by Dr. Judith Hofmann
Fiction in general, and popular fiction in particular, has to rely a certain amount on shared basic knowledge: We assume that there are concepts that do not need to be introduced in order to get a quick understanding of a scenario. Thus, when looking at the picture above from Monsters University, we make some assumptions: First of all, judging from the way the seats are aligned, the books on the tables, and the slightly bored looks on most of the monsters’ faces, we assume that this is a classroom. Also, since the green, round monster, Mike, sits in the front row, we know he is smaller than the other monsters. Mike also seems a bit over-eager, and, to top things off, the animators gave him braces, so we assume that he is some kind of nerd, geek, brain. (Why would a monster need braces? Even in this picture, we can spot about three monsters who have severe dental issues such as underbites, and yet, they seem to be doing just fine.)
By contrast, looking at the furry turquoise monster with purple spots, Sulley, with his outstanding size, broad shoulders, horns, and his relaxed, smirking attitude, we presume that he is an athlete, a jock, a cool kid. Stereotyping like this is, to some extent, inevitable, especially when it comes to recognizing certain character traits quickly and getting a basic idea of a scene. But even if it might be that no direct harm follows from it, we cannot deny that every stereotyping has some kind of effect, and we often do not even realize how much stereotyping there is in animated films and how much damage may come from it.
Animated films are among the first narratives children encounter to learn about the world, teaching them about good and evil, about gender roles, and about the importance of friendship and solidarity. Being fond of the films as kids, we often still enjoy and idealize them as adults, and not only do we tend to turn a blind eye to the more questionable messages they transport, we also encourage our children to fall into the same pitfalls as we did. Disney and its subsidiary Pixar maintain a leading role in the animated film business, producing (by the time of writing) ten of the twenty highest-grossing animated films and being a kind of gold standard when it comes to techniques of animation and storytelling. Thus, for generations, these films have been among the most powerful forces determining expectations on gender roles. While most of the time it is the female characters that get a lot of the (academic) attention—especially in times of crisis, when audiences seem to enjoy focusing on the image of a pure, innocent princess—the portrayal of male characters has also influenced the public perception of masculinity to a great extent. More recent CGI animated films by Disney and Pixar focus on male characters which can be described as alpha males, underdogs, and New Men. In doing so, the studios, sadly, often fail to rewrite some of the hypermasculine, destructive scripts that dominate popular culture.
The Alpha Male: “You’re not even in the same league with me.”
At first sight, it appears as though Pixar films have a heart for the average guy, maybe even the misfit, as the focus of attention is often on a “regular” person (as opposed to a prince or someone who possesses magical powers). When taking a closer look, however, it becomes apparent that a lot of the studio’s films tend to support “the taxonomy that places hypermasculine success stories […] atop the social hierarchies of American childhood and adolescence.” In particular, the films from the Monsters and the Cars franchises reinforce the so-called “jock cult,” a term coined by Jessie Klein (2013) that describes a culture in which the most athletic, aggressive and competitive boys succeed. Members of the “jock cult” have to constantly prove their hypermasculinity by devaluing those who fail to reach these objectives—in other words, by bullying the above-mentioned misfits.
Monsters University serves as the origin story of Sulley and Mike, who, as we know from Monsters, Inc., will become best friends despite their initial dislike of each other. This is the classic “odd couple” plot of buddy films, one of many in Pixar movies, such as Woody and Buzz Lightyear or Lightning McQueen and Mater, to name but a few. Both films, and Monsters University in particular, make it clear, however, that Sulley is the cool part of the couple while Mike is his inferior. Born into a well-respected and probably wealthy family, Sulley is the golden boy from the moment he sets a foot on campus. He is tall, athletic, and arrogant; in short: he is a typical jock. The professors treat him differently, he is immediately accepted into a prestigious fraternity, and all the students admire him. Even though he has to deal with several instances of failure during the course of the film, in the end, he is the one who saves the day—yes, really—by roaring very powerfully. The film thus not only reinforces the superiority of the cool, popular kids, it even reinforces the idea that an able-bodied male is the ideal to strive for and a hypermasculine body is basically the only thing you need to get by.
