When it comes to modern storytelling in animated films for children out of Hollywood, Pixar is at the top of the field. In fact, The Good Dinosaur, released late 2015, might be their very first lemon, depending on what you’re looking for in a film for children.
What happened there? Interestingly, Christopher Orr of The Atlantic felt that perhaps The Good Dinosaur hasn’t been well received by adults because it is Pixar’s first film to explicitly target children (rather than doing the usual ‘dual audience’ thing), which leads me to my main point, as encapsulated by Roberta Trites (Illinois State University) in her book Literary Conceptualizations of Growth:
Disney has a long tradition of appealing to a dual audience. In Disney’s major releases, the story frequently includes adults who need to grow as much as adolescents do in a clear bid to pull parents into theatres along with their children.
This has lead to another shared feature of almost all of the Pixar films, unintended or otherwise: what Trites calls The Pixar Maturity Formula. It goes like this:
A mature female, who is coded as an adult, accepts responsibility for herself and for others. Even in the beginning of the movie, she can intuit how other people will react by anticipating their feelings and the relationship between cause and effect and […] she has a higher cognitive facility than the male characters around her do because she can accept death and control her sexuality.
Coates explains that Pixar characters can be easily divided into two distinct categories:
- Immature, insensitive, conflict-ridden, funny (and therefore very likeable)
- Mature characters (like parents/teachers — and therefore distanced from child)
Note that even though some Pixar protagonists are coded to look like adults, they don’t act like adults. So you can’t judge which are the ‘mature’ characters based on their onscreen age.
As you’ve probably worked out by now, characters from group 1 are pretty much always female, whereas characters from group 2 are pretty much always male.
THE EXAMPLE OF TOY STORY
- Immature characters: Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Hamm the Pig, Mr Potato Head, Rex the Dinosaur, Slinky Dog
- Mature character: Bo-Peep
(In Toy Story, other female characters exist but either never have their faces shown — e.g. mother — or only exist in their relationship to Andy — e.g. baby sister. These female characters can’t be classified.)
Toy Story is just one example.
The protagonists of The Incredibles, Monsters Inc. and Up are actually adult men. […] The Pixar maturity formula is a script that appears in most of [Pixar’s] films.
This female maturity formula can be interpreted as either a positive or as a negative for girls, and here a Tumblr user chooses to interpret the female maturity formula in Star Wars as a sign of general female strength.
The truth is, despite many in the audiences conflating ‘girl power’ with equality, gender equality in fiction will only happen when we see just as many flawed and weak female characters as there are flawed and weak male characters. We need to see equal numbers of female characters going through character arcs. In order for main characters to undergo full character arcs, they need to be the stars of the story. Character Arc, after all, is in the very definition of ‘hero’.
And if we’re to take the good parts of gender stereotyping (girls are mature), we’re obliged to accept the bad. The negative flip-side of this trope is summarised succinctly by Coates:
This cultural narrative ties into at least three conceptualisations that are salient to a cognitive study of growth in adolescent literature. First, the cultural narrative that women are more mature than men is predicated on the false assumption that women [are] already mature as a result of their ostensibly maternal nature. That is, since girls will presumably become mothers and care-givers, they are supposed to somehow automatically — almost magically — mature in order to nurture others. Second, if nurturance provides girls with an automatic route to their maturation, this cultural narrative falsely implies that females really have only one path to maturity: the predetermined path to parenthood. Third, this cultural narrative insinuates that male growth is more varied and interesting and thus deserves more attention and praise than female growth.
In fact, the female maturity formula can be seen all over the place, not just in Pixar films.
In fact, the worse example I’ve seen recently is a Dreamworks film starring Dakota Fanning, who as a child actor often got these ‘old soul in a young body’ type roles, this time in Dreamer (2005), which is about the emotional arc of her father, despite being marketed and ostensibly made for young girls. It’s difficult to imagine a young male audience being asked to sit through a movie length story about the emotional arc of a grown woman, in which most of the talking is done by the women, between women!
