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You’re watching Pixar wrong: Monsters in the closet

23 July, 2015 — by Ted Wilkes0

Mike_Sulley_Boo_monsters inc

It could be the headline of any right-wing news rag across the world… ‘Monsters in the closet!’

Or perhaps… ‘Monsters stay in the closet!’

Or even… ‘[insert washed-up celebrity] comes out of the closet and now you can look upon them and judge them, judge them with us, write a hateful bigoted comment especially if it’s nothing to do with this poorly researched article then share it with your friends on whatever social media the perpetually outraged find acceptable to use nowadays’. 

Our recent history, both in the real world and in the fictional universes we create on screen, should shame us all when it comes to our treatment of the LGBT community. Frequently shunned, feared or ridiculed on-screen, gay characters are often signified as ‘the other’ – marked as an outsider who should be treated differently than their ‘straight’ counterparts.

As society became more progressive, queer cinema began to crop up in art house and backstreet cinemas in the late 1980s and early 1990s with titles such as: No Skin Off My Ass, Parting Glances and My Beautiful Laundrette. However, with a few notable exceptions such as Brokeback Mountain, there have been few openly gay characters on our screens that play anything more than a sidekick, a stock character or a lazy plot device. It’s therefore refreshing that one of Pixar’s best films stars two characters who are arguably homosexual, with the pair of them tackling the issue of equal parenting head on.

In Monsters Inc. an energy company employs monsters to produce fuel for the city of Monstropolis. On the factory floor ‘Scarers’ enter a parallel human world though children’s closet doors where they collect screams, the raw material for energy in the film. Sully, the blue-furred hero of the feature, becomes a surrogate father for a young girl when she accidentally comes back through a door to the factory/power plant. He is unsure what to do with ‘Boo’, so takes her back to a house that he shares with co-worker Mike. She becomes what could be considered the adopted child of a same sex couple. In the film there is a “queering” of the relationship between the two lead characters and there are several obvious nods that they are in fact a couple. They bicker like a couple, take care of each other like a couple and banter like a couple. To all intents and purposes they are a couple.


From the beginning of the film the relationship between child and monster is a strange one. It’s an intensely disturbing attachment, a very small child is in the care of a large monster. Often this paring has been used in film to suggest a rather sinister relationship; for example in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang the Child Catcher hunts down his prey forever leering after them, crooked and deformed. The monster in Frankenstein mistakenly kills a little girl on the banks of the river without meaning to, ending her innocent life through misunderstanding and heavy handedness. In almost every teen horror film, the slasher seeks to punish young women for their sexual experimentation. In every variation of the story, the monster and child are usually opposites. As Elizabeth Freeman says:

In the broadest terms, Boo and Sully’s attachment is dangerously queer: cross-generational and cross-species, it leaches together the figures of monster and child that have animated homophobic discourse for centuries.

However Sully proves this wrong as he is a good father figure to Boo and means her no harm, in fact he engages her with affection, nurturing, play and education at various points in the film.

When ‘Boo’ first meets Sully she regards him with nothing but delight and curiosity rather than fear. Playing with his tail she allows it to fall and hit the ground several times as she squeals with delight. It is clear that Sully is the one who is frightened of the child, not the other way round. Sully understands that Boo has no part in his world and is in fact supposedly at odds with it. Also, Sully isn’t the only monster in Monstropolis who is terrified of children, each and every inhabitant of the city is told to fear them. Any contact between the two worlds is dealt with severely. When a monster returns from a bedroom with even so much as a stray sock stuck to their fur, an elaborate decontamination unit descends upon him. For the monsters, the world of children is terrifying to them as it suggests normative heterosexuality. They lack understanding of this world because they’ve been conditioned to believe they don’t belong in it.

There is a centuries–old association of homosexuality and ‘unmanliness’ that is rooted in our gender system, which lays the foundations for our contempt, persecution and discrimination against homosexual people. In the case of adoption, some believe that homosexual couples shouldn’t be able to adopt because they’d be unsuitable parents, purely because it doesn’t suit societal ‘norms’ if a child has two same-gender parents. This rejection of homosexuality by society can be seen later in the film with Mike and Sully being banished for bringing Boo into the factory. They have broken the rules by daring to interact with children so are sent to a snowy wasteland where they meet a notably camp ‘Bigfoot’ who has himself been banished.

At another point in the film the two protagonists dress Boo in a baby monster costume so they can get away with escorting her through the factory to return her to “where she belongs”. It turns out that she is even too monstrous when dressed as a monster to be accepted by the workers and is only allowed in with her costume because the two manage to convince Waternoose, their boss, that it’s “bring an obscure relative to work day” – a possible further hint that the only child the homosexual Sully is allowed to been seen with is one from a normative heterosexual couple whom he knows.

monsters inc boo in monster costume


The workplace of Monsters Inc can be read as a metaphor for the terrifying image of patriarchal, normative, heterosexual behaviour. In the factory/power station (I’m still not sure how to phrase it) the monsters are assigned typical gender identities that are constructed through work place roles, the females are admin assistants and receptionists whereas the males are the technical staff or shop floor workers. Boo to Sully’s colleagues is unable to be his child in the workplace because he has never been seen with another female companion.

