Third Time Still Not the Charm for Toy Story’s Female Characters

Toy Story 3 opens on a woman-empowerment high, with Mrs. Potato-Head displaying mad train-robbing skills and cowgirl Jessie skillfully steering her faithful horse Bullseye in the ensuing chase. And that’s the end of that: From there on, the film displays the same careless sexism as its predecessors.

Out of seven new toy characters at the daycare where the majority of the narrative takes place, only one is female–the purple octopus whose scant dialogue is voiced by Whoopi Goldberg. Although two of the toys in the framing scenes with Bonnie, the girl who ultimately becomes the toys’ new owner, are female, the ratio is still far worse than the average 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.

Toy Story’s latest installment revolves around now-17-year-old Andy leaving college. His mom (who has yet to be given a name) insists (in rather nagging fashion) that he store or get rid of all his “junk.” The bag of toys mistakenly ends up in the trash, resulting in the toys landing in a prison-like daycare (way to turn the knife on working parent guilt).

In typical Pixar fashion, male characters dominate the film. Though it ends with young Bonnie as the happy new owner of the toys, making way for more sequels, Woody would have to become Wanda, and Buzz become Betty, in order for the series to break Pixar’s male-only protagonist tradition (think Wall-E, A Bug’s Life, Cars, Monster, Inc, The Incredibles).

Bo Peep is inexplicably missing in this third installment, leaving even fewer female figures. Barbie has a larger role this time around though, as an overly emotional, often crying girlie-girl. She is also a traitor of sorts, breaking away from the gang to go live with Ken in his dream house.

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.

Barbie ultimately rejects Ken and is instrumental in Woody and company’s escape, but her hyper-feminine presentation, coupled with Ken’s not-yet-out-of-the-toy-cupboard persona, make this yet another family movie that perpetuates damaging gender and sexuality norms.

While the girls in the audience are given the funny and adventurous Jessie, they are also taught women talk too much: Flirty Mrs. Potato-Head, according to new character Lotso, needs her mouth taken off. Another lesson is that when women do say something smart, it’s so rare as to be funny (laughter ensues when Barbie says “authority should derive from the consent of the governed”), and that even when they are smart and adventurous, what they really care about is nabbing themselves a macho toy to love (as when Jessie falls for the Latino version of Buzz–a storyline, that, yes, also plays on the “Latin machismo lover” stereotype).

As for non-heterosexual audience members, they learn that being gay is so funny that the best thing to do is hide one’s sexuality by playing heterosexual, and to laugh along when others mock homosexuality or non-normative masculinity.

Yes, the film is funny and clever. Yes, it is enjoyable and fresh. Yes, it contains the typical blend of witty dialogue as well as a visual feast-for-the-eyes. But, no, Pixar has not left its male-heterocentric scripts behind. Nor has it moved beyond the “everyone is white and middle class” suburban view of the world. Perhaps we should expect no more from Pixar, especially now that Disney, the animated instiller of gender and other norms (a great documentary on this is Mickey Mouse Monopoly),now owns the studio. Sadly, Toy Story 3 indicates that animated films from Pixar will not be giving us a “whole new world,” at least when it comes to gender norms, anytime soon.

Photo from Flickr user ellenm. Courtesy of Creative Commons 3.0.

CORRECTION: This post has been updated to include Bonnie’s two female toys in the discussion of the characters’ gender ratio.


  1. “Pairing homophobia with misogyny, the jokes about Ken suggest that the worst things a boy can be are either a girl or a homosexual.”

    Same message appeared in the first film – Buzz’s lowest moment occurs when his crisis of confidence at realising he can’t fly results in his emasculation at the hands of the kid’s sister. She dresses him in dolls clothing and makes him take part in a tea party, while Buzz weeps.

  2. I understand where lots of this is coming from, and I myself am quite sensitive to the lack of females in most mainstream media. However, I just felt like I needed to offer some counter points before we go ripping TS3 a new one.

    1) There is no proof that Ken is gay. Assuming a man is gay because he likes feminine things is not right and counter productive. He seemed head over heels for Barbie and made no indication that he was doing it to protect any image. In fact, he even took her back a second time when he didn’t have to. Most of the jokes targeted towards him were that he was feminine, and not gay. What’s more, he didn’t show even a single subtle sign that he was attracted to men, which with Pixar’s cleverness, they probably would have found some way to sneak that fact past the censors.

    2) Lotso is a bad guy. Everything he does is bad. Sometimes writers like to make bad guys do bad things to prove they are bad, and in kids movies, show what not to do. If a bad guy in a movie is sexist, that’s usually a good thing because it shows children that bad people have bad views of women, and therefore good people have good views of women.

