Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pixar and Women, Part 2 -- Finding Nemo through Toy Story 3

5. Finding Nemo. Opinion is divided on the success of Dory, the blue tang with short-term memory loss who accompanies sad-sack hero Marlin on his quest to save his captured son Nemo. Some viewers find her an impossible ditz; this is understandable, since every time she manages to do something awesome, she forgets it immediately. But as I see it, the movie makes it clear that short-term memory loss is not stupidity, as Dory proves helpful at several crucial points. She even gets to utter the film's message, as Marlin laments his inability to protect his son: "If you never let anything happen to him, nothing would ever happen to him."

6. The Incredibles. My favorite Pixar film, and an unqualified success on every level, including gender roles. Middle-aged, unwillingly retired superhero Bob Parr might be the film's chief protagonist, but even more than Dot and Atta before them, his wife Helen and daughter Violet, both "super," have growth arcs of their own. Helen, a.k.a Elastigirl, tries to be the ordinary suburban housewife, but finds in time that the role doesn't suit her; to save her family and reconnect with her husband, she must tap into her extraordinary abilities and become Elastigirl again. Violet, a painfully shy and awkward teen, learns even more dramatically to embrace her powers, and in the end generates the force field that saves the entire family. If neither of those characters are one's idea of a heroine, there's always that divine fashion designer for superheroes, Edna Mode, indisuptably the film's funniest character.

7. Cars. On paper, Sally Carrera may not look like much: she's the film's conscience, the agent of flawed hero Lightning McQueen's redemption. We've seen this type of heroine so often that it's become rather a thankless role. But thanks to some deft screenwriting and the charisma of Bonnie Hunt, the character becomes smart, classy and funny. The movie's a bit disappointing coming after The Incredibles, in that Sally is its only significant female, the other female roles being miniscule. All the same, while they might have been background noise, at least they were there, which is more than can be said for--

8. Ratatouille. Fiery French cook Colette is a wonderful character, funny and temperamental and proud of her work, and kind-hearted enough to see the potential hero in shy loser Linguini. But she is the film's only female character. Where are the female rats? The rodent world of protagonist Remy seems so exclusively male (at least, only the males get to speak) that we can be forgiven for wondering just how the little boogers manage to reproduce. I understand why Remy must be a male -- so that we can enjoy Oswald Patton's fine vocal performance. But does the plot demand that Remy's parent be a father, not a mother? (A mother would have been a refreshing change.) Does it demand that his sibling be a brother, not a sister? Despite its other excellences, the movie provides a distressing example of "Male as Default Gender" where animal characters are concerned.

9. WALL-E. 2008's most romantic film, largely because it boasts two well-developed protagonists. I would argue that those who claim Pixar has never given us a female protagonist have not looked closely enough at this film, for EVE is just as much a protagonist as WALL-E. WALL-E, bless his little robotic heart, does not really change much in the course of the film; he doesn't need to, since he's all but perfect to begin with. Rather, those who come into contact with him grow and evolve; foremost among them is EVE. She's the one with the growth arc, the originally all-business 'bot who learns not only how to love but how to take joy in life. She and WALL-E save the day together, and in the end, she must save his life. A true heroine. Also, unlike in Ratatouille, we do get an interesting female supporting character here: Mary the human, who finds true love at first touch.

10. Up. Such a lovely film in so many ways, but in terms of gender roles, almost as much of a failure as the first Toy Story. The movie introduces us to what could have been a strong female character -- tomboyish Ellie, who yearns for adventure and whose vivid imagination comes through in her artwork. Fifteen minutes into the film, however, she is dead, and afterwards, the only voices we hear are male. Kevin the bird, a silent character, turns out to be female, but alas, she's nothing more than a feathered damsel in distress. This one must also be slipping John Lasseter's mind when he claims that the studio has always tried to include very strong female characters in its films. If it isn't, I really do have grounds for worry about Holley Shiftwell's screen time.

11. Toy Story 3. For this one, I can only point you to my previous blog, from June 2010. A rousing success.

So this is Pixar's track record with regard to women -- some hits, some near misses, very few out-and-out fails. What does it say for the hope that a worthwhile heroine might emerge from a "bromance" like Cars 2?

