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.

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