    3) Think hard: If it were Jessie or Mrs. Potato Head that said “authority should derive from the consent of the governed”, would it be as funny? No, it wouldn’t have. It wasn’t because Barbie was a girl that the joke was funny, it was because Barbie was previously considered a crying girly girl, and the fact that she happened to break our impression of her at such a critical time made it quite comical. Another point, it would have been just as funny if Ken had said it, since his obsessions seems primarily to be with clothes.

    4) Jessie falling for the machismo Latin stereotype. I thought the same way you did at first. However, she seemed to be less attracted to the “machismo” factor and moreso to his dancing and more outward expressions of love, since Buzz was previously shown unable to loosen up and confess his feelings.


  3. There are three more female characters in this movie that have been left out of this article; Dolly and Trixie, a doll and triceratops respectively, toys who live at Bonnie’s house, who is yet ANOTHER character Ms. Magazine left out. Bonnie might be the best of the bunch; she’s adventerous and creative, as well as non-white. I’d guess Latina but I might be wrong.

  4. “Barbie ultimately rejects Ken and is instrumental in Woody and company’s escape, but her hyper-feminine presentation…make this yet another family movie that perpetuates damaging gender and sexuality norms.”

    …how else is Barbie supposed to be portrayed?

  5. I totally agree that Pixar has some major problems with a lack of good female characters. But I thought from seeing the trailer that there was at least one other new female character in this one, voiced by the awesome Kristen Schaal – I was so excited when I heard her voice in the trailer.

  6. Okay, this article is probably the most nitpicking review of a film I’ve ever seen and made me wonder if Ms. Wilson sat down to just enjoy a critically acclaimed film or set out to look for flaws. True, Pixar has yet to do a female centered film, but that doesn’t mean they won’t. What makes them stand out over every studio is that their mission is to tell a great story first and foremost. They don’t care about politics or what the trends are, and as a result they’re making films that everyone can enjoy.

    Pixar has female producers on staff (look at the credits), and if you look at their filmmography, they do have very strong female roles. There’s Atta in A Bugs Life, who has to learn how to govern a colony, and Elastigirl from The Incredibles, who ends up saving her family, and EVE from Wall-E, who while a robot, still shows incredible strength and moral judgement. So its hardly fair to accuse Pixar of giving female characters the shaft.

    Lets also take into consideration that Woody, Buzz and the gang are toys belonging to a BOY. Would a 17 year old boy really want to keep Bo Peep around (whose absence is explained early on)? And when pointing out that Mrs. Potatohead’s lips are taken for talking to much – please don’t ignore the fact that it was done by the VILLAIN! Hence a lesson for more impressionable youth – this was a bad thing to do! Her role in the movie was pivotal and she played an enormous part in rescuing the toys out of the day care.

    The author went after Barbie and another commenter made a good point – How else was she supposed to be portrayed? She’s Barbie! For 60 years, she’s been a fashion doll and a girly girl! I wasn’t offended in the least when she spouted the line about government and authority. It was a nice touch to fleshing out a deceptively smart girl.

    I love Jessie – and for the author to say the only thing she really wants is a relationship with a strong macho Latin lover is not only wrong, but makes me wonder if Ms. Wilson was really paying attention or just complaining the whole time to the person sitting next to her. Buzz showed his affection for Jessie in Toy Story 2 and it was for her sense of adventure and she reciprocated in kind. Despite being toys, their relationship was based on a deep friendship with common interests (hey, what a great message to send to kids, everyone! Espescially girls!) When Buzz turns all Latin lover, it doesn’t make her go gaga over him, he’s become a different person and she’s placing more priority on the dangerous mission at hand (what’s that? could that be another positive message for girls?)

    Okay, the Ken being gay debate – silly and non important. Ken is a fashion doll with molded plastic hair and exaggerated smile. I don’t know about you, but I’ve known plenty of straight guys who could fit that moniker. Ken is obviously attracted to Barbie and his fashion quirks and defensiveness about not being a masculine figure ARE funny and in no way teaching kids to be intolerant to those who are different.

    Please lighten up, Natalie. Pixar is doing a huge service to everyone by making great movies that are going to last a long time. If you’re going to nitpick, please find a worthier cause.

  7. Nic,
    Thanks for the reminder about that scene in the first film!

    To respond to your points:
    1) The issue is not whether or not Ken is gay, but that the film undoubtedly makes fun of his “femininity” and suggests he might be gay — joking about his fondness for fashion and suggesting he cross-dresses are two examples.
    2)Yes, Lotso is bad, this makes his literal removal of Mrs. P’s mouth believable. But, many other jokes suggest Mrs. P talks too much. She is depicted as a stereotypical chatty, flirty woman.
    3)True, but I think Barbie is meant to represent your “typical” girl. Even Jessie, who is a far stronger, more adventurous character is presented as “typical” when she falls for Buzz. It is this normative representation of gender that I am critiquing.
    4) True again, but isn’t the dancing and love expression part and parcel of the stereotype?

