Kate McCabe LOVES cartoons. Properly, full on ❤️s them. She just has one gripe: where are the women?
Minions. Were any of us were even consulted? It’s as if their popularity was decided for us months ago. There’s been a huge marketing push at kids (makes sense) but also at adults. All I know is that that their little yellow Tic Tac bodies were all over everything as soon as summer hit. I don’t know any adults who have seen the film… let alone purchased the Minion booty shorts I saw in Primark. I mean, I didn’t really even care for Despicable Me. Out of the two villain-focused cartoons that came out around the same time, I preferred MegaMind.
Perhaps because Minions are impossible to ignore right now their nefarious omnipresence has enflamed one of my main complaints about animation, an art form I am otherwise enamoured with: where are the ladies?
I’m what you might call a full-grown lady doofus. I’m a fan-girl for superheroes, comic books, video games and the works of Jim Henson, among other classically nerdish pursuits. So, of course I LOVE cartoons. Some of my favourite programs and films of all time are toons. But a disparity in gender representation within popular animation was something that I noticed many years ago and it continues to be an eye-catching stain on my otherwise pure admiration for the art form.
Consider The Simpsons. The award-winning sitcom has some of the biggest brains in the business writing for it and has created some of America’s best comedy. However, with its vast cast of characters, The Simpsons is also able to draw the starkest contrast. A quick scan of Wikipedia’s character page for the show reveals that about 88 recurring characters are male. Female representation trails at approximately 26 recurring characters. (I did not count one-off celebrity cameos.) To even get to the number 26, I had to count characters who rarely ever appear, including Crazy Cat Woman, Bernice Hibbert and Boobarella. That’s a pretty big chasm when it comes to gender representation. What the hell is in Springfield’s water? Balls?
“I love you, cartoons. But it’s not good enough. You make worlds up from scratch! You create from nothing! You are gods with sharpened 2B pencils. Let us also live in your worlds.”
Family Guy has a slightly better male to female ratio when it comes to recurring characters. I tallied 33 male to 18 female. Still not equal, but better. However, when you look at what they classify as their ‘gag’ characters, i.e., The Strongmen (Phineas and Barnaby), Ernie the Giant Chicken and Kool-Aid Man, ALL are male. And I’m not even touching the debate about how the show writes about women (I’m looking at you, Glenn Quagmire); I’m just looking at numbers here.
South Park comes into the challenge with 31 recurring male characters and 10 recurring female characters. This, to me, is the rare example where the dearth of female characters is marginally acceptable and that’s purely thanks to the editorial viewpoint. It’s about fourth-grade boys. When I was in fourth grade, I did not hang out with very many people of the opposite sex. As such, the ratio kind of rings true, meaning South Park gets a pass from me in this regard. Lucky them.
The rest of you? Try harder.
There are a couple of cartoons, of recent origin, that are doing better with this. Both feature the croaky talents of H Jon Benjamin: Archer and Bob’s Burgers. The former comes in at 5:4 and the latter comes in at 21:15. (I know that several of Bob’s Burgers’ female characters are voiced by men and I’m going to say that’s not relevant to this precise complaint.)
Are these shows any less funny than my longer-running favourites for the inclusion of more female characters? Nope. If anything, they might even feel fresher and funnier for the noticeable difference (see Tina Belcher and Pam Poovey if you require further proof – in fact, just see them because they’re great).
Cinema-wise, further progress can be viewed in Pixar’s latest release Inside Out. As I understand it, the story is flush with female characters and talent. I look forward to viewing it this weekend. The fact that it is notable for its feminine numbers, however, bolsters my point. It’s an oddity.
A few questions to ponder.
1. Why am I sad-faced about this problem? A few answers:
A. Having a fair and varied reflection of people within media is important. It just is. For everything from little girls having role models to us expanding the limited versions of female humanity currently depicted in the entertainment industry. Watch Miss Representation for more on this. It’s on Netflix.
