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Toy Story, gender identity and the end of the alpha male (Video)

16 February, 2017 — by Ted Wilkes0

Pixar not only shatters records at the box office, but also smashes the glass ceiling of conservative ideology; one that’s been prevalent in animation since Disney first put his heavy pencil around the outlines of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Today you’re going to discover all about how Toy Story isn’t the charming tale of friendship and families that you first thought it was. It’s actually an ode to the modern man and how the muscle bound hunter-gatherer of old has officially been cast aside in modern society. However not being at the top of the food chain doesn’t mean you’ve been emasculated. You might actually be of better use to society without those instincts.

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It’s been written about at length that Toy Story has some overtly sexual undertones. Woody who is floppy and limp loses his bae (Bo Peep) to the new toy on the block, Buzz, who is hard and ridged and pops up on command.

However, the film shows that there is more to life for a man than worrying about the functionality of his sexual organ. The leading man in film for the past 100 years has embodied the alpha male. By showing us heroes concerned with power/money/women/violence/material-success we understand that in order to be masculine these are the things that we need to be concerned about as men in order to succeed at our gender.

bo peep toy story

Susan Powel has pointed out it appears that the screen male is even more damaged than he was 10 years ago. Masculinity seems to have been represented at either end of a spectrum of extremes:

At one extreme, we have the man feminised by spectacle and display… at the other we have the damaged man.

These damaged or degraded men can be read as a representation of a type of male hysteria, almost a smokescreen for that realignment: “look how I suffer, look how I am feminised through that suffering.” When an alpha male hero finds himself at ‘The Innermost Cave’ of his narrative (the place where he must fight the ‘villain’ of the story) he is usually at the point of death. He suffers either a mental or physical injury, but must strive on alone, eventually conquering the ailment in order to defeat evil. In unfortunate modern parlance, he must ‘man-up’ to succeed.

Susan Jeffords however points out that since Beauty and the Beast, animated films have resisted, and often ridiculed, the machismo once de-rigueur of leading men. This resistance to the portrayal of the alpha male figure has been mirrored by the rise of the beta male:

The testosterone – pumped, muscle – bound Hollywood is rapidly deflating… Taking his place is a new kind of leading man, the kind who’s just as happy following as leading, or never getting off the sofa.

At the beginning of Toy Story we clearly see the alpha male model being set up through the characters of Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear. They both become a metaphor for the modern man in conflict. They base their worth on a masculine model of competition and power, desiring not only to be the favourite toy of their owner Andy, but also to posses the adoration and the authority over the other toys in the playroom.

Woody shows himself to be a natural leader; he occupies a position of both paternalistic care and patriarchal dominance. In the beginning of the film he conducts a staff meeting about the family’s impending move that highlights his dominant position in the toy community.

Woody is meant to represent the ‘old school’ thought of masculinity, he is a cowboy and thus most obviously coded as the debunked model of what it means to be a man. Woody’s greatest fear appears to be that he is going to be replaced by Buzz, who represents the new style of masculinity where spectacle and display are more important than practicality. Bo-Peep and Andy turn away from Woody and project their affection onto Buzz.

These relationships can be seen to have the aforementioned sexual undertones with close reading. From the beginning, power is constructed in terms conspicuously gender coded, at least for adult viewers. As they watch the incoming birthday presents, the toys agonise at their sheer size, the longest and most phallic-shaped one striking true fear (and admiration?) into hearts of the spectators.

woody-and-buzz as toys

This idea is furthered when Woody is threatened by Buzz. Mr. Potato head comments that he is suffering from “Lazer envy” a reference to the pop-Freudian term ‘penis envy’. From this we can deduce that the story contains far more sexual themes than would previously have been allowed in a children’s animated film.

Buzz and Woody compete for the affections of Bo Peep, who is very sexualized for a children’s film, cooing and flirting whenever she is on screen. She purrs to Woody an offer to “get someone else to watch the sheep tonight”. What they would do with her night off is left to ambiguously hang in the audience’s mind, but we know what she’s implying. Bo then quickly chooses Buzz as her moving buddy as his supposed flying display has impressed her enough that she decides that he is the man for her.

Finally Woody’s moment of darkness (both literal and metaphorical) comes when he is trapped under an overturned milk crate. He must accept help from Buzz and is finally forced to admit that he “doesn’t stand a chance” against Buzz in the competition for Andy’s affections, which is “everything that is important [to him]”. In this he has to acknowledge his own feminine values, from his need for communal support to his deep, abiding (and later maternal) love of a boy. This feminine stamp is characteristic of the ‘new man’ model, towards which these characters’ narrative journeys take them.

