Gender-coding, Heteronormativity, and Pixar’s LAVA

Pixar fails at body positivity

UPDATED: We’re added some more information about several of the director’s inspirations for the character designs.

Discmaimer: I have seen this movie. Twice.

Pixar’s latest feature Inside Out opened to near-universal critical acclaim. A thoughtful piece that finds colourful and creative ways to tell a complex story, one aimed at reconciling conflicting emotions in order to heal. While one certainly can’t expect that same level of exploration from a seven minute short peceding it, the sheer volume of negative responses to Lava has been a fascinating thing to witness. For some, it’s simply a matter of visual and auditory aesthetics. There are those that call the designs obnoxious, and song even more so, but there are also those that would argue the opposite. That being said, it’s hard to recall the last time there was such an outpouring of hatred for something as seemingly innocuous as a Pixar short, and in the age of social media, voluminous negative reactions are easy to equate with baseless outrage. In the case of this particular film however, there seems to be a certain amount of justification for it.

Before I dive in, it might be fair to say that many of us are devoting far too much time to thinking about a short that we could easily sweep under the rug, but it also seems like conversations about how it’s ugly or annoying might be trying to articulate something more complicated. Not all of them of course, for some it really is just a matter of superficial specifics, and that’s okay. I’m not here to address things that boil down purely to personal taste. However, the problem with how we may or may not want to tackle something like this often deals both with what we’re engaging, and how we’re engaging it. On one hand, a short is merely just a short, a tiny little experiment or a personal vision brought to life, but what we’re engaging here isn’t just any short. It’s a short produced by one of the world’s foremost animation studios, showcased in front of a film that opened on over 4,000 screens in the United States alone. Pixar specializes in four-quadrant films. Their stories and products are aimed at almost every viewer demographic, so to dismiss Lava and Inside Out as merely ‘children’s entertainment’ in order to deflect the conversation might be disingenuous, not to mention the fact that it being aimed at kids makes it all the more important to understand.

The film itself is hardly out of the way of countless other animated shorts, including Pixar’s own The Blue Umbrella from 2013. Two anthropomorphized inanimate objects, in this case volcanoes, long for each other’s presence in a love-at-first-sight tale (or love-at-first-song) that ends happily. It almost feels like something you can’t get mad about, because it has such pure intentions. A story of emotional longing told through song, one where the mere idea of being with a specific person is broad enough to strike a chord, and it feels almost innocent. That is, of course, until you start getting into the specifics, and you realize that its innocence is something that simply stems from its adherence to strict tradition within the realm of animation. Lava itself is not the problem, at least not in its totality. How could it be? But what it most certainly seems to be is a symptom, one that inadvertently perpetuates the problem, or a series of problems for that matter.

Part of the reason for the film being lampooned is that it’s an empty story. A tale of fantastical romance where the main volcano (pictured above) sees various animals paired up around him. Two birds fly side by side, two dolphins jump out of the sea in unison, and two turtles lie together on the beach. The volcano sings a song about his dream of finding someone to love (or someone to ‘lava’), and as time goes by, he lives his life alone, sinking lower and lower into the ocean. Unbeknownst to him, an undersea volcano hears his song, and rises to the surface just as the first volcano sinks. She looks around but fails to see him, as she begins singing the same song, after which he rises back to the surface using…. lava powers, or something.

The story doesn’t particularly have any weight to it beyond two humanoid volcanoes’ seemingly innate desire for romance, without which they’re destined to die alone. The designs are said to be partially based on the actors that voice them, Kuana Torres Kahele and Napua Greig, but there doesn’t seem to be much more than a vague resemblance. This is what the ‘female’ volcano looks like:

There’s nothing particularly wrong with giving an inanimate object human features for the sake of an animated story, but there’s a certain hypocrisy to how storytellers often go about it. The gender-coding of such objects, or even of animals like cats and dogs, often focuses on externalizing feminine traits. For instance, as Anita Sarkeesian points out in her Tropes vs Women series, there’s nothing distinctly ‘male’ about a character like Pac Man, and Ms. Pac Man is merely Pac Man with a bow and makeup. Lava follows a similar set up, wherein the male volcano is, quite simply, a large mountain with a face, but the female volcano is not only designed to be slender and have a face that’s more recognizably ‘pretty’, but she even has what appears to be long, flowing hair. Put the two of them together, and you’ve got a stereotypical sitcom couple.

