Pixar's Gender Problem.

I’ve read quite a bit recently about Disney’s recent decision to rework it’s upcoming Rapunzel film by changing the title and adding a male protagonist, but I think that it’s going to be tough to judge how wise the changes are until the film comes out.  Is this a savvy storytelling decision, made to beef up a thin plot?  Or a marketing ploy by Disney executives desperate to attract young viewers of both sexes?  From this remove, it’s tough to say.

But in her (excellent) post discussing the controversy, Alyssa Rosenberg makes an incidental point about Pixar:

But it disappoints me to hear that instead of working on creating girl-centric stories that will appeal to audiences across gender lines, Disney’s responding by shelving a project with a female lead.  As the LA Times points out, Pixar’s become the shop that produces movies with male leads, something that I hadn’t thought about before, but is true, and is sort of worrisome.  Pixar movies I think generally appeal to both male and female audiences strongly.  But Disney appears to have little faith that they can make movies with female leads where their gender isn’t determinative of audience.

Given Pixar’s competence in all other areas of filmmaking, their almost obsessive focus on male protagonists is, on the face of it, rather strange.  But it actually seems to be a function of the company’s minuscule writing corps – rather than some sort of inherent bias – that results in the gender homogeneity.

Consider: Pixar has released ten feature-films in the last fifteen years.  Of those, fully six were written Andrew Stanton – the closest thing Pixar has to a head-writer.  Stanton was the main screenwriter of Pixar’s first five films – Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo – and he also wrote and directed WALL-E.  Additionally, four of Pixar’s films – A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and WALL-E – were conceived in a single productive lunch in 1994 between Stanton, John Lasseter (director of five Pixar films), Pete Doctor (writer / director ofUp), and Joe Ranft (writer of A Bug’s Life and Cars).

All told, Pixar has added only one major creative force to their team since their inception: Brad Bird, the writer/director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille. And Bird’s production style differed so radically from the rest of the organization that they allowed him to bring in his own animation crew from The Iron Giant, and he still operates with relative autonomy from the rest of the group.

None of this excuses Pixar’s gender problem – which is, I’ll agree, worrisome.  But it does help to explain it.  Since the company formed, most of Pixar’s creative decisions have been made by the same group of half a dozen men – men with strikingly similar storytelling styles.  You can certainly blame the organization for not going out and finding the talent that it needed to write films with strong female leads.  But I don’t think that you can blame the writers themselves for the films they’ve written.

When you’re a screenwriter, you write what comes naturally to you – that’s what makes you good.  Stanton, for example, obviously feels at home writing about duos: his films usually feature a conservative, neurotic character (Woody, Marlin, Sully, Wall-E) who finds himself unexpectedly paired with a rogue outlier (Buzz, Dory, Mike Wazowski, EVE) who throws his life into disarray and sends him on some sort of zany quest.  It takes serious talent to write films as good as Stanton’s; it’s little wonder that Pixar has tried to mess with his style as little as possible.

The good news is that Pixar is aware of the problem and is working to fix it.  Next year’s The Bear and The Bow, currently in production, is being written and directed by Brenda Chapman.  Chapman was intimately involved with writing The Little Mermaid and The Lion King, and The Bear and the Bow is about a princess in ancient Scotland who yearns to be an archer.  I don’t quite buy into the idea that writers inherently create better characters of their own gender; nor am I entirely enthused about the idea of yet another princess film.  But it’s pretty obvious that Pixar needed to dosomething, and I’m excited to see what will come out of their attempts to expand their creative base.