However, the film does not advocate the alpha masculinity that Buzz shows is any more correct than Woody’s. Buzz comes to know who he really is – a toy – by learning that he cannot actually fly.

Sid, the demon neighbour from next door, serves as a means to that end, not only forcing recognition of Buzz’s personal limitation, but also in representing the annihilation of self, the complete destruction of the old ideology that Buzz represents so that he might build himself back up as a ‘better’, more rounded person (ahem… toy).

Buzz sees himself on the television in Sid’s house, finally realizing that Woody is right, and he is a toy. Initially refusing to accept this new truth he defiantly attempts to fly anyway, landing sprawled on the floor with a broken arm. He can’t escape the reality that he is faced with. This is when Sid’s little sister finds him and sits him in her tea party as “Mrs Nesbit” complete with pink apron and hat. Buzz becomes entirely feminised and accepts what he now sees as his new role. There is no support network available for him as the alpha male who has insisted on working alone and hiding his feelings.

As an ex-alpha male he cannot understand a life without striving for overtly masculine things and instead occupies the role that in his mind he feels that a woman should take on. When Woody tries to rescue him, Buzz wails, “Don’t you get it? I am Mrs. Nesbit. But does the hat look good? Oh, tell me the hat looks good!” He suffers a crisis of masculinity, as he is no longer who he thought he was.

Like many alpha males he stresses over a task; his was to save the galaxy and his strength came from his belief in his ability to do so. The alpha male model has failed him and he is now crushed, he is simply consumed as an object, which is to be greatly feminised in his mind.

buzz-lightyear-mrs.-nesbitt tea party

The two characters realise that they need one another in order to understand and accept their feminine qualities and use them to survive. It’s the male/male relationship that the two form that allows their journey to continue towards a new model of masculinity. Together they discover the necessary truths about their masculine strength only as they discover how much they need one another.

Many critics have argued that men in modern society have lost key male friendships that would be part of forming a masculine identity. Buzz and Woody have to go through the ordeal in Sid’s house that harks back to the pre-industrial male roles, a tribal sensibility that may not involve drum circles and sweat lodges, but it certainly fulfils that role.

Eve Sedgwick describes the ways in which the homosocial bond is negotiated through a triangulation of desires. Intimacy between men is constructed through an overt and shared desire of a feminised object that is not always necessarily a woman (it could be a car, a holiday, a particularly fancy hammer).

Unlike the homosocial relationships that form between women, according to Sedgwick, male homosocial identity must be homophobic in patriarchal systems, which are structurally homophobic. This basically means that in same-sex relationships that are not romantic there must be social opportunities for a man to insist on, or prove, his heterosexuality. In citing Rene Girard’s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Sedgwick argues:

In any erotic rivalry, the bond that links the two rivals is as intense and potent as the bind that links either of the rivals to the beloved; women are ultimately symbolically exchangeable for the primary purpose of cementing the bonds of men with men.

With new strength realised by their new homosocial friendship and intimacies, the male characters are able to triumph over their respective narrative arcs, demonstrating the desirable modifications that Pixar makes to the alpha-male model.

With this new knowledge, the inner battles of our heroes are completed and they are able to escape their respective physical and metaphorical ‘Inner-most Caves’ by working together. To escape from Sid, Buzz and Woody must cooperate not only with each other, but also the deformed toys that lurk in the dark corners of Sid’s bedroom. They learn how to humble themselves and ask for help from the community. It is Woody’s new found ability to give and receive care that empowers him to teach Sid his own lesson of caring and sharing.

woody and buzz flying in toy story

Still, after the exit of Sid, the adventure does not finish for Buzz and Woody. Unable to catch the moving van as Sid’s dog chases them, Woody achieves the pinnacle of the ‘new man’ narrative. His new masculine identity is the thing that allows him to express his feelings and acknowledge his community as the site of his power, giving him further strength in his acknowledgement of it.

Woody is able to sacrifice the competition for his object of desire and lets go of the van strap. He expresses his care-taking, nurturing love, and surrenders to the good of the beloved. “Take car of Andy for me.” he pleads, as the audience believes that he sacrifices himself.

However, Buzz’s own moment of truth shortly follows where he allows himself to seize his power as a toy rather than the space ranger he’s been playing at being. Holding Woody, he glides into the family’s car and back into Andy’s care, correcting Woody by proudly repeating his earlier, critical words back to him, “This isn’t flying; it’s falling with style.”

Buzz has found the value of being a ‘toy’ and the fulfilment that comes from being owned and loved. Just as we come to accept the possibility that toys can tell us more about ourselves that we first thought. Now be careful where you point that thing.

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