Boo’s desire to play and bond with Sully continues when they’re playing hide and seek in the locker room. Sully then proves his worth as a father by comforting her when she sees Randle, the monster that has been scaring her at night in a bid to break the ‘scream record’. The relationship between the two of them changes however when Boo sees Sully’s demonstration on the scare simulation machine. When he roars the image is enlarged and projected onto the machine’s several video monitors. A horrified Boo sees this and shrinks from this mediated version of Sully yelling at an animatronic child. The scene shows us a tainted view of Sully; on the multiple monitors he is examined from every possible angle. His image is distorted, seen from Boo’s point of view Sully is suddenly a ‘monster’ and becomes much more terrifying than we’ve seen him before.

These images can be used as a metaphor for the issues of representation, potentially showing us a gateway into the right-wing media’s demonisation of homosexuality. We have been shown that Sully is a good father figure, it just so happens to be that he’s a monster too, which some people with an agenda would wish to highlight as opposed to the positive work that he’s been doing with Boo. Sully is unable to take care of children because he is seen as monstrous, it matters not that no one has let him look after a child before, he must be bad at it because society deems that he will be through his representation in the media.



Furthering this idea is the ‘scream-extracting’ machine that Mike and Sully stumble upon when chasing Boo after she runs away. With this Randle and Waternoose force children to be scared; sucking screams out of them. This could be read as the expression of social anxieties of homosexuals adopting children and how this is portrayed negatively in the media. What is most interesting in the scene is Boo’s reaction. Before seeing this alternative side of Sully she has been more than happy in his company. She embodies the tabula rasa of the infant – a blank slate on which society writes its values on for her to follow. She is not scared until she is told, or in this case shown, that she should be frightened of “Kitty”.

In the end, Sully confronts Waternoose about what potential harm that Boo could possibly do. Waternoose acknowledges that Boo is harmless to the world of monsters, admits that Sully would be a good father, and that there would be no problem in him keeping the child for his own. It is simply that the world of monsters would not be ready to accept her as his. His confession is caught on the same camera that betrayed Sully in the previous scene, and the plan of Randle and Waternoose is foiled. The same medium that was used to turn Boo against Sully is used to show the evils of those who first used it against him. In this we see the good that the media is able to do in the debate and expose the ridiculousness of the opposition to gay adoption.

However after all that, Sully’s mission still remains the same as it has been throughout the film. He must return Boo to her ‘rightful’ place within the nuclear family, placing her back in the door that she came from. The narrative demands that Sully must suffer in his Inner Most Cave in order to grow and return to his Ordinary World with an Elixir of Knowledge fulfilling his inner journey while completing his outer one. In this case it is the understanding that there is more to life than the scare record he longs to maintain. Through his experience with Boo, Sully has learnt that he must reform to be a compassionate individual, and now in charge of Monsters Inc. he changes the company for the better. He decides to re-educate his workers in the more compassionate human techniques of antiquated vaudeville and slapstick comedy. Although it is in keeping with a traditional hero’s narrative, it is a cowardly ideological move for Pixar as it resorts to upholding old-fashioned gender roles and maintaining normal social construction.

Although all is not over and the ending of Monsters Inc offers us a coda that will allow us a moment of emotional catharsis and brings us back to notions of fatherhood. Mike Wazowski (Sully’s partner – whichever way you read things) has been secretly piecing together Boo’s bedroom door and gives it to Sully as a present. Sully then inserts the last fragment that he has been keeping as a souvenir. As the door swings open we see Sully’s face fill the doorframe. “Boo?” he says, and we hear a voice back, “Kitty!” However, we can neither verify Boo’s identity, nor are able to predict what social form their future relationship is to take, if there is any at all.

sully monsters inc ending

The grown up Boo may not react to Sully with the curiosity that she did as a very small child. Rather she may view him with fear or possibly resentment as her tabula-rasa becomes further corrupted with various other ideologies that society offers to her. The last image becomes a paradox, a texture which is not quite a text: Sully’s highly pixilated blue fur invites a touch that Boo may or may not respond to, one which the audience cannot complete. She will no longer be the noble savage of John Dryden’s heroic play The Conquest of Granada (1672), but will begin to form into a young adult who, exposed to societies resentment of ‘the other’, may lash out at her previous carer because she has been told she must do so. However, the more romanticised Hollywood ending would be that she rushes up and flings her arms around Sully happy that he has returned to her. I know which one I would rather see.

It is odd to think that in the end of the film all Sully has to do is come out of the closet and metaphorically accept his sexuality, so that he can become a surrogate father to Boo. The film offers not just a sympathetic view of the fight for equal adoption, but becomes a champion of same sex parents. However, it also shows us the dangers of allowing the media to corrupt our views on issues that as liberal, inclusive and tolerant people we should not be backing down on.

For more in-depth and slightly wayward film analysis, check out our movie features section including why Grease 2 is an underrated classic.

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