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When I set out to rewatch and rank Pixar’s filmography in the wake of my disappointment with their latest release, Inside Out, I already knew that female characters weren’t Pixar’s strong suit. However, I didn’t realize quite how bad the situation was until I watched these films in quick succession. Almost two-thirds of Pixar films don’t even pass the Bechdel Test*—a sad state of affairs for movies geared towards children, especially films where it would be relatively easy to gender characters female rather than male. Really, would it be so hard to make a toy pig or toy dinosaur female?

But it was with the one-two punch of WALL*E and Up (more on these below) that my feminist rage really kicked in, and I knew I would have to address the issue of women and girls in the Pixar universe before finalizing any rankings of their films. Because Pixar’s problem goes beyond the simple absence of women; at times, Pixar’s representation of all things female is downright frightening. And I’m not just talking about “button-nose syndrome” here.

Below is a feminist look at the thirteen Pixar films I rewatched, as well as the score that will be used in that category in my forthcoming rankings. This score is based on a combination of Bechdel results, overall number and presentation of female characters, how closely characters adhere to the gender binary, and the film’s underlying messages and themes.

Toy Story (1995). While the narrative is not sexist per se, Toy Story is very boy-centric and a major Bechdel Test fail since just one voiced toy is female (Bo Peep) and her role is very minor, serving primarily as a romantic interest for Woody. What is particularly grating about Pixar’s character choices is that so many of the toys could have easily been given female voices—among the main toy sidekicks are a pig, a dinosaur, and a dog. In reading about Pixar, I saw that Joss Whedon’s original script idea called for Barbie to be the toy to save Buzz and Woody from Sid’s house, but there was some issue with Mattel. While I liked the ultimate choice to use the mutant toys, having Barbie in that role would have greatly improved the female presence here.
X Chromosome Score: 1

A Bug’s Life (1998). Perhaps in order to make up for the very boy-centric Toy Story, this second outing by Pixar has a whole host of great female characters, with three female ants taking a leadership role: Phyllis Diller as the Queen, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as next-in-line Princess Atta, and a young Hayden Panettiere as Dot, Princess Atta’s younger sister and de facto leader of the Blueberries. Two members of the circus troupe are also female, the gypsy moth (Madeline Kahn) and the black widow spider (Bonnie Hunt). The film’s underlying message of working and standing together against a common enemy supports this matriarchal bent.
X Chromosome Score: 5

Females rule in more ways than one in A Bug's Life. Of course, they are ants.

Females rule in A Bug’s Life. Of course, they are ants.

Toy Story 2 (1999). The introduction of new toys in this sequel gives us a few more female characters (Cowgirl Jessie, Mrs. Potato Head, Barbie), but this film still fails the Bechdel test easily since neither Bo Peep (the one female toy from the original Toy Story) nor Mrs. Potato Head go along when the other toys leave to save Woody. Furthermore, Barbie as presented here is no feminist icon. As for Jessie, she whines about just wanting to be loved, tries to guilt Woody into staying with them, and needs to be rescued in the final chase sequence—I kinda sorta hated her in this movie. Luckily, all three new characters will redeem themselves in Toy Story 3.
X Chromosome Score: 2

Monsters, Inc. (2001). On its surface, this is an innocuous male buddy picture similar to Toy Story. However, on closer inspection, the plot and presentation of the female characters is somewhat concerning. Basically, we see two men who can’t handle it when a little girl invades their very masculine world. Boo barely speaks, but is viewed as toxic and a danger. The two most prominent women at the factory are Celia Mae (Jennifer Tilly), who manages to fill both the stereotypical role of “receptionist” and “clueless girlfriend” and is literally a Gorgon, and Roz, a raspy bureaucratic slug who, on top of everything, is voiced by a man (Bob Peterson)! So, although most of the characters are monsters, not human, and could have been voiced by anyone, even one of the female voices isn’t a female actor. Sigh.
X Chromosome Score: 1

Finding Nemo (2003). While Finding Nemo doesn’t technically pass the Bechdel test, it does at least have a number of memorable female characters, notably Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), who accompanies Marlin on his quest to find Nemo, as well as Peach (Allison Janney) and Deb (Vicki Lewis), who live in the dentist’s fish tank. It also features two male caregivers, with Marlin the clownfish and Crush the sea turtle, which is all too rare in Hollywood. While one might argue that Dory’s character is somewhat problematic, she is the heart and soul of this film. The non-traditional heroine and non-traditional families bump this one slightly up the X chromosome scale.
X Chromosome Score: 3

The Incredibles (2004). Although The Incredibles relies on plenty of gendered stereotypes, all four (!!) main female characters—Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Edna (Brad Bird), Violet (Sarah Vowell), and Mirage (Elizabeth Peña)—are portrayed as very capable and able to hold their own. Despite subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, reinforcing patriarchal roles throughout the film, this movie gets mucho points for finally giving some kick-ass women equal time. And I love Edna, even though she is voiced by a man, instead of Lily Tomlin as planned.
X Chromosome Score: 4

“My God, PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER!!!” Preach, Edna.

