Gender Roles in Animated Films: Applying Feminist Film Theory to 'The Incredibles' and 'Princess Mononoke'
Movies people watch as children stick with them throughout their entire lives. These films attract the attention of their target audience and will shape them using the social cues the children observe from their favorite characters (Garabedian).
However, children aren’t the only ones watching and enjoying children’s movies. I personally can’t keep track of how many times I’ve watched Inside Out or Princess and the Frog. The movies we grow up with obviously create an impression on people that lasts into their adulthood. Many people can still remember at least a part of their favorite Disney, Pixar, or Studio Ghibli film as a child. The movies we watch as children largely shape our lives. Not only do they give a sense of nostalgia as people age, they shape the next generation's ideals.
And what kind of ideals are they shaping in children? What kind of dreams do these films create? How do they influence their imagination? What kind of message are they sending about women?
To answer this, let’s look at children’s animated films using the feminist lens.
Feminist Film Theory
According to Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, understanding scopophilia and fetishism is crucial in understanding the feminist lens, (Etherington). Scopophilia is Freudian jargon for taking pleasure in looking, while fetisism is defined as an object being the focus of sexual desire (Etherington).
Scopophilia by itself is evident in much of the character designs of Pixar and Disney female characters. The majority of them share a trifecta of traits: big eyes, rounded chins, and button noses. These give them a childish appearance.
Lady Eboshi and the Women of Irontown
The trifecta isn’t strictly adhered to in the designs of San, Lady Eboshi, or the women in Irontown in Princess Mononoke as none of them have button noses nor large eyes.
Wolf Goddess Moro
Not even the wolf goddess Moro follows the trifecta, making Studio Ghibli’s female animal portrayal very distinct from Disney’s in Princess and the Frog. While they are both in frog-form, Tiana is slender and looks like she has mascara on her eyelashes, unlike her male counterpart Naveen.
Tiana and Naveen In Frog Form
In contrast to Princess Mononoke, The Incredibles has the majority of the main female characters (every major female excluding Edna) follow all three features of the pleasing-to-the-eye trifecta, in addition to Helen and Mirage's more suggestive designs.
In these aspects of the female characters’ designs, fetishism is evident. According to Mulvey, the camera has a male gaze, since most directors are male, and the combination of this male gaze and the fetishistic way the women are portrayed creates a “sexual imbalance” (Etherington).
There are times where this sexual imbalance is exploited in The Incredibles, like when Helen self-consciously checks herself out for the audience to see. Brad Bird, the writer/director of the Incredibles, said in his commentary of the movie, he "always see women being hypercritical of their bodies. Most men are just 'Hey, you look great... You’re a woman.'"
From the Fantastic to the Familiar
The sexual imbalance splits roles into the male active role and the passive female role. After the superheroes go into hiding for 15 years, Helen and Bob shift back into domestically. Before this shift, Helen is the one of the pair who is most adamant about maintaining her superhero role. Before superheroes go in hiding, she says one of her most signature lines:
“Settle down, are you kidding? I’m at the top of my game. I’m right up there with the big dogs. Girls, come on, leave the saving the world for men? I don’t think so."
However, when they step into domesticity, Helen transitions into this new role more easily than Bob; as Bob is filled with nostalgia about the golden days, Helen is efficiently taking care of Jack-Jack, dealing with discipline issues with Dash, and with Violet’s teenage angst. Helen acts as the passive housewife while Bob gradually returns to superhero work.
However, it is important to note that even in this role, there is effort to portray her as equal to Bob. While Bob and Helen are arguing, Helen stretches herself upward to Bob’s height to visually portray their equality, despite Bob’s greater height and muscles.
In the director's commentary, Bird explains his reasoning:
"Bob is so much bigger than Elastigirl, and it felt almost like, you know, spousal abuse or something like that. And I thought, well, wait a minute. I don’t have to change the scene. Mom is his equal-and so if she just uses her stretching to become physically- to say 'I will stand up to you.'"
Female Leaders in Princess Mononoke
The two human societies in Princess Mononoke are led by women: Lady Eboshi in Irontown and The Wise Woman in the Emishi Village. In each location, these female leaders are looked up to for guidance and their authority is respected. The Emishi people look to the Wise Woman to help them understand the curse Ashitaka has because of his contact with the demon.
In Irontown, the people depend on Lady Eboshi to protect them. In the animal world, the goddess Moro leads the wolves in the forest. It’s important to note that wolves are typically masculine in Japanese myths.
Inside the Irontown society, all of the women were previously prostitutes, a job sexually serving men and an obvious goldmine for utilizing fetishism and scopophilia in female portrayal. However, unlike the ones in The Incredibles, these women are not portrayed in a fetishitic manner at all; they are shown multiple times to be even more capable than their male counterparts. For example, while Lady Eboshi and the men leave Irontown to fight the boars, the women arm themselves and defend their home from invaders wanting to steal Irontown's resources from them.
Disney's Passive Princesses
Princess Mononoke is unlike Disney, who is very in lined with the passive female and active male roles outlined by Mulvey when it comes to their princesses and princes. Time and time again, the princess has to be rescued by the prince. In Sleeping Beauty, the prince has to fight Maleficient and save the princess Aurora. In Aladdin, the title character defeats Jafar and saves the princess Jasmine from arranged marriage. Even Tiana from Princess and the Frog, one of the characters I looked up to as a child, has to depend on her prince Naveen to achieve her dream of opening a restaurant.
In contrast to traditional Disney princesses, Princess Mononoke doesn't live in a castle and wait for Prince Charming; she’s a lean, mean, human fighting machine.
Although she calls herself San, the Irontown residents know her as Princess Mononoke. “Mononoke” translates to “spirit of a thing" (Toyama). Her name itself portrays the separation San has from humans; she’s more connected to the spirits and the forest. With this connection, it only makes sense for her to side with the forest in the conflict between the forest and the humans.
San’s goal is to save the forest, and she fights with Lady Eboshi and her men without assistance from Ashitaka on multiple occasions in order to do so.
Adults remember the films they watched as children, including the subtle messages concerning the roles of each sex. While Disney films mostly reiterate stereotypical gender roles throughout their movies, Studio Ghibli in Princess Mononoke create strong female characters that aren’t in need of being saved by men at all, aren’t in typical domestic roles, and don’t follow the trifecta of rounded chins, huge eyes, and a button nose. Young girls growing up watching Disney films will absorb the message that they must passively wait and be saved by their knight in shining armor while Studio Ghibli films will show these little girls women can actively write their own destinies.
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© 2018 Christina Garvis