Brave Old Worlds: Does Pixar Have a Problem with Stereotypes?

'Brave' may break the mold when it comes to Disney Princesses, but it's happily reinforcing clichés about its Scottish setting. What is it about the animation studio's confusing attitude towards cultural stereotypes? One Scot weighs in

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In many ways, the upcoming release of Brave feels as if it should be exactly what fans have been craving for years. Following two movies that expanded known worlds — 2010’s Toy Story 3 and 2011’s Cars 2 — it’s the first chance for the studio known for its original characters to offer up an all-new cast since 2009’s Up and also the first Pixar movie with a female lead. So why, exactly, does Brave make me so nervous?

Not for the first time, I blame my homeland. As anyone who’s seen the Brave trailer already knows, the movie is set in an ancient Scotland filled with contests to win the hands of fair maidens, buffoonish-but-caring fathers and, of course, magical spells with far-reaching consequences.

Watching this for the first time, I found myself bristling at what I saw; a voice in the back of my head complaining that the film portrays a romanticized Scotland that never existed, one made as much of stereotypes as reality. “Pixar should know better,” the grumbling inside my head continued. “Isn’t their whole m.o. the busting of stereotypes and creation of well-rounded characters?” Immediately after that thought, I remembered Ratatouille‘s idealized take on Paris, as faithful to the real thing as Disneyland, and Cars 2‘s unfortunate United Nations of automobile clichés. Pixar has been doing this for years, and I didn’t even notice.

(MORE: Will Pixar’s First Female Lead Break the Mold?)

It seems odd to suggest that Pixar movies are anything but universal in their appeal and forward-thinking in their production. No doubt it’s because of the first two Toy Story movies and Monsters Inc., the films that arguably made the studio’s reputation and were all very firmly rooted in the stereotype deconstruction business. Those movies taught us that cowboys could be cowards, spacemen were arguably more stupid than heroic, and monsters under the bed were just doing their job (and were pretty much nice guys when you got to know them). Those three films — along with the subsequent Finding Nemo — built the Pixar brand, and so it’s no surprise that we’ve come to expect some increased level of tolerance and understanding from everything that comes from their rendering farms.

As Pixar has grown, however, so has the amount of criticism the company has faced for falling back on unwelcome cultural stereotypes in their more recent films. The Incredibles, for example, drew complaints not only about the character of Frozone fulfilling the “cool black comic relief” role a little too well, but also his barely present wife ably was criticized for filling out the cliché of the sassy black woman despite never actually being seen in the movie. Similar suspicions of racism surfaced for Cars 2 (including my favorite, the suggestion that the use of teeth in design of the movie’s characters was influenced by racist motives). Toy Story 3 was accused of both sexism and homophobia in its portrayal of Barbie and Ken (“Pairing homophobia with misogyny, the jokes about Ken suggest that the worst things a boy can be are either a girl or a homosexual,” went a particularly critical piece in Ms. magazine), with Wall-E receiving similar comments in regards to the gender bias present in the duties given to the “male” and “female” robots.

These criticisms are harsher than the notion that Brave and Ratatouille present old-fashioned, unrealistic ideas of their settings; that sin, after all, has a long and something-akin-to-proud lineage throughout animation (Consider the hilarious Francophilia of The Aristocats ) and storytelling in general, especially the vague pastoral settings of fairy tales. And yet, even the above examples of racial or sexual stereotypes in Cars 2, The Incredibles and Toy Story 3 feel relatively… if not harmless, exactly, then perhaps accidental and essentially benign. Maybe it’s the strength of the trustworthy Pixar brand, but who here really believes that there was genuine homophobic intent behind the problematic portrayal of Ken, or that Lewis’ gap-toothed character design in Cars 2 denotes anything other than an attempt to give one car a distinguishing visual personality? Despite the evidence, there’s still a temptation to believe that the appearances of such stereotypes is accidental, somehow, that the animators and writers at Pixar didn’t “mean it.”

(MORE: Cars 2: A Pixar Fantasy That Runs Out of Gas)

The “it’s just coincidence!” excuse becomes far less credible when the story hinges on stereotype, however. Take, for example, the portrayal of obesity in Wall-E, something that Slate responded to when the movie was released in 2008: “Wall-E is an innovative and visually stunning film, but the ‘satire’ it draws is simple minded,” the site’s Daniel Engber wrote. “It plays off the easy analogy between obesity and ecological catastrophe, pushing the notion that Western culture has sickened both our bodies and out planet with the same disease of affluence… But the metaphor only works if you believe familiar myths about the overweight: They’re weak-willed, indolent and stupid. Sure enough, that’s how Pixar depicts the future of humanity.” The reinforcing of that stereotype can’t be waved away as being accidental; it’s necessary for the development of the plot, and yet very much an embrace of the kind of harmful stereotype you’d expect Pixar to pick apart.

