Toy Story 3 Not Sexist Says Anthropologist!

Bolded for the tl;dr crowd.

A sad, strange little review of the new Toy Story movie in Ms. Magazine has kept me busy blogging on their site. You can see my responses to the conversation going on there but I thought I would expand some of those ideas here.

The premise of that Ms. Magazine article is that Toy Story 3 ”displays the same careless sexism as its predecessors.” My problem was where to start with just this sentence. “Same careless sexism”: what does that mean? The same sexism as TS1 and TS2? Those were sexist movies? What bizarre definition of sexism is being used here? And why is this sexism “careless” rather than deliberate? I claim that movies cannot be sexist, that sexism is a quality only people possess, people who hate women and don’t want to see them as valuable being. I can’t possibly think how a movie does what only people can do.

It seems that the basis for all the accusations of sexism is a headcount: the deep concern about this movie is that there are less female characters than male, that the female charaters act less heroic (my term), and that Ken (yes, that Ken) is depicted as a closet homosexual. Human and toy characters are counted male and female, as if they were all human. Is a toy female the same as a human female? Is Lotso, a bear that smells of strawberries, counted as male? Is Barbie female? Are some feminists now embracing Barbie because they can add her to the body count?

Let’s start with Ken and Barbie. I had a Ken doll growing up (in the 1960s) as well as Barbie. I still have them. Despite all the fears of this movies critic and many others over the years, I nevertheless became a feminist. Go figure. But I am not a count-the-numbers feminist because that approach is simply awful, as this review of Toy Story 3 demonstrates. What weird balancing act does this author want: every time a male character speaks, a female character has to speak? Every time a male toy enters the room, a female toy has to stand up an be counted? That’s not a story, and it’s not Toy Story.

Back to Ken, my Ken. Ken, we noticed very early on, had problems. Ken’s arm always fell off so we made him a war veteran. But also, he had no genitals (or body hair for that matter). Ken was then and is now not a closet homosexual, he’s a eunuch, and we loved him for it! Ken was Barbie’s best friend (like Ned in Nancy Drew) and he loved fashion as much as she did. Like the other guys we liked in the 60s and 70s (hippe-types, Alan Alda, the Beatles) he had a style sense that was not based in macho posturing (ie, G.I. Joe). So the Ken in Toy Story 3 is not depicted as a closet gay, he is Ken in all his genital-free glory (with a great closet too!). Does he count in this odd version of feminist analysis as male or female? My point in starting with Ken is that this very outdated approach to analyzing the media (counting male vs female characters) is just pointless and even with toys (or especially with toys), impossible.

The author of the Ms. Magazine article, Dr. Natalie Wilson, points to research supported by the Geena Davis (yes, that Geena Davis) Institute on Gender and Media to support her claim (and this is an old claim long ago refuted) that having more males than females in our media makes us “internalize stereotypical ideas of what men and women are supposed to be like.” Two questions that as an anthropologist I have to ask: what is your definition of stereotype, and why do you think this is “internalized?” All the arguments in this article and in the Geena Davis website fall back on pop-psychology. They all see media as a magical machine that injects ideas into our heads and bodies, like a virus that is hard to shake.

I, as an anthropologist, instead see media (tv, radio, movies, books, games, etc) as MEDIA, as forms or vehicles for conveying stories. What is interesting is what people do with these stories and this in not an “internal” act: it is a cultural exchange. The mistake Wilson makes is that she thinks she can tell us what Toy Story 3 really means (as if we were too dumb to see the “truth” ourselves). I, instead look at the conversations that a movie evokes, the emotions is inspires (I know many people who cried at Toy Story 3: does that make it less or more sexist???). I look at how people wrestle with the contradictions in a movie, the rules it sets up and breaks, the metaphors it tries to inspire, the symbols it uses correctly and incorrectly, the way characters set up one expectation but fulfill another. People refer back to movies all the time because they offer us a common reference for options, a fictional example we can use to inform our realworld lives.

As Woody would say, “YOU ARE A STORY! YOU’RE NOT FROM THE REAL WORLD! YOU ARE A CHILD’S PLAYTHING!” As stories, movies have no obligation to match or support reality. Instead they give us an alternative reality that shows how cultures and humans and politics and everything else works in these different fictional conditions. If movies teach us anything, it is that we need them to make sense of all our possibilites in the actual world because it is impossible for most of us to have enough expereinces with different cultures to know what the other possibilities are. This is why we love movies like Toy Story. Even with the inhabitants of the world being toys, we get to see how characters make judgments,what makes them valuable and trustworthy, how important friendship and love are, what family means, what it means to be human.

It disturbs me that the Geena Davis Institute tells people to go count the number of times men vs women speak in a tv show or movie and to report it back to them. What is the point of that? It is based, apparently, on some research that says that the more media a child watches, and the more “stereotypes” are in that media, the more that child will believe and act in a stereotyped manner. Well, I hate to put it this way but, Duh! Of course the little idiots who sit in front of the tv all day will act like tv characters because they have not been exposed to the wonderous variety of human activities. Movies and tv can give us some glimpses of these things but they need to be just part of the flow of everyday life that also includes playing baseball, riding a bike, putting on costumes, taking a photograph, playing a board game, reading a book, making a bracelet, walking in the ocean, running in the rain, listening to music, looking at the sky, visiting a museum, following an ant, flying a balloon, digging a hole, eating ice cream, working in the garden, playing hide-n-seek, watching a parade, talking to someone old, knitting and sewing, making Mr. Potato Head look weird, and yes, dressing Ken in a dress.

Has anyone ever met these kids who were exposed to so much tv that all they did was act like the stereotypical (whatever that is) females on tv? Don’t these kids have aunties who take them fishing and grandpas who take them shopping and teachers who read to them and neighbors who teach them how to whistle? Doesn’t that break whatever stereotypes they may be seeing on tv? Or does real experience not count? For you see, in this mindset that claims to seek sexism, what it really is seeking is an excuse to blame all sorts of media for everything that is actually a normal part of human life.

Media is just one tool a culture uses to convey its stories, its values, its rules, its expectations, its rituals and symbols. Kids can learn things from media and they can unlearn them just as easily. Instead of wasting time counting heads on tv, taking your kid to Toy Story 3 (or TS1 or TS2) is a much better lesson in what happens when we forget what is important, why friends are cool, or when to let go of the past and face a new future. In short, this movie has nothing to do with sexism and everything to do with the wonders of life. And yes, damn it Ken, that is one nice townhouse you got there…


Sorry Mods! Cut is Fixed!
Oh, I love you Ken!!
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