SATURDAY DISCUSSION: Is ‘Toy Story 3’ Sexist?

Toy Story 3 is at the top of the Box Office and it currently has the highest score for 2010 on Metacritic with an impressive 91. At first glance it would seem like everybody loves Pixar’s third installment to their first feature film franchise. However, that is actually not the case.

The popular U.S. feminist magazine “Ms.” is criticizing the film for being overtly “sexist” and says that exposing it to children may do more harm than good. In a review of the film posted this week by “Ms.” blogger Natalie Wilson it gets criticized for “careless sexism.” Wilson says that the Pixar film is incredibly unbalanced in its portrayal of male and female characters and the little female representation is negative. Andy has a nagging and emotional mother, Barbie is overtly feminine and moody, and the new female characters have fewer overall lines than their male counterparts.

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 average gender ratio in children’s media of one-female-to-every-three-males documented by The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media. And these ratios have a real effect: Decades of research shows that kids who grow up watching sexist shows are more likely to internalize stereotypical ideas of what men and women are supposed to be like.

Wilson’s criticism isn’t reserved for Pixar’s portrayal of women, however. She also criticizes the portrayal of the presumably gay character Ken. She says that Ken’s femininity is portrayed as a laughable and unlikable characteristic, rather than as a genuine way of being:

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 toy suggests so during a heated poker match. Pairing homophobia with misogyny, the jokes about Ken suggest that the worst things a boy can be are either a girl or a homosexual.

Overall Wilson’s argument was more convincing than I expected it to be. Any piece of popular culture that receives near unanimous praise is almost always criticized for insensitivity to some group. However, a lot of what Wilson says makes sense. She points out the stereotype of the nagging and talkative Mrs. Potato Head and the line where Lotso says she needs her mouth taken off. It is true that Toy Story 3 does use some stereotypes in its presentation of humor.

Where I think that Wilson misses the point is the fact that Pixar pokes fun at everybody. Female characters are not the only victims of the light-hearted humor; Pixar also pokes fun at the faux-masculinity of the male characters. Woody fails his attempts at female interactions, the villainous male toys are thuggish and stupid, and Buzz Lightyear is a characterization of male delusion. The main toy owner in the Toy Story series is a male so it only makes sense that the toys would be mostly male.

Wilson also neglects to mention one of the most prevalent females in the film – Bonnie, the little girl who adopts the toys at the end. Pixar portrays the young girl’s perspective with the same fantasy and playfulness as the young Andy in the early films. They show that both sexes have the same imagination and youthful exuberance. If there was any sexism I believe it was purely unintended.

What do you think? Is Toy Story 3 (and the rest of the Toy Story series) sexist?

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