Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Gender Roles in Pixar's "Day and Night"

Pixar's latest short, "Day and Night," marks an exciting new direction in mixing 2D and 3D animation while hearkening back to animation styles of the past. And I appreciate that it strives to share a valuable lesson in understanding and acceptance.

Lots of people are raving about it, but overall I found the short rather depressing. To me, it was about two spoiled white boys who figure out that they have everything they need already, and they're exactly alike too.

But most troublesome for me were the representations of women, and in particular how men behave around women. It's even a step back from Knick Knack, from 1988, where at least the voiceless white buxom mer-woman was awake and active in her courting of the male snowman.
Side note: the mermaid in Knick Knack had digital breast reduction surgery early in the new millenium. John Lasseter is quoted as saying this was done because "it was just crossing the line for me personally as a father."

The clip I remember most from "Day and Night" was where Night discovers a bikini-clad woman inside Day's sleeping butt. If you haven't seen the film, that sentence may make absolutely no sense. Thankfully, the clip is available online as a part of an odd little making of video. Jump directly to timecode 1:17 if you want just the clip I'm discussing here, or watch the whole thing, below.

Anyway, the woman is sleeping on the beach. She's totally unaware of being spied on by a huge and phallic-nosed Night (just watch that nose when he first is aware of her existence - schwing!). He's a total voyeur, and she is utterly vulnerable.

Night's first reaction to discovering her? He looks around. Guilty and nervous. Like he found a wallet on the ground. I fear for that girl when he then lowers his eyelids and throws out his gigantic tongue. He transforms into a total sleazeball predator.

He finally makes his physical move to capture her inside his belly (animation theorists will have a field day with the metaphors this new technique offers). But when she's not there, he looks at his foot like he might have stepped in something. I can only assume he's trying to find her.

Women (silent, blond, sexy, white) as property to be acquired, hunted, and ultimately captured, by men who must be sneaky, tricky, aggressive, and physically superior over one another.

This isn't new stuff for animation, and many give "Day and Night" a nostalgic "Get out of Bad Gender Dynamics Free" card because Tex Avery and others did this kind of stuff generations ago. But I watched with my 6-year old daughter and 9-year old son, for whom nostalgia played zero part. For them, it was just another demonstration of how boys should behave around girls. Badly, I'm afraid.

Thanks to all the participants in the recent e-discussion about "Day and Night" that occurred on Hampshire College's animation mailing list.


Unknown said...

Hey Chris. I see your point, and while I think I understand your perspective, I guess I must disagree.

I'm not going to have the argument here; I just want to lodge my vote.

We can discuss it next time we see each other - I hate having discussions about stuff like this electronically - it turns into a debating society event, not an actual discusssion, and I'm sure you have some excellent points to make (that I would love to disagree with in person :-)).

Evan said...

I've got a variety of reactions to this, all of which are sort of inchoate arguments, so my apologies if this doesn't go anywhere.

First of all, clearly leering at oblivious strangers is not a positive or respectful thing to do. That is not my bone of contention. Many people would find a real person acting like Night to be, at best, off-putting, and probably distressingly lecherous.

I'm baffled by critical stances, such as, I would venture, yours, that imply that bad gender dynamics should be excluded from our media entirely, or else be shown to be bad things via a Hays-code-style comeuppance. The think-of-the-children argument works here, I suppose, to a certain extent, but modulo that, certainly some people are disrespectful towards women to a greater or lesser degree, even some people who are otherwise lovely people (though one probably can't get away with much sexist behavior before I stop considering one to be "lovely"). This is all perhaps beside the point.

I also want to take issue with your characterization of what Night does. Yes, the tongue-wagging is pretty much just creepy, and the staring is voyeuristic, but I think you're overstating the case by describing his actions as an intended capture of 3D-Woman. He's slicking back his hair (such as it is), trying to get his timing right to make his move. (Whether flirtatiously approaching strangers in public is a good idea or acceptable is up for debate also.)

Like you said, this whole gag, the whole cartoon, really, is a reference/tribute/reviving of sorts of the Warner Bros. shorts of fifty years ago. Elmer Fudd ogling Bugs-in-drag came to mind when I first saw this bit. And the whole thing of course made me think of Duck Amok, with its use of sound and playful relationship with the conventions of the animation canvas. The tropes and movements of the characters in Night and Day seem almost directly lifted from the Termite Terrace animation style. I guess this doesn't amount to an argument of any kind, just sort of an observation.

I think that ultimately what the consumers and critics of popular media must demand of the creators of that media is that they not be lazy or thoughtless. My personal beef with the mass media is that so much humor related to homosexuality is really just lazy and stupid. Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, which I would certainly excuse you for skipping, is full of clever, subversive gags about sex, race, and power—and also some really, really lazy gay jokes. The American public has put an end to minstrelsy and is gradually turning against American Indian-inspired mascots, but really easy gay stereotypes are still comedy gold. A liberal society ought to engage in a sustained dialogue about these issues, and not an adversarial one. The canard trotted out by so many interlocutors on this topic goes something like "I can't believe you're offended by that". To which I think the response is, it's not about "offending" or not, it's about just asking the question, are we alienating, marginalizing, or outright hurting anyone by acting this way?

Blah blah whatever. I probably have work to do.

Annie said...

You made a point of calling the characters "spoiled white boys," when I think the entire concept of the short is the main characters lack of color, lack of substance on themselves. The real story being within.

You sure were born into the right decade, though. The 40's would have chewed you up and spit you out. Maybe Tex Avery would have chewed you up personally.

Chris Perry said...

Wave - looking forward to the conversation, as always!

Evan - I feel my post is more in line with your lazy and thoughtless observation than with the claim that bad gender dynamics should be excluded from our media entirely. Pixar has all the resources (financial, intellectual, and artistic) to give us cinematic innovations beyond just the technical realm. "Geri's Game" is a great example. It was novel in terms of subdivision surface modeling and cloth simulation, but it also was novel in its development and resolution of conflict. I want to hold them to a higher standard, one that I know they're capable of reaching.

Annie - the "boys" part seems pretty obvious; I felt "white" was implied in the kinds of things that showed up on the insides of these guys. Since I've only seen the film once, I'm not going to take a strong stand on this. But Vegas, water skiing, ogling white women, beaches, pool parties - sure these are enjoyed by many, but taken in concert they feel like the hobbies of wealthy white folks to me.