Sunday, July 1, 2012

FEMINIST ANIMATION: A Short List of Female Friendly Animation for Children and Adults

Merida in Pixar's BRAVE
I recently had the pleasure of seeing PIXAR's newest blockbusting feature, BRAVE, which was one of the rare movies to both meet and exceed my expecations.  Unfortunately, critical response has been not just underwhelming, but disappointing...what's not to like?  The humor is smart, the animation is gorgeous, the action is thrilling, and the themes are universal and cut deep (anyone who loves their mother would have to be a cold-hearted robot to not be moved to tears by the films resolution).  Most importantly, though, is that the film features a truely stong female protagonist in a movie that can entertain ANYONE.  This isn't a film for girls, it's a film with a girl in the LEAD that anyone can watch and feel inspired by (I certainly was).

That said, I do not want to undercut how important I think it is that Merida is a hero for young girls (and women in general).  Girls need heroes too, in the same way that boys do.  My moral compass was shaped more by my childhood heroes than by religion or anything I learned in school.  HE-MAN and GI JOE had as much influence on me as a person as my parents did.  There's a line DMX once wrote that sums up what I took away from my childhood heroes, "The true measure of a man is not measured by what he does for himself, but what he does for someone else, and if you help another without concern for reward of gold, what you give you shall recieve ten-fold."  This is the kind of thing our heroes teach us, and in most cases, our heroes are people we either identify with, or project onto.  A childhood hero is either someone you see yourself reflected in, or someone you wish you could be.  That's not to say that it's impossible to identify with someone of the opposite sex, but it certainly is easier.

I am a lifelong fan of animation.  I love it; cartoons, anime, CGI, whatever; if it's animated, I'll watch it.  I've been an adult for a long time, and I still tend to enjoy animated shows and movies more than I do any other type of media, and thinking back onto my childhood, I found a lot of female role models that helped to shape my life, and even as an adult, I still tend to gravitate towards female protagonists.  I will admit that part of it is because I am a man who is attracted to a strong woman; strong physically and strong in personality; but there is also something about a female protagonist that appeals from a storytelling perspective in a way that a male protagonist does not.

The burden placed on men is that you have to be strong and deny emotion; to feel too deeply is 'girly.'  This is limiting and often leads to rather one-note characters and monotonous narratives where the stakes are very simple and goal oriented; all the hero has to do is kill one guy or blow some @#$% up.  That's not to say that there aren't male protagonists more in touch with their feminine side or that there isn't a visceral thrill in a tough guy kicking @$$, but it also means the stakes are generally external rather than internal, and thus end with the resolution of the movie; you are not moved when John Diehard saves a building or an airplane.  You were only invested in the journey, not the destination.

It is generally accepted that women are more in touch with their emotions than men.  This isn't really the forum to debate whether that is myth or fact, but it is generally accepted.  This is part of what makes a narrative featuring a female protagonist attractive from a story standpoint; the stakes are much higher because you are more invested in the character.  You have more empathy for a character who goes on an emotional journey.  You sympathize more with someone whose feelings are evident and in danger of being hurt, because we all know how deep hurt feelings cut.  We all struggle with emotional turmoil.  We identify with that.  Men in media are tortured physically, and not many people are familiar with physical torture...women in media are tortured emotionally, and we all know how that feels.  To endure and overcome that takes greater strength and makes for a more fulfilling journey than 'Kill the Bad-Guy.'

There are, of course, good and bad things about this stigma, such as the stereotype that a female protagonist cannot control their emotions and makes dumb decisions based on knee-jerk emotional responses (*cough* Katherine Stark *cough*), but for the most part, when handled correctly (*cough* HANNA *cough* TRUE GRIT *cough*) this leads to a satisfying, deeply moving, narrative.

What follows is a list of animated films and TV shows featuring female protagonists that I have enjoyed over the years, from my childhood, through adolesence, and into my adulthood.  I hope this is helpful to someone, somewhere, or that, at the very least, you find something entertaining that you hadn't heard of before.



I loved this movie when I was a kid; it's STARS WARS for girls.

Rainbow Brite did not have a very long life; the show was only 13 episodes, less than half a TV season for an animated show in the 80's; but was still a huge part of many peoples childhood, and this movie was definitely the best part of the franchise.  This fan-trailer is far more representative of the movie than the original trailer...except for a rather terrible musical interlude at the opening of the movie, RAINBOW BRITE AND THE STAR STEALER was an actiony sci-fi adventure featuring a strong young girl who saves the ENTIRE UNIVERSE from a spoiled, jewel obsessed, Princess who attempts to ensnare an entire planet in a massive web and cast the universe into eternal darkness.  Higher stakes I cannot imagine!

