Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Feminists, pick your pop-culture battles!

(WARNING: This blog contains spoilers for Toy Story 3. Read only if you've seen the film or have no intention of seeing it. It's a good movie. Go see it. Then come back and read my blog.)

Leaving indie films and foreign films out of the equation for the moment, I will state that the number of high-quality mainstream movie releases for Summer 2010 (so far, at least) could be counted on one hand. Among those, Pixar's Toy Story 3 is by far the most enjoyable. In fact, nothing else comes close. This smart, funny animated film about toys is a single bright spot in a summer movie season dominated by dreck.

But when Natalie Wilson of Ms. Magazine goes to the film, she sees not an oasis of quality but a bearer of dangerous sexist and homophobic messages. According to a recent article she posted, Toy Story 3, while admittedly clever and fun, tries to convince its audience that the only good toy is a heterosexual male toy. First, she claims that male toys outnumber female -- hardly unusual when most films feature five significant male roles for every one female. Second, the female characters are presented in a stereotypical light: Andy's mother is a nag, and Barbie is a helpless over-emotional whiner. Third, the film bashes gays in the form of Ken, whose metrosexual love of fashion is severely mocked. Due to these three points, we should look on the film with suspicion even as we enjoy it, lest we buy into the anti-PC messages.

I've seen Toy Story 3, and as my husband could certainly tell you, if a movie contains sexist messages I can see them coming a mile away. I saw nothing remotely sexist, or maliciously collectivist in any way, about this film, and my jaw is scraping the floor at Wilson's criticisms.

What I notice first is what Wilson doesn't mention. Only one female character possesses stereotypically negative "female" qualities, and her role is very small: Molly, Andy's little sister, who seems all set to become one of those shallow, hyper-appearance-conscious teenage girls whom psychologist Mary Pipher calls "female impersonators." Were all the female characters variations of Molly, Wilson might have a point. But Wilson doesn't mention Molly at all; instead she disparages the mom, who doesn't nag any more than any other mom might while supervising her son's packing for college. Wilson also conveniently forgets the film's most appealing female figure: little Bonnie, whose imagination and gentle care with toys almost make the loyal Woody forget Andy, and who becomes the rightful inheritor of Andy's toys at the end. (The last scene before the credits roll, which features Andy and Bonnie playing together with Woody, Buzz & co., is one of the most touching in recent memory.) If Molly is a female impersonator, Bonnie is adorably and delightfully herself. I have perfect faith that she'll grow up to be an art nerd, not a fashionista.

As far as the female toys go, how did Wilson miss Jessie? As in Toy Story 2, Jessie is tomboyishly active, not a passive porcelain doll like Bo Peep (whose absence from Toy Story 3 I scarcely felt). Feminists like Wilson might have a problem with Jessie because her judgments are rash, and while she makes decisions, they're often the wrong decisions. But to me, one of the greatest signs of strength is the ability to admit your mistakes and make every effort to correct them -- and this Jessie does, in spades. Moreover, Barbie's depiction is much more complex than Wilson would have us believe. Sure, she's first seen bawling when Molly throws her into the donation box, and sure, she moons over Ken and his dream house (what else could we expect?), but when it counts, she takes decisive and clever action to save her friends. Criticisms of Ken don't hold much water, either. At the film's end, Ken the "metrosexual" becomes the strong, wise leader of the Sunnyside Day Care toys that his one-time boss, the tyrannical Lotso Huggin' Bear, failed to be.

Yet I wonder most at Wilson's choice of Toy Story 3 for her attack, while apparently oblivious to the multitude of sexist messages that surround her at the multiplex.

Did she miss Killers, in which Katherine Heigl plays, as Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwartzbaum puts it, a character "stitched together from shreds of every dispiriting, routinely accepted trait so popular and so soul-killing in the female characters currently prevalent in crappy action-romantic comedies"? The trailer alone made me want to gouge my eyes out, as Heigl flies into her shrill, helpless shrew routine (Eeeeew! A gun!) while her assassin-for-hire husband tries to save their lives. I'm told she "gets better" at the end, but a sudden shift in the last five minutes of a film, as opposed to a change that's been coming on gradually, fails to convince. Here, it seems, would be a far worthier mark for Ms. Wilson's darts.

Did she miss the posters for Eclipse, the third film in the incredibly popular (and I use the word "incredibly" in its most literal sense) Twilight series? Here is a story that features a "heroine" incapable of thinking for herself, ruled in every way by her desire for a hunky male, at the mercy of the stronger characters and forces that surround her. It romanticizes female passivity and dependence. Bella Swan makes Toy Story 3's Barbie look like Xena Warrior Princess, yet this character has become the conduit of thousands of tween-to-teen girls' daydreams. Surely this is more sexist, and more potentially damaging, than anything we've seen in Pixar.

Did she fail to notice how movies with male protagonists continue to outnumber movies with female protagonists, and how often female-centered movies are notoriously poor in quality? Did she have a thought for how often, even in supposed "chick flicks," the female characters are called upon to do little more than look glamorous and pine for men (yes, Sex and the City 2, I'm looking straight at you)?

Hollywood needs to clean up its act where women are concerned. It needs to start releasing female-centered films that are actually good. But attacking Toy Story 3, a movie that offers more good news than bad where its females are concerned, smacks of Boy (or Girl)-Who-Cried-Wolf Syndrome -- never the solution to any problem.

If feminist pop culture critics are looking for a real sign of something wrong, they should hearken to Ellen, the "Modern Lady" of Info-Mania. A couple of weeks ago, this light-hearted and often hilarious look at pop culture featured Ellen's look at the strong undercurrent of misogyny in beer commercials. She let roll a series of clips which feature attractive women being knocked unconscious in touch football, catapulted into pools, pooped on by horses, and otherwise disparaged and humiliated. The gender hostility was palpable. (What such commercials say about men isn't exactly flattering, either.) Though Info-Mania presents all its segments in a humorously cynical way, this one left me more sad than amused, as I wondered at yet another apparent sign that guys and gals don't trust or even like each other anymore.

This is a problem worth looking into, Ms. Wilson. Aim your arrow here.

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