The sidelined women of Pixar


Given my main contributions to this site, you can probably guess how excited I am for Brave next summer. A Pixar fairy tale starring a princess that isn’t about her quest to find a husband? Yes, please! While there isn’t much information out about it yet, Brave sounds like it can be what I wanted from Tangled. There’s the same unruliness that’s rare to see in a princess, and she’s not completely overshadowed by her love interest.

Of course, once I started thinking about other leading ladies in Pixar, I drew a blank. Where are they, exactly? Some of the major characters are female, certainly, and women have large roles in various movies, but not a single protagonist of a Pixar movie is a girl. Why are the women hiding in the sidelines? Can’t they come out for an adventure with the boys?


The stories in Pixar are mainly about the adventures men have and the relationships they form on the way. Sometimes these are romantic relationships, as with Lightning and Sally in Cars or Linguini and Colette in Ratatouille. More often, they’re in the form of friendships, as with Buzz and Woody in Toy Story or Mike and Sulley in Monsters, Inc. I do have to commend Pixar for putting the focus on personal growth and friendship rather than romantic relationships; it’s a rarity in movies in general, and especially in ones aimed at children. What I do take issue with is that all of these stories about friendship focus on the men involved, and while some of the women are important to the story, they’re often shunted for the more interesting male characters.

Take, for example, Bo Peep. Shuffled to the sidelines for the first two movies and serving only as a love interest and moral compass for Woody, Bo was completely written out of the third Toy Story. Realistically, yes, Bo Peep would have been given away by the time the kids were grown, and it makes for a wonderfully dark moment in the film. But why wasn’t she adventuring in the first place? Why was it that the only woman in the first movie was made of china, too frail to do anything fun? Look at A Bug’s Life. The female royal family stay home while the male protagonist goes adventuring, and the few women in the band of “Warrior Bugs” play support roles for the others.


With some Pixar films, there are barely any women in the picture at all. The fact that Colette is a main character in Ratatouille does not make up for the lack of any other women in the movie, and the only living female for the majority of Up is a bird. Luckily, these movies are the rarity. WALL-E only has two female characters and one is a robot, but out of five main characters (and a background of genderless others), this does not feel like a slight. Out of all of the Pixar movies, in fact, WALL-E feels the most equal in that regard. Gender clearly doesn’t matter in the importance of the adventure, and everyone feels just as important as anyone else.

There are quite a few cases where women were in the picture but left, abandoning the other characters to lives of loneliness and despair. Most people’s first thoughts will no doubt go to Emily from Toy Story 2, the girl who grew tired of Jessie and left her on the side of the road. Emily is not the only one guilty of this in the Toy Story series: the oft-mentioned but unseen Daisy from Toy Story 3 led two of the characters to evil by leaving them behind. Even Andy’s little sister Molly is guilty of this, as her loss of interest leads to the donation of Barbie and Bo Peep. These latter two girls are not vilified, but there’s a sense of betrayal connected to them, like they just gave up on the people who loved them without much of a second thought.


Related to abandonment, one of the criticisms I’ve often heard about Disney movies is the prevalence of the dead mother. The caring female figure that takes care of the protagonist (not necessarily their mother, but someone equally important) is often killed early on or missing from the very beginning. This is not as prevalent in Pixar movies, and while a few mothers are not mentioned, the only actual dead mother is Coral from Finding Nemo. There’s one character in the Pixar line, however, that takes the idea to a whole new level: Ellie from Up.

This is, of course, no standard case of abandonment. Ellie is heavily involved in Carl’s life before she gets sick, and her death leaves his life in shambles. He keeps Ellie’s items and their daily routines, and watching his attempts to move on is simply heartbreaking. The film tells us to enjoy life’s less glamorous adventures, but we also see the pain Carl goes through when the most important person in his life leaves him, and how much she impacts the remainder of his life.


Ellie is an extreme case, of course, but she falls into one of the main roles that women fall into in Pixar films: the love interest. Every single film has a love interest for the main male character, with the exception of Finding Nemo– and, since Dory more or less takes over as Nemo’s mother at the end of that one, it could be implied that she is still the love interest. There are certainly some strong female characters in Pixar movies; Jessie from Toy Story and Helen Parr from The Incredibles immediately spring to mind. They are both powerful women who have been through a lot in life and manage to come out on top. They do, however, fall into the same trap as many other female characters: they are the love interests of the protagonists. They are damned fine love interests, but they still are not the focus.

Worse still are the worst kinds of women in children’s movies: the woman who is there to nag the protagonist into being a better guy. I hate the you-can-fix-him mentality and think it’s a horrible message to spread, and fixing a man by being a constant reminder of his moral compass is even worse. Why can’t a guy just be decent from the beginning? Why can’t two characters fall in love because they like the other for exactly who they are?


Brave will hopefully steer away from these tropes, given that they at least have a female main for once, but she will undoubtedly have a love interest. I mentioned Tangled earlier, and while it’s not Pixar, I think the comparison bears repeating. Rapunzel’s story is about leaving the tower and growing into a new person, but it is completely overshadowed by her love interest. Look at the trailers for Tangled. They make it out to be a story of a cocky man and his adventures with a weird girl, when the original premise is anything but. Why does he have to overshadow her in her own film? Why stoop to the you-can-fix-this-broken-man trope that princess movies seem to love so much? Will Brave fall into the same trap, or will both characters be compatible and experience mutual growth? I’m holding onto my hopes that Pixar can do a good job with making a strong female character in this one, but given their track record with women, it unfortunately does not seem too likely.