By NATALIE ANGIER
In his new animated film, Jerry Seinfeld plays Barry B. Benson, a wisecracking, moony-eyed, charmingly petulant New York honeybee who doesn’t want to spend his days as a worker bee stuck on the honeymaking assembly line. “You know, Dad, the more I think about it,” Barry says, “maybe the honey field just isn’t right for me.” To which his father, a proud, lifelong “honey stirrer,” snaps: “And you were thinking of, what, making balloon animals? That’s a bad job for a guy with a stinger!”
Swell comeback, Pop, but your son has a point, starting with the posterior one he shouldn’t have in the first place. Isn’t Barry supposed to be a he bee? Well, male honeybees don’t have stingers, for the simple anatomical reason that a bee’s stinger is a modified version of an ovipositor, the distinctly feminine organ through which a female insect lays her eggs.
Barry is absolutely right, however, to doubt his fitness for the honey trade. In the real world, every job on a beehive’s spreadsheet — foraging for nectar and pollen, fanning nectar into honey, fawning over the queen, squirting out wax, battling off bears, tossing out the trash and dead bees — is performed by a cast of workers that is homogeneously female. Sterile, yes, with stingers where their egg-laying tubes should be, but female nonetheless.
By bowdlerizing the basic complexion of a great insect society, Mr. Seinfeld’s “Bee Movie” follows in the well-pheromoned path of Woody Allen as a whiny worker ant in “Antz” and Dave Foley playing a klutzy forager ant in “A Bug’s Life.” Maybe it’s silly to fault cartoons for biological inaccuracies when the insects are already talking like Chris Rock and wearing Phyllis Diller hats. But isn’t it bad enough that in Hollywood’s animated family fare about rats, clownfish, penguins, lions, hyenas and other relatively large animals, the overwhelming majority of characters are male, despite nature’s preferred sex ratio of roughly 50-50? Must even obligately female creatures like worker bees and soldier ants be given sex change surgery, too? Besides, there’s no need to go with the faux: the life of an authentic male social insect is thrilling, poignant and cartoonish enough.
“It’s a pity they tell so much nonsense,” said Bert Hölldobler of Arizona State University, one of the world’s leading ant authorities, “when real insect societies are so full of little dramas.”
For male ants and honeybees, time is brief, their numbers briefer, and the patience of their sisters briefest of all. In a honeybee colony of, say, 40,000 bees, only 200 — half a percent — will be male, while among ant species like the harvesters, males may account for 10 percent or 15 percent of the total. Paradoxically, males are made through the withholding of sperm, hatching from eggs that the queen lays but does not fertilize with any of her stored semen samples, as she will to generate female workers. To compound the paradox, these genetic oddballs, these haploid mama’s boys born of asexual, semen-free means, will mature into what are really great big packets of sperm on the wing.
This is not to make light of the masculine charge. The resident queen may live half a dozen years or more and generate many millions of offspring, but the long-term success of a colony depends on its power to seed more colonies. It must send out young virgin queens to start new nests, and it must send out males to inseminate aspiring queens from other far-flung hymenopteran nations.
If worker bees and ants are thought of as the heart, lungs, liver and brain of a colony — the vital organs that keep the body alive — male bees and maiden queens are the colony’s gonads — the organs that are tuned to tomorrow.
The male honeybee’s form bespeaks his sole function. He has large eyes to help find queens and extra antenna segments to help smell queens, but he is otherwise ill-equipped to survive. On reaching adulthood, he must linger in the hive for a few days until his exoskeleton dries and his wing muscles mature, all the while begging food from his sisters and thus living up to his tainted name, drone.
Come the brief mating season and the entire hive pulses with hope. The males fly out and head far from home, the better to minimize the chance of mating with kin. They seek out “lekking spots” where scores or hundreds of eager drones congregate 20 or 30 feet in the air and await passing maiden queens. Should a queen fly by, she may be mobbed by a dozen or more males, each seeking the chance to love her to death: bee flinging, like bee stinging, is a lethal affair. After a male deposits sperm in the queen, his little “endophallus” snaps off, and he falls to the ground. In her single nuptial flight, the queen will collect and store in her body the sperm offerings of some 20 doomed males, more than enough to fertilize a long life’s worth of eggs.