According To Jim. Married With Children. The Drew Carey Show. Still Standing. The King of Queens. The Flintstones. The aspect of the lead dynamic that these shows often carry from one decade to the next is the average, out-of-shape husband with the slim and attractive wife. In fact The Honeymooners, perhaps the earliest example of the trope, was one of the inspirations for the male volcano. The creators of The Simpsons even decided to satirize the dynamic way back when, not knowing that the show’s longevity would lead to its continuation through various popular shows by the likes of Seth MacFarlane. There’s nothing wrong with the idea in and of itself, people of all shapes and sizes are attracted to each other and end up together, and while there are a few counter-examples that exist as exceptions, it’s a standard for media that has no equal opposite.

Why is this a problem? Well, to put it simply, it’s a matter of body image and how cinema and television have the ability to influence our perception from a young age. This is especially true in the realm of live action, but the problem grows more complicated when we’re talking about media over which artists have complete control. Pixar has, in some way, subverted this in the past, with Merida from Brave rejecting her unattractive or goofy-looking suitors in favour of taking control of her own independence. She even goes so far as to symbolically burst forth from patriarchal constraints by ripping the seams of her outfit as she fires an arrow to take control of her own destiny, which is reason enough that her parents too might resemble one of those sitcom couples, but then you’ve got films like Up, in which the central romance features a similar dynamic.

Carl and Ellie are always going to be one of those great movie couples, and nothing I say about the way they look could take away from that. In fact, I may even go so far as to argue that their designs are part of their story, with Carl’s block-like features going on to reflect what would become his defining attitude. He’s a ‘square’ in the derisive sense, whereas Ellie’s more adventurous spirit is captured by her rounded, more free-form face. Tony Zhou even suggests that these characteristics are reflected by the design of their chairs, but at the end of the day, these are just their heads that we’re talking about. They’re beautifully stylized characters, but their overall features do still fall in line with the idea of the schlubby, unkempt dude and his “hot wife”.

Some of Pixar’s other couples inadvertently follow this pattern. In Wall-E and Cars 2, sleek, futuristic female models Eve and Matey fall for rusty, run-down male trash collectors (I love Wall-E, but that’s what he and Larry The Cable Truck are!), though perhaps a more fitting example might be Mike and Celia from Monsters Inc. While that’s moving into a different category from Brave and Up in terms of non-human designs, it isn’t quite robots and cars, and is a step closer to how the problem takes shape in Lava. It also helps bring up the problem from another angle, and that’s the angle of defining characteristics. Where Mike can be said to be defined by his shape and size, Celia is similarly defined by her hair and her long eyelash. In Lava, where the male volcano is defined by the fact that he’s volcano-shaped, the female volcano is defined by her ‘feminine’ traits: her hair and her lips. There’s nothing to suggest that characters like Mike and the male volcano can’t be female. That’s not the way they’re coded, but simply by looking at them, there’s nothing about them that screams ‘male’ as we ordinarily understand it, but they’re assumed to be male because that’s the default. This isn’t a new phenomenon in animation either, and isn’t even limited to characters that are shaped differently. Put a bow and long eyelashes on the instantly recognizable Mickey Mouse and he becomes his female counterpart Minnie. Or rather, subtract those additional gender-coded characteristics from Minnie and what we’re left with is the template: Mickey. (Also see: Bugs and Lola Bunny)

