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Is Toy Story 3 Sexist?

Friday, July 02, 2010

(Slight spoiler warning: This article mentions a couple plot points of Toy Story 3. And if you haven't seen it yet, you need to go NOW. Step away from the interwebs and get ye to a movie theater!)

Natalie Wilson of Ms Magazine is none too happy with Toy Story 3. She's not pleased with the gender balance of the toys in the Toy Story series, and equally troubled by Ken's portrayal as a "closeted gay fashionista." Here's a snippet from her review:

While the girls in the audience are given the funny and adventurous Jessie, they are also taught women talk too much: Flirty Mrs. Potato-Head, according to new character Lotso, needs her mouth taken off. Another lesson is that when women do say something smart, it’s so rare as to be funny (laughter ensues when Barbie says “authority should derive from the consent of the governed”), and that even when they are smart and adventurous, what they really care about is nabbing themselves a macho toy to love (as when Jessie falls for the Latino version of Buzz–a storyline, that, yes, also plays on the “Latin machismo lover” stereotype).

I do agree with Ms. Wilson's assertion (made elsewhere in the article) that Pixar could use more female leading ladies, not only in the Toy Story franchise but also in future projects. Some of their female characters have been remarkably fierce and feminist portrayals of women (think of Ellie from Up, or Collette from Ratatouille, or Eve from WALL-E), but these characters are frequently in supporting roles, not the star.

And when it comes to gender stereotypes portrayed by the toys in Toy Story, I'm willing to side with Kelli Bender of CNN when she implies that this is more about the gender stereotypes expressed in our toys themselves, rather than modeling what we want to see in the world (or even what is real). She writes:

In the real world, Barbie is constantly being attacked for being an unrealistic influence on girls. Her [sic] is body is ridiculously out of proportion and all her material possessions encourage vanity and selfishness. So of course the film is going to portray her that way -- these are Barbie stereotypes, not female ones. If anything, "Toy Story 3" plays on the perception of Barbie and then gives the blond doll a positive spin by making her a girl willing to give up the dream house life with Ken to fight for what's right -- her pride and friends.

That being said . . . I don't see much purpose in bringing stereotypes to light if we're not also going to talk about them, and learn from them. (Talk to me sometime about Song of the South.) And lest you think that feminists have no sense of humor, or no irreverence, let me introduce you to one of my favorite guerrila groups, the Barbie Liberation Organization.

Old folks like myself remember way back in the early 1990s, when furor arose over a talking Barbie doll that said, "Math is hard!" and "I love shopping!" (It's hard to imagine this doll could hit the market today, but if she did, I'm sure Computer Engineer Barbie could help her out.) On the surface, it's easy to dismiss this as not being particularly damning, since in fact many people struggle with math, and enjoy conspicuous consumption. But with a screwdriver, a soldering iron, and a little ingenuity, the contrast between "boys toys" and "girls toys" was made clear. From the New York Times in December 1993:

For the last several months, a group of performance artists based in the East Village of Manhattan has been buying Talking Dukes and "Teen Talk" Barbies, which cost $40 to $50 each, painstakingly swapping their voice boxes and then, with the aid of cohorts, replacing dolls on the shelves of toy stores in at least two states.

The group, which asserts it has surgically altered 300 dolls, says its aim is to startle the public into thinking about the Stone Age-world view that the dolls reflect.

The result is a mutant colony of Barbies-on-steroids who roar things like "Attack!" "Vengeance is mine!" and "Eat lead, Cobra!" The emasculated G. I. Joe's, meanwhile, twitter, "Will we ever have enough clothes?" and "Let's plan our dream wedding!"

And in fact, our beloved Barbie from Toy Story 3 has her very own BLO moment. As Ms. Wilson mentioned above, I know I'm not the only one who laughed out loud when Barbie cried out, "Authority should derive from the consent of the governed, not from the threat of force!" And yes, it was funny because Barbie said it. (Would it have been as funny if Ken had said it? Well, yes, but he'd been heavily feminized, and it's been made clear to us that he's a "girls toy." Try imagining it out of the mouths of the Army Men instead. Not so much laughing now.)

Ultimately, I don't believe Toy Story 3 is a sexist film, though I do believe it mirrors back (and often pokes fun of) sexist stereotypes in our local toy stores, and it's up to us to continue any necessary discourse about what these stereotypes mean. And I am a fan of open discourse, so I'm glad that Ms. Wilson's brought the question to our attention. I'd be interested to hear what you think, too.