A successful male is a dead male. A failure lives to stagger home and beg to be fed and to try again tomorrow. After a week or so of lekking, that’s it. The drone is deemed a drain, and if he won’t die for love, he must die for its lack. “The workers will start withholding food, the male gets weakened, and at some point the workers will grasp him and dump him out of the hive,” said Gene E. Robinson, who studies bees at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
A heartless ending, perhaps, but what a box office smash. Over 100 million years of evolution, the social insects have come to rule the insect world, forcing solitary species out to the edges and to make do with their scraps. Dr. Hölldobler observes that although ants, bees, termites and other hive-minded tribes account for only 1 percent of known insect species, “this 1 percent makes up 80 percent of all insect biomass.” The dry weight of ants alone, he said, already equals the dry weight of our own. Who knows whether by tomorrow the standard master of our domain won’t have a thorax, six legs and be best addressed as Mistress.
Pixar's always been a boy's club. The problem they have is that their preferred scriptwriters are boys and have no idea how to write women. It doesn't dawn on them to talk to their wives and female coworkers and daughters. The stories are still sweet, albeit gender impaired, and they make lots of money on their investment. The other studios act like those marine mammals that get trained by operant conditioning. They see Bubbles get a fish when he hits the red switch, so they assume Bubbles is getting the fish because he hits the red switch, not because he did a backflip and barrel roll before he hit the switch. The other studios see Pixar write juvenailia with an all male cast and assume that's a big part of the formula. I gave up on the Pixar/Disney Axis of Testosterone. I'm a big fan of Miyazaki, who has strong young ladies doing brave things in wondrous places. Each frame looks hand painted and just glows with magic, unlike the rubber boy dolls, toy fish, gender-confused insects and toy cars of Pixar/Disney.
— G H Waite, Anywhere But Hollywood
The gender disparity does matter, a lot. The audience for these films is in their formative years, and they watch these movies repeatedly. Like, daily, sometimes. They are absorbing all the messages these films portray, which include the message that society is mostly male, at least the important parts. They also act out scenes from their favorite films, and for whatever reason usually assign parts based on gender. So what does that tell girls? That there are not many roles for them to play. Boys have their pick; girls often get no more than one female role to choose. I hate A Bug's Life for its gender imbalance, and I'm now reluctant to see Bee Movie for the same reason.
We are Pixar geeks. We are uncomfortable with women. We choose to imagine a world with almost no women. It's just like Middle Earth.
— Amy B, SC
As a 40-something woman, my self-esteem suddenly soared when ten years ago I quit watching television and largely avoided movies. A discussion like this is exhausting because it exacts a real human price -- unfortunately, for those consuming Hollywood entertainment it colors our expectations and visions of life whether we know it or not (and most of us don't/won't admit it). I say, entertainment isn't worth this price. Spending nearly all our time in real life conditions us to so much more of the full range of human experience -- stories onscreen bore me to death now that I'm not used to them. To make a reference to another boy's club film, I took the blue pill. Advice to any depressed woman: try it, get a life without Hollywood, and it'll be the cheapest antidepressant you'll ever use.
— Hollywoodfree, Princeton, NJ
13th, 2007 8:29 am
I have long been disturbed by the gender imbalance in cartoons/animated films. Cartoons are directed at children, and I do not like that children are being exposed to entertainment that teaches them that the standard 'person' is male, that it is boys that get up to things, in a world full of boys and men. To those of you out there who have daughters, is that really what you want? I, for one, hope film makers could embrace a more socially responsible approach to the business. It's bound to pay off - a world that celebrates the common ground we all have as people rather than over-stress perceived gender differences is a far more interesting world to live in, and to watch.
— KK, London
To switch Hollywood for Oakland, "there is no there there". We don't write well for women because in truth we see them as tools. Their utility is based upon our needs and in story this turns them into vehicles. More often than not, when we do write strong female characters, they are us in drag rather than being in possession of true female voice. To remedy this we must begin to actually listen and redesign our inner world view. Just as we now do not notice all black NBA Teams or can see our gay friends as human first, women are funny, flawed, and speak of the human condition. We eliminate them from our work at the work's detriment.Were we to shut up long enough to become active listeners, we might learn to incorporate instead of sublimate and in the end, exchange artificial flavoring for organic truth.
— tillzen, El Paso Texas
Men have no interest in women as people.It's quite natural in the animal world.Why should it be different in cartoons? We only exist for breeding. Men want to compete, whether in business, sports, or war.Society forces them to tolerate our presence beyond the bedroom.They will tolerate women in business as long as those women retain the accoutrements of their role as breeders, note the Las Vegas showgirl look of many female news anchors, the pouffed hair and thick makeup. Men watching other men, can occupy their minds with honing strategies for bettering those other men, real or X-men.
— Rozmarija Grauds, Pennsylvania
Sadly, the more difficult it becomes to continue to construct imaginery adult worlds without complex women characters because we women (who buy a lot of movie tickets) want to see our real flawed selves and our imaginery heroic selves reflected on the big screen, just as men always have, the more cartoons are being made that are populated pretty much entirely by boys and men. And they get to do all of the fun stuff.