It says I'd better go see the darned thing, and find out for myself. I may not be crossing off the days, but I'm keeping an open mind.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Pixar and Women, Part 1 -- Toy Story through Monsters Inc.

For the first time in over a decade, I'm not looking forward to the next Pixar release -- and with me, Pixar has always been the big-screen equivalent of "appointment TV."

Oh, I'll go to see Cars 2, and I don't doubt I'll have a pleasant time. Some Pixar works are better than others, but the studio has yet to release an out-and-out bad film. As the Pixar team's take on espionage pictures, Cars 2 will at the very least be worth seeing. Why, then, am I not crossing off the days till its release?

Because when I check out the movie's homepage on the Internet Movie Database, I find that the top fourteen characters and voice actors listed are male. That's right -- you have to scroll past fourteen male names before you reach your first female. Two voices I normally trust, Ain't It Cool blogger Nordling and Pixar head honcho John Lasseter himself, have said that the new girl car character, Holley Shiftwell (voice of Emily Mortimer) is one worth keeping our eye on. But I find myself doubting them when I see that she is billed seventeenth. She isn't even visible on Cars 2's IMdB homepage; you have to click on the link to "Full Cast and Crew" even to know she's in the film.

That shouldn't surprise me, given the route the creators have gone if the trailers are to be believed. Ever since the first Cars, Pixar has revealed itself as the one studio in Hollywood capable of crafting a moving and convincing love story. For my money, 2008's WALL-E ranks as the most romantic film of its decade. But for Cars 2, romance is being set aside in favor of the "bromance" between cocky Lightning McQueen and his tow-truck pal Mater. Sally Carrera, the smart, charming heroine of the first film, has been reduced to a walk-on. (She's billed fifteenth.) This is in keeping with the "bromance" genre: females are superfluous. If they achieve any prominence at all, it's only to cause trouble. (For a recent example, we have Ron Howard's The Dilemma, called by critics "a date movie, if you want to be sure you'll never see your date again.")

I want to believe that Nordling and Lasseter are right, that the IMdB billing is all out of whatck, and that Holley Shiftwell will prove an important figure, a heroine worth rooting for rather than a bromance-spoiling femme fatale. Pixar has taken a lot of heat lately because its protagonists have always been male (the studio's release for next year is an attempt to remedy this); last year, on this very blog spot, I had to defend Toy Story 3 against charges of sexism. In his interview with Nordling, Lasseter states that the studio has always tried to include "very, very strong female characters" in its films. If we're to have any hope for seventeenth-billed Holley Shiftwell, we need to look at Pixar's track record, to see if Lasseter's statement holds water.

So let's begin at the beginning:
1. Toy Story. Pixar's first feature-film release, and a winner out of the gate in every respect except one: porcelain doll Bo Peep, the blandest of all the characters. Even voice actress Annie Potts can't inject humor and vigor into this passive, lifeless creature. Her lack of vivid personality would not be a problem, except that 1) all the characters around her have personality to burn, and 2) she's the movie's only prominent female, the others being background figures like Andy's mom and Sid's horrible little sister (noteworthy only for being cruel enough to force poor, confused Buzz Lightyear into a frilly apron and call him Mrs. Nesbitt). The lack of a worthwhile heroine does not stop the movie from being top-grade entertainment, but in proclaiming that the studio's films have always had strong heroines, Lasseter must be forgetting this one.

2. A Bug's Life. In the matter of female characters, the studio completely redeems itself here. Most would say it's not as good a movie as Toy Story, but in terms of active, interesting females we have black widow spider Rosie, the dowager Queen Ant, and her two daughters, Dot and Atta. Misfit Flik may be the movie's protagonist, but both Dot and Atta are given a chance to learn and grow in the course of the film, and learning and growth are the stuff of which interesting, strong characters are made. Tomboy Dot learns to use her wings just in time to fly in search of help for her imperiled colony. Early in the film Atta is prissy, narrow-minded and unsympathetic, but by the end she has found her strength, inserting herself between the bruised, fallen Flik and the threatening foot of the villainous Hopper. Far from being background noise, they play crucial roles in saving the day.