    Good point. I was thinking only of toys,so I left Bonnie out. But I missed the Trixie and Dollie.

    Are you suggesting it would be impossible for Pixar to depict Barbie otherwise?!? Wouldn’t it in fact be funnier and more original to cast Barbie against type?

    I call it criticism and analysis, not nitpicking. Funny how when writers use feminist analysis its called “nitpicking” – a rather gendered term in itself…
    And movies as a service? Yeah, I agree their movies are great, but it’s not a “service” — they make a huge amount of profit — it’s a business.

  8. Heather says:

    Honestly I think you need to relax a little bit and stop looking for something bad about a kids movie. Because that is exactly what it is, a kids movie. Sure the great people at Pixar do try to keep the adults entertained as well. But in the end, it was written and made for kids. If you look hard enough then you can find problems in any movie, book, or toy out there. Then where is the fun. I think they make great movies.

  9. But Heather, this is exactly the point that I think Natalie is making: The movies we see as kids can’t help but have a strong impact on our growing psyches. If girls are shown in heroic roles, for example–rather than as damsels in distress–then the girls who are watching may develop a more expansive view of their own possibilities. And vice versa with boys’ roles in cartoon or live-action films–what if they’re shown, say, to be sensitive and nurturing and not just macho and powerful?

  10. Heather's Husband says:

    Just a couple of points..

    On the gayness of Ken. Come on, we’ve all been joking about that for the last 30+ years. Have you missed all that?

    Second, where’s the outrage over the emasculation of men in TV, advertising and film in recent years? Watch the average TV show, what do you see? Men portrayed as bumbling fools, totally lost, clueless and invariably paired up with a superwoman who bears the cross of his utter idiocy.

  11. I honestly don’t know what is wrong with this author. I mean, calling Barbie “a traitor of sorts”? Her friends encouraged her to go with Ken. And come on, “lack of female influence”? hello! Andy is a boy! they are boys toys! I’ll bet if the majority of leads were female toys then you would have an issue of lack of male influence. Honestly, If parents are so worried about their child’s growing psyche then they shouldn’t take them to see it. It is not up to the movie industry to give children the proper values and role models, it is the parents. If it is something that is of great concern, then the children will have learned this already from their parents. It was a beautiful movie and It makes me sad that the author missed that.

  12. I find it really hard to believe that someone is still doing the old “count the positive images of women” approach when analyzing movies. I have taught film for 35 years (and course on women in film) and everyone stopped doing that nonsense years ago. It says absolutely nothing. First, who is to decide what is “positive?” And, why does anyone think that having equal numbers of female characters will make a movie less offensive? I find plenty of movies with only male characters perfectly acceptable as movie stories and some with lots of female characters just abhorrent, even with feminist female characters. Movies are neither messages we magically absorb into our psyches (that is a psychological approach to the movies that is simply wrong) nor are they message machines that “instill” norms and pre-packaged gender roles.

    Think of movies this way (this is what I teach my students and it opens up a new way of looking at the movies): movies are little cultures, in and of themselves. Look at them for the way they say a world works, given the rules, rituals, characters, and context that are just in that film. The film has no obligation to follow the rules of the outside world so don’t accuse it of racism, sexism, ageism, etc. What do you see then? What does it say about the bigger issues: who are we, what matters, what are the things that are important, how do we make decisions and judgments?

    Can we please just stop counting dolls, automatically blasting anything Disney, and look at movies, all movies, as the rich, vibrant, and exciting cultural resources for talking about imporatnt things?

  13. Bastinian says:

    Reading every word on this webpage, I have to admit that I’ve found more reasonable arguments made in the comments on the article rather than in the article itself. Ms. Wilson, next time you go to the theater, chill out a little. You check for every little anti-feminist remark and forget to enjoy the story that is unveiling on the screen. And – and this is more honest than disrespectful – it’s quite obvious that you’re desperate to find stuff to write about in this article, and that you stretch everything said and done in this film in order for it to seem degrading to women. If you ask me, your overwhelming feminism has clouded your judgement, and I’d be willing to go so far as to say this whole feminist movement is a disease. Women like you can no longer enjoy a good film, or even a simple conversation at that, and not be disgusted by something they find anti-feminist, even when it wasn’t intended to be so. I want you to take a look at the status of women now. They have the same opportunities as men, make the same wages, and have the ability to change whatever they find unsatisfactory. What about this can you not like? Think about that for a second, and afterwards I want you to try something. Just…stop. Stop being so feminist for a day. Remove all those filters you have that infect the way you view the world, and be happy with your life. You’re not starving, you’re not dying of some ailment. You’re just mad that things aren’t perfect. Maybe then you’ll realize that the whining, needy, and pathetic stereotype that has you all in a fuss is the very stereotype that you’re filling.

