Kate Bornstein on Wall-E

This was a great blog by author Kate Bornstein (of My Gender Workbook fame) on this summer’s animated blockbuster, Wall-E.
Her blog post, cleverly entitled WALL•E: A Butch/Femme Love Story… or Silly Rabbit! Robots Have No Gender:

I’m completely smitten with WALL•E, this summer’s Pixar/Disney offering. But the last thing I expected to see in my friendly, heterosexual upper east side Manhattan neighborhood movie theater was a feature length cartoon about a pair of lesbian robots who fall madly in love with each other. WALL•E is nothing short of hot, dyke Sci Fi action romance, some seven hundred years in the future! Woo-hoo!

I had similar thoughts while watching the movie about how they were obviously attempting to gender the robots–this is a children’s movie for godsake! But similar to the political subtext of the film, there was an interesting subtext about gender and romance that Bornstein explains in her post.

The film makers take a great deal of care in pointing out that WALL•E and EVE’s notion of butch/femme romance is based in the world and culture of Hello, Dolly. Hello_dolly_3That’s supposed to be a cue for the audience to believe they’re a “healthy” heterosexual male and female couple. But it’s not proof that they are male or female. And anyway, how camp is Hello, Dolly!?
Is it that simply by looking at the robots, we can tell that WALL•E’s a boy and EVE is a girl? What was it up on that screen that defined the robots’ gender? Both robots were naked, so we could see their entire anatomy, right? Neither of those robots had a vagina or a penis. Did you see one or the other? Neither robot was sporting an Adam’s apple. Neither EVE nor WALL•E flashed any tit that I could see. So, we’ve got no way to spot those robots as male or female by using secondary sex characteristics. But still, most of us would swear on a stack of holy bibles or holy Gender Trouble that those robots are male and female. How did we most of us come to agree on that?

Read the rest for more!
Via Sugarbutch Chronicles

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26 Comments

  1. j-doug
    Posted August 20, 2008 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    One of them is named EVE (Eve). This is typically a girls name. The other is named WALL-E (Wally). This is typically a guy’s name, short for Waldo among other things.
    That they gendered the robots is obvious and interesting, but how we were clued into the genders–is this really such a puzzle?
    No, no it isn’t.

  2. Posted August 20, 2008 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    I totally blogged about this! Of course it doesn’t compare to Kate Bornstein. But I also talked about how the film illustrates some Butler as well. This is easily one of the best films in recent years.

  3. AnnaBella
    Posted August 20, 2008 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t seen the film, but the narrator in the trailer refers to Wall-E using masculine pronouns. His name appears to be derived from a common male name, Wally.
    And I just assumed, like j-doug has said above, that Eve was female because of the typical female name. And something about the aesthetics of Eve instantly said “girl” to me — maybe it’s the curvy design.
    I don’t know. It would be nice if the film was attempting to normalise lesbian relationships in mainstream cinema. But I’m not ready to believe it just yet.

  4. Posted August 20, 2008 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    I was sufficiently entertained with the societal overtones of the film, and I didn’t even consider the gender of the robots. This is interesting, and though I don’t think that the context was at all the intent of the designers, it’s always funny to see the way films (especially animated films) are interpreted.
    At the risk of sounding like a jackass (because I do, from time to time), I think that taking that extra step to imposing a lesbian relationship is a bit much.
    Clearly, though, the other commenters are on the same page.

  5. zerk
    Posted August 20, 2008 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    I find it kinda amusing that folks are attempting to refute or assert Bornstein’s post. I don’t think she believes the robots are “really” a butch/femme dyke couple and any more than Ariel was really genderqueer! It seems more like the point is that…
    1. Movies like this make it clear that gender is MUCH more to people than just chromosomes or genitals or any commonly cited indicator. The fact that there can even be a conversation about the gender of a pair of robots shows this regardless of what particular genders you think they are.
    2. As Bornstein noted in the comments, its worthwhile noting how queer people find creative ways to make ourselves visible in a heterosexist and cissexist society.

  6. FuckDecaf
    Posted August 20, 2008 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    I personally thought EVE was the butch one.

