Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Think of the Children! Tuesday: Cars and Cars 2

As I have mentioned many times before, I spend a fair amount of my life with small children, or one small child in particular. This small child, the Munchkin, as I like to call him, has about as many interests as one can expect in a three year old. By which I mean he has one. One interest. One all consuming, all encompassing obsession from which I cannot escape.

This obsession? Cars and Cars 2. Also Planes, actually. But pretty much, everything set in that horrifying world of sentient vehicles. And also most shows or movies that have a similar theme, like Thomas the Tank Engine and Chuck the Dump Truck. So to say that I am deeply and meaningfully sick of playing with Cars merchandise or wrapping the Munchkin up in a Cars blanket or trying to remember enough of the Cars theme song to hum it to him so he will finally fall asleep in nap time is to really underestimate how done I am with this whole thing.

I am, for the record, very done with it.

But not for the reasons you think. Because I get it. When you're three it is kind of hard to be obsessed with more than one thing. I mean, I don't really have room to judge. I was obsessed with wolves from ages four to thirteen. And I don't mean just kind of interested, I mean that I had a giant wolf poster hanging over my bed and all my clothes had wolves on them and I still know more about wolf pack structure than pretty much anyone who isn't a caretaker for wolves at the zoo has any right to.

I get it. Things are interesting when you're a little kid, and you only have so much bandwidth. No, I'm not annoyed that he's obsessed with something in particular, I'm frustrated that out of all the things in the world, the Munchkin had to choose to be freaking in love with Cars.

I hate Cars. I hate Cars 2. I hate Planes. I hate absolutely everything about them, but somehow, in that hate, there's actually one thing I hate most of all, and it's what makes me really genuinely miserable that this is what the Munchkin loves. I loathe what the Cars franchise has to say about gender.

Big shocker, right?

If you aren't familiar with the franchise, here is the briefest possible summary of events (which is told to me just about every morning by an adorable small child who will narrate the plot of the films in conversation and when he comes to the end of the story he'll just start again until he gets hungry). 

In Cars, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is a fancy shmancy racecar who manages to end up in a three way tie at some big race. On his way to the location of the next race, his truck falls asleep (because Lightning made him drive through the night), and Lightning falls out of the truck, stranded in middle of nowhere New Mexico.

Then he freaks out and races through the small town of Radiator Springs, totally tearing up the pavement on Main Street. When caught, the judge, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) demands that Lightning fix the road before he leaves.

Lightning is a jerkface and tries to do a terrible job, but of course the gentle people of this town make him feel all tingly inside, and he becomes friends with Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and falls in love with Sally (Bonnie Hunt). Eventually he learns to love the town, and when it comes time for the big race, Lightning is a much better person/car, and he doesn't win, but he does do the right thing, and isn't that nice?

Then in the sequel, Cars 2: We Need More Merchandising Money, Lightning and Mater fly to England for a big race. When they get there, Mater gets distracted by a pretty girl car, Holly (Emily Mortimer) and abandons Lightning during the race, causing him to lose. They have a big fight, and then Mater goes off to fight crime with Holly and her partner Finn (Michael Caine) because they are actually spy cars and they want Mater to be a spy car too, in order to stop the bad cars who want to do...something. Munchkin isn't super clear on what the bad guys want, so neither am I.

Eventually, Mater gets kidnapped while trying to save Lightning, who is the bad guys' target for some reason or another, and then he and Holly escape, and he saves Lightning, oh and he can fly now, and then they get to meet the Queen, who is a Rolls Royce and it's all very sweet and stupid and I hate it.

So in all of that, I hope that you notice that I only mentioned two names, Sally and Holly, and that those two names belong to the love interests. I'm not sure if you caught that, but it's true. Sally and Holly, for all that they are potentially very interesting characters, are only in these movies as motivation for the male characters. Sally is there to show Lightning that Radiator Springs is a nice place to live and that he should totally stop being a jerk, while Holly is there to flirt with Mater and get him to do spy stuff and then inexplicably agree to date him.

That's it. That's really all they do. And there is one more female character in the franchise, Flo (Jenifer Lewis), but that's pretty much it. Can you guess what Flo is best known for? Being Ramone's (Cheech Marin) wife. His hot wife.

Now, all of this is annoying in and of itself, the whole thing where the female characters only matter in relation to the male characters and are just there to be love interests as well as being massively outnumbered by the male characters to the point of it getting weird and creepy, but there's actually something else that annoys me here. Namely, that all three of these characters is a sports car.

Okay, I understand that this is probably not super obvious, but bear with me. The male cars in this series are all different kinds of cars. Like, Lightning is a racecar, Mater is a towtruck, Finn is a classic Aston Martin, Ramone is a low-rider, Fillmore is a VW Bus, Sarge is a military Jeep, etc. Lots of different types of cars and different visual representations of what a boy car can be.

And every single one of the girl cars, all three of them, is a sports car. Well, I suppose to be technical, Flo is a classic car, but it's not much of a distinction. And here's the part that makes me super uncomfortable: all the girl cars are clearly designed to be "pretty."

That's weird. And creepy. And, again, weird.

It's weird because cars aren't really something that can or should be made pretty in order to be identifiable as female. And it presupposes the stupid idea that in order for a car to be female, it must be different from other cars. It must be literally Other. It can't just be a regular car, it has to be pretty. 

I wrote a whole big long thing about this in the comic Blacksad, and I feel like it's the same problem here. In trying to make it visually apparent who the female characters are, and I don't really get why they needed to do that, but whatever, Pixar decided that the solution was to make sure that all of the female cars adhered to one simple physical outline, and then gave them nice lips and eyelashes, in case it wasn't already super clear.