  14. Another comment to add to some of the really good replies (btw, great article, seriously. It’s been a while since I read an analytical review, thanks 😀 ), shouldn’t parents also be teaching their children some of these “missing” values? Yes children get a lot of their everyday attitudes/ideas/thought patterns from movies and cartoons, but my mother and father always made sure that I understood that just because he dresses “pretty” he wasn’t gay, and that women can be powerful, too, and to please not jump off a cliff because I’m not Wild E. Coyote and I would not be back in the next frame.

    When did we deem it appropriate for our children to be raised and taught values from movies? When did the shift occur and now we stopped telling our children ‘no’ and trying to teach them right and wrong? Sure the movie may have been sexist and leaning towards men, but from a four-year-old’s point of view it’s a fun movie with living toys. Quite honestly, most of us here grew up in the generation of Looney Tunes and all sorts of men dominated cartoons. Why aren’t we completely screwed up morally, then?

    “Girl Power” may be a bit lacking (or a lot, depending on your view), but it’s more of a parental resposibility.

    Also, side-note, this is a continuation of a story from when I was in elementary school. A huge drastic change in characters would’ve made me pissy (but, then again, my favorite Toy Story character was Buzz and RC. Oh, RC how I miss you. And how I miss the RC toy dad bought me that is now broken in the trash can of my middle school years. . . 🙁

  15. I’m sorely tempted to write a letter of complaint to Wilson.

    I’m sorry, but it’s women like her that make me cautious and afraid to ever mention in public that I’m a feminist. Because I’m not like this. I’m not so ridiculously nitpicky. I don’t whine and complain about every little thing I see and be a horrible “debbie downer,” so to speak. I don’t twist every little thing in life into something that’s anti-feminist; that’s giving feminism a horrible name that it doesn’t deserve. Oh….whoops, the stigma has already been attached!

    Guess what? When I was a kid, I LOVED BOTH Toy Story movies. They were my favorite. The first one came out when I was about eight, and the second one came out when I was 10 or 11. I probably absorbed the “traditional gender roles” that Wilson is (quite honestly) whining about. And guess what?

    I was taught and I learned that they’re wrong. It was one part inquisitive mind, one part good teachers, and five parts wonderful, wonderful parents.

    I’m 21 now, and I count “Female Chauvinist Pigs” by Ariel Levy among one of my favorite books, right next to the Harry Potter franchise. I’m over halfway through the book “Living Dolls” by Natasha Walters and I’m enjoying it.

    But I plan to see Toy Story 3. It has a sentimental place in my heart from my childhood.

    Yes I’m sensitive about this. Wilson is making a mountain out of a molehill. I’ve got the same points that I’ve seen a number of times in the comments so far:

    1) Andy is a BOY. That means that there will be more MALE toys than FEMALE toys. You want a movie like this to be based around female empowerment? Well you might get it in the sequel. Why? Because the new owner of the toys is apparently a GIRL. Which means that there’s a good chance Barbie is going to be finding a whole clique of friends to hang out with. And if there aren’t any barbies, there’s definitely going to be a more equal gender ratio where the toys are concerned.

    2) Does Wilson remember what her mother was like when she was helping her pack up to go to college? My mom was very similar to Andy’s mom when I was getting ready to go, and she’ll only be marginally less stressed with my brother merely because it will be the second time she’s doing it (sending a kid off to college). Moms get stressed when they send their pride and joys away to college. And the “getting rid of junk” bit? Mothers nag teenage children. It is a fact of life, and I am talking from experience multiple times over with me, my brother, and all of my friends. Andy is STILL a teenager. Teenagers don’t always do what their parents say at the drop of a hat. So what do mom (and dads) do? They NAG until the child finally does it! Because that’s sometimes the only way something will get done.

    3) This is a movie about toys. Need I say it again? TOYS. What Pixar is doing here, is brilliant. They’re taking different toys and creating personalities out of them from what they see by their physical appearance. It’s light-hearted and fun. When one takes a look at Andy’s toys, there is more than likely going to be at least a little bit of machismo going on (like Buzz’s insecurities in the first movie). So when one looks at how to put personalities into Barbie and Ken, what’s one of the first personality traits they’re going to come up with? SHALLOW. For the BOTH of them. Shallow, vapid, overemotional (for Barbie).

    Barbie and Ken are self parodies of themselves. It’s not that hard to understand.

    4) Like someone else said – how do you really know that Ken is gay? He’s not. It’s only been a running joke that people have laughed at for years. Like I said before, Ken and Barbie have revolved around frills and shallowness ever since they’ve been created.

