The complex alpha-male structures in Pixar’s “UP.”

The original concept of the “alpha-male” in today’s society is beginning to fade away. No longer is it seen as a term of status and power, but rather a term connected with male privilege, hyper-masculinity, and perhaps even rape culture. I found Ken Gillam and Shannon Wooden’s article “Post-Princess Models of Gender: The New Man in Disney/Pixar” to be fascinating in a landscape that has changed drastically even in the last decade.

Because Gillam and Wooden wrote their article in 2008, there are now 8 new Pixar movies that they were unable to analyze through their “post-princess lens.” I thought it would be interesting to use this lens on newer Pixar films. Because “Brave,” “Inside-Out,” and “Finding Dory” all have female protagonists (a step in the right direction,) I’m only going to analyze one of the remaining 5 films: “UP.”

In their article, Gillam and Wooden assert that “Woody from Toy Story, Mr. Incredible from The Incredibles, and Lightning McQueen from Cars experience a common narrative trajectory, culminating in a common “New Man” model: they all strive for an alpha-male identity; they face emasculating failures; they find themselves in… “homosocial desire”and a triangulation of this desire with afeminized object; and, finally, they achieve (and teach) a kinder, gentler understanding of what it means to be a man.” The newer Pixar movies move towards even more complex, less traditional character arcs for their protagonists.

In “UP,” the majority of protagonist Carl Fredricksen’s life is compressed through a brief montage in the beginning of the film. In this montage, he grows old with his wife Ellie – they grow through adolescence, get married, buy a house, get pregnant, suffer a miscarriage, enter retirement, and ultimately, Carl outlives Ellie. From that point on, Carl’s only goal is to use his flying house to reach Angel Falls in South America, a destination which he and Ellie always planed on moving to at some point or another before life got in the way. He speaks to Ellie throughout the film, sometimes he speaks to her empty chair, sometimes to old photographs of her, and sometimes to other objects in the house that remind him of her.

It could be argued that Carl does have a sort of “alpha-male” complex, and that this side of him precipitates a position that is “fraudulent, precarious, lonely, and devoid of emotional depth,” as Gillam and Wooden described for earlier Pixar protagonists. Indeed, all of these words could be used to describe Carl’s state throughout the film, but he’s much more complex than some of those earlier characters. He unintentionally becomes the de facto caregiver of secondary characters Russell, Doug, and Kevin, and though he doesn’t at all fit the role at first, he becomes a much more successful caregiver by the end of the film by building bonds and letting go. It could be argued that these actions demonstrate that kinder, gentler understanding of what it means to be a man, but ultimately, Carl’s strength comes from the memory of Ellie herself, and from literally letting go of the things that attached him to her in order to lift off and save Russell and Company from danger in the film’s climax. Not only does Carl’s progressed age set him apart from most alpha-male caricatures, but his lack of romantic pursuit paints him in an interesting light – instead of desiring a female character, he longs for his wife’s missing company.

“UP” can be sifted through some of Baudrillard’s theories to interesting effect. Pertaining to the simulation of history through cinema, he wrote, “The great trauma (of the period between WWII and the Cold War), is this decline of strong referentials, these death pangs of the real and of the rational that open onto an age of simulation. Whereas so many generations, and particularly the last, lived in the march of history in the euphoric or catastrophic expectation of a revolution – today one has the impression that history has retreated, leaving behind it an indifferent nebula, traversed by currents, but emptied of references.” In the beginning of “UP,” Carl and Ellie are children who are obsessed with the adventurer Charles Muntz, whose films showed him adventuring around the world in search of new discoveries. They spend their lives trying to save up enough money to move to South America, where Muntz was reported to have gone missing. By the end of the film, Carl discovers that Muntz is still alive, and that he’s the villain trying to capture Kevin the bird by any means necessary – this drastic disparity between expectation and reality caused by cinema in Carl’s mind causes a system-shock of sorts. Carl’s nostalgia of Muntz’s adventures created a “hyper real” representation of history in his mind, and he chased it throughout his life. However, in poetic fashion, Muntz has been unable to let go of the past like Carl was, and as they fought throughout Muntz’s museum filled with his life’s work, they destroyed many of the artifacts that Muntz had spent his life discovering. Carl and his ability to move on in life defeats Muntz’s inability to grow, and ultimately, Muntz’s alpha-male tendencies become his own undoing.

What is considered “alpha-male” becomes complicated in the gay community, particularly in gay relationships, as pre-constructed notions of dominance and submission in such a relationship aren’t established by gender constructs. In my opinion, this is a wonderful advantage that gay couples have, as societal structures don’t force certain norms upon these couples. They are relatively free to construct their own, personal structures within a relationship, without the complications of certain alpha-male roles getting in the way. It would be interesting to see what Pixar would do with a gay protagonist (no, Dory doesn’t count,) and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them explore that territory in the future.




One thought on “The complex alpha-male structures in Pixar’s “UP.”

  1. I think that the detriments of the “alpha male” construct are extremely relevant to our generation, particularly with this political climate. Within our personal lives, I have long questioned the use of the phrases “man up”, “be a man”, and such, because they establish that there are differences in strength between males and females that don’t necessarily need to be there. While there are differences between our genders, I think we create the concept of superior male emotional strength, and view it as “stronger” when males do not show their emotion. This could be why it tends to take males longer to develop emotional maturity. Great post!


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