Guest post: Lazy writing and the survival of the human race… in animated movies

I’m very happy today to be presenting a guest post by up and coming writer, Leife Shallcross. An online discussion a little while ago raised some very interesting points about gender roles in SF, and Leife’s observations were quite telling. So I asked her to write it up for a post here and she very graciously obliged.

Lazy writing and the survival of the human race… in animated movies

I was having a discussion with some writerly friends a while ago about female leads in spec fic films. The conversation was started by an article that was arguing for a female protagonist in the next Star Wars movie, to be made by Disney some time soon. It was pretty interesting, and had some good points.

Star-Wars-Logo-ArtNaturally, though, this broadened out to a discussion of the nature of female characters in spec fic films generally. Are there enough of them? Are there enough leads? And are they genuinely well-rounded, complex human beings?

I’ll put myself out there and say I’m in the camp that thinks the answer to those questions is no.

But I will qualify it, by saying that I’m the mother of an 8 year-old boy and a 10 year-old girl, and the vast majority of the movies I’ve seen in the last 10 years have been kid’s movies, so that’s what I’m going to talk about here. (And, let’s face it, with Disney at the helm, this is what we are going to have to expect for Star Wars.)

And before you groan, and lose interest in what sounds like it’s going to be another feminist mummy rant, I’m also going to talk about why I think this comes down to one thing: lazy writing.

If you take the Pixar films, for example. A quick look on Wikipedia gives you a fairly comprehensive list of films they’ve produced, starting with Toy Story in 1995.


…And the first movie they produced with a female protagonist came out in…?


Now, I’m gonna pick on Pixar here, but boy they make it easy. It’s not that they can’t write good female characters. Dory (Finding Nemo), Jessie (Toy Story 2), Mrs Incredible and Violet Incredible (The Incredibles), to name just a handful. So why don’t they do more of it?

Why did Mike & Sully (Monsters Inc) both have to be male? Why would making one of them female not have worked? What about Up? It really would have made little difference to the story whether the kid, Russell, had been a boy or a girl. You could make arguments around Mike & Sully representing the classic blokes’ working relationship, or Carl (the old guy in Up) seeing himself in Russell, but I don’t think either of those examples could not have been managed by finding equally satisfying alternatives through good, clever scriptwriting, had they chosen to swap the gender of one of the characters.

This points to one of the things that the article on Star Wars argued, which is that film makers tend to view male characters as having generic appeal, and female characters as only appealing to women and girls.

In my opinion, this a view that needs to be challenged and proved false.

And in case you thought Monsters Inc and Up were the exceptions, here’s a random sample:

buzz_lightyear_and_woody_from_toy_storyToy Story (the original): not a single girl in the gang. Every single female character could only be described as tertiary, at best. There’s a bunch of the supporting character toys that could have been presented as female – the money pig, the dinosaur, the slinky dog, the penguin. But no.

Finding Nemo: Dory, an awesome character. Now count the total ratio of male characters in the movie to female ones (19:6). Not even one fishaholic shark, and would that have been so hard?

Cars: Do I even need to start?

Ratatouille: This one’s great. One female role with a name (there’s also one female ‘dining patron’), out of a total of 19 roles.

Even Brave. Their flagship female protagonist film. Count the ratio of female to male characters (4 including a castle maid, to 14). You might also want to look at the female to male ‘extras’. It’s a wonder the human race has managed to survive.

And just to be fair, let’s look at Dreamworks:

How to Train Your Dragon: Astrid, awesome character. Now count the total ratio of male characters to female ones (10:3).

Rise of the Guardians: The tooth fairy. Cute and funny, but, oh look, all the rest of the guardians are… male. Token. There’s a couple of female kids (including the interesting, different and kinda awesome Cupcake), but the one the protagonist connects with in order to save the world is, you guessed it, a boy.

I could point to the Disney princesses and *wince* Barbie for a bunch of female protagonists, but these are movies marketed at girls, not generically, like the ones I’ve named above.

BraveThe fact is, with a little, a VERY little, extra effort in character development, the ratio of male to female protagonists, supporting characters and extras could more closely reflect the fact the human race is approximately half-half. And when a movie studio is as influential as Pixar or Dreamworks, this is actually something they could reasonably achieve.

