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 leifeshallcross.wordpress.com, or follow her on Twitter @leioss.