I don't really know if I can express enough how much this bothers me, that Pixar felt the need to create gender signifiers for freaking cars and then that they decided that this meant all female cars must look the same. That's weird, right? It's definitely creepy.

And it sadly fits right into Hollywood's usual casting problem. The thing where you look at a poster for a show or a movie, and all the guys look completely different - short, tall, fat, skinny, weird and gangly, or covered with giant muscles - but the women are almost invariably of a type. Skinny, emphasized chests, long hair styled meticulously, tight clothes. Men can be whatever they want. Women have to look a certain way.

This is apparently so pervasive, so insidious, that it's infected children's cartoons about inanimate objects. Think about that.

Which brings me back to the Munchkin and why I hate that he loves Cars. Yeah, he's a boy, and so in a way, it's okay. He gets to see all different types of cars in there and he could relate to any of them as much as he wants (he generally thinks of himself as Lightning or Mater), so in a way it doesn't really matter. But then again, it does.

Because this little boy knows female people too. He has a sister, a mother, a grandmother, and a nanny (me). And what he's learning from the Cars franchise is pretty awful: that we are useful only insofar as we are pretty. That not being pretty means not really existing. And that we are all supposed to look a certain way in order to belong. 

That's damaging in and of itself, but it's even worse when you think about the fact that the female cars in these stories don't really do much. They just prop up the male characters. So what is he supposed to think? That all of us, his grandmother and mother and sister and me, are just there to make his life more interesting, to give him some character development and look good while doing it?

I sure as hell hope not.

Now, I get it. He's three. Hopefully by the time he can even think critically about this he will have long ago passed the point of liking a harmful franchise like Cars. But I don't think his age makes this matter less. I think it makes it matter more. Because he is at an uncritical age. He doesn't look at a book of stickers and wonder why out of the 250 stickers available, only four of them feature female characters. But it creates an idea. An idea that women aren't as important as men. That they aren't as real. 

I'm not okay with that.

I was actually going to end this article there, but then I remembered something as I put up the final image. Namely, that these movies are racist as hell. So we're going to talk about that too, and why the Munchkin is also in danger from that. Because he is. And I love this child and want to protect this child and racism makes me angry. Duh.

So when I say that Cars and Cars 2 are racist, what I mean is not that they have overtly racist themes or topics, or even that the things the cars say could be considered racist. What I mean is that, similar to the gender thing, the makers of the movies went a little bit too far out of their way trying to visually represent cars of different nationalities, and the result is...well...

Racist. It's racist. It's so freaking racist.

Like, the Japanese car is painted like a geisha and holds a fan, and what the hell? The Mexican-American car is named Ramone and is a low-rider and has a sexy wife with a big butt (Flo). There are sumo wrestling cars. Oh, and a three-wheeler car wearing a Vietnamese straw hat. Because of course there is.

Again, I don't really think this is because of some blatant malice or intent on the part of the filmmakers, but I do think that it's a problem. It's a problem because it means that millions of little kids, Munchkin included, are getting the impression that this is all there is of those cultures, and that these stereotypes are fine. Totally fine to stick a car in a recognizable geisha outfit and then laugh about it. Not terrible at all.

Have I mentioned that the Munchkin isn't white? I don't know if I've mentioned that. But he isn't.

All of the main characters in these movies are implicitly white. They're implicitly white in the same way that they're implicitly male. Because everything not white or not male is signified as such, is shown to be Other. So the female cars get eyelashes and are all pretty, and the not white cars are racial stereotypes. In the hopes of making these things obvious to their preschool audience, Pixar has managed to perpetuate some pretty offensive crap, and they're doing it in the name of entertainment.

Just like I don't want Munchkin getting the idea that women are fundamentally only there for decoration or character development, I don't want him to come to believe that his skin color makes him Other. Different. I want him to feel like the normal kid he is, obsessions and occasional tantrums included. I want him to never feel like the outsider. And these movies? They're telling him he doesn't belong. I hate that.

The stories we tell and the way we tell them aren't just a vision of who we are now, they actively shape who we will be in the future. So when Pixar, which considers itself a progressive studio, insists on churning out movie after movie with white male leads, it's shaping an environment where white men are all that matters, and everything else is different. Other. Wrong.

Excuse me if I don't want to live in that world.


  1. Some bad news and good news. The bad news is that my nephew was obsessed with Cars at three. He's now seven and it's not entirely gone away. The big problem, in terms of feeding obsession, is merchandise; if you want to buy a kid an age-appropriate present, there's always something Cars-themed he doesn't have yet. It's particularly clever that the cars get various paint jobs in the movies, so you can buy multiple toy versions of the same character. Urgh!

    However, I have managed to plant some other seeds. I don't know if Maid Marian & Her Merry Men ever made it to the States (perhaps not, very British humour), but he can now associate girls with mud and cunning, at the very least. I've also introduced him to some of the softer Myazaki movies, set in Japan with prominent female characters (Ponyo has a boy hero but three generations of complex female characters - it's a very good movie for little ones, so long as they can cope with a little menace).

    He also loves the the Despicable Me films which, though not without flaws, don't have quite the same gender problems as Cars (or indeed, the Ice Age franchise - how you can have Queen Latifah play a woolly mammoth and still not edge past the Bechdel Test, I just don't know).

    1. Oh man. The Munchkin has so freaking many Cars toys I want to scream. And so, for the record, does his mother. She's constantly trying to edge him past his obsession, but he's at the age where anything with an engine that makes noise is the best thing ever, so Cars and toy cars and books about cars and trucks are his obsession.

      I'm actually planning to start reading the Redwall books to him when he gets a little older, because I found those to be really engrossing as a kid and they have great female protagonists in a lot of the books. Also the Miyazaki films are a great idea - what age do you think it's cool to start with Kiki's Delivery Service or something?

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