  7. realityfighter
    Posted August 20, 2008 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    My brain is going two ways at once on that still.
    Left Brain: WALL-E is smaller and is demonstrating cant, while EVE is taller and “standing” straight facing the camera. Those poses would indicate that WALL-E is feminine and EVE is masculine, no?
    Right Brain: The girl robot is a big metal egg with no readily discernible anthropomorphic features. How insulting.

  8. rileystclair
    Posted August 20, 2008 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    what zerk said.
    it’s pretty clearly borstein wasn’t suggesting that the filmmakers intended the robots to be read as anything but male and female, but it’s an interesting exercise in gender roleplaying, what that means to us, and how we all shifting pronouns dependent on our sexual orientation.

  9. Carasande
    Posted August 20, 2008 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    Its interesting that when watching the film I didn’t question it that much. That coming from an identity outside of the norm I choose to still project on to the robots the normal standards of relationships being composed of a guy and girl, instead of a butch and femme or some other combination (since I’m not convinced which is which)…. or even from completely different perspective one could look at the appearance of wally and eve as reflecting their class status instead of their gender expression. I think it actually makes more sense that way since I can’t see either walle or eve as being particularly butch or femme. Imagine if eve looked like Walle and Walle looked like eve. In that situation you’d say that eve was the butch and walle the femme even if they acted exactly the same.
    either way, I sort of want to go and watch the lesbian love story that I apparently can find for myself in the film if I want to see it.
    (Kate Bornstein also wrote a book for teens last year called Hello Cruel World: 101 alternatives for teens, freaks, and other outlaws. I work in a kids department at a bookstore and I always try to keep some in stock in the teen section if I can. In a lot of ways its better than most of the self-help stuff directed towards teens (although there was one on this site which I ordered in recently too) and I’ve seen a lot people actually pull it off the shelf and read it for a bit.)

  10. katemoore
    Posted August 20, 2008 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    I don’t have much to say about this other than the fact that I seriously love Kate Bornstein.

  11. ShifterCat
    Posted August 20, 2008 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    I figured that for the purposes of audience comprehension, the robots’ “genders” were partly determined by their shapes, and partly by their voices. Of course, within the movie’s setting, their “genders” would have been programmed solely for ease of interaction with their makers, and their shapes are visual clues to their purposes: WALL-E is boxy and utilitarian-looking (with obvious signs of age and wear, of course), EVE is egg-shaped, AUTO resembles an old-fashioned ship’s wheel.
    While I’m certainly not against a queer identity perspective on mass media, I thought that WALL-E actually had a very feminist perspective on heterosexual relationships: specifically, it’s got a positive portrayal of a working “woman”, and — this is the really cool bit — the movie doesn’t push the message that she should give up her career for love.
    I wrote a little about this here (contains very minor spoilers).

  12. ShifterCat
    Posted August 20, 2008 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    I figured that for the purposes of audience comprehension, the robots’ “genders” were partly determined by their shapes, and partly by their voices. Of course, within the movie’s setting, their “genders” would have been programmed solely for ease of interaction with their makers, and their shapes are visual clues to their purposes: WALL-E is boxy and utilitarian-looking (with obvious signs of age and wear, of course), EVE is egg-shaped, AUTO resembles an old-fashioned ship’s wheel.
    While I’m certainly not against a queer identity perspective on mass media, I thought that WALL-E actually had a very feminist perspective on heterosexual relationships: specifically, it’s got a positive portrayal of a working “woman”, and — this is the really cool bit — the movie doesn’t push the message that she should give up her career for love.
    I wrote a little about this here (contains very minor spoilers).

  13. ShifterCat
    Posted August 20, 2008 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    I figured that for the purposes of audience comprehension, the robots’ “genders” were partly determined by their shapes, and partly by their voices. Of course, within the movie’s setting, their “genders” would have been programmed solely for ease of interaction with their makers, and their shapes are visual clues to their purposes: WALL-E is boxy and utilitarian-looking (with obvious signs of age and wear, of course), EVE is egg-shaped, AUTO resembles an old-fashioned ship’s wheel.
    While I’m certainly not against a queer identity perspective on mass media, I thought that WALL-E actually had a very feminist perspective on heterosexual relationships: specifically, it’s got a positive portrayal of a working “woman”, and — this is the really cool bit — the movie doesn’t push the message that she should give up her career for love.
    I wrote a little about this here (contains very minor spoilers).

