As I mentioned in my last post, two companies flourished during Disney’s struggles post Disney Renaissance. One was Pixar, who couldn’t completely celebrate the fall of Disney as they were tied to Disney for distribution. The other was DreamWorks Animation SKG.
For some history on the rivalry between Disney and DreamWorks, check out the Nostalgia Chick’s two-part video on the subject.
[blip.tv http://blip.tv/play/AYKVjG4C.x?p=1 width=”720″ height=”433″]
[blip.tv http://blip.tv/play/AYKXm0MC.x?p=1 width=”720″ height=”433″]
One aspect of this rivalry not really covered in these videos is that DreamWorks’s goal to be the anti-Disney seems to have extended to their depictions of female characters. As far as I can tell, there’s no established cutesy name for DreamWorks’s female characters, so I’m going to call them SKG’s (the DreamWorks abbreviation that stands for founders Spielberg, Katzenberg, and Geffen) SFCs (Strong Female Characters).
Yes, it’s the return of the Strong Female Character, hereafter referred to as the SFC! I discussed SFCs in a previous post. In that post, I listed a DreamWorks character, Tigress from Kung Fu Panda, as one of my favorite SFCs, but I also made a side comment that I continue to be fascinated by DreamWorks female characters who are often strong, capable, and highly skilled, yet are almost never the main characters and often spend their movies supporting a male character or being upstaged by him.
So, what do we make of this habit, and how does that compare to Disney’s Princesses?
DreamWorks Animation SKG came along at the end of the Disney Renaissance; their first movie (Antz) was released in 1998 and was a…not very subtle message sent to Disney who distributed Pixar’s A Bug’s Life that same year. Yet, though DreamWorks Animation began its existence with a shot across Disney’s bow, they did make at least one movie Disney would never make. Their second movie, released only a few months after Antz was the Prince of Egypt. There are many elements of Prince of Egypt that you’d find in many a Disney film: it’s a musical; the main character is kind of a screwup; it’s appropriates and changes an existing story; the animation is stunning; and the technology seems to have been top notch. However, Disney is far too concerned with their image these days to try to directly take on Biblical stories. The closest they’ve come is Hunchback of Notre Dame, and I often suspect Disney sees that film as a mistake.
While I love Hunchback, a movie that was my first real exposure to religion and has thus always influenced my views on what a religion should do (see “God Help the Outcasts”), I sometimes feel Prince of Egypt is the movie Hunchback could have been were it not encumbered by Disney’s attempts to please everyone and attempts to pander to kids with annoying side characters. Prince of Egypt take more risks (though they still felt the need to include comic relief characters in the form of the two priests), and I feel it’s a better movie because of those risks. (As an aside, one of the directors of Prince of Egypt was Brenda Chapman, the woman who was replaced as the director of Brave).
Prince of Egypt also introduces us to some of the first memorable SKG SFCs, Miriam and Tzipporah (voiced by Sandra Bullock and Michelle Pfeiffer respectively). Now, these two characters are not exactly the center of the film, but they do play important roles. Miriam, Moses’ sister, is the catalyst for the young, irresponsible prince to change as she reveals his true identity. She also gives him the pep talk he needs to keep going. Tzipporah is, perhaps, less integral. But she is strong-willed, brave, and loyal. While these two characters don’t talk during the film, they do have an awesome, award-winning musical number together.
(I couldn’t find a version of the actual scene that wasn’t a fan dub)
Prince of Egypt, however, does not center on these two women. In fact, the only DreamWorks Animation movies (aside from Chicken Run, which was made by Aardman Animation) that center on female characters are Monsters vs Aliens (2009) and The Croods (2013). Interestingly, in both of these films, the female main characters do not fit into the SKG SFC model. They are naive, inexperienced, and their stories are dominated by male characters who, in the case of Monsters vs Aliens, are more interesting and, in the case of The Croods, have the more compelling story arcs.
Susan, the fifty foot tall woman from Monsters vs Aliens, is a caricature of a weak doormat for much of her film as she spends her time repeatedly mooning over her jerk of a fiancé. While I imagine this was intended to make her transformation into an independent SFC at the end of the movie more compelling, (for me at least) it makes Susan a less interesting, even annoying character. Susan may take a turn toward the awesome at the end of the movie, but, until then, I find the army of side characters (all of them male) much more entertaining. I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea of this character’s story arc so much as I am irritated by its execution. Others are free to disagree. Eep from The Croods is physically strong, but she spends too much time in her movie mooning over the cute boy to really fit the SFC model. She does have more reason to be naive than Susan, but her story isn’t really the center of her film. Instead, it’s her father’s. He’s the one who shows the most growth.
