Was Chel DreamWorks' most inappropriate female character design?

 Chel from The Road to El Dorado.
Chel from The Road to El Dorado.

As we mark International Women's Day with its focus attention on women's rights and gender equality, its inevitable that questions arise around the continued sexualisation of female characters. While the portrayal of women in films has changed over the years, there are still some questionable portrayals, even in children's animated films.

Voiced by Rosie Perez, Chel was the true star of DreamWorks' 2000 film The Road to El Dorado. A native Mesoamerican woman of exaggerated proportions, Tulio's love interest in the film is shown sporting the traditional 16th century pre-colonial dress of... er... a boob tube and a strip of cloth. And it turns out that the original concept for the character design was even more revealing.

Early concept art for The Road to El Dorado shared on X by Lost Media Mines shows Chel dressed in nothing but a poncho, which it seems she was going to spend a lot of the time not wearing.

The concept art has sparked something of a debate about which version of Chel is actually the most revealing. While the original art may have very vaguely had more connection to actual historic dress (and I mean very, very vaguely), some say it would have been more provocative. There were apparently plans for naked scenes with her body covered by something in the foreground.

In both cases, the portrayal of Chel shows both how much and how little the representation of female characters has evolved. Sure, she has agency and charisma, and she could almost have been a strong character, but it seems that at this stage DreamWorks was still unable to conceive a female character who wasn't mainly about her sexualisation (let's not go into the story itself, and how we're expected to relate to Chel as she sells out her own community in a lighthearted comedy set against the breezy backdrop of the brutal conquest of the Americas and the massacre of native populations).

For more on movie character design, see our piece on the evolution of Godzilla design. Also see our roundup of the best Dune art.