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Professors get animated about Pixar’s messages

Parents should critically watch messages that come through cartoons, says professor
Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Cartoon princesses have long been role models for little girls, much to the chagrin of feminists. But in the postfeminist era – or since many of the old stereotypes of gender roles have been broken – what do the new cartoons have to say about boyhood?

This is just one of the questions Dr. Shannon Wooden, associate professor of English at Missouri State University, is researching, along with Dr. Ken Gillam, her husband and assistant professor of English.

“We argue that there is a kind of alpha male swagger at the beginning of the Pixar films that ends up getting disciplined through a variety of domestic and cultural factors,” said Wooden. “While Buzz Lightyear, Lightning McQueen and Mr. Incredible are all superstars, they are also all unsatisfied, unfulfilled or unsuccessful in that alpha male role. All of them have to come to grips with this domestic role, which we are calling the new man model. It’s not John Wayne, and it’s not Prince Charming, and it’s not a masculine model from the past, where men were stereotypically separate from the intimacies of community and family.”

Wooden and Gillam agree that this new man model seems to send a healthy message for children, but they warn parents to watch these movies critically to become cognizant of what messages are being sent.

During their research, Wooden has noticed other troubling messages, specifically with the representations of boyhood that are valorized and vilified. One example is the dichotomy of Sid and Andy in the “Toy Story” trilogy.

“Sid is clearly a villain. Sid is clearly a bully. Sid is violent. He is scary, and he has bad teeth and likes to blows things up,” said Wooden. “But when you start thinking about who is aware of whose actual realms of existence, you can see that Sid is not really bullying anybody. Until the end of the first film, Sid has no idea that the toys are alive. All he is really doing is breaking stuff.”

At the same time, Wooden points out that Andy is in his room performing narrative based play and acting out familiar stories. Andy is mimicking things he has seen while Sid, Wooden argues, is demonstrating extraordinary boy play.

“Sid is doing something much more productive, constructive, destructive and imaginative,” said Wooden. “Somebody at some point should have noticed that he’s making this erector set baby head crazy mutant robot doll. That’s amazing!”

“To be really cynical, Disney would prefer that kids demonstrate narrative play,” added Wooden. “It means that they’ll buy their toys, wear their costumes and watch the movies. Kids like Sid don’t need to buy stuff from Disney.”

Wooden also takes exception to the cameo of Sid in “Toy Story 3.” Andy is on his way to college, she explained, while Sid is the garbage man.

“That’s what happens to boys, says the ‘Toy Story’ trilogy,” said Wooden. “If you play nice pretend games according to familiar narrative scripts, and you take good care of your sister, are sweet to your mom and you love your toys, you get to go to college. And Sid, whatever genius he might have displayed as a child, is the garbage man. He’s not on a path to success, and he never has been.”

Another troubling message in Pixar films is the vilifying of absent parents and even working parents.

“As a working mom, it’s also interesting to me to see what they say about parents. ‘Look what happens when kids don’t get good moms or good parents.’ Neglected children – Sid in ‘Toy Story,’ the Prospector in ‘Toy Story 2’ and Lotso Huggin’ Bear in ‘Toy Story 3’ – become tyrants or bullies. Day care, in the last film, is the worst place in the world – a literal prison, filled with chaos and abuse,” she noted. “The bully almost becomes sympathetic when you can blame the parents.”

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