But, you might say, what about the thing you mentioned earlier? Mike and Sully representing the blokey working relationship trope, or about Carl in Up seeing himself in Russell? Well, these are movies for kids. They don’t know about blokey workmates, or that adults are often inspired by children they see themselves in.

The messages you give your kids repeatedly in childhood will shape their expectations of the world as adults.

I’ll go back to my core argument, though, which is that, in my opinion, stories which involve a disproportionate number of male characters and token females (or film studios that churn out an aggregate disproportionate number of male to female characters, including protagonists), are going to be the result of lazy character development.

Generally, having a diverse range of characters (including—hey!—even the genderqueer!) makes for increased interest in the dynamics between the characters. Which usually makes for more interesting stories.

And just might have the spin-off of making the world a more tolerant, egalitarian place.

Leife ShallcrossLeife Shallcross lives in Canberra with her husband and children. She fits in her writing around looking after the kids, an almost full-time job in the public service and playing the fiddle (badly). She is fascinated by fairy tales and folk tales and frequently weaves elements of these into her writing. She’s also the current secretary of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. Her second published story will appear in Next, edited by Robert Porteous and Simon Petrie, to be launched at Conflux 9 in April 2013.
She blogs occasionally at, or follow her on Twitter @leioss.


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7 thoughts on “Guest post: Lazy writing and the survival of the human race… in animated movies

  1. Hi Leife,

    Nice post. I guess this is a loaded topic, so it’s difficult to weigh in on the side of the “status quo” when there’s clearly a gender disparity. But I suspect that studios like Dreamworks, Buenavista etc, aren’t lazy, so much as extremely rigorous and precise about what will make them the most profit, with the least risk.

    After all, they’re not in the business of social engineering, they’re in the business of making money. Their economic models would be extremely sensitive to consumer preferences. If they can make even one million extra by having a male protagonist, they will definitely have a male protagonist. I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever, that if they thought they could make more money out of female protagonists, we’d have them coming out our ears. Brave was a little different in that it was a targeted mother/daughter story. It’s 14th on the animated profit-makers list.

    I frequent the “Geeky Girls Love Sci-Fi” site because it’s a balanced and excellent site. They recently had a discussion about female representation at Kapow!. After lamenting the gender disparity on panels, they conceded that the breakdown basically reflected the gender representation of both the attendees, and the professionals in the industry, and went on to say that to include more women would simply have amounted to tokenism, which nobody is interested in, or will pay money to see.

    After copping heavy criticism at Kapow! Frontman Mark Millar said this, “Other shows do small press, etc, too, but Kapow only shoots for biggest names in comics, movies, regardless of gender… The fact that female creators don’t tend to work at those companies not our fault,” he added, before delivering the kicker: “Do you guys honestly think 5 women running a con would PURPOSELY omit female creators? Why??.”

    So, less representation + less money + more risk = unlikely to happen

    This is the bottom line. From what I’ve heard (correct me if I’ve got this arse-about) Disney are planning standalone movies based on Yoda, Han Solo, and Boba Fett. The second two would be AWESOME, and please God no more Jedi! The first, I’m scratching my head over. But the fact is, these are all beloved characters that could spawn amazing movies. To do the same for a female character they’d need to introduce someone new, someone we don’t know. It’s less certain, more risk. Will they do it? I hope so. It could be great – let’s hope better than Eps1-3 at the very least :))

  2. Thanks for the detailed comment, Chris. Though it raises one thing – or rather, omits it – that I think studios are missing. Kid’s films are marketed first and foremost at kids, and children have yet to develop a gender bias. Just like they have no religion, no political view or anything else. And just like those things, gender view is also taught to them by adults. So a kid’s film with a female protag or more female main players would not adversely affect viewing by children. They would accept it same as they accept everything else that’s presented to them. Therefore, profit margins wouldn’t be affected. Unless parents refuse to take their boy children to see a film with a girl protagonist. Perhaps that’s where the problem lies?

