Pixar's Inside Out, in theaters this weekend, promises to be Pixar's most feminist film yet. Its stars are the plucky, feisty Riley (voiced by badass-in-training Kaitlyn Dias) and her emotions. Said emotions are voiced by some of the great female heroes: Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling and Phyllis Smith.
This film is a veritable bonanza of female representation, supporting a story actually about a female character. It is also, strangely, a near-total course correction for Pixar.
The studio hasn't always been known as an arbiter of feminist films, perhaps rightfully so. As a quick flip through Pixar's library will determine, female protagonists are few and far between — likewise, in some movies, any female characters at all. Yet in recent years, with Inside Out and Brave, there have been positive signs. The studio seems to be learning its lesson.
As we sit back and prepare to love Inside Out, we're taking a look back at Pixar's films. Which were most feminist?Which could have used, you know, more than one female character? The results are all across the board.
14. Cars 2 (2011)
Honestly, flip a coin between this and the original movie. The Cars sub-franchise is not just terrible from a feminist perspective, but when applying nearly any criterion. If we have to pick the worse of the two, we'll say the sequel, simply because it elevates Larry the Cable Guy's character to lead. Not having any female characters of substance is bad enough, but Pixar's choice of new protagonist only makes it worse.
13. Cars (2006)
Cars features few female characters, none of whom are defined in any way other than their connections to their male counterparts. The plot is overwhelmingly focused on the male characters. Worst of all: Cars is a bad movie. It's fitting that the only thing that keeps Cars from the last slot on this list is its sequel.
12. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
One of Monsters, Inc.'s co-protagonists is Boo, a young girl who unfortunately doesn't get a lot of agency because she's literally 2 years old. She spends most of Monsters, Inc. saying "boo" and getting terrified by the monsters of the movie's world. The other female characters are protagonist Mike Wazowski's girlfriend, never given an identity beyond that, and Roz, an irritable bureaucrat voiced by a man. What is it with Pixar having its older female characters voiced by men?
Monsters, Inc. is a better movie than its sequel, but Monsters University was wise enough to create a role for a strong woman. That gives it a slight advantage.
11. Monsters University (2013)
Like its predecessor, Monsters University focuses on two male monsters, this time chronicling their college days. The movie barely bothers to include any female supporting characters. However, it does feature the tough, capable Dean Abigail Hardscrabble. She's voiced by Helen Mirren, and that is the only reason Monsters University beats Monsters, Inc.
10. Toy Story (1995)
Toy Story has far fewer female characters than its sequels. Most of the women are humans, with Little Bo Peep as the only female toy. They each get a bit of screen time, but this series definitely got vastly better from a feminist perspective with its sequel. Special notice for shame: Buzz being put in drag as Mrs. Nesbitt. Sadly, Mrs. Nesbitt may be the movie's most memorable "female" character.
9. Up (2011)
Up has literally one female character — not one main character, one character total — and she's out of the narrative after the movie's first 20 minutes. That means, for over an hour, there isn't one woman on screen. There is a female bird, but she's named Kevin.
That lack of representation doesn't make Up bad, but it does make it a pretty atrocious representative of Pixar on the field of feminism. Luckily, that one character is pretty great. Ellie, the wife of protagonist Carl, is a rough-and-tumble girl whom Carl falls for at first sight, and the film's inspiring first few minutes feature the abbreviated story of their love.
Losing Ellie thrusts him deep into a depression, launching him into the much more traditional kids' movie narrative. Ellie is proof Pixar can create amazing female characters, but sometimes just doesn't quite know what to do with them.
8. WALL•E (2008)
WALL•E features only one primary female character — noticing a pattern here? — and as a robot, she's mostly wordless. EVE is practically a co-lead, though, being as involved with the action as the titular trash robot himself. Their relationship is quite beautiful, and her efforts to save him are as remarkable as his to revive her.
Additionally, she is part of one of the most striking scenes in animated movie history: the dance scene. If you haven't watched it in a while, watch it again. It's a pretty wonderful reminder of everything good about WALL•E.
7. Finding Nemo (2003)
Like Ratatouille, Finding Nemo only has one main female character, though there are a couple of minor ones in the fish tank with Nemo. Unfortunately, that character is Dory.