Contrast this reluctance to feature women as main characters with Disney which frequently features female protagonists in its features, even in movies like Lilo and Stich which aren’t part of the Disney Princess model. Now, of course, Disney has had a much, much longer history and many more animated films, but I still find the lack of women-centered DreamWorks movies a bit disappointing.
So, if SKG SFCs aren’t the main characters in these movies, who are they? Well, the answer in most cases is that they’re love interests. Perhaps as part of their early quest to be the anti-Disney, DreamWorks likes to take the stereotypical Disney prince/princess relationship and flip it. Now, instead of damsels in distress being saved by their more capable/active male love interests, DreamWorks has goofy male leads who have as/more capable female love interests. This works better in some movies compared to others.
Another earlier DreamWorks animated movie, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003) is an oft forgot film. The film has a few issues, (such as hilariously contrived elements and plot holes) including a somewhat forced SFC. Marina, who is an ambassador (I think DreamWorks was going for “Like-A-Princess-But-With-A-Job”), wants “adventure in the great wide somewheeeeeere!” (sorry, wrong movie).
In order to make sure Sinbad fulfills his mission, Marina stows aboard Sinbad’s ship and joins the all male crew. Sinbad is sexist, the men worship her, and she somehow knows absolutely everything about sailing, fighting, and general bad-assery without any established backstory explaining such skills. Oh, and even though they spend a good portion of the movie yelling at each other, they fall in love. (This is another trope DreamWorks loves to exploit with SKG SFCs.)
Guess how the movie ends. No, seriously, before you watch the clip or read ahead, those of you who don’t know/remember, guess how this film ends.
Were you not shocked? She’ll protect him! Oh, clearly she is a Strong Female Character! How progressive you are, DreamWorks Animation SKG!
Of course, Sinbad could never, ever approach the level of self-congratulation for subverting typical gender roles that we find in DreamWorks’s biggest franchise, Shrek. (Note: Before I move on, I will say that I don’t completely hate Shrek, and find the movies quite fun. My issue is with how self-congratulatory these movies can be.)
Back in my original post about SFCs, I quoted an article critical of of SFCs that made a passing reference to Princess Fiona, the love interest in the Shrek movies.
I remember watching Shrek with my mother.
“The Princess knew kung-fu! That was nice,” I said. And yet I had a vague sense of unease, a sense that I was saying it because it was what I was supposed to say.
She rolled her eyes. “All the princesses know kung-fu now.”
Sophia McDougall “I Hate Strong Female Characters”
The Shrek franchise, as DreamWorks’s ultimate anti-Disney film, is very satisfied with itself for how subversive it is. A large focus of that so-called subversion is the franchise’s treatment of female characters, especially princesses. Just look at this commercial for Shrek the Third.
“It’s not all crowns and gowns anymore.”
At the time, I really fell for this concept. I was a teenager who had not yet developed an appreciation for the nuances of Disney Princess movies. Now, however, I find this commercial irritating.
For one, this movie came out in 2007 when a butt-kicking princess wasn’t all that unusual. Six years before, the first Shrek essentially made this same point. Even before Shrek, Disney Princesses, in the movies at least, had moved away from the damsel-in-distress, and weren’t all that sparkly. That the advertisement is patting itself on the back at all is also off-putting. (You’ll note this is a similar beef to the one I had with the advertising for Frozen.)
Sincerity is something DreamWorks did find again in its films post-Shrek the Third. In this time, DreamWorks began making movies that, as the Nostalgia Chick describes, demonstrate “nerdy genre love.”
Within this period, the SKG SFC kept going strong, but became a little more nuanced. SFCs no longer had unexplained abilities like Marina, nor are these movies overwhelmingly smug and snarky. (Well, they’re all a little snarky. That’s part of DreamWorks’s current MO.) Of the movies made in during this period, the ones that have, in my opinion, the most definitive examples of the SKG SFC are the Kung Fu Panda movies (2008, 2011), How to Train Your Dragon (2010), and Megamind (2010). These movies, while being my personal favorite DreamWorks films, are the also ones that first brought the SKG SFC to my attention.
In all four of these films, a strong, independent, intelligent, strong-minded female character plays a supporting role to a goofy, clumsy screw up of a main male character.
They all also have to be saved by the guy at some point.
Now, the fact that all of these SFCs need to be saved doesn’t bother me as much as it could. Both Astrid (How to Train Your Dragon) and Tigress (at least in Kung Fu Panda 2) play their parts in helping/saving the male character at some point. Roxanne’s (Megamind) fall into damseldom is a bit more obvious and disappointing, but I understand its purpose in creating the parallel narrative. I don’t really like it, but it’s a logical narrative decision.