    I don’t know. Discuss. 🙂

  3. Yeah, sure Alan, the question is split right now because of the mixing of questions in the post. Will Disney have a female protagonist for Star Wars? And why are there fewer female characters in kids animations? I guess my comment also spans both topics and perhaps they shouldn’t be mixed.

    BUT the Leife hits the nail on the head in her post with the kids movies. Why is it so? In my view it must be money-related. In my other existense, I’m a geologist in the mineral exploration industry. Over the last 15 years I’ve spent a lot of other people’s money, quite literally searching for gold, probably in excess of 30M. Before you think I’m bragging, that’s actually not very much for someone in my position. But I also know that when you’re spending other people’s money, they want to know EXACTLY what they’re going to get. They want to know what, when and how long it will take. How does it compare to history? What’s making money elsewhere? AND NO RISK PLEASE…

    You won’t get anything past the money men without justifying it from five different angles. So IF male protagonists put bums on seats, it must be a social issue. Maybe kids like laughing at big scary men looking like idiots on screen? I know it makes me laugh. But really, I have no idea.

    One promising little fact, is that although Brave only sits at 14 in the all-time money makers, it’s above the original Toy Story – and it completely smashes Wreck-it Ralph (which I actually thought was a pretty good movie). Toy Story 2, and 3 and most of the Shrek sequels were better earners than the original. In fact Shrek 2 is the biggest earner of all. Maybe a sequel for Brave would also come in at a higher level. Who knows?

  4. Hey Leife, saw the link on CSFG blog and thought it was fantastic that you wrote a more detailed post on this topic.
    However, I feel like this resulting discussion is weighted more towards the parenting angle than the storytelling angle. I think your perspective particularly as a parent of a boy and girl is very valuable in analysing the lack of a balanced cast of characters in these movies, and it makes sense then that, as the people vetting what their children watch, parents should support movies that represent both men and women in something approaching their real world distribution (basically 50/50, hollywood!).
    But, and it’s a big but, you say that it would make no real difference changing say, Russell in Up to a girl, or one of Mike and Sully, for instance, when to the storyteller it certainly would.
    Gender is part of any character’s identity and changing such things necessarily changes the way the writer treats them. The kind of stories told in Up and Monsters Inc are not specific to males but they were told in a male context. Looking to the future, what we want is not simply shoehorning in diversity but actually producing stories which use a gender balanced context from the word go.
    Of course, this shouldn’t preclude the production of stories with specifically female or male contexts, just that a company with as wide a viewership as pixar should not restrict their movies to one or the other.
    Also, why does everyone champion Brave in this area of discussion? Let me know when they make a film that actually equals their previous “man movie” output. Brave was not in the same league as their legendary successes creatively, and young girls and boys deserve better.

  5. Hey Mitch
    Thanks for your thoughts. I’m a parent who cares passionately about the quality of the stories my kids get to experience, because I understand the impact they will have on their lives. The stories I experienced as a kid have significantly influenced me as a writer, and I see how these stories are influencing my kids.
    I still experience frustration every time I take my kids to a movie and (unless it’s a specific girl-movie)the girls are relegated to second-place and massively underrepresented in incidental characters as well. Every. Single. Time. I can’t help it, it’s just how I feel. Sad thing is, I now see my daughter expressing the same frustration.
    I get the whole gender-is-a-key part of character thing, but I still submit that these writers are sticking to easy tropes and not challenging themselves (maybe because of the money issue Chris refers to). Pixar in particular have shown that they can do amazing, creative things that capture the imagination – why not extend that to a fairer representation of male/female/? characters? At the risk of maybe inflating this out of proportion, the ‘oh-but-that’s-just-how-it-is’ argument is all too easy to use to avoid challenging the status quo.
    I submit that their stories WOULD be better if they broadened out their character representation. Are you seriously arguing that the proportion of great stories with female protagonists is really in proportion to what the two biggest movie studios making moveis for kids are offering?
    Also, not sure about ‘championing’ Brave, so much. It’s just one of the very few non-Disney Princess examples of a female protagonist and they did trumpet the whole ‘we made one about a girl!’ thing. I should say, though, I loved it. Really enjoyed it. I dunno that I agree that it wasn’t as good as some of the others.


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