Rainbow Brite is smart and proactive, and possesses an awesome superpowered fashion accessory (I love empowered items...Rainbow Brite's color belt is the equivalent of Green Lantern's power ring, and pocesses many of the same abilities) that makes her one of the strongest forces in her universe.  I also liked her dynamic with Chris, a brash young boy that dreams of being a hero.  Throughout the movie he constantly underestimates Rainbow Brite, only to watch her stand toe-to-toe with him in every situation, often puzzling out ways to overcome the traps they fall into using intelligence rather than brute force, and in the end they both have to work together to overcome the Princess (Chris has a Prism whose power is reliant on Rainbow Brite's light to work, while Rainbow Brite's power rely's only on her will...and star sprinkles).

RAINBOW BRITE AND THE STAR STEALERS isn't just a great action adventure, it has strong feminist themes that it tackles head on in the narrative and makes for a satisfying emotional journey.  I still enjoy it to this very DAY (and I'm over 30.  ^_^;;;).


I used to watch this because it was on either before or around GI JOE and TRANSFORMERS, so I have trouble distiguishing it as being different from both of those.  Christy Marx, Jem's creator and show runner, was also a writer on a lot of the 80's cartoon's I loved (along with Marv Wolfman who wrote for Jem, and Larry Detillio, JM Straczynski, etc), and thus Jem has a lot of those same elements that I enjoyed, but with the added bonus of being more character driven, thanks to it's smaller cast, and with more personal a little bit of 'icky' romance.  ^_~  There was always something thrilling to me, even when I was young, about having a bit of romance in my media.  You only got a small taste in GI JOE of the love triangle between Scarlett/Duke/Snake-Eyes or the flirty relationship between Lady Jaye and Flint, and NOTHING in TRANSFORMERS (except for the episode with the Lady Transformers and the heroic sacrifice of Optimus Prime's girlfriend Elita One, and later on the love triangle between Arcee/Hot Rod/Springer), but Jem had a healthy dose every week.  Thinking about it, I may have been more emotionally invested in JEM than I was in GI JOE, because I wanted to see if her and Rio would ever make it work.

Beyond that, Jem had some action, some mystery, and often dealt with real problems that you could identify with, though admittedly, not in the most sensitive way (Jem was pretty mean about Roxy being illiterate once, though it was still a favorite episode of mine) sometimes.  Still, unlike a lot of shows aimed a boys, Jem was more firmly routed in reality and tackled some mature subject matter for it's time, and in this day of girl-powered pop-idols, I feel it's more relevant than ever...and unlike a lot of them, Jem is a much better role model.


I couldn't find a good trailer for PROJECT A-KO, so this Missy Elliot AMV will have to do.  ^_^;;;

PROJECT A-KO was actually on of the first anime I ever saw (that I knew was anime), and it blew me away...I'd never seen anything like it before, and it remains a favorite to this day.

PROJECT A-KO is basically about three highschool girls, A-Ko, B-Ko, and C-Ko, whose petty highschool bullcrap escalates into a city-destroying catfight in the middle of an alien invasion.  It's hilarious parody of both highschool and superhero action, as the girls barely notice that there's an invasion going on as they focus on their own petty problems (one great scene shows A-Ko comadeering a tank that was fighting the alien mecha to instead shoot B-Ko).  It's outrageous, exciting, and hilarious situational comedy set against a ludicrous sci-fi backdrop!

I think the thing that really got me about PROJECT A-KO is the idea of how ridiculously strong A-Ko was...her ridiculously freaky super-strength allows her to toss around robots, shatter buildings with a punch, jump great distances, run on a hail-storm of missles, etc etc.  There is no feat of strength too absurd for A-Ko to accomplish.  Of equal interest to me was B-Ko's absurd super-intelligence as she builds wave after wave of super-robot to kick A-ko's @$$, until finally deciding to take matters into her own hands and build herself a cybernetic swimsuit (I really enjoy that the other girls make fun of her for how daring and scanty the swimsuit is; it's very self-aware of it's fanservice in a way that modern anime is very unironic about) to duel A-Ko one-on-one in one of the most manic, exciting, and lengthy action sequences ever commited to film.

There were other OVA's produced int he A-KO mythos, but most of them were not that good...except for PROJECT A-KO: UNCIVIL WARS (or PROJECT A-KO: Battle Grey Side and Blue Side), which sees the same characters from a different perspective in another dimension of fantasy-sci-fi where A-Ko and B-Ko are barely friendly bounty hunters that get embroiled in a conspiracy that threatens to destroy the universe if they can't save whiney rich-brat C-Ko from being possessed by a powerful witch who seeks to collapse space-time with the help of an invincible seven-headed dragon.

