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!
Isn’t that what you saw?
No? What movie were you watching?
Did you see a heterosexual boy robot fall in love with a heterosexual girl robot? I did… at first. And it makes sense how someone could assume that. I mean, WALL•E is a sweet little guy, right? He’s all, “gosh, shucks,” and shy around girls… a real warm-hearted guy, right? And Eve! Is she adorably hot, or what?! She could be Honey West, Emma Peel, or your favorite Charlie’s Angel. So, agreed: when I first saw the film, I saw a boy robot and girl robot. My question is this: how and why did most of us jump to that conclusion?
Is it because of their names? The names sound like Wally and Eve, but their names are very specifically WALL•E and EVE, all in capital letters—because both names are acronyms for each robot’s prime directive and function. Nothing to do with boy or girl there.
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. That’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?
Both EVE and WALL•E have cute little storage compartments right where their internal reproductive organs would’ve been had they been human. I’m guessing neither robot has a DNA strand, so there is no way to type them by XX or XY—not to mention the over a dozen more X, Y, and O chromosome combinations that determine any of the fifteen human genders found in human nature. So it’s not sperms and eggs nor X’s and Y’s that are making EVE a female and WALL•E a male. Barring hormones—which I didn’t get a whiff of during the entire film—that just about exhausts the physiological basis for determining gender.
Pixar and Disney made a great many anatomical choices when they designed EVE and WALL•E to be as close to human as they can possibly be and still be robots. They didn’t give us one single anatomical clue to the gender of these cute li’l robots, but they knew we’d see WALL•E as boy and EVE as girl. Both of ‘em are gosh-darned CUTE, right? Oh, come on. You know they’re SO adorable, right? How can they be that in nearly everyone’s eyes… gay or straight? I think the answer is that we shift our mind’s criteria for gender when we watch a film or listen to a love song or read a novel. We all blithely switch genders in our minds, the better to identify with the vocalist or character. Reading novels, listening to music, or watching films, we consciously or unconsciously switch the gender mix to that which delights us the most.
We want to identify with the singer of the song or the one being sung to, so we make the genders “right” in our minds. For example, there’s a wonderful song by Tegan and Sara, I Know I Know I Know. I first heard it as soundtrack music during a very heterosexual moment on Grey’s Anatomy. No surprise the that what I first heard in that music was a girl singing a bittersweet love song to her boyfriend. Then I bought the song from iTunes and I played it over and over. It became easy for me to hear the song as a girl singing to her girlfriend, and suddenly I could enter the music as opposed to be outside the music, listening in. And hey—it wasn’t until several months later that I found out that Tegan and Sara are sisters… and they’re both lesbians! Sometimes, art is so powerful that it trumps gender as a pathway to love and romance in our hearts and minds.
Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo can make all our hearts flutter. So can Justin Bond in a gown or a tux… or both! Gender ambiguity—when it’s safely positioned onstage or up on a movie screen—is and always has been sexy to damn near all of us, no matter what our gender might be. All of our desires are being tickled. So how’s that happening? What is it that’s signaling sexual attraction to an audience with such a wide range of gender identities and sexual desires? I think the answer is that WALL•E is butch, and EVE is femme, two genders defined by the expression of strong, respectful, sexual desire.
Butch and Femme are sexy dance steps with unlimited variations. Butch is gallant, femme is gracious. Butch is hail and hardy, femme has wicked cool wiles. Butch is handsome. Femme is pretty. Butch/Femme is all about relating to each other like ladies and gentlemen—no matter our genitals. Butch is Stanley Kowalski, femme is Blanche DuBois. But in a production called Belle Reprieve, Stanley was played to perfection onstage by handsome, butch Peggy Shaw. Beautious drag queen Bette Bourne played Blanche. They were perfectly butch and femme.
Butches can be dominant or submissive, strong or weak, honorable, or complete rats. So can Femmes. Butch and Femme have nothing to do with who makes more money. And no one in real life is a hundred percent butch. No one is a hundred percent femme. Like everything else about our identities, butch and femme are all a matter of degree based on preference, comfort and choice.
There’s no perfection in the dance, there’s only the totality of self-expression and how that self-expression dovetails with someone else’s self-expression. When people play with that consciously, it’s wonderful fun. At its best, Butch/Femme becomes an erotic expression of “This is how I’m femme, and it makes me really happy that I delight the butch in you.” And, “This is how I’m butch, and it makes me really happy that I delight the femme in you.”
There is no singular archetype of Butch and Femme. The belief in the notion that there’s a right way to do Butch and a right way to do Femme begins perhaps with mythological, fictional, or cultural archetypes, which over time become accepted unconsciously as “normal” in a given culture. For example: weak, defenseless or predatory femme is imposed as “normal” behavior for females in a heteronormative, sexist culture. Strong, stalwart, and silent or brutal butch is imposed as “normal behavior for males in a heteronormative, sexist culture. Like in campy Hello, Dolly.
Yes, EVE is pertly streamlined. EVE’s eyes literally sparkle and dance. EVE giggles, for heaven’s sake. EVE is kick-ass strong and powerful. EVE is performing Femme. WALL•E is rugged and protective and shy and loyal. WALL•E is a sensitive little thing, held together by sheer will and rubber bands. WALL•E is performing Butch.
Once we begin to look at the characters as Butch and Femme—not male and female—we can assign to them any gender we like. Sure, the film can be about a boy robot and a girl robot. But how about EVE as a sweet femme boy robot, like performer/chanteuse extraordinaire, Justin Bond. And WALL•E is a sweet butch girl robot, with a heart of solid gold, like performer/chanteuse extraordinaire Lea Delaria? You could watch the film with that interpretation of the characters. WALL•E and EVE are best mates and they love each other. They hold hands. That works.
When the only gender clues present in the film belong to the genders butch and femme, then the movie could be about two boy robots—a younger version of the gay male couple played by Nathan Lane and Robin Williams in the film, The Birdcage. Fierce femme and strong gentle butch, both of ‘em boys. WALL•E works just as well with that configuration of robots—if you want it to.
You’re the audience. You get to decide.
This isn’t Disney’s first whack at the cultural gender binary. Mu-Lan is a film about a female to male cross-dresser. And what about Pinocchio? An animated block of wood spends an entire movie trying to become a “real” boy—aided by a blue fairy and an asexual cricket. And what gender exactly was Ariel (a non-gender specific name, by the way) when that little mermaid had a fishy tail? Did she go through a gender change when she grew legs which (presumably) had something between them so she could be a “real” girl? And getting down to basics, can anyone prove that Mickey and Minnie Mouse are male and female?
All in all, I’m delighted to see Pixar/Disney’s latest blow to the binary gender system. I’ll go back and watch WALL•E a couple of times this summer, I’m sure. It’s a brilliant film on many levels. I bet you—no matter your gender or sexual orientation—you’ll fall in love with how those robots fall in love with each other. I sure did.