Cars (2006). Like the original Toy Story, Cars is not particularly sexist, but very much a “boy” story and a boy’s world. Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt)  is really only here as a love interest for Lightning McQueen, but, hey, at least she’s a lawyer. And, unlike Toy Story, Cars does pass the Bechdel test, but only by a hair, in the courtroom scene. In short, another male friendship movie from Pixar. Yawn.
X Chromosome Score: 2

Ratatouille (2007). Despite a great speech from Colette (Janeane Garofalo) about sexism in the restaurant industry, this movie fails the Bechdel Test in a big way. Even taking into consideration that a restaurant kitchen is a very masculine world, couldn’t they at least have made Émile be Rémy’s sister instead of brother? Or, say, featured the woman critic shown early on in the film, instead of the male Anton Ego? Heck, make Rémy the rat female—now that would have been truly groundbreaking and a great allegory for the difficulties female chefs have had trying to break into the industry.
X Chromosome Score: 1

WALL*E (2008). Rewatching WALL*E, I realized what a frightening depiction of women it presents. It’s every tech bro’s nightmare about women come to life. The first section on Earth, which is generally the only part of this film people praise, shows us a lonely collector guy whose world is turned upside down when a women arrives. WALL*E falls in love with the cold, virginal white EVE at first sight, and then basically stalks her while she does her job. When he finally gets her to his home, she proceeds to destroy his things just by being herself and reacting as programmed, then, once he gives her what she wants (the plant), she shuts down completely and eventually leaves him. He doesn’t even say her name right! Still, there is no arguing that EVE is capable, strong, and takes charge, which is somewhat redeeming.
X Chromosome Score: 2

No, WALL*E's portrayal of women isn't problematic at all.

No, WALL*E‘s portrayal of women isn’t problematic at all.

Up (2009). Let’s see, death of female partner or relation as plot device? Check. Almost complete absence of female voice actors? Check. Needless to say, Up fails Bechdel in a major way. How telling is it that young Russell doesn’t even realize the bird is female! And I hate, hate, hate the miscarriage. It’s totally not related to the plot and makes me feel like they had to explain why they didn’t have kids. Ugh.
X Chromosome Score: 1

Toy Story 3 (2010). Yay, finally a Toy Story movie that passes the Bechdel Test! Well, barely. But there are far more female characters in this outing, so that was a refreshing change. Also, the characters of Jessie, Barbie, and even Mrs. Potato Head, somewhat redeem themselves after Toy Story 2. I can’t quite decide how I feel about Ken’s representation. On the one hand, he helps break the gender binary, but on the other hand, how much are we supposed to be laughing at him and what he represents? Still, he’s an extremely progressive character for a Pixar film. Also, notice that both children who “cruelly” abandoned their toys in Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 are girls.
X Chromosome Score: 3

Brave (2012). While I thought the characters in Brave were rather flat, it is great to finally see Pixar put women front and center. Sure, one of them turns into a “godless killing machine” (™ Stephen Colbert), but this film deals fairly well with the expectations and constraints put upon women, by both society and family. I also liked the all-too-rare depiction of the mother-daughter relationship and that, although Merida is shown to be courageous and an excellent archer, ultimately it is diplomacy and repairing what is broken that wins the day, not violence or might.
X Chromosome Score: 5

Merida takes aim at the patriarchy in Brave.

Merida takes aim at the patriarchy in Brave.

Inside Out (2015). I’ve already expressed my thoughts on the sexism of Inside Out, especially the fact that Pixar tries to make Riley’s character as boy-friendly as possible. (Really, you could make Riley a male character with hardly any changes.) Furthermore, the protagonist, Joy, is like a manic bridezilla. I’ve seen commentary to the effect that Inside Out represents the societal pressures on women to be happy all the time and, well, okay, but then perhaps as long as they were making some of Riley’s emotions male they should have chosen Joy, the alpha control freak, to be a man. That could have turned this film into a great statement on the patriarchy. But, instead we get another frightening Pixar view of women—empty vessels guided by emotions they can’t control and don’t even understand.
X Chromosome Score:  2

For my complete Pixar rankings, see Ranking Pixar, or, Let the Arguments Begin.


* To pass the Bechdel Test, a movie needs to have 1) at least two women in it, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something besides a man.

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