Dory is totally lovable, quirky and caring. As voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, she's easily the most memorable character in the film — ironic, since her main character trait is her bad memory. The issue is that Dory never really evolves beyond being empathetic and forgetful. She's defined by those traits. She remains a fan favorite, however, leading to the Dory-centric sequel Finding Dory, due for release in 2016.
As a character, Dory has a lot of potential. What are the actual, painful effects of her memory loss beyond the punchline? They're just glazed over in Finding Nemo; hopefully, Pixar will go beyond the surface in her focus film.
6. Ratatouille (2007)
Looking at the glass half empty, one could be irritated Ratatouille only has one female character. Looking at it half full, at least that female character is the tough-as-nails Colette Tatou. While Colette is mostly defined by the men around her, particularly as a supporter of Linguini's, her character is well-drawn as an assertive — not aggressive — and capable woman. She even helps Remy and Linguini despite her initial disappointment that all of Linguini's cooking skills came from a rat.
She fully believes in the motto "Anyone can cook," and it's pretty inspiring. Colette may not be the star of Ratatouille, and it's disappointing she has to represent women alone, but she's a really strong representative.
5. Toy Story 3 (2010)
Toy Story's threequel features major parts for female characters, giving Mrs. Potato Head and Barbie far more to do and keeping Jessie part of the main crew. But Toy Story 3's content doesn't feel gendered at all. The main theme here is one of unity: We're all in this together, to quote a very different Disney movie. That means each character, regardless of gender, gets their time in the spotlight.
4. A Bug's Life (1998)
A Bug's Life is one of the harder movies of the Pixar canon to remember, because it is:
a) older, having been released 17 years ago,
b) unconnected to the rest of the Pixar universe, without sequels or prequels, and
c) not particularly good.
What A Bug's Life does have going for it, however, is a surprisingly deep bench of female voice acting talent. Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the princess of the colony! Phyllis Diller as the queen! Hayden Panettiere as the adorable sister Dot! Madeline Kahn as a gypsy moth named Gypsy! It would feel strange for a movie about ants, a queen-centric species, to not feature such a robust ensemble of women. A Bug's Life doesn't disappoint, at least in that regard.
3. Toy Story 2 (1999)
Toy Story 2 takes a big part of its narrative to focus on the relationship between two women, that of Jessie the doll and her owner, Emily. It's a tremendously sad tale of abandonment, told with the assistance of Sarah McLachlan's aching ballad "When She Loved Me." It's far more complex than the typical "girl power" narrative found in children's movies.
The sequel also added some new female characters, though these — Mrs. Potato Head, Barbie — had nowhere near the same level of depth. Overall, Toy Story 2 is the most feminist movie in the series, and the addition of Jessie alone was an invaluable improvement heading into the third installment.
2. The Incredibles (2004)
Bob "Mr. Incredible" Parr may be the primary star of The Incredibles, but Pixar's first (and luckily not last) superhero film has plenty of time for its vivid, interesting female characters. Helen Parr, codename Elastigirl, leads her kids on a mission to save their father. Violet, their daughter, uses the power of invisibility while growing out of her own wallflower sensibility. Edna Mode, the family's superhero suit designer, is an eccentric woman, but a brilliant one.
The Incredibles isn't perfect: The female characters' stories primarily revolve around Bob, for example. Additionally, Edna is voiced by male director Brad Bird — though it's rumored Lily Tomlin was originally tapped for the role, then replaced herself with Bird when she heard his impression of Edna. Those minor failings don't keep The Incredibles from being great, however. It still does mostly right by its women.
1. Brave (2012)
Would you believe that, until Inside Out, Pixar only made one movie actually about a woman? There have been other films with prominent female characters — Jessie in Toy Story 2 and 3, Colette in Ratatouille — but only Brave had a sole protagonist of the fairer sex. Princess Merida of Scotland was one hell of a first female hero, however, fiery in both spirit and appearance.
Brave gets points not just for its protagonist, but for its plot: Merida is to be married off, but fights for her own hand in marriage to avoid an arrangement. Her mother becomes furious with her, leading Merida to accidentally transform her into a bear. To change her back requires a journey of discovery and reigniting the love between mother and daughter. It's powerful, female-first stuff.
Brave isn't the best Pixar movie, and it even has some feminism problems — namely in Pixar's choice to replace director Brenda Chapman with a man midway through production. Yet on the whole, it represents what is hopefully a new direction for the company that makes movies about women a priority.