by Anya Josephs
I’m going to admit that, although Big Hero 6 is technically aimed more at the kid set and I’m a college junior, I’ve seen the animated movie three times already. My friend Alison dragged me along during finals week because she heard there were women scientist characters (she’s a chemistry major). By the second viewing, I was the one dragging my brother and 11-year old cousin along. Finally, I watched it again with my boyfriend, with whom I then discussed the feminist successes, and shortcomings, of the movie at length.
Lately, more and more attention has been paid to the way girls are treated in children’s movies. With the astronomical success of Disney’s Frozen, many have tried to make the case that this story of two sisters is a feminist tale. You can see some criticisms of this idea here at feministdisney. But where Frozen’s success is limited— only two women characters, both in the classic, feminine princess role, and with basically identical faces, as well as an overall lack of diversity— Big Hero 6 shatters the mold without explicitly trying to.
It doesn’t need to- Big Hero 6 is a movie where the central characters are a boy and a robot, and the central relationship between that boy and his brother. Like so many other kid’s movies marketed to boys, (I’m thinking particularly of the beloved and wonderful Toy Story series), it would have been easy to sideline female characters. Instead, of the titular team of six, there are two women, three men, and one genderless robot.
The group is diverse in a number of ways. While kids’ movies have the unfortunate tendency to either feature all-white casts or odd stereotypes when set in non-white cultures (like Aladdin, Mulan, or Pocahontas), Big Hero 6 features a multi-ethnic group of friends. It’s set in a fictional city that mixes elements of San Francisco and Tokyo, but unlike so many movies and TV shows doesn’t whitewash its setting.
Hiro, the central, yes, hero, and his brother seem to be mixed-race, since they’re both of Asian descent but their aunt Cass, who serves as the principal parent figure in the movie, doesn’t seem to be. Gogo is also Asian, while Fred is white. Honey Lemon is Latina, although there’s been some valid criticism that the character design might represent whitewashing. These characters show a much broader spectrum of different backgrounds than any other kid’s movie I can think of.
To me, though, the most important example of diversity in terms of race is the character of Wasabi. In a cultural climate where black boys (and maybe especially someone like Wasabi, who is significantly physically bigger than the other characters and drawn to look muscular and strong) are often treated with suspicion and fear, it’s awesome to have kids see a character like Wasabi. Like all the team, he’s a hero because of his intelligence, even his nerdiness. He’s gentle-hearted and rule-abiding to a fault, and definitely won me over easily.
All of the team members are just as richly characterized, though we don’t get to see as much of any of them as I might want. Gogo, for example, regularly uses the phrase “woman up!” to encourage herself or her teammates— quietly subverting the gendered language of the expression “man up”. This isn’t played for a joke— we aren’t meant to laugh at this girl-power statement. Gogo, her tough attitude, and her pride in being a woman, are treated with respect by the other characters and the movie.
Honey Lemon is the other girl on the team- and it’s awesome that there are two girls in this movie who both get to be superheroes, when so often superhero teams seem to have a one-woman limit. Furthermore, she’s a really unique character. She’s very feminine in terms of her presentation, she has the kinds of hobbies girls get made fun of for, like taking selfies with her friends, and her superhero costume includes a pink purse. And none of this is mocked or belittled at all by the film- she’s just as serious as a scientist, a genius, and a superhero as all the other characters. She and Gogo, the “tougher” female character, are never played off against each other— instead, they’re all part of the same supportive group of friends.
Even Fred, the privileged, wealthy character who isn’t a genius robotics student, and who is characterized as something of a ridiculous slacker, never treats his female teammates with any disrespect.
They’re all friends and equals. They support Hiro, but don’t make excuses for his sometimes-terrible behavior. The only woman who unconditionally nurtures him when he acts like a child is his aunt Cass— and notably, unlike many other movie superheroes and their leading ladies, he acts like a child because he’s actually fourteen years old, and she takes care of him because she’s actually his caregiver. None of his female friends are made responsible for his feelings.
Finally, the really unique member of the team is Baymax, the robot designed by Hiro’s brother. After seeing the movie, I spent a long time talking with my boyfriend over whether or not the character is gendered at all— and finally, we decided that Baymax isn’t. Although Hiro calls Baymax the distinctively masculine nickname “buddy,” that seems like it might be more of a reflection of Hiro’s need for a father figure than the robot’s gender. The character’s design is gender neutral, the “huggable” design Hiro’s brother invented making Baymax’s role as a caregiver more important than a clear gender.
Again, this is an amazing step forward for kid’s movies. Very often, even non-human characters are anthropomorphized in a clearly gendered way. Check out Toy Story again, where all the non-human-looking toys— from the T-rex to the Slinky dog— are clearly male. In Monsters Inc., the monsters also seem to be men by default— even though there’s no reason a secret group of scare-producing monsters would even have the same understanding of gender as we do. When there are girl characters, they’re often and unnecessarily depicted as different than the male default. Minnie Mouse has long eyelashes and pink hair, I guess so everyone can tell she’s a girl mouse.
Baymax is the first character I can think of that really is genderless— the filmmakers don’t need to construct this character as male or female. Baymax is also the real heart of this movie— a character that teaches love and care for others as the only way to be in the world.
It’s a great message, one that even my cynical older self found genuinely touching. Big Hero 6 is moving, hilarious, and clever. It offers something truly new to the world of animated film, and it does it while respecting and representing a diverse range of characters. It’s far from a perfect film— for example, it still falls into the trap that all the female animated characters have heads bigger than their waists and are no bigger than the 14-year-old Hiro. However, it does lay the groundwork for how all movies— even action movies, even superhero movies, even movies that have male main characters, even movies that may be marketed for boys— can represent women in an interesting, honest, and empowered way. I’m happy that I was able to share this movie with my young cousin, and I hope as he grows up he will always expect to see women represented at least this well in the media.