Jim Reardon, Pete Docter, and Andrew Stanton, 2008
#2, 2008 Skandies

(spoilers for the entire movie follow)

In the year 2525 2805
Yes, man is still alive, but not on Earth. If you're still around, then you're on a spaceship called the Axiom, your arms hangin' limp at your sides; your legs got nothin' to do, as some machine (namely a hoverchair) is doin' that for you. Yep, man has taken everything this old earth can give, and he's put back plenty: mountains of garbage, which the last remaining trash-compactor robot, WALL-E, is compressing into cubes and stacking into skyscrapers.

The fact that WALL-E can be synopsized pretty much entirely out of Zager & Evans lyrics indicates that this isn't exactly what you'd call cutting-edge satire. George Orwell was complaining that the pursuit of leisure would make people devolve into "little fat men" who've watched their "arms wither into stumps of skin and bone" back in 1937. That said, I imagine that for a significant portion of the audience — children, and those so immersed in consumerism that they're unaware of alternative social models — WALL-E may well have been a first encounter with the idea that the domination of commerce by big-box stores is bad, or that a society made up of hordes of people milling around ignoring each other because they're all locked into their individual electronic screens is bad, or that having a Big Gulp permanently attached to your face is bad.

If woman can survive
I would also bet that when WALL-E makes it onto the syllabi of cultural studies courses — actually, it probably already has — a lot less time will be spent on the socioecological message than on gender. For while many of the reviews I read after watching the movie referred to the "boy robot" and the "girl robot," I know a girl robot when I see one. Here is a girl robot:

(Marvel Comics)

And here is a girl robot:


But here is the romantic couple in WALL-E:

On the left we have WALL-E, as the nameplate indicates. As for the one on the right, well, I've seen that robot before:

That's H.E.R.B.I.E.! The Disney Corporate Empire entertained millions of kiddies with a romance between WALL-E and H.E.R.B.I.E.! Might be time for the fundies to revive that boycott.

I actually do think that WALL-E represents something of a milestone in its willingness to dispense with conventional markers of gender. The only cues we have to justify calling the robot on the right "she" are its name, EVE, and its voice, which at times ascends from its usual metallic androgyny up into a feminine register. EVE also giggles every now and again (which is very charming). But for each of these markers you can find a masculine one. Her eyes, scanning beam, and motion trail are blue, not pink. She responds to unexpected motion around her by blowing up everything in her vicinity, and oafishly breaks a lot of WALL-E's carefully gathered and catalogued trinkets. (But not all of them. The part where WALL-E hands EVE a lightbulb and it lights up just because she's holding it is awesome.)

Who's the protagonist?
WALL-E and EVE also switch off the active and passive roles in the narrative. In the first act, when EVE goes into standby mode it's hard to miss the parallels with "Sleeping Beauty," but once the action moves onto the spaceship, the dynamic changes to one with EVE as the conventional hero and WALL-E as the goofy loyal sidekick. EVE's the one with the heroic mission to fulfill, the one who makes the climactic decision around which the narrative is based (though more on this in a moment), and the one who, in the end, plays the role of Prince Charming.

A lot of my peers are parents of young children, and I've heard a number of them lament that, despite their best efforts to prevent it, their children, especially their daughters, absorb the culture's subliminal messages about gender and become dogmatic about them. Everything I own has to be pink, because I'm a girl! I have to wear skirts all the time, because I'm a girl! I can't be good at math, because I'm a girl! So it's nice to see that here's a massively successful movie that undermines those messages — without calling any attention to the fact that it's doing so.

Everything you think, do and say
Many of the reviews I read singled out the moment when EVE discards her directive to take plants to the captain of the Axiom and decides upon her own priorities as containing the message of the movie: don't just obey orders, think for yourself, etc. It's WALL-E's equivalent of the "I'll go to hell" moment in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But while I acknowledge that the film frames this as The Big Turning Point, I nevertheless came away with a very different — but not necessarily contradictory — message. It's the same message Julie Young sets forth in "A Winner Is You": that it is tremendously rewarding to fulfill your function in life. For not even The Big Turning Point can compare to the impact of the most joyous moment in the movie — the part when, floating in space, WALL-E reveals that he still has the plant, and EVE scans it, and makes that sound. (The handling of EVE's voice — the heavily processed voice of someone named Elissa Knight — is my vote for the best thing about the movie. It is amazing how the right combination of electronic squalls can be so successful at producing tears.)