    Not to mention that you can’t really yell at Barbie for “turning her back on women” when her origins are incredibly sexist in the first place. The Mattel Franchise took a while to produce something that’s “empowering” for girls in the first place – wasn’t it until the late 80s/early 90s that the Barbies dressed in different occupation outfits first came out?

    I agree with nearly everything Bastinian says. While I haven’t seen the third movie, I remember the franchise fondly. Gathering the other reviews, I’m expecting it to live up to my high expectations.

    Wilson, you’re making a mountain out of a molehill and sucking the sheer joy out of a child’s movie. You’re letting your emotions cloud your judgement and you’re not looking at the movie from an objective point of view, which is glaringly obvious. Watch the movie again and look at it from the lens of your inner child, and for the love of everything that is sacred, show a sense of humor.

    And if you want to get angry about a children’s movie, attack the upcoming Disney movie “Tangled.” They changed the name to A) attract boys, and they B) re-focused the movie so a GUY is a main character when the movie was actually supposed to be based off of a GIRL.

    “Tangled” is a sign of blatant sexism in children’s movies. “Toy Story 3” is NOT.

  16. Calling Barbie overly emotional and hyper-feminine
    She kicked ass and was a great spy
    Calling Ken gay
    From the start he’s raving on and on about how he loves Barbie
    Article completely ignores Jessie, as citing her would shoot down the basis of the article

  17. Heather says:

    Thank you Bastinian. Well said.

  18. Although I agree (see comments above) that the author here is making some exaggerated claims, I want to make sure that everyone understands I don’t blame being a feminist for the problem. Being a feminist (yes, I am one, and will still proudly state so after 45 years of activism) means you make an effort to understand the ways that women, simply because they are female, are thought to be and are treated as inferior beings. Proof of this kind of discrimination is still everywhere and we shouldn’t for a moment think that all things are equal and the fight for equal rights is over. But, both the article and many of the comments here are using the term “sexist” in such a superficial way. Rebecca’s comment on a movie that doesn’t even exist yet (“’Tangled’” is a sign of blatant sexism in children’s movies. “Toy Story 3″ is NOT”) is the perfect example of what I am talking about. Movies aren’t sexist. People are sexist, and it takes a lot of evidence to prove someone is. Just who is it you think is sexist here: the writers, the producers, the director, the distributor? Are they in collusion? Do they all hate women (because sexism does require that hatred)? I don’t think so.

    I really think the problem is that we don’t know what to make of movies. We have no vocabulary for talking about them except in silly thumbs-up and thumbs-down modes or accusing them of things that they could not possibly contain: racism, sexism, mind-altering powers that make us hate and kill and imitate them. Movies are stories, like old-fashined myths are stories. What do we do with these stories? We share them and talk about them (like we are doing here) and try to figure out how the alternative universe they are describing actually works because maybe it will give us insights into our own lives. My students have analyzed Toy Story 1 as a universe organized by rules that need to be followed to keep chaos at bay (Toy Story 3 keeps that same brilliant idea). They have a great time debating whether we could be as faithful to the rules as these toys are (not revealing ourselves to human, except to Sid who deserves to be scared straight!). But imagine if they got into the silly discussion here of deciding if this movie is sexist: it leads nowhere because it is quite simply the wrong question. It is a lazy version of feminist analysis and I give it an “F” for a final grade.

    By the way, Toy Story 3 is awesome beyond awesome. It is amazing and this crazy old feminist laughed and cried with her teenage son by her side and we both agreed: a great movie for everyone. We talked about it for hours afterwards. That is the measure you should be applying to it. Hint: don’t go to the movies alone!

  19. Rebecca says:

    Louise- You do bring up a good point, and I’m sorry that the particular comment of mine that you cited seemed to generalize sexism in a shallow manner. I worded it wrong.

    You’re right – it’s the people/person. The people – and more likely the person, is the one that is making the movie sexist. Because movies are really ideas, and people are naturally behind those ideas. It was the move and the changes that those in Disney who are working on “Tangled” that I was pointing out to be sexist. Whether or not it was intentionally done, who knows. More likely than not the execs and the producers did it to find ways to grab more box office $$$ in a recession, and didn’t realize that their actions are inherently sexist. (I also personally find the move to be dumb in other ways, because Twilight is a perfect example of a movie being catered to females that brought in Box Office cash, especially on opening weekend.)

  20. I am glad for the comments of Louise K. The more effective analysis would be an essay on Pixar Studios’ adherence to making films from only a male point of view. I was also disappointed with Jessie’s smaller role in the third movie, but I loved the movie anyway. LOVED IT. Laughed, cried, hugged my kids a little tighter, the whole bit. A “looking for bias” essay was discouraged by my film studies prof fifteen years ago, so I don’t see why it’s necessary now. Films can open up discussions on cultural values and systems, of course, and that’s where things get interesting. But if you want a reason to cry foul, you will find one. That kind of scholarship is ineffective, bordering on lazy.