Of significance is noting that in the A-Ko universe, all women are strong, as I really adored A-Ko nemesis Liza, who was as strong, if not stronger, than A-Ko herself, and was at the center of many of the films best fight sequences.  I also really liked one early set-piece that sees A-Ko lift and throw a massive rhino-turtle monster that is about 100 times her mass.  While diverging significantly from the original movies premise, it had many of the same themes, and was equally as ridiculous, over-the-top, and exciting, as three girls come together to save the universe while arguing over petty bullcrap.  I particularly enjoyed a sequence near the end that shows A-Ko and B-Ko battling each other throughout space-time in various different dimensions (including one where they are giant robots).


ARMITAGE THE III takes a lot of obvious influence and even shares themes with BLADE RUNNER.  It's a film noir/cyberpunk story about a disgraced cop, Ross Sylibus, who is reassigned to Mars, where he meets his new partner, officer Armitage, an audacious, fun-loving, tough, punk-girl with a dark past and a darker secret.

Further discussion would give away to much, but there are themes of humanity and specifically about feminism explored in the movie.  One interesting thematic choice comes across in the character design of the movie, as the Thirds (androids created to be compatible with human physiology...a third type of human, if you will) differ slightly in their design from the human characters.  Humans all have smaller, less cartoonishly exaggerated, features, while the Thirds, designed for the pleasure and service of humans, have are more superficially attractive, with big anime-eyes being the tell-tail sign that any given character is a Third.

Armitage is a great cyber-punk protagonist as she starts off seemingly happy to the point of being hedonistic, but through the narrative of the film is shown to struggle with the fact that she seems to have been created only to suffer, asking, "If humans didn't want me, why did they create me at all?"  Beyond the fact that she is an artificial life-form, there is also the revelation of the responsibility that has been forced onto her at the behest of her creator; one that could be considered burden or gift depending on your perspective, and which is picked up in the films sequel.

 DUAL MATRIX (made available in it's entirety by licence holder FUNIMATION) follows Armitage and Ross to Earth, where the themes proposed in the first film/OVA series and their consequences are explored further, as Armitage proves to be even more dangerous as a protective mother looking to save her child, and Ross fights for his wifes right to exist and be recognized as a sentient being with the same rights and privliges as a human being.  While I love the first movie, it is somewhat clunky and uneven, being that it was originally an OVA series of three episodes cut into a two hour movie, and with a lower animation budget.  DUAL MATRIX is a more concise narrative with better animation thanks to advances made in, Juiliette Lewis has a much sexier, stronger, voice. ^_~  I also find it empowering that the film acknowledges the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her child, a role usually reserved for the father, while Ross takes the back-seat action-wise and instead fights a political and socialogical battle on behalf of his wife and child.


Miyazaki's first feature film remains one of his best to this day.  Nausicaa I actually first saw when it was called WARRIORS OF THE WIND and her name was Zarda (horrible!), but even then the movie resonated strongly with me.  Nausicaa is strong and smart, and everything he does seems so urgent and important, and her bravery is evident throughout the film.  I think the thing that resonated with me most was Nausicaa's willingness to sacrifice and endure pain to protect others (such as when a bullet grazes her unblinking face, or when her foot is pushed into the acid ocean by an enraged baby Oom she is trying to protect).  As much as she wields a sword and fights and shoots, which is all exciting, to that point in my young life I had never seen a hero that would endure pain for others.  This is one of the greatest marks of a hero to me; the ability to put others before themselves.  Nausicaa bears many burdens for others throughout this movie, and though I'm not a huge fan of Messiah allegories, this one seemed appropriate, as she suffers to save not only human lives, but non-human as well.  Nausicaa typifies the aspect of the female hero that prevails across the board; her unconditional love for all life.  Even the villains lives hold equal worth to her (though this is part of her arc...she's all too willing to kill out of anger at the beginning of the film), and that is the mark of true mark of not just a hero, but a savior.


 SPIRITED AWAY may be one of my favorite movies of all time.  It's just masterful filmmaking.  It's exciting and tense without ever resorting to any sort of threat of violence, and you become so invested in the characters and the story that you cringe and swell with the the ebb and flow of the plot.  It's visually gorgeous and dense with imagry and imagination; a true modern fairy tale with a message just as important as any time-tested fairy tale.

