Have you ever looked at your favorite scary movie from a feminist perspective?
Listen, friends. I love "How To Train Your Dragon." I'm not great at sitting through most movies, because I have a short attention span and, well, frankly not a lot of interest in paying $12 to watch Matthew McConaughey make constipated stoner faces on a 20-foot-high screen. I probably see an average of one film in theaters every six months, and the ones I do end up watching usually have Jennifer Lawrence in them.
And yet. When "How To Train Your Dragon" came out, I saw it twice in theaters. In the same week. With the same person. When it came out on DVD, I immediately added it to my collection, of which there are maybe a dozen titles. It's probably a combination of the tween-pursuing-compassion-in-a-culture-of-violence storyline and the fact that Toothless is essentially a giant kitty that can fly, but something about that film fills me with a warm, glowing contentment, like my brain is being submerged in a bathtub full of mulled cider. Also, y'know, dragons.
So obviously, when the sequel was released last week, I broke my unofficial two-movies-a-year rule to see it on opening day.
And it was…fine. It was fine! Toothless is still a kitty. Hiccup is still a hero with a visible disability who chooses to use reason rather than brute force, in addition to being sort of hot this time around (I know, I know, space jail for me). But something has changed within me in the last four years, and so I just kept thinking, "I wish there were more girls."
Which is not to say there aren't any! There are plenty of women in the film. Whether you think they're just two-dimensional straw badasses or well-developed, nuanced female characters, though, they still aren't protagonists. We still don't get to spend time getting to know them as people, exploring their needs and fears and dreams, beyond how they interact with Hiccup.
It wasn't like I was surprised by this -- ladies got way more screen time this time around than in the last one -- but it left me unsatisfied somehow. As silly as it sounds, I thought a series that had brought me so much joy in the past would of course allow me the unmitigated glee of a female protagonist alongside the dude one in its sequel. Alas, it was not to be.
However, this is why I'm so, so excited for Pixar's new movie, "Inside Out," scheduled to be released in June 2015.
The premise is, admittedly, kinda wonky. The movie follows the exploits and adventures of Riley, a preteen girl who moves to San Francisco with her dad. Rather than relying on more traditional storytelling devices, the actual plot hinges on the five anthropomorphic emotions that work together to make Riley who she is -- Joy, Fear, Disgust, Anger and Sadness. Joy takes the wheel for the first 11 years of Riley's life, but after the trek out west (and, presumably, when certain puberty hormones start to kick in), Sadness starts edging her out of the driver's seat. (I should also mention that Joy is voiced by Amy Poehler, Disgust by Mindy Kaling and Sadness by Phyllis Smith. Just, you know, something of potential interest.)
I'm still a little unclear as to how this will work onscreen. Regardless, though, this is the exact opposite of the problem I faced with "HTTYD 2." Instead of watching the female characters from a distance, we're given an opportunity to get to know one protagonist so well that we literally spend most of the film inside her head. Though I was at first a bit concerned that this could delve into a "women are emotional, men are intellectual" trope, I do think this construction illustrates well what the experience of being a young woman is like.
I've written before that as a teenager, I reacted to every stimulus as if I were made of nothing but nerves and teeth; I constantly felt too full, like a cup on the verge of brimming over. If you'd told me that a team of tiny people were inside my head wrestling with each other for the right to see whether I'd hug my best friend or try to hurl a microwave at her, I would have 100 percent believed you.
Also of note is the fact that Riley is, for once in the animated universe, not a princess. Though princesses are capable of holding their own, the contrast between the roles given male protagonists in recent kids' movies versus female ones is pretty gutting. Leading dudes in Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks-land are dragon-tamers, Boy Scouts, super-villains and aspiring chefs; leading ladies are, well, princesses, which generally translates to "femme." Badass femmes, don't get me wrong, but femme all the same, and either born into royalty or destined for it. This means that ordinary little girls, who like space or dogs or the clarinet, don't often get to see themselves onscreen, particularly if they skew a little more butch.
So the fact that Riley is just that -- ordinary -- actually seems sort of revolutionary. Plus, she's a hockey player. As a child, one of the most significant moments of happiness Riley ever experiences is scoring her first goal on the ice. This thrills me on a number of levels. First of all, hockey, even at the no-contact level, is rough-and-tumble; the players tend to be bulky, with wide shoulders and muscular legs, thus giving me fever dreams that Riley will be a proud member of the Shaped-Like-A-Piece-of-Pizza Lady-Hulk club.
It's also not exactly a popular pastime for kids in California, which I'm guessing will be the root of some conflict in the film. And given that women players at the professional level are shunted out of both the limelight and a steady paycheck, it's certainly not glamorous. Here Riley is, though, showing girls in the audience that her passion for it is both valid enough to appear in a major movie and fiery enough to shake Riley's Joy-avatar down to her toes.
Ultimately, I'm hoping that "Inside Out" conveys the message to audiences (and, say, studio execs) that anyone of any gender can be emotionally complex and interesting, and that none of those emotions are anything to be ashamed of. But I'm also hoping it shows viewers, especially young ones and especially girls, that all of their interests -- whether they be playing sports, experimenting with makeup or going on quests to unlock their royal destinies -- are worth supporting, just so long as it brings them Joy.