A film with a similar vibe to Dreamer was Reese Witherspoon’s debut as a young actress in a 1991 coming-of-age film called The Man In The Moon. 14-year-old Dani Trant is the youngest in years but repeatedly demonstrates better communication skills than the men in her life (her father and the attractive young man next door), probably due to evenings talking with her kind older sister. Dani tells the boy next door she loves him and he literally turns away. More problematically, her own father gives her a hiding with a belt for sneaking out one stormy night and it’s Dani who tells him she understands why he did it — he was just scared. The father literally gets out of the car and walks away without acknowledging the fact (probably to 2017 eyes) that he is grooming his daughter to be abused by men who love her. For girls, even in a coming-of-age story, the girl is so often emotionally articulate and self-aware from the get-go. ‘Coming-of-age’ in this sort of story simply means ‘falling in love for the first time’.
Carolyn Daniel in her book Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature notices the same thing I’m talking about here and puts it in these terms when writing about gross-out books aimed at boys:
It is my belief that the reading pleasures of girls and boys are often polarized along the axes of plaisir and jouissance respectively, just as…adult and child pleasures differ. The girl reader …takes up an ostensibly “adult” and accommodating stance in relation to the social order, while the boy is positioned as the “real” child.
It all started long long ago, with The Odyssey, and the loyal sidekick-wife of Odysseus, Penelope.
We’re now so used to this trope it’s hardly noticeable anymore. It’s especially prevalent in comedies, probably because male comics need a straight-‘man’, and most of the Pixar films are a mixture of ‘adventure + comedy’, after all.
Also, it’s not just a Pixar thing: In children’s animated films we also see The Female Maturity Formula in Sony Pictures’ Monster House.
This formula is very closely related to The Minority Feisty trope which itself came from The Smurfette Principle. We see it also in ParaNorman, produced by Laika. In fact, it’s almost a rule of comedy for children.
It comes from successful comedy for adults, of course.
The Female Maturity Formula In Comedy Series For Adults
The main characters of Black Books are Bernard, Manny and Fran. Each of these characters has major flaws — Fran is an alcohol-addicted, self-absorbed shopkeeper who ‘sells a lot of wank’ and is probably on the sociopathic spectrum. But when the boys need to learn a lesson, it’s Fran who sorts them out. Here the three of them stand, just after Bernard has fired Manny on his first day working at Black Books. Fran comes in to give Bernard a dressing down for being mean. The source of the comedy in this scene comes from Bernard’s behaving like a little boy and from Fran behaving like his mother.
Throughout The IT Crowd it is Jen who plays the motherly role to Moss and Roy. Like Fran in Black Books, Jen certainly has her own significant moral and psychological weaknesses, but she comes in handy as the mother figure when the male characters need to work something out. This is the overriding humorous dynamic that runs throughout the entirety of the series. It wouldn’t work if the genders were swapped. The IT Crowd often switches gender stereotypes around for laughs (as they do in this very scene, in fact, with Roy calling Moss his wife). Comedy needs stock gender roles in order to work in the first place.
The standout example of the Female Maturity Formula in American sit-coms would have to be the wife from Everybody Loves Raymond, whose long-suffering, eye-rolling wife plays the straight-man to Raymond’s antics.
This gender dynamic in American sit-coms is so common that comedian Louis C.K. satirised it in the first scene of season 2, episode 7 of Louie: Oh Louie!/Tickets.
In Futurama we have Turanga Leela:
[Leela] is one of the few characters in the cast to routinely display competence and the ability to command, and routinely saves the rest of the cast from disaster, but suffers extreme self-doubt because she has only one eye and grew up as a bullied orphan.
By the time Futurama came along, audiences were already used to this dynamic in The Simpsons, with Marge and Lisa being the sensible characters of the show.
The same dynamic happens in picture books, and those which conform to the rule seem more likely to be made into children’s television shows.
Old Tom is not the most congenial or mannerly cat, but his owner Angela Throgmorton loves him dearly. Even she will admit, however, that he’s been a bit of a pill lately. When she wins a vacation for one, Angela is pleased to inform Tom that he must stay home. She suggests he clean his room.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. In Seinfeld we saw equal opportunity Assholery. We need that in children’s films, too.