  14. ShifterCat
    Posted August 20, 2008 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    I figured that for the purposes of audience comprehension, the robots’ “genders” were partly determined by their shapes, and partly by their voices. Of course, within the movie’s setting, their “genders” would have been programmed solely for ease of interaction with their makers, and their shapes are visual clues to their purposes: WALL-E is boxy and utilitarian-looking (with obvious signs of age and wear, of course), EVE is egg-shaped, AUTO resembles an old-fashioned ship’s wheel.
    While I’m certainly not against a queer identity perspective on mass media, I thought that WALL-E actually had a very feminist perspective on heterosexual relationships: specifically, it’s got a positive portrayal of a working “woman”, and — this is the really cool bit — the movie doesn’t push the message that she should give up her career for love.
    I wrote a little about this here (contains very minor spoilers).

  15. ShifterCat
    Posted August 20, 2008 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    Oh dear. Sorry about that.

  16. opheliasawake
    Posted August 20, 2008 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

    All this proves to me is that gender is a psychological construct. Nevertheless it feels like Bornstein is reaching. WALL-E is a very complex movie, but I would argue that Pixar did not focus on the gender construction of the robots, and the writer of the film refers to Wall-E and Eve as he and she respectively. As a writer myself, I’d really rather follow the writer’s lead on this. Bornstein’s theory is certainly thought provoking and inspiring, though.

  17. muffinsformarty
    Posted August 21, 2008 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    a bit of something for this evening…
    McCain vs Pay Equity
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKrqzyKw0gk
    from the Iowa Democrats Website mccainvsiowa.com

  18. CScarlet
    Posted August 21, 2008 at 12:40 am | Permalink

    I’m with zerk, I find it incredibly pedantic that most of the commenters are trying to “refute” Bornstein, seemingly without reading her post and without keeping the intent of the post in mind.
    Bornstein is not trying to argue that Wall E displays some sort of stealth lesbian relationship. The point she’s trying to make is that beyond our absolute certainly that Wall E and Eve are male and female, and regardless of the creator’s identification of their genders, they are robots and do not have a sex or a gender beyond what is indicated by their behavior. By looking at it this way we can see that they are performing gender roles, which she states in her post could belong to people of any sex, pairs of any sex, and even robots. It’s all about how we look at gender- changing the lens, if you will.
    It’s an interesting article that makes some great well reasoned points and I am rather disappointed to see Feministing commenters, of all people, being so dismissive.

  19. Shadowen
    Posted August 21, 2008 at 1:12 am | Permalink

    Interestingly enough, I actually have seen fanart of Eve and Wall-E as humans–Wall-E as an adorable tomboyish glasses-wearing girl in dirty overalls, Eve as a dark-skinned woman in clean, white, form-fitting bodysuit. Sorry, I didn’t save it, but at least one fan saw something similar to Kate Bornstein.

  20. Alex101
    Posted August 21, 2008 at 3:39 am | Permalink

    I think it’s clear form the story that they’re male and Female – as mentiond the narater even refers to them as such, but I’m not sure that they fit traditional gender roles very well:
    Eva is a hardass space farer with guns blazing while Wall-e is a timid and weaker creature whose purpose is to clean up after others. Not exactly the standard Female/Male traits specified by Society.
    They also have each have their moments of weakness/danger where they rescue each other, which also goes against it being the Male hero always rescuing the damsel in distress.
    Though – if you really do want to argue that they are in fact Female, they both have a “Womb” that they both use to protect the plant – a symbol of new life.

