American Animation Has a Girl Problem

I have yet to watch Pixar’s Turning Red, though it’s near the top of my To-Watch list. (I still have to stream some of this year’s Oscar nominees.) Oddly enough, however, for a movie intended as a fun and quirky family film, it’s become the eye of a hurricane of controversy. I feel moved to address that controversy, even though I can’t yet offer an opinion on the quality of the film itself. People either love or hate it, and it’s been derided for being, among other things, “niche” and “unrelatable.”

It would seem my old enemy the double standard has bobbed to the surface again: the movie centers on a girl — an Asian-Canadian girl, no less — and as such, no boy or man should be expected to enjoy the movie or engage emotionally with its heroine. A girl-centered movie caters exclusively to a girl audience, while a boy-centered movie is supposedly something everyone can relate to. Almost every family film with a female lead that does well at the box office is dismissed as a fluke, or else attributed to some clever marketing trick (e.g. changing the title of Rapunzel to Tangled, centering the ads for Frozen around Olaf the snowman, casting the hugely popular Dwayne Johnson to voice Maui in Moana), as if boys have to be tricked into watching a movie about (eew!) girls. Yet somehow, when boy-driven films like The Boss Baby, The Adventures of Tintin, or Ron’s Gone Wrong are released, nobody worries about whether girl audiences will connect with a narrative that either sidelines them or omits them altogether. We just accept that they’ll identify with the boys on screen, because boys can represent Humanity with a capital H whereas girls apparently cannot. This double standard, which has been in play ever since I was old enough to follow a movie, now annoys me to the point that I won’t watch family films with boy leads as my own little futile rebellion against it. I haven’t even watched Pixar’s acclaimed and beloved Coco; though everyone says I’m missing out, that 2017 Best Animated Feature winner is doing just fine without my support.

2017, the year that gave us both Coco and The Boss Baby, offers a good illustration of Hollywood’s dedication to the double standard. It’s all in the numbers. American studios released thirty-two animated features that year. Of these, six had female leads. Two of those six starred Barbie. Another was My Little Pony: The Movie. I suppose you might count Smurfs: The Lost Village, which finds Smurfette at least trying to find an identity beyond “the girl”; too bad she fails at everything she tries. Movies like this can get away with having female leads because they have a recognizable brand (Barbie, My Little Pony, Smurfs). But for a girl-centered animated film of quality and originality, you’d have to look outside the US — say, across the sea to Ireland, and Cartoon Saloon’s The Breadwinner.

Five years have passed since then. A cursory glance at 2021 suggests that matters might have improved, at least in terms of quality. Three out of the five nominees for Oscar’s Best Animated Feature feature female protagonists, and at least one of them, Encanto, has enjoyed enormous popular success. But the numbers tell a different story. Seven American animated films released last year had female protagonists, just one more than we saw in 2017. The total number of releases? Forty.

What does this year look like? American animation studios plan to release a total of thirty-six movies this year. How many feature a female lead that isn’t part of an ensemble? Three, including Turning Red. I have no doubt that Uzo Adoba’s character in Lightyear will be awesome, but she’s not the title character, not the person that the film’s young target audience and their parents will be going to theaters or turning on their home theater systems to see. That’s par for the course in most American animated movies: female characters may be cool and fun — they may even be breakout characters — but they’re supporting players in narratives driven by male protagonists. And yet people still complain, “Disney never makes movies with male leads; won’t someone think about the boys?”

Short answer: everyone is thinking about the boys. They’re the ones being raised and socialized to admire and identify with lead characters of their gender only. Girls can admire and identify with male leads just fine; if you consider the numbers, they don’t have much of a choice, unless they truly want to imagine themselves as supporting players in someone else’s story. The numbers condition them, and all of us really, to see boys’ stories as normal, while girls’ stories are a deviation.

If there were more of a balance between male-driven and female-driven stories in American animation, would Turning Red be getting the same level of scrutiny? Are we looking harder at it because, as one of three girl-centric animated features coming out this year, a lot more is riding on its shoulders?

Turning Red has another problem, one that hasn’t heretofore gotten much scrutiny. It’s shocking audiences because it depicts a type of character rarely seen in American animated film: a tween girl.

