Toy Story 3 opens on a female-empowerment high, with Mrs. Potato-Head displaying mad train-robbing skills and Jessie skillfully steering Bullseye in the ensuing chase. From there though, the bottom drops out of the film’s female quotient.
Out of seven new toy characters, only one is female – the purple octopus whose scant dialogue is voiced by Whoopi Goldberg. This is far worse than the one female to every three males ratio documented in children’s media by The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media.
The film revolves around now 17-year-old Andy leaving for college. His mom (who has yet to be given a name) insists (in rather nagging fashion) he store or get rid of all his “junk.” The bag of toys containing Woody et al mistakenly ends up in the trash, resulting in the toys landing in a prison-like daycare (way to turn the knife on working parent guilt, that one).
In typical Pixar fashion, male characters dominate the film. Though the film ends with young Bonnie as the happy new owner of the toys, making way for more sequels, Woody would have to become Wanda and Buzz become Betty in future films in order for the series to break Pixar’s male-only protagonist tradition (as in Wall-E, A Bug’s Life, Cars, Monster, Inc, The Incredibles, How to Train Your Dragon…).
Bo Peep is inexplicably missing in this third installment, leaving even fewer females. Barbie has a larger role this time around though, as an overly emotional, often crying girlie-girl. She is also a traitor of sorts, breaking away from the gang to go live with Ken in his dream house.
As for Ken, he is depicted as a closeted gay fashionista with a fondness for writing in sparkly purple ink with curly-Q flourishes. Played for adult in-jokes, Ken huffily insists “I am not a girl toy, I am not!” when an uber-masculine robot–type toy suggests as much during a heated poker match. In the typical way homophobia is paired with misogyny, the jokes about Ken suggest that the worst things a male can be are a female or a homosexual.
Admittedly, Barbie ultimately rejects Ken and is instrumental in Woody and Co’s escape, but her hyper-feminine presentation coupled with Ken’s not-yet-out-of-the-toy-cupboard homophobia make this yet another family movie that perpetuates damaging gender and sexuality norms.
While the girls in the audience are given the funny and adventurous Jessie, they are also taught women are coy and talk too much (as with the flirty Mrs. Potato-Head, who, according to the new character Lotso needs her mouth taken off), that when they say something smart it’s so rare as to be funny (as 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, plays on the “Latin machismo lover” stereotype).
As for non-heterosexual audience members, they learn that being gay is so funny, that the best thing to do is hide one’s sexuality by playing heterosexual, and that it’s quite normal (and humorous) when others mock homosexuality and/or non-normative masculinity.
Yes, the film is funny and clever. Yes, it was enjoyable and fresh. Yes, it contained the typical blend of witty dialogue coupled with a virtual feast for the eyes. But, no, Pixar has not left its male-hetero-centric scripts behind. Nor has it moved beyond the ‘everyone is white and middle class’ suburban view of the world. As such, it’s associations with Disney, the mega-animated-instiller of gender and other norms (as so well documented in Mickey Mouse Monopoly) indicates that animated films from Pixar will not be giving us a “whole new world” anytime soon…