This perhaps speaks to a larger problem of how we often define femininity to begin with, and how much of it intrinsically tied to appearance and ‘sexual’ characteristics. For example, in our largely heteronormative society, a woman’s (hetero)sexuality isn’t just about her being attracted to men, but how attractive she is to men, in a traditional sense. Shorter hair, a lack of makeup and a larger physique are often equated with a woman being a lesbian, and while that’s not to say that there aren’t lesbians who resemble that image, it’s often a derisive notion, created by guys who use ‘lesbian’ as an insult. As a collective, we’ve historically set the standards for women’s appearance, and we’ve excused ourselves from having to live up to anything similar. While we might individually experience insecurities (I sure as heck do), there’s no situation in which my size is going to be used to discount my sexuality or invalidate my accomplishments. Granted, I may just be speaking from my own experience, and men also have self-esteem issues related to a thousand other things, but what we wear or the smoothness of our face isn’t nearly as much of a basis for dismissal as it often is for women. It takes me about fifteen minutes to get ready in the morning, in comparison to the hour or so it might take a lot of my girl friends, and while that sounds like some sort of tired comedy premise, it’s worth considering why that is.

There are certainly people (of all genders) who love to put on makeup, and I’d be the last one to tell someone whether or not they should, but in animation, makeup and accessories are often seen as defining characteristics because that’s how we see them otherwise. But if that’s how our society is structured, with female being coded as ‘makeup and long hair’ and male being coded as lack thereof, then it shouldn’t be as much of an issue, should it? Well, in theory (perhaps if that reductive binary wasn’t so strict) but in the process, it leads to a situation in which two things happen. Firstly, male characters are given defining traits that relate to all sorts of other features and subtle characteristics. This is a good thing! Animation that relies on detail to tell a story can make room for other elements by removing the need for exposition. Secondly however, it means that many female characters, once they’re defined by their perceived gender/sexual characteristics, no longer need to be molded in any specific way (physically or otherwise) to be recognized as female, especially in an entertainment climate where such a large number of female characters are defined solely in relation to men, or their function as part of men’s stories. Thus, what tends to happen is that once these gender-specific characteristics are established (hair, makeup, breasts, etc), the underlying template used is simply that of a very slender woman, because that’s considered the default for female characters. That too is a reductive explanation of how these things are brought to life, and it’s probably a description of the process in reverse, but it highlights what parts of the characters stand out. But if we decide to go the other way, we’re starting out either with a male template, or with one standard female body type and simply adding on hair and makeup.

And that’s just one part of the problem that Lava inadvertently encapsulates. The term ‘heteronormative’ doesn’t just apply to strict, binary social standards set for men and women individually, but the standards for how we expect the two groups to interact. More specifically, in the realm of romance. You could certainly boil it down to the default expectation of heterosexuality, which would be a fair point to bring up. Why do the volcanoes have to have any gender at all, let alone different or opposite genders? Perhaps that’s a conversation for another day, when we’re talking specifically about portrayals of sexuality in animation, or the lack thereof when it comes to anything deviating from the ‘norm’ – plus, it’s a question that could apply to pretty much 99% of media depicting heterosexual romance, so I won’t get into it for the time being. However, it’s not so much that the story features a ‘male’ and ‘female’ volcano that’s a problem, but rather how the story goes about portraying their romance. It’s something not only fatalistic, like we’ve seen in countless romantic stories over the years, but broken down to its barest elements, it posits their romantic relationship as necessary in a way that renders them lonely, sad, and on the verge of death without it.

What eventually gets each of them to the surface is the force of their musical longing for romantic love. The circumstances of the film are such that they’re completely alone until they find each other, and the male volcano happens to be surrounded by nothing but romantic couples, in the form of various animals. Within the world of the film, it’s understandable that he would then long for a similar kind of relationship, and then feel alone and worthless without it, although there’s no real basis for the female volcano to feel this way other than the song. His words. His desire. And the film never contextualizes it in such a way that alternatives might exist.

Once again, it bears repeating that this is a film meant for children, so perhaps I’m making a mountain out of a molehill since its internal logic is airtight. But then again, in being a film for children, it’s also not something that the target audience is going to look at and distinguish between the perspective of the characters and the perspective of the film or the author. It’s not a matter of the film’s construction, it’s a matter of kids being kids, and not having developed the critical thinking skills to make that distinction. Many adults probably wouldn’t make it, and for all we know, the perspective of the characters could very well be the perspective of the author! But what kids do absorb is what’s presented to them at face value. What the characters look like, what they want and how they get it are all things understood by young viewers, which informs an understanding of how the world around them works unless they’re told otherwise. That’s not to say they’re all going to believe that volcanoes can sing, but kids are capable of understanding what anthropomorphic characters are supposed to represent.