  21. M. Schulman says:

    Wow…that’s a whole lot of venom being spewed at the author. She’s just expressing a strong opinion about a movie. I think the rest of you need to “relax” and stop “nitpicking” at her.
    I’ve been annoyed with and troubled by the lack of female characters in the Toy Story movies since I saw the 1st one 15 years ago. I was so relieved to read that someone is willing to express that point of view.
    As a mother of two young daughters, I definitely notice how characters are portrayed in kid’s films. How can you think that children are not influenced by what they see on TV and in movies? If kids can learn to count by watching Sesame Street, then they can learn how girls act and how boys act by watching Boy Story, I mean Toy Story.
    Yes, I understand that Andy is a boy. Here’s what I don’t get: what makes a telephone a boy, or a slinky dog, or an etch-a-sketch? Any number of toys in all three of these movies could have been voiced by women instead of men. You all seem to be willing to overlook the valuable point that the author made:
    “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.”
    Thank you to Natalie for being willing to go public with her opinion.

  22. Oh my goodness, my daughter and I both LOVED this movie. What a shame that someone would spend so much time trying to pick it apart and find the negative in it. Funny, I remember my brother fussing years ago about how children’s movies were constantly disrespecting and downplaying the importance of men in children’s lives and the original Toy Story was one of the examples he gave. The fact that there is never any mention of a father was what he cited. I rolled my eyes at him then and I rolled them again (many times) while reading this post. I think if you’re looking for something wrong, you will always find it.

  23. It’s about toys and toys have always been macho. There is a rivalry between girls and boys at the age where the sort of toys are played with by children. It’s like complaining about sexism in a Mario game because Peach gets save by a male all the time. It’s childish sexism and misogyny but still, it’s part of growing up.

  24. @Louise K.

    Seems like a difference in school of thought. The Modernist-style view of “art for art’s sake”, or movies as “little cultures”, ignores socio-cultural context, no?. Movies do not exist nor are created in a vacuum, so this type of analysis, imho, is irresponsible, especially when we consider the intended audience of Disney/Pixar. Most adult consumers of popular culture do not make this distinction, so how do we expect the youngest minds to do so?


    The association of the attitudes/personalities in the movie with the physical toys the children then play with at home can be quite strong. Of course, parents need to be involved in helping their children interpret and interrogate those messages, but have ya been to a park or elementary school playground lately? There is much work to be done in the area of promoting egalitarian attitudes in the culture, and I see putting a bright, feminist lens like Wilson’s onto said culture is the best way to keep that ball rolling.

  25. I think statements like “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” is pointless. Decades of other kinds of research point to the opposite (and believe me, I have been reading this stuff for decades!). The research does not show this cause-effect relationship and going back to some interesting studies about the effects of movies in the 1930s we can see that movies are used as a references for a wide range of possible behaviors but they don’t cause those behaviors. What makes us think that the “bad” movie examples sink in but the “good” movie examples (however bad and good are defined) just have no effect? That’s not plausible and it is pointless to say any research has proven any of the things argued in this article. By the way, we all use and employ stereotyped behavior every day and all the time or we wouldn’t be able to function. Stereotyping (or categorizing) is what we do as human; it is not inherently evil. Oh, this could go on and on…

  26. It is a kids movie, they are not going to think about anything else than have a good time and enjoy the movie. I think that even adults just wanted to have a nice time watching a movie that they had been waiting for 11 years (Not sure) … Been gay or woman is not the point here… I think that the movie was great and the characters were also great..

  27. Los nenes juegan con autitos says:

    Creo que en general los humanos infantes de genero masculino tienden a jugar con objetos tales como autitos, soldaditos, pistolas, etc.; los humanos infantes de genero femenino en general tienden a jugar con muñecas, casitas de muñecas, salitas de té, etc. Por favor, no son afirmaciones taxativas (blanco o negro). Andy personifica a un humano de género masculino. La autora del artículo podría proponer a Pixar con total libertad que realicen un film en donde la historia este referida a un humano de genero femenino y que la relación de juguetes femeninos frente a los masculinos sea inversa a la que manifiesta. ¿Porqué los animales adultos de la especie humana no se preocupan por las insinuaciones que reciben sus crías, indefensas conceptualmente, de otros animales adultos del mismo género de dichas crías atacadas, sin que estas tengan alguna posibilidad de defensa?

  28. Patrick says:

    For Petes sake, are we REALLY having this much debate over a kids film. I think these people have WAY to much time on their hands to over analyze every aspect of everything that comes along. Are we to say Mr Potato is a wife beater beacuase she has one freakin eye. The lack of discipline and lack of parenting that has erupted the cause of a lot of the problems. Kids being raised in neglected, abusive homes would classify a far majority of whats wrong with the world today. We praise TV and the internet and neglect the bible.

