There are many things people associate with a Wes Anderson movie. Distinctive, whimsical visuals? Check. A dysfunctional family? Check. A tone of drollness and melancholy as well as a strong sense of nostalgia? Check, check. What you do not necessarily look for in a Wes Anderson movie, however, is prominent female representation. On the surface, it'd seem that Isle of Dogs, his newest film, is a step forward in this regard due to its comparably large cast of female characters. But in actuality, the movie's women play second fiddle to the men, there solely to investigate, chronicle, and, to some extent, lionize the achievements of the film's male characters.
In terms of the quantity and quality of his female characters, Anderson’s past work has been relatively limited. In most of the director's films (Moonrise Kingdom is a notable exception), women have fallen within two archetypes: the love interest (Miss Cross from Rushmore, Agatha in The Grand Budapest Hotel) or the stoic, unflappable mother/wife/ex-wife (Mrs. Fox in Fantastic Mr. Fox, nearly all of Anjelica Huston’s roles). And even though their presences may be commanding on screen, they are primarily defined by their relationships to the male characters, whose actions propel the narrative forward and whose psychological interiority the director seems more interested in exploring.
Isle of Dogs, out now, continues this troubling trend, even while featuring several female actors like Frances McDormand, Greta Gerwig, Scarlet Johansson, Tilda Swinton and Yoko Ono. Taking place in a dystopian Japanese society, the film revolves around a young boy Atari (Koyu Rankin) and his search for his lost dog, Spots. Atari's quest to find Spots on Trash Island, where canines have been quarantined because of a “dog flu” epidemic, is aided by a pack of male alpha dogs led by Rex (Edward Norton) and Chief (Bryan Cranston). As Nutmeg, a former show dog and love interest for Chief, Johansson has a prominent role, but Ono is an assistant-scientist with the emphasis on “assistant” rather than “scientist." Swinton is Oracle, a dog with noticeably fewer lines than her companion, Jupiter, a St. Bernard voiced by F. Murray Abraham.
Then there are McDormand and Gerwig’s characters, who have substantial parts, but with major caveats. As a Japanese-English interpreter in a film that heavily features Japanese dialogue without subtitles, McDormand provides an important bridge between the movie and its audience, but has little agency of her own. Gerwig’s Tracy Walker, meanwhile, is a foreign exchange student and investigative journalist who ties together the movie’s two disparate story threads: Atari’s search for his dog and the larger conspiracies surrounding the systematic elimination of dogs by Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), the main antagonist. Walker is proactive and voluble, rousing her classmates to action in undermining the mayor’s nefarious schemes, but she also is not as central to the plot as someone in her position should be.
Although these ladies certainly possess more of a voice than those in Anderson’s previous films — McDormand marks the first time that a female voice provides the "narration" — there's still a major problem with the movie’s female representation. The leading women are there primarily to provide support for the men, with McDormand’s character's main function being the translation of Mayor Kobayashi’s speeches and dealings for the audience, and Gerwig’s Walker's purpose being doggedly reporting on the misdeeds of Kobayashi and celebrating the heroic exploits of her love interest Atari.
As said, Isle of Dogs isn't the first Anderson movie to treat women in this way. A similar dynamic can be found in 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, where Cate Blanchett plays a reporter who follows the titular character (Bill Murray) on his zany journey to kill a “jaguar shark." Much like Walker in Isle of Dogs, Blanchett’s reporter is also framed as a love interest, the subject of infatuation for not one, but two male characters. And like with Walker, the actions of Blanchett’s character orbits the male protagonist she is studying. Both women tail and partake in the adventures of the male protagonists, but their actions remain peripheral within the grand schemes of the movies. The women are there to observe the stories. The men, to live them.
This would be frustrating regardless, but the fact that there are issues with cultural appropriation in Isle of Dogs make the treatment of the women even more questionable. Many critics have discussed the movie's blind spots when it comes to issues of cultural sensitivity, such as the decision to have most of the Japanese human characters speak without the aid of subtitles, while the American actor-voiced dogs are translated into English. This choice might prevent the audience from emphasizing with the Japanese characters, causing viewers to see them as blandly drawn.
Ironically, though, it is within these moments of cultural and linguistic gaps that McDormand and Gerwig’s characters get their chance to shine. Unlike the canine world in Isle of Dogs, which is voiced entirely in English and dominated by male players, McDormand’s interpreter and Gerwig’s Walker are able to be on more equal footing with the male characters in the human world because of their roles as translators. But does the significance of their roles come at the expense of the movie’s Japanese characters and voice cast?
The answer is complicated. Walker's assertiveness is frequently juxtaposed against the general passivity of the Japanese characters around her, whether it’s her classmates, whom she rallies to protest against Kobayashi, or Ono's assistant-scientist. Her interactions with Ono’s character are especially jarring to watch. In one scene, Walker violently confronts the scientist, who is still grieving for the death of a co-worker poisoned by Kobayashi, to confirm her suspicions of the mayor’s wrongdoings. The scene reiterates the framing of Walker, who is American, as active, and Japanese characters like Ono’s as more inert and compliant, and overall it gives Walker the shadings of a "white savior" narrative.
It’s difficult, therefore, to regard the female representation in Isle of Dogs as a victory in gender parity. Yes, female characters occupy more central positions than usual, but they are still largely defined by their relationships with the male characters and unfortunately contribute to the movie's issues with cultural appropriation. In Isle of Dogs, it seems, even the most forceful women are relegated to supporting, largely disappointing roles.