3. Toy Story 2. A mixed success where female roles are concerned. Mrs. Potato Head makes me long for temporary deafness, and Bo Peep has even less personality here than she does in the first film, but Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl is an interesting and believably flawed character with room to grow. At first she is Woody's antagonist, but soon enough they are staunch allies. He does have to rescue her at the end, but Joan Cusack's voice work manages to endow the character with toughness and vigor. She's anything but forgettable.

4. Monsters, Inc. As in A Bug's Life, here we have several interesting heroines to choose from. Bonnie Hunt, so appealing in Cars, voices a supporting role here; no matter how small her role, she always sounds smart. Then we have an actress who always sounds dumb, squeaky-voiced Jennifer Tilly, playing ditzy secretary Celia -- a character who then demonstrates an ability to think on her feet and save the heroes from danger. Scratchy-voice bureaucrat Roz is also a lot more than she seems. Then there's the toddling human child Boo, who turns the monsters' world upside down. Though the film's main protagonist, big furry blue monster Sully, tries to protect her, in the end it's Boo herself who fights her demons and emerges triumphant. By this time, Pixar is indeed building up a roster of strong female characters, even though the protagonists are always (so far) male.

Next Blog: Pixar and Women, Part 2 -- Finding Nemo through Toy Story 3.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Art and the Consumer, Part 4

"Know Your Enemy: Demographics" Continued

I'm a full-time demographic loser. I belong to groups whose existence the demographic demons prefer not to acknowledge. On the one hand, I'm one of those "girl geeks" who would rather watch superheroines kick bad-guy butt than watch fashionistas powder their noses while they pine over men; I'd rather see a good adventure than a romantic comedy, and accordingly I can't help wishing female characters played more prominent roles in adventure/action films. Warner Bros./DC Animation's Justice League Unlimited was one of the first good shows to give superheroines a fair share of screen time (though the same company's animated series of Batman and Superman paved the way with their depictions of Batgirl and Supergirl). Accordingly I was a big fan, and I was crushed when the show was cancelled even though it was quite popular.

But I went from sad to mad when I learned why the show was cancelled despite its popularity, and realized I belong to yet another group deliberately ignored by demographics-worshippers: adult animation fans.

Adult animation fans and comic book lovers enjoyed JLU and were eager to see more. In cancelling it, Cartoon Network couldn't argue that "not enough people were watching," but in their eyes, the wrong people were watching. They wanted an audience of children, so they cancelled JLU and replaced it with more kiddie-friendly fare. The demographics demons do not deem adult animation fans a worthwhile audience to target. According to their dictates, here in America at least, cartoons are strictly for kids, and any cartoon that doesn't appeal specifically to kids is a failure. This wasn't always the case. In the days of classic Hollywood, cartoon shorts accompanied every feature, regardless of the demographic to which that feature appealed, and so, to quote one of the geniuses of the animated short subject, Chuck Jones, the creators of those shorts were "forced to make them for ourselves." But as the animated short died, so did the notion that animated fare might appeal as much to adults as to children, if not more so. In our current demographic-ruled climate, only the creators of The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park, as well as Pixar, with its depiction of middle-aged and elderly protagonists, have challenged the idea of animation as just, or primarily, for kids.

Adult animation fans aren't even the hardest hit group; we at least get thrown the occasional bone. The people the demographic demons most assiduously disregard are those over the age of 55.

Demographic-based cancellations aren't a rare thing. Matlock and Murder, She Wrote get a lot of ridicule as the shows of choice of elderly viewers, but one can see why seniors would be drawn to those shows: both depict seniors as active, energetic problem-solvers who are important, even valuable, in the worlds they inhabit. Both shows were cancelled while they were still popular, in order to make room for shows that would appeal to younger audiences. Look at television now, and you'll find seniors all but wiped off the map of the airwaves, except as minor supporting characters. On the big screen the picture is similarly bleak: seniors' stories rarely get told, because that hot young demographic supposedly won't flock to movies about old people. Two years ago, however, one movie studio had the cloud to make, then sell, a film with an elderly protagonist, and because the story was told with wit and poignance as well as color and adventure, audiences embraced it. The film? Pixar's Up.