This focus on the masculine body and its certain traits can also be found in Cars 2, where Lightning McQueen and Mater are idealized compared to their respective antagonists, Francesco Bernoulli and Miles Axelrod. McQueen’s curves, his larger and stockier design, are in contrast to Bernoulli’s sleek, delicate, even fragile appearance. The latter is given typical metrosexual, even queer traits (he is interested in fashion, he is emotional, he has a close relationship to his mother), and it is made clear that he does not stand a chance against the solid American masculinity that McQueen represents. Mater, on the other hand, has a body that is not perfect, but it is authentic, which is another desirable trait when it comes to hegemonic American masculinity. This becomes evident when we compare him with Axelrod, who has a flawed body, too, but who seeks to improve himself by technological upgrades. The film makes it more than clear that this sort of augmentation is to be frowned upon. Granted, Axelrod’s ultimate objective is criminal, but apart from that, there should be nothing wrong with trying to improve oneself. So, despite the fact that Mater is not very intelligent—and certainly has no intercultural awareness—the message of the film is that even his most insensitive and embarrassing actions will be forgiven if he just exists as his authentic, American self.
The Underdog: “Ah, who am I kidding? I’ll always be a lemon.”
Considering the fact that one of the most ingrained American concepts, the American Dream, states that everyone can achieve everything they want with hard work and determination, Pixar films, as I’ve described, usually favor the winners. And even though the underdogs are portrayed in an endearing and likeable way, most of the time, they ultimately cannot escape their fate. Again, the Monsters and Cars films provide key examples. I will also have a look at some villains in Pixar and more recent Disney films and what it is that makes them evil.
In Monsters University and Monsters, Inc., Mike is shown to have a lot of desirable character traits: he is kind, funny, ambitious, and optimistic. Yet, not only has he been the victim of bullies his whole life, he is actually told by the school’s dean that he lacks “something that cannot be taught”. Thus, no matter how ambitious he is and how much work he is willing to invest, eventually he cannot climb the steps of the social ladder. The fact that he almost never loses his optimism and cheerful attitude, and by the end of the prequel, he has completely accepted his lower rank, only masquerades the bitterness of the role that Pixar gave him. He is inferior to Sulley in every way, but he should be (and is) happy that he is allowed to hang out and be associated with the “cool guy.” Even after it is discovered that Mike is actually able to generate more energy by his ability to make children laugh, thereby resolving an energy crisis and saving the company, it is Sulley who becomes CEO.
If we believe the message that Pixar movies deliver, then this is how men who do not meet the requirements of hypermasculinity have to act: buying in, accepting their nature-given inferiority, being thankful for any bit of positive attention they get. The same can be observed in Cars 2. Otis, a lemon—what one character calls “history’s biggest loser cars”—has accepted his fate and finds it normal to be bullied for his shortcomings, even though he is not responsible for them. The evil lemons, however, are those that do not accept being the all-time losers—those that not only seek to improve themselves, but also seriously hurt other cars in the process by joining Axelrod’ evil plot. Here, Pixar fails to offer positive options for victims of bullies to change their status, suggesting instead that victims become corrupted themselves.
These tendencies can also be found when looking at villains in more recent Disney CGI animation and Pixar films. Unlike in classic Disney films, where the villain usually is an inherently bad person who often uses magic to achieve their will, villains in Pixar films are quite often regular guys who were neglected or mistreated as a child and who do not have a working heteronormative family structure and/or a strong father figure to support them. Examples from the Pixar canon include Syndrome (The Incredibles), who turned to villainy after Mr. Incredible denied him fatherly mentoring, or more recently, Ernesto de la Cruz (Coco), who chooses his career over a family and becomes a murderer in the process. In Frozen, the villain, Prince Hans, comes from a big family (he is the thirteenth prince of the Southern Isles), which not only diminishes his chances of inheriting the throne, but apparently also resulted in turning him into a cold and cruel character. This creates the impression that having so many siblings meant that Hans did not get enough love and attention from his parents and this turned him into a sociopath. His hunger for attention and power is matched by that of Turbo/King Candy from Wreck-It Ralph. He seems to be as intelligent and willing to modify himself to achieve his goals as Axelrod from Cars 2, but ultimately, his emotions get in his way: he cannot control himself and thus creates plans that eventually fail. This focus on emotions and the inability to control them does not fit into the concept of hypermasculinity and is more associated with feminine traits. Making Turbo/King Candy fail because of this implies that his plans might have worked out if he had been able to conform to the hypermasculine values: aggression is fine, but emotions are not.