A look at lists of “best animated movies with female lead characters” reveals the problem. We see Joy (Inside Out), Mulan, Pocahontas, Merida (Brave), Snow White, Moana, Elsa, Rapunzel, Belle, Anastasia, Esmeralda. These characters, with the exception of the nonhuman Joy, are all heroines of what would be called in mythic times “marriageable age.” They are young women, not girl-children. Alice (Alice in Wonderland) and Lilo (Lilo and Stitch) are the token representatives of female childhood on the lists — from American films, at least, as Japan’s Studio Ghibli and Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon don’t have the same issue. The child heroines we do see — Alice, Lilo, Coraline — are so few and far between as to seem anomalous.

Rachel Shukert, showrunner for the recently canceled Netflix series The Babysitters Club, explains the problem thus: “girls are expected to go straight from Doc McStuffins to Euphoria.” Girl characters of the same age as most animated films’ target audience (between 9 and 13) are all but invisible, and to understand why Hollywood seems afraid to tell their stories, we need only look at the outrage over the depiction of the onset of puberty in Turning Red.

Yet somehow, the absence of child heroines from American animated features has gone almost without comment. Pixar’s Brave was heralded as the studio’s first feature with a female protagonist, but the plot revolves around a 17 to 18 year old princess’s determination not to be married off. Inside Out arrived a few years later, with a young girl character near its center, but while preteen athlete Riley does offer a welcome presence within the yawning representation gap, the real stars of the film are Joy and Sadness, nonhumans voiced by and framed as adults. Disney has lately been praised for omitting romance plots from its female-driven films Zootopia, Moana, Raya and the Last Dragon, and Encanto, but while it’s nice to see female protagonists’ stories not revolve around finding a man, it would be nicer still to see a few more female protagonists of an age at which marriage and romance aren’t even serious issues. Centering so many narratives around young women rather than girl-children may imply that girls only become important once they’re old enough to be interested in, and interesting to, men.

Turning Red might have been a step in the right direction, but given all the backlash, I’m much afraid Hollywood will decide that making movies that feature girls just entering puberty isn’t worth the risk, and Disney will continue to play it safe with stories of marriageable young women, whether they fall in love or not. It saddens me to say I don’t see American animation’s girl problem going away anytime soon.

Maus, Persepolis, and the Power of Imperfection

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that when I initially tried to read Art Spiegelman’s prize-winning and now best-selling graphic novel Maus, it didn’t land with me. Now, having taught the work to a small group of students, I understand where I went wrong. I went to it looking for the wrong things. If you go to it in search of admirable characters who are thrown into and subsequently purified by desperate situations, you will probably disappointed, as I was, and set the book aside after the first forty pages or so. That is not what Spiegelman is giving us.

What I needed to accept to gain the proper appreciation for the work is that it is, first and foremost, about a son seeking to understand his difficult father by writing down his father’s story of surviving the horrors of the Holocaust — and, in doing so, heal the breach between them. It’s not a tale of reluctant heroes, or of heroes at all. The character at the center of the story, Vladek Spiegelman, is a messy, even downright unlovable human being. In the very first chapter, we see him as a womanizing bachelor nicknamed “the Sheikh” due to his good looks. He strings along a young woman for three to four years without any intention of marrying her, only to dump her unceremoniously when he meets the woman he will make his wife. He asks his interlocutor, his son Art, not to include this story in his book. Art includes it anyway. He isn’t interested in propping up his father as a figure to be admired. If anything, we come away from the book as baffled by Vladek as he is, trying along with him to figure out the mystery of the man.

Vladek is too complicated for us to feel only one way about. On the one hand, he clearly loves his wife, Anja. When she suffers a serious bout of post-partum depression after the birth of their first son, Richieu, he doesn’t hesitate to get her the help she needs. He stays at her side in sickness and in health, at one point talking her back from the point of suicide with the magic of a simple phrase: “I need you.” On the other hand, we see how controlling he sometimes is in his interactions with her. His need to control the narrative is so paramount that after she has succumbed to depression and killed herself, he destroys the journals she kept, journals his son is desperate to see. He has effectively silenced her, and this act prompts his son to condemn him with the very last word of Maus I: My Father Bleeds History — “Murderer.”

