, not because of any deficiency or a problem with their films, but because they have shown such consistency in storytelling, and in particular their depiction of women, that it creates an excitement amongst viewing women at the possibility of a female lead. 'But most of Disney's leads are female', people say. Actually, most of Disney's leads are male, if you look at the actual story (in Sleeping Beauty, the title character has less screentime than the prince character, and barely any speaking lines at all), and by and large they tend to fit one archetype: the princess. Now, I'm not arguing that there's something wrong with enjoying princesses, I've certainly enjoyed my share of mine, but one has to wonder where all the other types of roles are. Girls can be more than just one thing, just like boys, and yet nearly all of the leading women in U.S. animation are one thing. Yes, there are exceptions like Mulan and Lilo, but they're the ones that prove the rule.

Why, when directors like Hayao Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon can achieve such great success with leading women in Japan, a country that is arguably more restrictive toward women, are U.S. directors and studio heads so reluctant to branch outside of that box? Do they not think that little girls will like a female character who isn't a princess? If that's the case, they need to meet more little girls. Just because princesses are popular, doesn't mean that's all they want. Girls will identify with a female on-screen no matter what her 'role' is because she's female, just like boys will identify with a male character because he's male. And I'd bet good money that boys would be able to identify with the story of a girl on an adventure just as much as girls identify with boys on an adventure, so long as the adventure is compelling. But the most important thing it could do for kids of both genders is to say 'girls can be anything, too.' And maybe when kids finally see that message in action instead of being given conflicting messages, society at large will finally start to acknowledge that being a girl isn't anything to be ashamed of, isn't demeaning, isn't alien or unfathomable, and isn't second-best. That's my hope, anyway.

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