The New Man: “I don’t wanna be the bad guy anymore.”
Finally, there is also a more positive image of masculinity that is presented in Pixar films, that of the New Man. The New Man, as Susan Jeffords (1995) describes it, can “transform himself from the hardened, muscle-bound, domineering man […] into the considerate, loving, and self-sacrificing man.” Looking at Toy Story and The Incredibles, Gillam and Wooden (2008) describe how Woody and Buzz, as well as Mr. Incredible, go through a significant change during the course of the films. At the beginning, all three of them identify as alpha males and enjoy the privileges that go along with this: respect, dominance, power. Then, however, they are confronted by emasculating scenarios: Woody is being replaced by a younger competitor, Buzz realizes that he is “just a toy” and not a real space ranger, and Mr. Incredible is forced to give up his superhero life and work a mediocre job in an insurance company. With the aid of a homosocial friendship, however (Buzz/Woody, Mr. Incredible/Frozone), they learn to find ways of dealing with the new situations, accepting their softer, more loving, caring, and selfless sides. They even allow themselves to be weak, as “showing weakness […] is an appropriate index of strength because it implies value for life”. Mr. Incredible’s further progress is shown in The Incredibles 2, where he (if not happily, at least supportively) leaves the superhero-stage to his wife and takes care of the family. A similar development can be observed for Sulley in Monsters, Inc. and Ralph in Wreck-It Ralph, who develop fatherly relationships with young girls. Ralph explicitly claims at the beginning of the movie that he is dissatisfied with his role as the destructive bad guy. By the end, he learns that while he does not need to be a hero, he is serving a greater good. He learns that can have functional friendships and a healthy father-daughter-like relationship, which is even more fulfilling to him.
Being such a powerful medium and such a big player not only in popular family culture, one could hope for more Disney and Pixar animated films that, as Judith Halberstam (2011) describes it, “open new narrative doors,” “revel in innovation,” and “explore ideas about humanness, alterity, and alternative imageries in relation to new forms of representation.” Until then, though, what can be done? Giving up on watching animated films altogether seems like a harsh step. It is possible, though, to create an awareness about the sometimes hidden messages of these films, by reflecting on them yourself, and also talking to your children about the films and the gendered portrayals that they present. It also makes sense to incorporate the films into the school curricula, with an affirmative yet critical pedagogic approach that allows students to understand the films without destroying the pleasure of watching them.
Dr. Judith Hofmann is a research assistant in a project on teacher education at the University of Cologne, Germany. After studying English, German and pedagogy, Judith received her doctorate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). Her research interests are literature and literary learning in TEFL, teaching (with) films and popular culture, digital media and task-based language teaching, and professionalization in teaching and teacher education.
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 cf. Lippi-Green, 1997: 82
 cf. Ward, 2002: 2 and Müller-Hartmann, 2008: 401
 cf. Pallant, 2013: 133f.
 cf. Booker, 2010: 3
 cf. Orenstein, 2006: n.p.
 Sulley in Monsters University
 Wooden/Gillam, 2014: 56
 cf. Klein, 2013: 25f. Wooden and Gillam also name The Incredibles in this context; I agree, but I will focus here on Monsters University and Cars 2 and look at The Incredibles and its sequel from another point of view later.
 cf. Gates, 2003
 cf. Wooden/Gillam, 2014: 65
 cf. ibid.: 70
 cf. Smith, 2011: n.p.
 Otis in Cars 2
 Dean Hardscrabble in Monsters University
 cf. Wooden/Gillam, 2014: 65
 cf. Hofmann, 2017: 129
 Holly in Cars 2
 cf. Klein, 2013: 15
 cf. Wooden/Gillam 2014
 cf. Davis, 2014: 242
 cf. Klein, 2013: 16
 Ralph in Wreck-It Ralph
 Jeffords, 1995: 170
 cf. Gillam/Wooden, 2008
 Flanagan, 2009: 172
 cf. Halberstam, 2011: 20, 28, 33
 cf. Hofmann, 2018