B. I feel like I shouldn’t even have to bring this up. It’s 2015. How hard is it to look out equally for both genders?
C. I would like to get more voice-work as a performer. I need the gigs.
2. Can’t you just enjoy male-focused animation?
Yes I can and do. We ALL enjoy stories which prominently feature men. I mean, I live on Earth and enjoy being entertained, don’t I? What choice would I have, otherwise? My Trinity from The Matrix and Batwoman lesbian fan-fiction is time-consuming to write.
3. Why does this problem exist in the first place?
Funny you should ask that, because I think that answer ties back into the official answer of why there are no female Minions.
“The ideas that comedy isn’t flattering to women and that women aren’t as interesting as men leads to a deflated and unrealistic representation of women in cartoon universes. People just don’t visualise women in the funny or outlandish roles that cartoons inspire.”
When posed this very question in an interview for thewrap.com, Minions and Despicable Me creator Pierre Coffin answered: “Seeing how dumb and stupid they often are, I just couldn’t imagine Minions being girls.”
Thanks? I think? It’s a frustrating compliment and a pretty flimsy excuse. It’s also completely regressive as a sentiment, having also come out of the mouths of people such as Jerry Lewis and Michael Eisner – the same Eisner who recently said onstage, “From my position, the hardest artist to find is a beautiful, funny woman. By far. Usually – boy am I going to get in trouble – but usually, unbelievably beautiful women, you being an exception, are not funny.”
This was Eisner TRYING to honour the brilliant Goldie Hawn with a compliment. Idiot.
What these men (and sometimes women) are echoing is the commonly held sentiment that comedy only looks good on men. Men can stomp around in the mud and be dumb, clumsy, ugly, funny AND still find willing sexual partners and be the focus of the story while doing it. (Their handsomeness rarely factors in; I call this ‘The Seth Rogan Paradox’.) There is also the conceit that men just lead more interesting lives. They’re risk-takers, bread-winners, shit-talkers and heroes. Women are usually around only to help amplify that perception.
These two ideas, that comedy isn’t flattering to women and that women aren’t as interesting as men, leads to a deflated and unrealistic representation of women in cartoon universes. People, even creative sorts, just don’t visualise women in the funny or outlandish roles that cartoons inspire.
Cartoons, I’d like to address you personally now. You’re with us from our very earliest years. Parents and guardians feel safe sticking our little lumpy baby bodies in front of you. We train our eyes on you and absorb you like we absorb the contents of juice-boxes. Your humour becomes our humour. We look to purchase and decorate our rooms and bodies with your iconography, including but not limited to stickers, T-shirts, lunch boxes and action figures.
Yet… you didn’t give me any girl characters in Looney Tunes (I’m not counting Bugs in drag). I got nothing from Tom & Jerry except some casual racism. The Jetsons had Rosie the Robot, I guess, but wife Jane and daughter Judy were also automatons.
The Smurfs had LITERALLY one token female character, who was evil and traitorous when brunette and wholesome and pure once turned blonde. I love you, cartoons. But it’s not good enough. You make worlds up from scratch! You create from nothing! You are gods with sharpened 2B pencils. Let us also live in your worlds.
I don’t think this issue is the result of any particular motive or from any particular deep well of shared female-loathing that everyone is drawing from (pun intended, but only if you liked it). In most cases, I feel it’s a sin of omission rather than commission. For instance, The Simpsons has been a bastion of progressive thought broadcast into the American home for 26 years. These are brilliant, creative, forward-thinking geniuses bringing us this show. But even geniuses can be careless sometimes.
All I can ask is that creators become more conscious of writing for and about women. If you don’t think your toon will work with a healthy representation of male to female characters, ask yourself the following:
Are you SURE it won’t work with more women? Don’t forget we’re more than ingénues, wives and crones. We are capable of being platonic friends to male characters. Do me a favour and double check for me if some of the characters you’re creating couldn’t be gender-swapped.
If your answer is still ‘No’, I grudgingly say OK and will trust that your reasons are grounded in solid logic, but at LEAST spare me the weak excuses that Pierre Coffin offered.
If you don’t think women can be dumb or clumsy, then we haven’t met.1793 Views
Kate McCabe is an American comic living in Manchester. When not gigging as a standup, she improvises with ComedySportz Manchester, and contributes to local TV and radio including The Gay Agenda on Fab Radio.