    Just my 2 cents combined with another $20.00 might get my son and i into this flick

  29. Nomeite KC says:

    This seems so silly. When I was becoming a single mother TOY STORY was one of the ways that I coped with my son. I told him, look, there’s just a mommy in this movie. He related. It didn’t ever say there was no dad, it did not say they were moving to where dad was, etc. So, the movie was about a boy and his toys. What are the chances that ANY boy today has a toy box full of girlie toys? The baby was too small in the movie to have many toys laying around so….. DUH, there won’t be many girlie toys around. Get over it and think about the story line. P.S. You won’t find many BOY TOYS or BOYS in Barbie movies, etc. Geeeesh. Someone reached really hard on this one.

  30. @M. Schulman
    Maybe it’s because in my first language things are assigned a feminine or masculine pronoun the male/female distribution of the toys are perfectly right for me. A telephone in Spanish is ‘el teléfono’ which makes it a male, ‘el perro’ is also male, ‘la muñeca’ is female, and the list goes on. So I don’t really see your point there about how unfair it is.

    I entirely agree with Rebecca and Louise K in everything they’ve said.

  31. Gabriela says:

    I read about this article in a Newspaper, and thought it was a little bit too much, so I decided to look for the actual article, and it turned out to be too much! After all it’s only a movie, and trying to make arguments for discrimination because the number of female characters is not equal to the number of male characters does not make much sense to me. Andy is a boy, and his favorite toys are boy’s toys, however, he also counts on Jessie! (To be honest, I don’t remember my brother having any “female” toy).
    I believe feminism defends woman rights, and the fact that in this particular movie most characters are males does not offend me. There are and will be other movies in which the lead characters are girls! What about Snow White, Cinderella, the Sleeping Beaty? I know they where not made by Pixar, but should guys be offended because “their” character is there only to save the princess and appears at the end of the movie?
    Interesting discussion though, but I just do not agree with Ms. Wilson. I loved the movie!!!

  32. Barbie saved the other Toys at the end of the movie. I wonder if this writer actually watched the whole movie. This was my 3 year old’s first movie in the theater and he loved it. This writer should find more important topics to write about.

  33. Are you serious? Come on..its a child’s movie plus this is where the parenting skills come in. We took the entire family to watch the movie…they were happy Andy went to college..not sad because of how Barbie was portrayed…let kids be kids

  34. Louise K says:

    In response to Pam’s claim that the kind of analysis I am proposing is irresponsible because I am not looking at the motivations of the producers of this movie, I ask, how would you ever know that motivation? You will never know the complex financial, artistic, political, or personal motivations behind a movie production (and money is not the only motivation; I lived in Hollywood for years and saw all sorts of unexpected motives for movie making). And honestly, I don’t care what their motivations are because my interest as an anthropologist is what happens to a movie when it gets into the hands of the viewing audience.

    So I look at what people actually do with movies, all people, adults and kids, and it is as I described. They use movie stories as a reference point for talking about important issues, they use movies to consider alternative possibilities for their actions and decisions, they use movies to imagine alternatives to the world they have been offered. You don’t believe me? Think about a movie your family or friends watch over and over. Why do you do this? Certainly not to have an aesthetic appreciation of the lighting, camerawork, or editing! What happens during these repeat viewings? Does it take on the form of a ritual (every Thanksgiving you watch Princess Bride with your sisters; every Saturday you gather friends to watch The Notebook). People spontaneously recite lines from movies and delight in conversations with strangers who recognize their references to obscure characters or movie moments. What is going on here? It is the power of the movies to connect people who have little other reason to connect. I have studied this for years and it is a stunning revelation. Listen to people and you will hear the movies as an echo in many things we say and do.

    One more thing, the lens Wilson is using is not feminist, not in the good historical definition of feminist. It is feminist-lite, using accusations of sexist as a stylish way to trash something instead of doing the hard work of understanding just how this movie fits into a bigger picture that does not consider all media as evil.

    One more one more thing: don’t tell me to “relax” (ie, stop arguing): this is my work. Why would I relax at it? Instead, join in the conversation with deeper comments than the initial article presents.

  35. Dear Ms Wilson

    Pixar movies are full of woman power characters – and if you open your eyes you will be able to see them:

    “Bug’s life” – the good ants are governed by females; the bad crickets are led by an alpha male

    “Wall E” – EVE is the one who is in charge (and who holds the gun..); it is in fact a long time overdue reversal of “Cinderella” story… a blue collar guy who falls for a princess and gets a shot at fulfilling his dream…

    “Cars” – Sally is the one who changes the hero in a better person… and she is certainly VERY MUCH in charge of their relationship

    “The Incredibles” – Elastigirl is the one who is in charge of the family and it is SHE who rescues her husband from the direst peril, kicking a… of dozens of evil guys on her way; and the bad guy loses when he is abandoned by his female associate…

    “Ratatouille” – what would the silly guy do without Colette training him?