Does it matter? Yes. Every boy grows up hearing countless versions of the Beauty and the Beast story. He can believe that no matter how ugly or horrible he is, there is a woman out there somewhere who will love him for exactly who he is, despite his flaws. Someone tell me where the Beauty and the Beast stories are for girls! It's not Shrek -- she is not the ugly one loved by the handsome prince, regardless of her size, color, and other obvious flaws. When we have a tradition as rich with stories where the flawed and misunderstood girl gets the prince as we have the reverse, then I'll stop noticing how pretty much the whole spectrum of girls and women characters are disappearing from our collective story-telling imagination, just like the honey bees are disappearing from our hives. The only difference is, in the movies we know the reason and can do something about it.
— Boston, Boston, MA
The same discrimination exists in schools. Boys do not choose to read books with female protagonists. Girls will read either, therefore this discrimination is often perpetuated by teachers in the selection of books for English and history classes. (Another way to asssure the silencing of half our history.) Number the Stars is one of the great exceptions.
I will consider women equal when I see little boys freely choosing to read about the lives of female historical and fictional characters.
— lrando, Massachusetts
Cartoons are focused at children. Children are highly susceptible to gender norms that are not fact, but fiction. If we start showing young girls and boys, early on, that women are prizes to be sought out for their accessibility, the inequality of the sexes will continue. It is more important to promote equity (not mere equality) in children's films than in any other aspect of society. To those of you who say, it doesn't matter because it's just a cartoon... When we are talking about children, there is no "just a cartoon." Anything that we introduce to children will linger in our society until long after we are dead. WAKE UP! Show some responsibility, instead of always making excuses for sexism, racism and bigotry.
— Conscious White Male, Denver
Yes, cartoons matter. They're one of the many ways children are socialized about gender (and race, sexual orientation, class, etc.). And American cartoons, for better or worse, are seen by kids all over the world.
I'm just waiting, impatiently, for the end of the princess parade onscreen. Lots of little boys want to be astronauts or race car drivers, but little girls often say they want to be princesses. When I was little (1970's) girls were starting to see more to life than nurse, secretary, or teacher (fine professions, but too limited a list), and now we've come to . . . princess. Sassy princesses, but princesses nonetheless.
Elizabeth A., Washington, DC: The many Japanese women I've worked with would say that they only have freedom if they don't marry. If they do, forget it.
— Tracy, Washington DC
It's not about being funny, it's about being able to get away with it. They are usually self deprecating heroes, bumbling (B movie) their way to the end. You'd have the NAACP, Women's rights groups, you name it, up in air if you didn't use a white male to poke fun at (Eddie Murphy/Bill Cosby exceptions). How about poking fun at a fat dumb women instead of Homer or the Family Guy? Alternatively, it could be a beautiful, thin, can do everything woman. But then again, their would be a problem with promoting the ideal unachievable woman. It's just not possible to do based on cultural insensitivities. The transition away from men superheroes will happen, but a for profit industry is not going to lead it. It will jump on the bandwagon and... take credit for leading (like environmental documentaries).
— David Doucette, Seattle
I love Hayao Miyazaki's movies. They are more than wonderful. And he's a man. From a conservative culture and generation. So there you go. It's not black and white. Unfortunately, it's a combination of our culture and marketing that lends to male oriented story lines. As a woman, I don't care for the "Lifetime" approach to balancing the scales. It has to be more fundamental. I hate Lifetime movies. I'd rather watch a male buddy cop movie any day. We need better stories, better writing in general. Get away from mediocrity. Hayao is creme de la creme. BTW, who doesn't love Starbuck on BG? What a terrific herione. It's live action, but a good example of good writing for women characters.
— Pam, New York
As a writer I am constantly flooded by ideas for stories where the lead is always a male. But I am a woman, a woman writer, how can this be? After I get the idea for a story with a male main character I spend some time to devise a way for the main character to become a woman. It is a fairly simple thing to do since most of the times in my stories both men and women can play the main character, both perfectly interchangeable. I then proceed to write the story with a main
female character or a couple of main characters, a female and a male. I always try for the female to be away from female stereotypes, passive, sweet, weak, housewife and the male away from the male stereotypes, active, always intelligent, always reasonable and logical, strong. Why I do this? To avoid adding to the overwhelming presence of males in the upper levels of everything, from stories, to power, to politics, to businesses, to CEOs. When J. K. Rowling, author of Harry Potter, was asked why Harry wasn’t a girl she responded, “it came to me very clearly as a boy.” Of course it did, as it does to me every time, unless I need a pregnancy and then, of course, there
is no choice. Harry Potter is a male because sadly enough our societies’ role model is a white man, usually young and good looking. We women remain in the shadows, behind our men, taking care of the children, and this has to change if our societies really care for the basic human rights, and it is a right to be equal, women an men, equally present, equally important. Disney is a
wonderfully nasty company with too much power not used to better our societies but to
reproduce endlessly a model that discriminates against everything that is not this young good looking white male, with perfectly white teeth and an attitude of both being the savior and the only competent creature under the sky. It is not that difficult to create female characters appealing to both male and female viewers and readers, it only takes a little bit more of imagination, and this I am afraid, is a quality too many are lacking.