Another bit that I've seen cited as supporting the "reject your programming" line is when M-O the little cleaning bot, programmed to follow a laser beam, finds that beam intersected by WALL-E's filthy treadmarks, and after some comical indecision decides to clean up after WALL-E instead. This leads to the part when, after WALL-E's circuit board has been fried and EVE is frantically searching for a replacement, M-O finally catches up to him and manages to brush him off: "ALL CLEAN, ALL CLEAN," M-O's screen flashes. It's an amusing bit of comic relief in a tense sequence, but at the same time, it represents the culmination of M-O's story arc. He's done what he's supposed to do, and is satisfied.

Our current economic clusterfuck has led to the predictable call for "job creation": unemployment is skyrocketing, people need jobs, etc. But people don't need jobs — they need food and shelter and transportation and such. However, our culture's ideology says that members of the non-capitalist class don't deserve those things unless they're working. An example that's not entirely inappropriate given the ostensible topic of this article: say there's a factory that employs a thousand people to make widgets. Together they make a million widgets a year. The profit on each widget is $50. The owner of the factory takes half of that for a handsome income of $25 million, and distributes the rest to the workers: $25,000 apiece. Now, you probably think you know where I'm going with this: since the workers are actually performing all the labor and the owner just sits there in an office with a piece of paper saying he's the owner, the workers should actually get $50,000 apiece. But while I agree with that, that isn't the point. The point is this: say that one day a robot is invented that can make widgets. In theory, this could be a win for everyone. The robots could make the widgets, which would still bring in an income of $50 million. The system could continue as before: the owner takes $25 million while the workers take $25,000 apiece. It's no worse for the owner, it's no worse for the people buying the widgets, and it's a lot better for the employees, because now they don't have to work. But of course this never happens. More likely is that the owner would fire all the employees except for a handful to keep the robots running. We might end up with, say, fifty robot-watchers making $50,000 a year, an owner who now pockets $47.5 million, and 950 unemployed people. And no one really complains, because why should those 950 get paid just to sit around? Besides, probably the robots can make two million widgets, and so the owner can drop the price of a widget while increasing his revenue, so the consumers win too... though he could have done that just as easily while continuing to pay the former workers. But he doesn't, so they have to go find other jobs. Not because the society needs any additional production — it was already doing fine on that count — but because of ideology.

An odd facet of this ideology is that no one really cares much whether you're contributing to the greater good so long as you're performing some kind of labor! At an extreme this devolves into things like government work projects to dig holes and fill them back in again — why not just give the poor saps the money? — but I would guess that most work done, at least in the U.S., falls into this category. Take my job, for instance. I get paid quite handsomely to train people to take standardized tests. If they do well on those tests, they get into the schools of their choice. The net benefit to society is zero: the effect of my efforts is that, instead of Program X admitting students A, B, C, D, E, F, and G, the program admits students A, B, C, D, E, F, and Q. Sorry, G! So why do I do this job instead of, say, becoming a regular teacher at a much lower wage and doing something that does benefit society, i.e., making 200 kids a year a little bit more literate? Because I think that while making 200 kids a year a little bit more literate is nothing to sneeze at and may well be what I end up doing for a living somewhere down the line, right now I think that the best way for me to contribute to society — to justify my existence, as Colin Marshall puts it — is to finally finish this fuckin' book, and there's no way that's going to happen unless I can block off a lot of free time to work on it, and the only way that's going to happen is to work a job with a high enough wage that I can log fewer hours and keep my work obligations from carving huge craters out of my days.

Though of course, while I think this book will turn out to be pretty good, I'd still want to work on it — and my webcomic, and the IF projects that have been gathering on my back burner — even if I knew in advance that everyone would think they sucked. I feel that making these things is my design function, just as turning garbage into cubes is WALL-E's, just as bringing plants back to the Axiom is EVE's. So the message I got out of WALL-E is a deeper critique of consumerism: that work shouldn't be the shit you have to put yourself through in order to earn the right to consume things and thereby extract pleasure — work can be a pleasure in itself! An artisan can get satisfaction out of producing stuff, and it seems to me that maximizing the pleasure of production as well as consumption should be a key goal of an economic system. Certainly I've enjoyed writing IF a lot more than I ever have playing it, and while writing books may be more of a slog, when I finally finish the one I'm working on now, I imagine I will make a sound not entirely unlike the one EVE makes at the 59:39 mark.

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