Wall-e and gender

From Pixar’s Gender Problem

WALL-E: Robot somehow acquires human gender characteristics, strives to clean up earth, goes on adventure to space. Why does WALL-E need to be male? Why does EVE need to be female? Couldn’t they both be gender ambiguous and still fall in love? That would have been a bold move, but I think it’s safe to say that Pixar is less than bold on the gender front. “Hey, guys, we have this robot with no inherent gender identity. We want to give it an arbitrary gender. Maybe we could make it female. Yeah, no, that would just just be ridiculous.” Female characters: EVE, Mary, maybe some of the dead ex-captains of the Axiom
Challenging Gender Stereotypes score: 2/10. EVE is the competent scientist-bot. Still, making something that is inherently genderless male because male=neutral is bullshit.*

I just returned from seeing WALL-E with my 12-year-old sister, and I’d like to revise my comments on it somewhat. The first time, I just watched for enjoyment, but this time, I tried very hard to identify the cues and actions that marked WALL-E’s and EVE’s genders and see if I could imagine them as gender neutral. In truth, it wasn’t too hard. Up until the scene when they introduce themselves by name, it was pretty easy to imagine each of them as either the opposite gender or gender-neutral.

There are only a few things that specifically gender WALL-E as male: his name, a single comment from John (“I know that guy.”), and his copying of the male part of the “Hello Dolly” dances. His voice could be interpreted as masculine, but I forced myself to think “gender neutral” and it actually worked pretty well. With just a few tweaks, particularly the name, I think that WALL-E could have been portrayed without specifying a gender. Of course, there are some visual gender cues, such as his dirty, rusty exterior, lunchbox, and waste management job, but those things only read as masculine because of our tendency to think of the American “working class” as male. If the other aspects of this character were made ambiguous, I could argue that any gendering of WALL-E is totally on the audience, not the filmmaker.

EVE was trickier. Her voice and name are much more strongly female than WALL-E’s are male. Then there’s her creepy robo-womb. Still, until she uttered her first words, I was fairly successful at thinking of EVE as ungendered. Change the name, pitch the voice lower and with a little less giggling, and you’ve got a genderless robot.

I tried to keep an eye on the other characters too, and was pleased to find that many of them are actually not gender-specific. The cockroach, MO, Gopher, and the rogue robots are all neutral. And they still have personality (at least, MO and the cockroach do), which proves to me that it is possible to have an anthropomorphized object or animal that does not have a clear-cut gender.

With all this in mind, I want to bump WALL-E’s rating to a 7/10. Not a perfect 10, since we can’t get around the fact that WALL-E and EVE are given very clear genders and I stand by my earlier call of bullshit. But I want to give credit for having lots of gender-neutral characters and for making the two main characters so close to neutral. The points off are for not taking it all the way. And for having only one female captain among 5 or 6.

If you haven’t seen WALL-E yet, I recommend trying to think of the characters as gender-neutral as much as possible — it was a great thought exercise and helped me reflect on how much gender the filmmakers gave to each character and how much I was putting on them by using the visual cues etc. as shortcuts.

Discuss.

9 Comments

  1. I agree that the robo-womb is super creepy. Everyone is so disappointed when it turns out Eve isn’t “carrying”… poor robot doesn’t get to be an end in ‘her’self to anyone but WALL-E, only a means to an end.

  2. Damnit, Wall-E has a womb too! Robots of both ‘sexes’ seem to be able to carry things in their belly. Wall-E just has the added ability that he can crush anything inside him just by concentrating.

  3. What a male stereotype: violent aggression!! Oddly, that didn’t make the list…

  4. Why is this an issue? Do people really think that creating a forced – and it would be forced, since people would be consciously worrying about the male/female character ratios – atmosphere of universal equality would improve the film or the way in which the world views the genders involved? If complaining about how Wall-E and EVE should have been gender ambiguous is what feminism has been reduced to, they no longer have anything to worry about and should GO OUTSIDE.

    “If you haven’t seen WALL-E yet, I recommend trying to think of the characters as gender-neutral as much as possible — it was a great thought exercise and helped me reflect on how much gender the filmmakers gave to each character and how much I was putting on them by using the visual cues etc. as shortcuts.”

    I recommend going to Wall-E and ACTUALLY ENJOYING THE FILM. There are a lot of really, really excellent films from the era when women were being seriously held back by society and there will be plenty more in our modern era where the problem is, at the very least, significantly less severe. In Wall-E, EVE was painted white. WHITE! I’m surprised the NAACP doesn’t have similar complaints.

    Then again, they were probably just enjoying the film.

  5. Even when he doesn’t know that it’s me, Luke still disagrees. At least now I know our conflicts are intellectual not personal.

  6. Eve is a blatant allusion to the eve of the bible.
    The purpose of both biblical eve and robot eve was to bring new life to earth.
    Even though it may not be “politically correct” to you, it takes a man and a woman to create new life.
    Can you see why they made them man and woman now?

    Keep in mind also that Pixar is a business. Their goal is to make a profit, and bold (and somewhat stupid) political statements do not result in ticket sales.
    This is a love story, and the american public wants man/woman love stories. So that is what Pixar will make.

  7. I think this issue of gender neutrality in robot sci-fi is done quite well in an episode of the television show Futurama. I remember that the space ship that the characters use (I’m not really all that familiar with the show) at one point was given a voice to interact with the crew. At first the voice was ostensibly male and this led to aggression between the comedically masculine Bender robot crew member. Once the voice was changed to a female voice (apparently, this was all that changed … just the voice) then this Bending robot began a rather trite traditional, unchallenging romantic interaction with the ship. I’m not sure if the writers were aware of what they were doing, in terms of gender issues, but I found it hilarious.

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