Up -- along with almost all good-to-great films -- concerned itself more with storytelling than with demographics; its creators never assumed that its potential audience was only interested in seeing movies about people identical to themselves. If we want to see film and television that would actually merit the name of art, we have to take on the demon Demographics.

The best way to do this is to vote with our wallets, to seek out movies and television shows that don't fit the usual demographic patterns and that actually promise to tell stories that don't turn on stereotypes. Being fortysomething, I'm not far away from that over-55 group that gets ignored. Indeed, mature adult audiences, audiences over thirty, find themselves disregarded at nearly all times of the Movie Year except the fall. We adults need to let the "money men" know that we are here, and that when we throw our support behind a movie, we too can make a hit. Who do the money men imagine turned The King's Speech into a moneymaker? I'll give them a hint: it wasn't teenage boys.

The bottom line: we'll get the kind of art we deserve. If we're not satisfied with what we're seeing, we have to demand something better, and make our feelings known with the dollars we spend. If we're not willing to do that, then we'll only prove the government right: consumers can't be trusted to promote worthwhile art.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Art and the Consumer, Part 3

Demographics -- the division of a population into specific "target audiences" based on gender, age, race, and social class, in order of importance. A device designed to smooth the paths of marketers and advertisers, and with which Hollywood's "money men," the ones who determine which films and television programs see the light of day, are slavishly concerned. If you want to find the villain in our story of Art and the Consumer, here it is.

Looking at the definition, it's not hard to see why concern for demographics stacks the proverbial deck against the creation of powerful, inspiring, and/or edifying films and TV shows. If producers are going to appeal to a "target audience," they must first determine what that audience wants to see -- what they care about, what they hope to become, how they think about themselves and others. An attempt to understand an individual on these bases would make perfect sense, but demographics are not individuals. They are the entertainment industry's version of Groupthink, and accordingly, producers, directors, and writers who make demographics into minor gods will, perhaps without even realizing it, make stereotypical judgments about the desires and values of men or women, young or old, blacks or whites or Asians or Latinos, and then make movies and TV shows based on these judgments. Stereotypes about target audiences all too often lead to stereotyped characters and situations.

Men -- more specifically, young men -- are the favored demographic of marketers and advertisers, and so a significant majority of films are made with them in mind. (To be fair, this bias in favor of the young male demographic is less evident on television.) At no time is this more noticeable than during the summer, when 90-95% of the big-budget releases are about men, for men, and in the genres men are reputed to prefer: raunchy comedies which feature boy-men in a long flight from anything resembling responsibility, bonding over beer and cars and complaints about women (who generally fall into two types in these films: available bodies or ball-busting shrews); and rousing actioners starring either superheroes or normal guys who are really good with guns and/or explosives. Occasionally a good movie, one with substance and intelligence, may emerge from these genres, but the stereotypes on which they pivot make it unlikely. For every Dark Knight there's a Spider-Man 3, and for every J.J. Abrams' Star Trek a Transformers 2.

When women are the demographic in question, the emergence of a high-quality film becomes even less likely. The best recent movies about girls and women -- Hanna, Jane Eyre, True Grit, Winter's Bone -- show little concern with demographics at all; they set out to tell a story rather than to please a target audience. (NOTE: this is true of the best films, period, whether the protagonist is male or female, young or old.) Women as Target Audience supposedly worship Oprah, are addicted to The View, loved Mamma Mia! and devour all things Twilight, and in our heart of hearts want nothing more than pretty things and a non-threatening, emasculated girly-man to worship and rescue them. As a demographic we are shallow indeed, and deep films are never made for supposedly shallow audiences.

Except that we're not a demographic. We (male, female, young, old) are individuals with complex and often contradictory desires. For my part, I'm indifferent to Oprah, loathe The View, despised Mamma Mia! and find Twilight et. seq. nauseating. In addition, I'd much rather watch Justice League Unlimited than Sex and the City, because in my book, superheroines are far cooler than fashionistas.

Alas, movies don't get made for women like me -- not if the producers involve have demographics in mind. All too often, if you don't fit the stereotype behind the demographic, you'll have to wait long and search far to find a movie to enjoy.

(Coming Next: a demographic problem worse than gender -- Age.)