The new Disney-Pixar film Incredibles 2, a follow-up to 2004’s superhero-family story The Incredibles, hits theaters on Friday and is already getting rave reviews. That shouldn’t be surprising, though: Pixar, which was acquired by Disney in 2006, is basically the top of the heap when it comes to children’s movies. The studio is known for a legendarily immersive creative process, high-concept feature films that are somehow legible to children and adults alike and making people cry. A lot.
Starting with 1995’s Toy Story, successive Pixar films have tackled themes like workers’ rights (A Bugs Life), environmentalism (Wall-E) and neuropsychology and interpersonal relationships (Inside Out). The feature films have also been opportunities for Pixar animators to flex their new tech — Monsters, Inc. showed off detailed animated fur and Finding Nemo introduced realistic-looking water.
But when it comes to female characters, Pixar has seemed to struggle. A 2017 Vanity Fair story was headlined, “Pixar’s Had a Problem With Women for Decades,” and cited allegations of inappropriate behavior against studio co-founder John Lasseter and the startlingly low percentage of major writing credits on Pixar films that have gone to women.
Rashida Jones told the New York Times in 2017 that she and her writing partner Will McCormick — who had, at one point, been working on the screenplay for Toy Story 4 — parted ways with the studio because of, as Jones put it, “a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice.”
The new Incredibles 2 focuses on the mom of the film’s central superhero family: Elastigirl, voiced by Holly Hunter. According to reviews, the storyline deals with Elastigirl heading back to work as a superhero while her husband, the protagonist of the first movie, stays home with the kids. Focusing on Elastigirl instead of her husband seems to make Incredibles 2 a rare female-led Pixar film. To measure just how rare it is in the Pixar canon, I decided to take a look at just how many of the studio’s feature films thus far (not including the upcoming Incredibles 2) have had female main characters.
Toy Story (1995)
Here’s the now-classic film that started it all. Toy Story may have launched the Pixar brand, told a heartwarming story about friendship and growing up and introduced a generation of kids to the idea that their toys come alive when they’re not looking, but when it comes to female characters, the movie falls flat.
Woody, and to a slightly lesser extent, Buzz Lightyear, are far and away the stars of this film, and their conflict-turned-bromance is its beating heart. And even though they’re animated toys, they’re also white dudes. There aren’t even really any other toys voiced by women, with the exception of Bo Peep, voiced by Annie Potts, who is there as Woody’s sort-of flirtation.
A Bug’s Life (1998)
A Bug’s Life, which my editor unfairly deemed “lesser Pixar,” is the story of Flik, a worker ant who labors in a colony where grasshopper overlords demand a percentage of the ants’ harvest each year. Weirdly, this wasn’t even the only animated ant comedy that year — A Bug’s Life was released just months after the premiere of the suspiciously similar DreamWorks film Antz.
Flik is a man — albeit an ant man — and the film’s few supporting female characters are mostly there to serve Flik’s story. There’s his love interest, Atta, voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, her kid sister, Dot, voiced by a young Hayden Panettiere, and various female bugs in the rest of the cast. But it’s undeniably Flik’s story and the girl is his to get.
Toy Story 2 (1999)
Toy Story 2, which sees the gang working to rescue Woody after he’s stolen by a collector, is more of an ensemble film. This is a sequel, after all, so it’s really a fond reintroduction to familiar characters. It also brings in several new female characters, including Barbie, voiced by Jodie Bendon, Mrs. Potato Head, voiced by Estelle Harris, and most notably Jessie the Cowgirl, voiced by Joan Cusack.
Jessie might be the most substantive female character Pixar introduced up to this point. She has her own motivating trauma (her old owner grew out of her) and isn’t there just to act as a motivator for the male characters. But the stars of the film are still very much Buzz and Woody and their ongoing friendship.
Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Monsters, Inc. arguably pushed Pixar’s storytelling forward considerably, from the realm of “Huh, that’s a cute idea,” to “Wow, how did they come up with that?” Mike and Sulley are two monsters working at the Monsters, Inc. factory, where monsters sneak into children’s bedrooms at night via closet door portals and harness the children’s screams to power their city of Monstropolis.
But again, the film, which centers mostly on the two male best friends, is lacking in female characters. There’s Boo, a little human child around whom much of the plot is based, but she doesn’t speak their language and serves mostly as an adorable plot device. Jennifer Tilly voices Celia, Mike’s girlfriend, and Bob Peterson voices Roz, an administrator/secret agent who provides some dry comedy in a mostly slapstick movie. But Mike and Sulley are the heroes.
Finding Nemo (2003)
As of 2017, Finding Nemo was still Pixar’s biggest box-office hit (when adjusted for inflation). Audiences clearly connected to the timeless story, set amid stunning ocean visuals, of a father learning to handle his son’s growing need for independence. Nemo is unquestionably a Pixar classic.
But does it have a female main character? Well, sort of. Marlin and Nemo are the heroes of the film, and their separation and epic journeys back to each other are its central plot. But the forgetful tropical fish Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, is the film’s breakout star and gets plenty of her own screen time and character development. Her (nonromantic!) relationship with Marlin is a nice foil to Marlin and Nemo, so, while it may not be Dory’s movie (that came later), she’s pretty crucial.
The Incredibles (2004)
Okay, yes, The Incredibles is about the whole family, but Bob Parr, aka Mr. Incredible, is the central character. The Incredibles, which imagines a world where public opinion has turned against superheroes and people with powers have been forced to live in bland, suburban anonymity, is both a thoughtful take on a genre film and a meditation on aging, domesticity and masculinity.
Ultimately, Mr. Incredible, who’s tired of his quiet, monotonous life and itches to get back into the thrilling world of fighting supervillains, needs his family, including his wife, Helen (aka Elastigirl), and daughter, Violet, to help rescue him. So, in true Pixar fashion, the key to success is learning to work together and understand each other’s strengths. But even though Violet and Helen are fleshed out, it’s Bob’s lesson to learn.
Full disclosure: I have not seen any of the Cars movies because I cynically believe they are the Pixar franchise with the least amount of heart and soul and exist mostly to sell toys. Also, the premise irks me — if the world is only cars, where did they come from? Are the wheels their hands? However, careful analysis of the movie’s Wikipedia plot summary lead to the conclusion that no, there isn’t a female main character in Cars.
The star of the film appears to be Lighting McQueen (a red race car) who gets stuck in the small town of Radiator Springs. McQueen’s racing rivals, Strip Weathers and Chick Hicks, are boy cars. So is his aging mentor, Doc, and his new friend, Mater the tow truck. The most significant female character seems to be McQueen’s sort-of love interest, a lawyer car named Sally Carrera, voiced by Bonnie Hunt, whose purpose is mostly to help McQueen learn a lesson about hard work and the value of friendship.
Back to the classics. Ratatouille is a lovely tribute to true foodie culture and a kindhearted film about being more talented than you’re given credit for. Remy is a rat who dreams of rising above his station and becoming a chef. He befriends Linguini, a human and a terrible cook at a Paris restaurant. Soon enough, Remy discovers he can direct Linguini’s movements by perching on top of his head and pulling his hair, so, Cyrano de Bergerac-style, Remy does the thinking and Linguini follows his orders, making delicious dishes the rat dreams up.
The film is a romantic, visually gorgeous depiction of Paris that will make viewers hungry for French dishes they’ve never even tried, but it’s light on female characters. Remy, Linguini, the vicious food critic Anton Ego and Skinner, the enterprising restaurant owner, are all male characters. There’s really only one woman, Colette, who’s the restaurant’s only female cook and becomes Linguini’s love interest.
