Female characters often have a tough time with variety. While there is plenty of debate and discussion surrounding the prevalence of stereotypes that send poor messages to viewers, there is something else that is completely overlooked. Dave Pressler ponders the interesting question of why female characters are often forced too look feminine by executives.
In his original post, Pressler uses the images below to illustrate what he’s talking about:
Given the above, he notes:
After I turn the art in for approval here is the typical first response from the art director, producer, or network. “Great we love hank! Phil is so funny and gloomy! We like Julie, but how will people know she’s a girl? Can we give her hair? Put a bow on her head? Or maybe big eyelashes?
Which results in something like this:
We’ve all seen something just like this, or similar. Heck, Matt Groening used it almost verbatim for his Life in Hell comic. It’s the primary method of distinguishing an animated character’s gender. So why is Pressler making the effort to point it out?
Well, he rightly points out that looks are far from the only way to identify and distinguish character gender. Voices are the obvious one, but interests, and roles are too. What he highlights is how things like eyelashes and bows are a shortcut that’s so ubiquitous that nobody ever thinks to try something different.
Which is important to remember, because even though the three characters in the example are simple lump forms, they are still characters, and, since we’re looking at this through an animated lens, we’re seeing them as static shapes, not moving images. In other words, while it’s hard to distinguish the genders in the first image (without the names), once they begin to move and talk, it should be all to obvious which one is female.
Once things start to get more detailed, you cans see how things like bows, eyelashes, pink dresses and high heels are really just an easy, visual route as opposed to truly denoting the differences in character.
To bring up a good example of a female character done right, we look to the Incredibles and Violet Parr.
Now, granted, Violet is a superb character on her own and she exhibits a lot of character growth throughout the film. However, outside of her long her, she is surprisingly original in how she is identified as being a girl. She doesn’t pander to many of the traditional tropes and indeed, really only embodies one: having an interest in boys. Yet Violet we know is inescapably a girl because she has other traits; such as a female voice, a dislike of the brash actions of her brother, and a noticeable affection for her mother.
Could Violet have been portrayed with the usual stuff like pink clothes, etc. Sure, just as she is at the end of the film but is she any less of a female character for the first 86 minutes because she isn’t? Hardly!
A Pressler concludes, it’s an unimaginative trap in character design that we could all benefit from avoiding.