  21. Ariel
    Posted August 21, 2008 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    I did my own interpretation of the movie and was quite impressed to see the amount of gender neutrality that is encouraged. Typically in Pixar films, I see the regular gender stereotypes reinforced, i.e. The Incredibles, but in Wall-E these were not found. EVE is assumed to be female strictly because of her name. Even if her voice wasn’t feminine, it would be something to assume. Just as we assume a baby’s gender by names, even though at the beginning stages of life outside the womb they are gender neutral. Her portrayal, however, is far from feminine. EVE is seen as level-headed, duty-bound, and a bit trigger happy. She ignores her emotions to obtain the objective. In other words, she takes on traits that we consider male.
    Wall-E on the other hand takes on traits that we consider female. Once again, we assume he is male strictly on his name even though he lacks the stereotypical male traits. Wall-E is practically run by his emotions. He is driven by his need for love, loneliness, and touch. These are typically seen (stereotypically) amongst females in story lines.
    In conclusion, Pixar’s WALL-E is celebrating gender equality. EVE is never forced to become emotional, or give up her objective. These are choices she makes. Wall-E does not have to make these choices, but we see at the end that his emotions are part of his personality, and without these traits he ceases to be Wall-E. Wall-E and Eve are free to be themselves, gender not withstanding. The imposition of sex is most likely a formality and a tool to anthropomorphize the robots. It would be harder to relate to these characters if they had no gender at all, and the story that surrounds them would be void of meaning.

  22. Posted August 21, 2008 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    “I think it’s clear form the story that they’re male and Female – as mentiond the narater even refers to them as such”
    I keep seeing this mentioned as a reason to not further examine how we “make” gender, which seems to be completely missing the point of the article. “Male” and “female”, as most people understand them, are based on the presence of sexual organs. These robots don’t have any reproductive organs, but it was still important to genderize them. The narrator, Pixar execs, they gendered the robots when there is no conceivable need to do so. And many movie goers just accepted that WALL•E was a boy and EVE was a girl, without a “wait a minute…” happening.
    And that is why I like Kate Bornstein’s WALL•E essay -not because she’s right or she’s wrong (for the record, I also read and enjoyed ShifterCat’s essay), but because it should cause us to take a step back and wonder why gendering the robots was necessary. And why we -as a group- are so quick to defend the male and femaleness of robots who do not embody any particular anatomy.

  23. Zardoz
    Posted August 21, 2008 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Shadowen-
    I was intrigued by your description of the Wall E fan art lesbian couple, so I found it with a little google detective work:
    http://edface.deviantart.com/art/lesbian-wall-e-and-eve-90625421
    (also at that website but totally unrelated and totally awesome: http://basehead.deviantart.com/art/Unicorn-vs-Dolphin-13514316)
    I’ve read liberal commentary on Wall-E’s pro-environment stance, derisive conservative commentary on Wall-E’s pro-environment and anti-capitalist stance, (curiously) positive conservative commentary on Wall-E’s neo-conservative anti-nanny state stance, and now feminist commentary on the Wall-E’s lesbian romance.
    This movie is a looking glass.

  24. Ariel
    Posted August 21, 2008 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Zardoz: “This movis is a looking glass.”
    Most art forms are :-)

  25. FuckDecaf
    Posted August 21, 2008 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Zardoz- “This movie is a looking glass.”
    Science fiction in general, but AI-related fiction in particular, is fascinating this way- it’s about possible alternate futures and what it means to be human or “intelligent” or to have consciousness.
    This is easily one of my favorite movies and I know the gender question was on my mind when I first watched it. At first I felt disappointed that the robots were gendered at all, because it wasn’t necessary, but I think the genders of these robots are very fluid (as referenced in Ariel’s excellent post.) EVE and WALL-E reminded me so much of the happy partnerships of people I know and love.
    One other thing about their relationship I thought was interesting. I read an interview with the writer where he said his inspiration for WALL-E’s “dates” with the dormant EVE robot was watching an octogenarian man with an Alzheimer’s afflicted wife who would still take her out all the time. I have to admit, watching the way those two machine-beings took care of each other was deeply affecting.
    (excuse me, I have something in my eye.)

  26. ShifterCat
    Posted August 21, 2008 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    Petpluto: Thanks. :)

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