More honesty from me, this might be my favorite Pixar film. Wall-E is a subdued movie that tackles heavy themes like environmentalism and humanity in a post-apocalyptic future where the Earth has been destroyed by capitalism run amuck. Wall-E is a lone robot who lives by himself in a trash-filled wasteland, surrounded by the refuse left behind by humans who’ve left the planet to live on a luxury spaceship. He spends all day cleaning up after humanity, comforting himself with clips from Hello, Dolly!
There aren’t actually that many named characters in Wall-E, besides Wall-E himself and the sleek robot he falls in love with, named Eve (in a not-so-subtle Biblical allusion). There is the male captain of the spaceship and various, mostly anonymous humans who are depicted (with somewhat fatphobic derision) as lazy, screen-addicted, mindless consumers. Wall-E is the star of the film, and is coded as male and Eve, coded as female, is mainly his romantic interest.
Ellie, Carl’s wife and the most significant female character in Up, is killed off in the (admittedly very moving) first scenes of the film. Carl is left a crotchety widow, unable to make new connections but determined to fulfill Ellie’s childhood dreams of exploring the remote South American locale of Paradise Falls.
An eager local “wilderness explorer” named Russell tags along and the two grow to care for each other and escape the evil explorer Charles Muntz in the process. It’s a sweet story of cross-generational friendship but it’s shockingly light on female characters. The heroes, villain and even the talking dog are all male characters. The giant bird, whom Russell names Kevin, turns out to be female and has some chicks to take care of, but calling the bird a significant character is a stretch, so let’s not even try.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
The third film in the Toy Story franchise is even more of an ensemble film than the second, but Woody and Buzz, now iconic Pixar characters, still dominate the show. Toy Story 3 returns to the themes of loss and mortality that came up in the first two — after all, every child grows out of their toys eventually — but with Andy heading off to college, the threats to the toys’ relevancy is more urgent. All of Andy’s toys are packed up in a box marked for the attic, but they wind up getting accidentally donated to a local daycare instead.
They then have to find their way back to Andy (again) while dealing with a twisted teddy bear named Lotso and his henchmen. Even though Woody and Buzz are the stars, Jessie, Barbie and Mrs. Potato Head are part of the crew — though they’re all paired off with male toys. And the child who winds up lovingly taking in Andy’s hand-me-downs by the end of the film is a little girl, Bonnie, so we’ll give this one a “maybe” when it comes to female main characters and stay optimistic for the upcoming Toy Story 4.
Cars 2 (2011)
We already know I haven’t seen any of the three Cars movies so let’s return to the Wikipedia plot summary to guide us. Cars 2 again focuses on Lightning McQueen, but this time he’s traveling around the world for some car-related reasons. In addition to the racing, an evil group of cars are apparently working to destabilize a popular, environmentally friendly fuel and keep all the cars reliant on oil, so there may be some sort of environmental message in there.
Again, McQueen’s racing competitors are male and so is much of his entourage. There’s a new female character — Holley Shiftwell, a secret agent car, voiced by Emily Mortimer — but by all accounts it’s still McQueen’s story.
Finally, nearly two decades after the release of Toy Story, we’ve got a Pixar film that unambiguously features a female main character. Brave is the story of Merida, a princess of a Medieval Scottish clan, who is set to be married off to one of several boys from neighboring clans. They arrive to compete for her hand in marriage, but Merida beats them all in the contest.
Merida, voiced by Kelly Macdonald, clashes with her mother, Elinor, voiced by Emma Thompson, who wants her to agree to follow tradition and get married. Merida seeks out a spell from a witch that she hopes will allow her to follow her dreams of independence, but she winds up transforming her mother Elinor into a bear. Telling a princess story might be stepping on parent-company Disney’s toes a little bit, but, as Merida works to right her mistakes, Brave comes around to the universal message of following your heart without hurting the people around you. And it’s got Merida and her relationship with her mother at its center.
Monsters University (2013)
After releasing a few sequels, Pixar decided to venture into prequel territory with Monsters University, a look back on the origins of Mike and Sulley’s friendship, when the two were in college together at the fittingly named Monsters University. The plot has Mike and Sulley start off as rivals but they eventually become friends after they’re forced to work together to compete in a campus-wide scaring contest.
