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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  • Bastinian

    I whole-heartedly agree with your conclusion, Mr. Carlson. Sexism is present in this film, but it is no more one-sided than it is intentionally sexist. Disney/Pixar did not write the storyboard for this film hoping that they could slip in some gender-degrading statements. Their focus was on making a movie that would entertain. A sequel that lived up to expectations and could be enjoyed by viewers of all ages. And that’s precisely what they did. I applaud the efforts of the staff, and hope that they aren’t deterred by people like Wilson as they continue to create films that push our emotions to their limits.

  • Jose

    I don’t think Toy Story 3 is sexist, “Andy has a nagging and emotional mother” geez, what did she expect? Her son is LEAVING. TO COLLEGE. of course she’s emotional.

    “Barbie is overtly feminine and moody” In the end she played a vitol role in saving the day, be grateful for that lady.

    “Ken’s femininity is portrayed as a laughable and unlikable characteristic, rather than as a genuine way of being’
    Geez he’s a girl’s toy, he’s made to be like that.

    My English teacher has a word for women like that: “Fem-nazis” Ms. Wilson is just overanalyzing the movie and taking it way to far.

  • http://www.filmmisery.com Alex Carlson

    I agree, Jose. I think the biggest thing she overlooks is that Andy is a boy so it is natural that he has boy toys. They address the issue by showing girl toys at the end. I think Wilson is reaching and finding something that’s not really there.

  • M. Schulman

    We all know that Andy is a boy, that’s not the point. It’s the ratio of male-to-female characters that is troubling to me. What exactly makes a Fisher Price telephone male? There are dozens of toys, in all three of these films, that could have been voiced by women.

  • http://ramblingsofg1000.blogspot.com G1000

    Pixar is definitely NOT sexist. Although, the fact that they haven’t had any films with a major female protaganist (Dory and Elastigirl were supporting characters, not leads) is a bit troubling. Their upcoming film “Brave” will finally recitfy that, but still…

    Nonetheless, none of their films are sexist in any way, shape, or form. I haven’t seen “Toy Story 3″ yet, but I’m sure that applies to it as well.

  • http://www.filmmisery.com Alex Carlson

    Hey G, fun fact – that comment of yours was officially comment number 1,000 on Film Misery. I think its appropriate that you were the one to do it!

  • http://filmexperience.blogspot.com Nathaniel R

    a teacher is using the term “feminazi”? These are dark days.

    there’s nothing wrong with analyzing popular culture and seeing what values it’s sending out. and maybe if enough people call Pixar on their problems with sexism (it’s not so much overt sexism as just not caring about the female pov… which is its own problem)

    like anyone i LOVE Pixar’s movies. But they do have trouble with female representation. It makes you wonder how many women they have working in their company? It’d be nice if some other studio who was interested in female characters would make films just as good, though.

    But then “just as good” as Pixar is very hard to pull off :)

  • M. Schulman

    @ Nathaniel R: I totally agree that it’s the lack of female point-of-view that is lacking in their films. Thanks for such a sensible and reasonable response to the Pixar juggernaut being questioned. I have also wondered whether any women work over there. And I also agree that they do make great movies in all other ways. :)

  • Dee

    People obviously have too much time on their hands when they have to dis’ a children’s movie! I suggest that they get a life that would involve something Spiritualy constructive;

  • Quin

    Wow. I think they are being overly sensitive. First of all, it NOT on purpose. Second you have a good point, Alex. Andy, the owner, is a male and it makes sense that most of his toys are male, too. I think the whole “sexist” thing about “Toy Story 3″ Is, quite frankly, stupid.

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