Chihiro has a fasinating arc in this movie, as she is such a typically modern child at the start of the film.  She's wrappped up in her own problems and has little ambition or imagination; it's her parents who start her on her adventure as they give in to their curiousity, while Chihiro is the one who preaches responsibility and caution.  Soon she's thrust into a terrifying situation; abandoned and alone in a weird world of monsters and ghosts, she's made responsible not only for her own life, but for the life of her parents, whom she's used to having be responsible for her.  Initially she retains that childish perspective of, "Why is this happening to me?" but, through her experiences and adventures, she learns that she is far more clever, strong, and brave than she had ever imagined.

The films deus ex machina resolution aside, SPIRITED AWAY is a perfect movie in almost every respect and accessible across all cultures as it has universal themes.  One of Miyazaki's greatest strengths as a storyteller is his ability to think like a child even far into his old age, and identify the things that scare or thrill children (PONYO is a good example of this, as it's basically a horror movie for five-year olds and has all the things that scare children in it, as well as the things that excite them), and SPIRITED AWAY zeroes in on those like a laser.


 DISNEY has made a lot of great films, but had a really bad run of luck since the mid-90's, and TANGLED was the first real return to greatness I've seen from the company in a long time; it's a solid piece of entertainment.  It's got humor, action, and some great songs, plus a charming and charismatic female lead in Rapunzel.  Any great piece of entertainment should have a lead character that you fall a bit in love with, be it male or female.

Rapunzel is fun, smart, and energetic, as well as hopelessly awkward and a little weird.  She grows up isolated but yearns for more; to experience a world that is vast beyond her limited understanding.  It's frightening and exciting at the same time, and people can identify with that.  With a wide array of knowledge and skills she's developed in her time alone, Rapunzel also turns the handicap of her absurdly long hair into a strength, making for some clever, exciting, and often humorous set-pieces, as she overcomers problems with a mixture of intelligence and roll-up-your-sleeve moxy.  This is part of what makes her a great modern Disney Princess.

Most importantly, though, the movie is just FUN.  No film can truly fail if it at least entertains, and a children's film especially has to be a fun experience.  Humor, actions, romance, bright colors and fluid animation; TANGLED has all of these elements, which make for a dazzling piece of entertainment.


SAILOR MOON is, for many, the killer shark of female-centric cartoons...and it's hard to argue with that.

SAILOR MOON is hugely popular around the world and incredibly remains popular to this DAY, among many generations.  With it's mix of sci-fi superhero action, ridiculous highschool comedy, and soap opera-ish romance, Sailor Moon is at once imaginative, engaging, and entertaining on a number of levels.

I remember my initial reactions when I saw the first commercials on GLOBAL were not positive...I was young and not nearly as aware as I am now, and it looked decidedly 'girly', but when you live up North and only get one channel that only shows one thing at 4:30pm when you get off the bus from grows on you.  In my case, it grew on me quickly, and soon I was hunting the show down, following it over to YTV when GLOBAL dropped nearly all children's programming, and I ended up watching SAILOR MOON well into my college years, and maintain crushes on both Sailor Jupiter and Sailor Mercury, who represent the to archetypes of girls I find attractrive; Sailor Jupiter, the physically strong, atheltic, somewhat butch, girl, and Sailor Mercury, the sensitve, intelligent, somewhat fragile girl.

I imagine that this is the way a lot of guys ended up enjoying the show...they fell a little in love with the characters because it was a diverse group of females each with very distinct and strong personalities; chances are any one of the five inner-senshi or perhaps one of the four outer-senshi appealed to you in some way.

For girls it was a different experience because they got over 10 protagonists they could identify with in some way, who got to kick @SS and have romances and adventures, as well as having more relatable, down to earth, problems like school and friends.  Chances are, one of those 10 super-heroes spoke to your experience in some way, and each of them got their chance to shine over the course of it's over 400 episode run (!!!).

I have not been to an ANIME NORTH that has not had more than a dozen Sailor Moon cosplayers of ALL this day it continues to be a favorite among young girls who's mothers share this important part of their childhood with their daughters.

Like I said...girls need heroes too, and it's great that there are some they can share with their mothers.


There are plenty more, but these are the ones that resonate most with me.  What are the ones most important to you?

1 comment:

Mary Oliver said...

I am currently writing my dissertation based around the representation of women in animation and media and would love if you could answer some questions surrounding this issue.

Do you think that work produced solely by women show more respect for the equality of women rather than those produced by men?

What do you feel are the greatest misrepresentation of women today?

In the new Pixar animation ‘Brave’, did you feel that it genuinely tackled the issue of a female lead?

Do you believe it is important for animated films to reflect womens varied roles in modern society or are they the last opportunity to escape from political correctness?

Thank you in advance,
Mary Oliver
Leeds College of Art