‘Inside Out’ and Pixar’s Girl Problem

For a company that's so smart and artistically oriented, Pixar's treatment of women has been rather shabby. With Inside Out, however, things could be looking up for the animation studio.

Pixar has a problem. No, it’s not one of popularity. Just this past weekend, the latest release for the critically acclaimed animation house, the terrific emotional rollercoaster masterpiece known as Inside Out, scored a measly $91 million at the box office. The studio’s Toy Story 3 is even a member of the Billion Dollar Club, sitting somewhere between two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels at $1.06 billion.

It’s not one of aesthetics, either. While Pixar’s recent regression in to blatant sequel-itis delivered a pair of duds (Cars 2 and Monsters University), the rest of its canon sits on 12 Oscars (eight of which were wins for the equivalent of Best Picture) and hundreds of other group and guild accolades. No other company, aside from parent host Disney, has done such an amazing job of turning its vision into viable awards season fodder.

Yet, we still have the aforementioned issue, and it’s an obvious one. Looking over its output since 1995, Pixar has a problem with girls. Of the 15 films it has made in that time, only two feature a female lead. Now, most fans know that animation is driven by dudes. While its infancy was begat by a woman (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves) and pushed past business model issues by another group of lovely ladies (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland), many have gotten the idea that a cartoon can’t be successful without a strong male lead. One must guess that late ’80s Disney renaissance, all thanks to The Little Mermaid and Belle of Beauty and the Beast, is meaningless.

Still, over the course of time, Pixar has learned that boys are better at bringing the viewers to the box office. Even when Pixar added a defiant female cowgirl to the Toy Story mix, the narrative remains solidly fixed on Woody, Buzz, and their aging adolescent human buddy, Andy. Nemo of Finding fame is a boy, and is sought out by his devoted fish father. Yes, we get comic relief from TV staple Ellen DeGeneres, but until the Finding Dory sequel, she’s still a sidekick. In fact, all throughout Pixar’s preoccupation with all things magical, it’s made men (or males) their primary lead.

Lightning McQueen. Tow-Mater. Mike and Sulley. Alfredo Linguini and Little Chef Remy. Wall-E. Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible. Carl Fredricksen and his Cub Scout pal Russell. Even A Bug’s Life focuses on Flik and the villainous Hopper. Unless you look further down the credits, past other male co-stars and voices, you’ll rarely see a woman. Up is comprised completely of guys; the only woman in the picture is killed off ten minutes in. Ratatouille adds Colette Tatou (Janeane Garofalo) as a love interest for her less-than-skilled novice cook boyfriend. Argue all you want for EVE, Mrs. Incredible/ Helen Parr, and little Boo, but they add to the story, they don’t carry it.

No, the only time prior to Inside Out‘s amazing trip through the pre-adolescent mind where a woman or girl was given top billing was Brave, a film that divides Pixar’s fans to this day. Some love it. Others loathe it. A few read the internet’s investigation into the production and sigh over what could have been. While still popular (and winner of one of those coveted Oscars), Brave is seen as a letdown, a chance for the company to treat females with the same respect and reverence as males, and failing outright, in the view of some.

As mentioned before, Disney’s been very good at taking both sides of the storyline when it comes to gender. In fact, its biggest hit, in the history of the company, is a little phenomenon called Frozen, which currently sits at number seven all time. True, it was another film that dealt with such “First World problems” as Princesses in peril, but no one at the House of Mouse is dismissing that kind of global response. The problem for Pixar is that it’s perceived as being anti-female, when all it really can be blamed for is repeating itself a bit too often. Indeed, take the sequels out of the mix, and the company has made ten movies. Granted, only ten percent had a female lead, but with the addition of Inside Out, we can raise that percentage to 18 percent.

Better still, Inside Out‘s message, and what it means to developing young women everywhere, is the evolutionary move Pixar’s problem needed. This is a film about emotion, about how your mind places its various feelings into proper perspective, resulting in a personality that works. Our lead is a likable little girl trying to figure out the trauma of a family move. While we see visualization of her various feelings — anger, sadness, joy — we also get insight into how the brain functions. It’s all about creating memories, leaving behind the bad while cherishing the good, and realizing there can be a bit of both involved.

This plot is heady stuff (forgive the pun), and it’s made even more intriguing by the use of female characters for the main internal struggles (Joy, Sadness, Disgust) while leaving others (Anger, Fear) as guys. The incidents may be driven by a universal knowledge of childhood, but there are girl-oriented elements everywhere, from the notion of playing sports, to being embarrassed in front of your classmates. The former is seen as something a little lady “grows out of”. The latter is a sore spot in gender circles: boys are supposed to laugh it off, while girls must somehow be “saved” from this feeling, for some reason. There’s a complicated universe going on inside Inside Out, one that argues for the company’s increased attention to the details of women and girls’ lives.

Of course, if you move inside to a place behind the scenes, things get dicey again. Brenda Chapman saw her take on Brave reconfigured in order to “save” it — at least she was included when it came time to pick up some Academy gold. The funny thing here is that Inside Out is the work of two men: Peter Docter, whose worked on everything at Pixar from Toy Story to Monsters University, and Ronnie del Carmen, a writer with similar company credits. If anything supports the public perception of one big boys club, it’s this.

Still, Inside Out is a step in the right direction. It’s not a nominal nod, like having a sexy leather clad assassin as part of your superhero collective. It’s also not pure patronizing, reducing all things female into a series of sugars and spices and things nice. Perhaps they could let their owners in for a few creative meetings. One of Disney’s best creations, Wreck-It Ralph, has a strong male lead and an even stronger female one. The result is a mini-masterpiece filled with video game goodness and a lot of heart. Inside Out is a good start, Pixar. It doesn’t cure your “girl” problem outright, but will go a long way to proving you’re not just some male member’s only club.