Since the release of Toy Story (Lasseter, 1995) Pixar Animation Studios has become renowned for creating films that are both commercially successful and critically acclaimed. Collectively, Toy Story and its sequels have grossed over 1.9 billion dollars worldwide, and are considered one of the most celebrated trilogies of all time. Since 2001, when the animated feature film category was introduced, Pixar has been nominated nine times and won a total of seven Academy Awards, more than any other animation studio. In addition, the studio has received numerous awards for its innovative technological advancements in digital animation, developing software that is now the industry standard for CG animation and visual effects in live action filmmaking. However, having portrayed male characters in lead roles 13 out of 14 times (as of 2014), the studio has suffered criticisms over an apparent gender problem. Brave (Andrews and Chapman, 2012) is distinguished as the first Pixar film to feature a female protagonist, yet has been criticised for its fairy tale narrative that echoes contemporary Disney princess plots. Although Pixar’s princess subverts some of the more traditional Disney princess characteristics, the fact that the studio chose to present its first female protagonist as a princess further highlights the disproportionate representation of gender within Pixar’s feature films.
With the exception of Brave every Pixar film is androcentric, although the male characters portrayed by the studio challenge the conventions of men as strong, unemotional heroes. Ken Gillam and Shannon Wooden suggest the ‘post-princess Pixar is a different place for male protagonists’ (2008, 3), which challenges the alpha-male model. The male protagonists in Toy Story, The Incredibles (Bird, 2004) and Cars (Lasseter and Ranft, 2006) develop from the alpha-male persona they project, to a gradual understanding of contemporary perceptions of masculinity. The characters experience emasculating failures, bonds of male friendship and an appreciation of “feminine” values. It is interesting to note that although strong female characters are present in these films it is ultimately the protagonists’ friendships or rivalries with other male characters that spark the change and development of each protagonist. Although Pixar writes ‘strong and varied female characters… portraying women as cowgirls, chefs, superheroes and professionals’ (Decker, 2010, 55), female characters are always shown in relation to their male counterparts, categorized as the love interest, the helper or the carer.
In 2008 following the announcement of Brave, many criticised the studio for making their first female protagonist a princess, stating they were supporting the ‘notion that female heroines only exist in fantasy worlds’ (Nolan, 2009). Adding that as a princess she would not be able to compete with the varied male protagonists of Pixar’s past. The film in many ways follows the conventions outlined by Disney’s princess narratives, such as the presence of magic and royal betrothal. However, it opposes the most common characteristics present in these films, as Brave ends with Merida neither falling in love nor being rescued. Merida is portrayed as a not-so-typical princess, who is seen enjoying the landscape and nature, riding her horse and perfecting her accomplished archery skills. Following the acquisition of Pixar by the Walt Disney Company in 2006, I propose that Brave represents the creative collaboration between the two animation studios by paying homage to Disney’s long-standing fairy tale princess tradition.
A great emphasis has been placed on Pixar’s princess for “breaking the mould” of Disney’s classic princesses, which has in turn influenced a more progressive depiction of princesses in Disney’s most recent and largely successful animated feature, Frozen (Buck and Lee, 2013). Finally, it is worth noting that Pixar’s forthcoming features Inside Out and Finding Dory centre on female-driven narratives that do not concern fairy tale plots.
Helen Haswell is a PhD Candidate in Film Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. Her current research focuses on the brand identity of Pixar Animation Studios, which has been challenged following the studio’s acquisition by The Walt Disney Company in 2006. Her research interests include the development of CG technology, film marketing and distribution.
Andrews, Mark. Chapman, Brenda. Brave. 2012.
Bird, Brad. The Incredibles. 2004.
Buck, Chris. Lee, Jennifer. Frozen. 2013.
Decker, Jonathan. The Portrayal of Gender in Disney-Pixar’s Animated Films: A Content Analysis of Gender-Role Variables in Pixar’s Ten Feature-Length Films from Toy Story (1995) to Up (2009). LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, 2010.
Gillam, Ken. Wooden, Shannon R. ‘Post-Princess Models of Gender: The New Man in Disney/Pixar’. Journal of Popular Film and Television. 36.1. 2008. 2-8.
Lasseter, John. Toy Story. 1995.
Lasseter, John. Ranft, Joe. Cars. 2006.
Nolan, Erin. ‘Pixar’s Gender Problem’. Film.com (2009). Accessed 2013: <http://www.film.com/features/story/pixars-gender-problem/26520445>