Just who is Vladek Spiegelman — murderer? Sheikh? Loving husband? Distant father? The only word I can find for him is human, despite the mouse’s head he wears. Art Spiegelman noted in a 1991 interview that he drew his characters not as anthromorphized animals but as humans wearing animal heads, perhaps to highlight our universal tendency to regard people who differ from us by race, religion, and/or ethnicity as members of a different species from ourselves. Nazi propagandists were fond of comparing Jews to rats, and the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate them shows that idea taken to its “logical extreme.” Yet the figure at the center of Art Spiegelman’s narrative is so thoroughly human, with all the good and bad that implies, that it drives home the horror of all the efforts to reduce him and others like him to a subhuman level. Were he some saintly, too-good-for-this-sinful-earth figure, his story would lose its power.

I’m glad I gave myself another crack at Maus I. Now I’m moving on to Part II.

Also on my syllabus for the same course: Marjane Satrapi’s graphic-novel autobiography Persepolis, another work with a deeply flawed, undeniably human protagonist. This one did land with me the first time I read it. For one thing, I’d seen and liked the film first, so I had a pretty good idea what I was getting. (Spiegelman has stated in interviews that he is determined never to see Maus adapted to film.) Also, the history its first part covers, the overthrow of the Shah of the Iran and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeni’s Islamic Republic, was the first big event in international news to capture my attention when I was a child. Satrapi and I are contemporaries. Right away I was primed to relate to her story.

Looking at the two graphic novels with my “teacher’s eye,” I suspect Persepolis is designed to be easier to engage with emotionally, while Maus is more interested in making its readers think. The child-self, “Marji,” to whom Satrapi introduces us in the book’s first half is one of the most beautifully realized girl-children I’ve had the pleasure of reading about, a masterful combination of charm, humor, and terror, making mistakes as children will but making them so adorably that we can’t help rooting for her and then later fearing for her and her family as their world grows steadily darker. Her first big step toward adulthood is poignantly depicted in her bond with her uncle Anoosh, a political dissident, and her grief and anger when he is executed. At the book’s very beginning, Marji aspires to be a prophet — an ambition that results in her mother and father being called in to a parent-teacher conference — and has lengthy conversations with God before settling down to sleep. After Anoosh’s death, she angrily kicks God out of her room, declaring she wants nothing more to do with him. It’s impossible to read this scene without feeling your heart break just a little for her.

Yet Marji, like Vladek, is a complicated human being, as becomes more and more apparent as she heads down the rocky road of adolescence and makes mistake after mistake along the way. At age 14, she’s sent to Vienna in the hope she’ll be safer, only to find herself abandoned by her relatives there. Over the next several pages, we see her make friends only to lose them one after the other and fall in love only to have her heart broken, until at last she finds herself so utterly alone that she returns to Iran, hoping to take refuge in the love of her parents and (awesome) grandmother. But just as her departure for the West fails to bring her the security and freedom she’d hoped, the return home likewise proves disappointing, for she finds herself “a Westerner in Iran and an Iranian in the West,” and she becomes trapped on a roller coaster of depression that Satrapi depicts with disturbing and at times frustrating frankness. We see her get worse, get better, get worse, get better, and then get worse again, culminating in a suicide attempt that she miraculously survives.

The pivotal moment near the book’s end comes when Marjane, now in her early twenties, ventures close to what TV Tropes calls the “moral event horizon, a point of no return beyond which redemption is impossible. She goes out to meet her boyfriend wearing cosmetics forbidden by Iranian law. When she captures the attention of the police, she deflects it by pointing to a man sitting nearby and telling them he spoke indecently to her. As they turn on the man and place him under arrest, she escapes. While she does wonder what will become of him, only when her grandmother rebukes her (yelling at her, as she says, for the first time in her life), does she feel the full weight of shame. This confrontation with the darkness in her own soul moves her to become a better person, to understand who she is and who she might become, and to strengthen her own ethical code. She reclaims her self-esteem and sense of purpose when she challenges a religious speaker at the university she attends, pointing out the massive double standard applied to women and men. As through all her mistakes we’ve never stopped rooting for her, we enjoy a cathartic sense of pride.

March is Women’s History Month. Persepolis, which I appreciated even more upon my second reading, would be an excellent book with which to honor the time.