From Dr. Seuss, to Aesop’s fables, to most of Pixar’s oeuvre, there are lessons in there that we pick up on from an early age. Similarly, there are ideas and subconscious attitudes that become ingrained in us unless they’re otherwise challenged. For example, the question of “Can men and women be just friends?” is one that’s up for a lot of debate, and of course the answer is a resounding yes when taken literally, but the context of the question tends to be more specific than that. Countless books, movies and TV shows exist wherein two straight, single friends of the opposite sex end up together in some way, but it’s a struggle to think of a situation in which they don’t. Take Marvel’s recent Ant-Man for instance, where the hero and his female counterpart lock lips at the end despite there being no prior chemistry, and barely any indication of a romantic interest. Similarly, there are those who were surprised when Mako and Raleigh didn’t kiss at the end of Pacific Rim, because this is what’s expected of single, straight men & women within the same space. Cinematically speaking of course, but there have been times when we’ve all experienced expectations (if not outright pressure) to be in a romantic and/or sexual relationship with the ‘opposite’ sex, and the same is often true for lesbian, gay and bisexual people as well if they’re still in the closet. That’s not even taking into account people who are aromantic or asexual, many of whom don’t even know their orientations are valid, and still have those expectations placed upon them while feeling broken if they can’t live up to them. Even characters who don’t want to be in romantic or sexual relationships eventually ‘come around’ to the idea in most mainstraim films, because that’s what’s considered normal.

All that aside, even if we do simply look at a pair of single, heterosexual, hereroromantic, cisgender characters, one male and one female, the expectation of romance exists no matter the genre, and even when it doesn’t fit the tone or story. The kiss is the one moment in Edge of Tomorrow that a lot of people dislike, because like a lot of other stories, the romance is half-baked and doesn’t suit the narrative – but it’s considered the done thing. Similarly, this is what’s considered the done thing for kids as soon as they hit their teens, and by the time they’re in their twenties, they’re often shamed for not having been in a relationship or having had a sexual experience. The construct of virginity becomes something to be derided, and in the process, a hurdle to be crossed by whatever means necessary.

This is not to say that first sexual experiences shouldn’t be approached in cinema, or stories of first love, or first romance. These are all important stories to tell! But beyond a point, they become the only stories within their realm. The American teen comedy is almost synonymous with the hijinks surrounding getting laid, and in the case of films like Superbad and Project X, they’re about the guy “getting the girl” – which is to say that it’s the guy, like the male volcano, whose input matters more in the equation. And while I’m sure it’s a self-esteem kick for a lot of us guys to be told that we don’t have to look supermodel desirable in order to “get” the girl (our reward for simply being persistent), the girl that we’re “getting” is going to fall for us as soon as she learns to look past our exterior, but same is rarely expected of us, since our female prize is almost always looks like a supermodel, and all that is before we broach the subject of the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ yet again, and men that see women as an nothing more than an avenue to liberation or completion.

[If you’re still unfamiliar with the trope, you can find more on it here, here, here, here, here, and even here, where its originator suggests putting it to bed]

What does all this have to do with Lava exactly? Well, everything, kind of. Its story may not directly be about the pressures of sex and romance placed on kids from an early age, but it’s one of the many things that can plant those seeds. At this point it might seem like I’m simply picking on it because it’s an easy target, or like I’m trying to take shots at a storytelling superpower. That’s silly. I love Pixar! But this is conversation that’s bigger thanPxar. Hell, it’s a conversation bigger than American animation, but Lava happens tofind itself at its epicenter. Not just because it was met with such widespread disdain for something so seemingly harmless, but because it’s one of the purest distillations of all these inter-related issues with mainstream entertainment and it symbiotic relationship with our culture, packed into one compact space. It’s well meaning, and a lot of talent and effort went into making it. But for many, it seems to be straw that broke the camel’s back.

UPDATE: As noted by commenters, the designs are also partially based on Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and his wife Marlene in addition to Kuana Kahele and Jackie Gleason, according to director James Ford Murphy’s interview with Entertainment Weekly.