— Mar Valdecantos, Spain/Minnesota
Unfortunately it is not just Hollywood that is confused by the 50:50 sex ratio pervasive throughout most of nature. Most people tend to assume that an animal is male unless they see it in a motherly role or associate it with a "feminine animal" (e.g some people tend to think all cats are female!)
I thus challenge you all to refer to the next animal-stranger you meet--whether a duck in a pond or a mouse in your house, as a "she." Just try it--assume female unless given reason to think otherwise. You'll find, this is challenging at first, but over time you will adjust and hopefully begin to see the world in a more equitable manner. This exercise is especially important for those of us with kids, because it is kids minds that are most shaped (and perhaps misshaped) by assumptions about gender and which geneder(s) in the world is doing all the interesting stuff.
— Girl Scientist, Boston, MA
I've tried to make this point, that women are drastically underrepresented in movies and TV, for a long time. Sure, there are women, but they're almost always there exclusively as a foil for the male main
character. If you don't believe me, try this thought experiment (courtesy of Alison Bechdel). What was the last movie you saw where:
1) Two women...
2) ...had a conversation...
3) ...about something other than a man.
I don't care whether the conversation was about nuclear disarmament or hairspray -- what was the last movie you saw like that? It's a pitifully tiny requirement, but it's almost never met outside of "chick flicks" (which are annoying for their own special reasons).
To those pointing out that the leading men are often irresponsible doofuses, partnered with ultracompetent, put-upon women in secondary roles: That doesn't make it better. The main character, the person we're supposed to care about and identify with, is still always male. The comedy pattern used to be solid, sensible men and ditzy women we could laugh at. As feminist ideas became more broadly accepted, and flighty, dumb women were no longer as funny, the formula changed to men acting like children and women acting like their mothers (think "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Home Improvement," "Malcolm in the Middle" -- pretty much every family-based sitcom). It's not a big improvement.
— Sarah Stockwell, Upstate New York
Unfortunately, this has nothing to do with new media, technology or Pixar being a "boys' club". Take a walk down the children's section of a library and you will find the same gender ratio disparity (humans, animals, insects and while we are at "it" - trains and other neutral gender mechanical objects), in spite of the fact that at least half the writers of children's books are apparently women. JK Rowling is only the most recent in a long line of female writers of children's book series with predominantly male protagonists. As a boy growing up in India, I remember being stunned to find out that Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton were women! I wonder what would be the reaction of American boys to the fact that many of the "Franklin W. Dixon"s writing the Hardy Boys books are actually women.
As far as comparing current US society with the rest of the world goes, a comment by one of the other writers reminds me of a poster by the Gorilla Girls from the late 80's. All it said was, "It's even worse in Europe.". All I can add is, "Still true.".
As Gloria Steinem exhorted long ago, it is not enough that we bring up our daughters well, the time is well past that we concentrated on bringing up our sons as non-sexists. Unfortunately, I see little effort along those lines even in this "third-generation".
— rstate, Amherst, NY
This movie's gender bias and the many other animated films reflects the gender disparity in the animation industry itself. On my animation production alone, I am the only female in my department (1 out of 5). It's hard to pass across better female representation in animation when a huge majority of the writers, directors, producers, story artists, and animators are male. They are putting on the screen what they know best: their own (male) perspective.
— JT, NYC
I'm currently in my early 20s, but I am from the generation that was assaulted with all the animated Disney movies where female characters were nothing more than pretty things to look at. But as JL so aptly put it, I learned to identify with the male characters and disregard the gender roles associated with the female sex. And as a young non-Caucasian woman, I never appreciated the exoticized tone of Disney movies depicting Jasmine, Pocahantas, etc.
It makes me so angry these days to see little girls fawning over characters who lack substance and strength, especially those generated by Disney and Pixar. And then of course, there are the likes of Paris Hilton and such, who further the
There are some wonderful animated movies, shows and comics/graphic novels, but usually few and far in between. Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel "Persepolis" is coming to the big screen in animated form, so hopefully this will provide girls with an introspective look at what females are made of.
— EKS, New York,NY