Much like the first film, Monsters University is light on female characters of consequence. Some of the plot revolves around Mike and Sulley joining competing fraternities on campus, so not only are the two male characters at the film’s center, many of the characters around them are male, too.
Inside Out (2015)
Here’s Pixar back to doing what Pixar does best: earnest, simple messages wrapped up in a complex, high-concept world. Inside Out is the story of the anthropomorphic emotions that live inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. When Riley’s family moves from Minnesota to California, the big transitions she’s experiencing throw her insides for a loop.
Joy and Sadness struggle to stabilize things inside of Riley’s brain, going off on a quest and leaving the other emotions, Anger, Fear and Disgust, in charge, to disastrous results. Refreshingly, Inside Out has not one but two fully developed female characters as its heroes — there’s Riley and then there’s Joy, who lives inside of her. Sadness too comes along from much of the ride, and the relationship between Sadness and Joy might be the most fully developed female friendship in Pixar films to date.
The Good Dinosaur (2015)
I have to admit, I actually forgot this Pixar film even existed. To be fair, it was released in the same year as the incredible Inside Out, and it understandably got overshadowed. The Good Dinosaur imagines an alternate timeline where the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs never hit Earth, and dinosaurs and humans share the planet. Arlo is an Aptosaurus who just can’t get excited about taking over his family farm. When his father dies, Arlo winds up stuck far from home with an orphaned human child he calls Spot.
In true Pixar fashion, Arlo and Spot team up, despite their differences, and each find their way to their respective homes. As for female main characters, Arlo has a mother, voiced by Frances McDormand, and he and Spot encounter a female T-Rex over the course of their journey, but the two lost boys are the film’s stars.
Finding Dory (2016)
This long-awaited sequel to Finding Nemo follows Dory, voiced again by Ellen DeGeneres, on her quest to discover her origins. While Finding Nemo treated Dory’s short memory as a recurring fish gag, Finding Dory takes it as an allegory for any kind of difference, and treats it seriously and compassionately. Dory is frustrated by her inability to remember her family and she sets out to find them.
Her journey also expands on the scope of the first film. Instead of taking place on and around the Australian coastline, Finding Dory takes Dory, Marlin and Nemo across the Pacific Ocean and all the way to California, where Dory winds up trapped in an aquarium. Dory is unquestionably the main character of this film, with Marlin, Nemo and the other fish she meets along the way relegated to sidekick roles, with the job of supporting her on her journey.
Cars 3 (2017)
Back at it again with the cars. Cars 3 has Lightening McQueen, once a talented rookie, as a veteran racer who’s worried he’s over the hill. According to, again, the Wikipedia summary, McQueen, already threatened by a new, younger generation of race cars, gets in a devastating crash during a pivotal race. Traumatized by his accident, McQueen winds up at a training center where he’s assigned to Cruz Ramirez, a trainer and (finally!) a female race car.
While McQueen is still the hero of the film, Cruz is at least his trainer, and not his love interest. And by the end of the film, McQueen helps Cruz fulfil her dream of racing competitively. Maybe the inevitable Cars 4 will put Cruz in the driver’s seat, so to speak.
If I was ranking the Pixar movies most guaranteed to make you cry, Coco might finish at the top of that list. A loving return to some enduring Pixar themes — family, memory, mortality — Coco is also a thoughtful tribute to Mexican culture, specifically the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos and the vision of an afterlife where dead relatives wait for their annual chance to visit the land of the living. Miguel is a 12-year-old boy who longs to be a musician, even though music is forbidden in his family. He accidentally crosses over to the Land of the Dead, where he tries to track down a famous musician he believes might be his long-lost great-great-grandfather.
Coco was the first Pixar movie to feature an all-Latinx cast — a valuable and necessary measure in a film that depicts a specifically Mexican culture. But when it comes to female lead characters, despite Miguel’s emotional scene with his great-great-grandmother, Coco is another no.