Out of the three, Roxanne Ritchi is the least obvious SKG SFC in that she is not literally a warrior like the other two. She is, however, clearly the most intelligent person in the movie (Megamind’s good at inventing things, but clueless about pretty much everything else), and she is brave, kind, and caring. Most importantly, she’s sassy.
Roxanne is actually pretty awesome through most of the film, which is what makes her role at the end, being tied up and in need of rescuing, disappointing. Of course, the movie isn’t about her; it’s about Megamind. Her role is to help him become a hero (spoiler alert, I guess). Part of me wonders what the movie would have been like if Roxanne were the main character. What if we focused on the poor Lois-Lane-stand-in character as she tries to deal with being stuck between these two lunkheads in their battles between good and evil? That could be fun.
As another aside, if you haven’t seen it, checkout Megamind. It’s truly underrated, and so much better than Despicable Me.
Out of all DreamWorks Animation female characters, however, I think none so completely represent what I see as the SKG SFC as Astrid and Tigress. The exception might be Fiona, but these two characters aren’t meant to be parodies or direct reactions to the Disney Princess stereotype. DreamWorks plays these characters pretty straight.
Tigress and Astrid were the characters that first drew me to examine DreamWorks Animation’s depictions of female characters as their story-lines in Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon were eerily similar. In both movies, these characters are the undisputed best in their disciplines. Tigress is the unofficial leader of the Furious Five and Astrid is clearly the best future dragon killer. Both have become prominent in their fields as a result of dedication and hard work that comes not just from wanting to be the best, but mores from an utter belief in the importance what they’re doing.
And both have to watch as some goof-ball klutz who doesn’t seem to take anything seriously comes in from out of nowhere to outshine them and steal their life goals directly out from under them.
Because of this last little detail, both Tigress and Astrid spend their first movies understandably frustrated and angry with the male leads until the point when, as movie conventions would suggest, they give up their animosity to acknowledge the unquestionable awesomeness that is the male lead.
Now, before I move on, I’d like to say that this is not a new trope in movies and other entertainment. There are many movies where the new guy has to come in and prove himself to the established group and earn their respect even if they resent his success. What’s more recent, and what stands out strongly in the DreamWorks Animation movies is the established group being led by female characters.
While both Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon have this trope, it is, surprisingly, How to Train Your Dragon (HTTYD) that executes it the poorest. I say “surprisingly” because most people I know tend to hold HTTYD as the ultimate achievement among DreamWorks Animation movies, the only one that can stand up to Disney. However, the characterization of Astrid is one area where I’ve seen criticism and understandably so. One reason Astrid tends to fall flat can actually be attributed to HTTYD’s less contrived narrative. While Po in Kung Fu Panda initially becomes the Dragon Warrior out of little to no merit of his own, Hiccup actually does earn his position at the head of the dragon training class. The entire movie consists of him studying dragons and learning how to relate to and interact with them. This, in turn, makes Astrid’s rage less justifiable to the viewers (though, we should note that she doesn’t know what’s going on).
The fact that Hiccup works harder and demonstrates more skill than Po, however, is not the main issue that people find with Astrid’s narrative. No, the real problem people have is that, unlike Tigress, Astrid is a love interest. Actually, it’s not just that she’s a love interest, but rather how quickly she goes from rival/sort-of-antagonist to love interest. Roxanne might justifiably hate Megamind for most of the movie, but their love story is actually developed throughout the movie as the two begin a relationship while Megamind is in disguise. There is no such buildup in HTTYD. I think the turning point is best described by this fan vid:
After that scene, dubbed the “romantic flight” Astrid is 100% on Hiccup’s side. And she kisses him a few times. Now, I may not be as fervently opposed to this plot line as others I’ve seen online (mostly on tumblr. of course), as I think there’s a lot of nuance that sets up Astrid’s feelings as not complete animosity toward Hiccup from the beginning. (I’m not going to talk about the whole “Astrid is abusive” thing, because I’m pretty sure it’s established by the universe in which the movie is set that the Vikings are a culturally physical/violent people.) However, the turn still comes off as abrupt, and the nuances throughout the film were a little too nuanced, so Astrid seems weaker as a character.