(Some think that Pixar has issues with the portrayal of the obese in general; in her paper from the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Fat and the Land: Size Stereotyping in Pixar’s Up, Kate Flynn argues that 2009’s Up follows a similar trend as Wall-E, albeit on a smaller scale: “Though the explicit name-calling of Wall-E is absent,” she explains, “Russell’s characterization still echoes a long line of problematic portrayals of the ‘fat boy.’ Let us examine Pixar’s claim that shape is ‘the essence of characters’ personalities.’ The character of Ellie is drawn with a long, narrow body. For the duration of her short screen time, she initiates all the activity she shares with Carl. The screenplay suggests her actions are dynamic: she ‘steers,’ she ‘strides,’ and she repeatedly ‘pops up’ in unexpected places. By contrast, when Carl first appears as a child, his face, tummy and limbs are rounded. While Ellie’s movements are sudden and surprising, his are strenuous.”)

Monsters Inc. and the Toy Story movies may have set the bar too high in terms of Pixar’s interest in, or even awareness of, stereotypes. Yes, those movies gleefully tweaked expectations of characters based on appearance and cultural norms, but in each of those cases, that was essentially the entire story. Without “What if monsters aren’t monsters?” there is no Monsters, Inc.; similarly, without Woody being the opposite of what you’d expect from a cowboy, Toy Story would be… well, Small Soldiers. I don’t know whether or not Pixar actually has any interest in constantly pushing against prevailing ideas in pop culture and society in general. My suspicion is that the company wants to do both: Enough innovation to the next big thing, but not so much that it’s alienating in its lack of familiarity to the target audience. But at the core of everything the studio does is the question of whether or not the story is best served by the action in question. “Story is Everything” is an unofficial Pixar motto — it’s not only said repeatedly in interviews with Pixar staff, but also literally signposted across the studio’s Emeryville, CA offices — but, as the much circulated “Pixar Story Rules” demonstrate, there’s nothing in there about a need to break with any convention other than narrative predictability.

(MORE: Behind the Scenes of Pixar’s Brave)

Pixar movies are constantly dealing with nostalgia, struggling with whether to confound and deny it or wholly embrace it. On the side of the former, you have Monsters, Inc., Ratatouille and the Toy Story movies, all of which rotate around the idea that its characters have to transcend their expectations. Taking the opposite view, The Incredibles and Cars both prescribe a return to “traditional values.” Wall-E does something similar, except with concepts like “stop eating so much and think about some exercise” replacing family time and loving thy neighbor. Up‘s Carl finds himself rediscovering the joy of life and adventure that he’d lost after the death of his wife, which mirrors Finding Nemo‘s character arc for Marlin.

The Incredibles actually works well as an example of story trumping concerns over stereotypes. Looked at objectively, it seems a movie that is surprisingly conservative in its narrative and overall theme; not only does the movie teach us that, hey, everyone isn’t special, only the special people, but the female characters have depressingly traditional character arcs. While Bob gets his superhero groove back and Dash learns that sometimes you have to hold back in order to make the little people feel okay about themselves, Helen frets about the stability of the family and Violet gains enough confidence to ensure that she can wear more colorful clothes — a pink shirt, of course, because she’s a girl — and talk to the cute boy in school. The film cheerfully upholds stereotypical family values in a way that seems alarming, but it works. To have pushed further against the nuclear family ideal would have robbed the film of the coziness and nostalgia it intended to evoke, and the purpose of the entire enterprise would have shifted away from the story it was trying to tell. The Incredibles isn’t a story about evolution or change, but of characters staying true to themselves and rediscovering the strength that brings. Superheroes, after all, uphold the status quo.

That confused, contradictory relationship with the past — sometimes pointing out how wrong attitudes were way back when, sometimes wishing everything was the way it used to be — will undoubtedly inform and confound both Pixar and its critics in the years ahead. As much as its movies may push and prod at outdated and familiar ideas society struggles to move past in some cases, it’ll embrace others — at times unwittingly, other times with full awareness — when it serves the purpose of whatever story at hand. Sometimes, it’ll try to do both at the same time: Look at Brave with its heroine rising above the cliché of the demure, passive princess even as those in her immediate vicinity seem to have come from Celtic Cliché Central Casting. Ultimately, Pixar’s relationship to cultural stereotypes is as complicated and multi-dimensional as its movies… which may or may not make things like this easier to swallow:

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