Contrast this with the first Kung Fu Panda. The movie’s most forced narrative is really Po’s transformation from fat geek to Kung Fu warrior, rather than a forced romantic relationship. Tigress exists as more than a reward for Po, and she even has her own mini-story arc when she tries to take on the bad guy by herself. In fact, the most important relationship she has in the movie is really the relationship she has with Master Shifu the man who raised her and whose approval she desires. It is a little sad, then, that she doesn’t get quite as much of a resolution as she could (though there is a really cute image toward the end of the credit of Tigress and Shifu having fun eating noodles).
Of course, both Astrid and Tigress will always be limited by the simple truth that the movies they’re in aren’t about them but about the doofy, dorky male characters. The roles of the female characters is therefore largely dictated by the desires and needs of the male characters. Hiccup states from the beginning that he wants respect and a girl friend. Clearly, he wants that girlfriend to be Astrid based on his ogling of her “cool guys don’t look at explosions” introduction.
So, Hiccup gets respect and Astrid, though not in the way he thought he would.
Po also wants respect, but mostly he just wants to have friends and hang out with the Furious Five. Does he maybe have a crush on Tigress? Sure, but it’s not explicit, so her affections aren’t one of his congratulatory prizes awarded by the conventions of the movie plot when Po beats the bad guy.
So, while Hiccup gets this:
Po gets this:
Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon, and Megamind all feature strong capable women who have an antagonistic relationship with a male leading character but eventually come around to support him. Each movie has its own successes and failures within this narrative, but the overwhelming similarity is that smart, tough, dedicated, talented female characters are stuck playing second-fiddle to goofy, childish male characters who don’t take life all too seriously and seemingly luck their ways into getting what they want.
So, if I have a problem with that narrative, why do I like the HTTYD animated series, Riders/Defenders of Berk, and Kung Fu Panda 2? Both still feature the women playing second fiddle to the guys.
Well, I guess it comes down to a few things. First, both the series and and movie provide a greater chance to give the female characters depth. Kung Fu Panda 2 is still most definitely Po’s story, but Tigress plays a much bigger role and gets to demonstrate some true character depth. What was respect in the first movie has grown to a true friendship, and it is one of the best parts of Kung Fu Panda 2, which I will gladly argue is one of the best sequels out there. The same is largely true for the HTTYD animated series where Astrid takes the role of Hiccup’s second in command as they and the other teens from the movie learn about dragons and defend Berk from enemy forces. Interestingly, the animated series has rolled back on Astrid’s and Hiccup’s relationship. There have been signs of affection, but the characters aren’t exactly going steady (as far as I can tell).
What I like about both of these continuations are the evolutions of relationships. I like seeing women and men in friendships, and I definitely prefer such relationships to jealousy-driven animosity (however justified). There’s not enough entertainment out there where men and women (or male pandas and tigresses) can support each other without every interaction leading to romance or without some sort of animosity. We set up these “boys vs girls” competitions pretty much from birth in our culture, and it’s nice to see when that division is challenged.
So, Disney Princesses vs SKG SFCs, who wins? Well, for now, I think Disney has the upper hand. They are still (and perhaps will always be) a much bigger cultural force than DreamWorks and, by featuring a greater number of female protagonists, they have shown a greater overall depth and nuance in their depictions of female characters. However, I wouldn’t count DreamWorks Animation out just yet. As much as I’ve picked apart some of these female characters, I really do enjoy them, and I have faith that DreamWorks could make a really strong female-led movie if they chose to. I also think DreamWorks might be leading Disney in characters that really could go either way gender-wise. Would it have made any difference if Tigress had been Tiger? Then again, I don’t the narrative of Frozen would have been all that different if Elsa and Anna were Elias and Adam (or whatever we’ve decided the gender-swapped names are).
In the end, all we can really hope for is that, some day, female characters can become just characters who aren’t forced into stereotypes or to play certain roles just because they were born with an extra X chromosome.
And, if I were to address this to anyone working for Disney or DreamWorks, I’d say keep trying. Keep thinking of new ways to incorporate a wider variety of women and girls in your movies. Don’t worry that boys won’t go see a movie about a girl main character. I think the past year of blockbusters with girl main characters has proven that false.
So, here are your marching orders Disney and DreamWorks: Go out into the world and find women who don’t fit the nice molds you’ve created. Maybe they’re a race or ethnicity you haven’t represented before. Maybe they’re overweight or don’t fit the conventional standards of beauty. Maybe they’re not able-bodied. Maybe they’re not straight or cisgender. Maybe they aren’t sassy, or sweet, or know kung fu, or are interested in finding true love. These women are out there right now, and they have amazing stories just waiting to be told, and I have faith (because I’m an optimist at heart) that your companies can, with thought and understanding, be the ones who tell these stories.
Just remember that “thought and understanding” part, okay? Especially you, Disney.