    “Up!” – the power woman in this movie do not even need to be alive – even after her death she still is in charge of her man’s life…

    “Finding Nemo” – let’s be clear – without Dory there would be no rescue and no movie…

    Please note also that all the “bad guys” in Pixar movies are males…

    All this being said, I just loved “Toy Story 3” (which made me cry, although I am very definitely a man – and not Ken like) and I am going back to the cinema see it again – with my daughter who loved it even more.

  36. Megan Rose says:

    I think it’s important to take a critical look at the messages our movies and television shows portray. As much as we like to think we don’t get any of our values from staring at a screen, they influence us more than we admit. Investigating such things as gender roles, race, and homophobia in movies, especially those for children, is something we SHOULD be doing, and saying “Chill out, it’s just a movie,” is akin to sticking one’s head in the sand.

    I do think it’s damaging to only have males as protagonists in all the Pixar movies. However, I also think that if you look hard enough for prejudice, you will find it. Sometimes it’s there, and sometimes you end up creating it yourself by expanding your definition of prejudice until it fits, ignoring everything counter to your preset notion that “this will contain prejudice and I’m going to count the ways in which it does.” Which ironically is a form of prejudice. You make connections that aren’t there, and make a lot of assumptions.

    The comments here have pointed out a lot of flaws in your essay, things you have exaggerated to fit your point, things you have left out because they didn’t fit your point. The whole “there’s only one new female” claim was outright false, but you did acknowledge that in the comments. It’d be nice if you updated your essay to reflect that.

    Barbie’s one intelligent line is a comedy device in which a character does something we didn’t expect, and the laughs derive from that, not that a woman said something smart.

    Ken’s “I’m not a girl toy!” IS somewhat sexist. But the movie never said Ken was gay. You did, based on the fact that he was feminine. Which is somewhat homophobic to assume that any man who enjoys purple sparkles must be gay and any woman he dates must be some kind of beard. Again, part of the comedy here is a character doing something we didn’t expect.

  37. BethinCanada says:

    So Toy Story is more Boy Story? hehe.

  38. Okay, the movie is about a boy and so obviously he has “boy toys,” but doesn’t that say something right there? When we expect Andy to have boy toys (and therefore expect the movie to be from a male POV), it shows how even we have absorbed society’s gender norms. And so has Pixar. Because that’s what makes money. Would people love the Toy Story films as much if Andy’s favorite toy was a baby doll? I’m not necessarily excusing Pixar (and I can’t decide how sexist or not I think the film is–lots of good arguments here!), but I am just pointing out that, realistically, Pixar will do whatever makes money. And if stereotypical gender norms are what the majority of people want to see (whether they realize it or not), that’s what they’ll get.

    And Natalie, although some of the article may go a little far, I totally understand your position. I have a hard time not seeing sexism in just about everything around me. And that’s because it is just about in everything around me. And I think it’s some of the negative responses feminists often get that make us feel like we have to work that much harder. And if anyone is giving feminists a bad name, it’s Sarah Palin, not you 😉

  39. Seriously? This is a movie for kids. Enjoy it for what it is. I can’t figure out why you feel that “gender and sexuality norms” are dangerous. How is it that the norm has now become dangerous for our kids to see? Personally, I want my kids exposed to all the normal that I can find. Hooray for Pixar for making a clean, fun kids movie that our whole family can enjoy. Is it intellectual material? No, but it does make for some nice famiy time.

  40. I totally get what you’re saying about the power of movies, Louise, and I surely respect your years of work in the field. I feel that I am looking at what people do with movies too and I agree with what you have said about audience reception! My comments were aimed at the “movie as innocent piece of art” stance and are meant to ask how you can acknowledge the deep social connection/power of film at the audience reception level and not see the same processes at work in the film making? Movies are consumed by people and made by people.

    So, when we do recognize the power of movies to have such great social effect, is it not then certain that messages about the value/social position of race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, (on and on as you so rightly say!) have great influence? I’m certainly not saying that only the “bad” sinks in, no one would watch movies if they only ever felt bad afterwards! However, it is important to me as a feminist to note the persistence of negativity aimed at women in our culture that could so easily be changed!

    Don’t know where you got the idea I was suggesting you “relax”, but that was not my intent. So sad that we are now playing “good feminist/bad feminist”. Bummer.

  41. Louise K says:

    Lovely list of Pixar movies, Marciej. Each one is a fabulous story with great, deep characters. Better than most live action, I believe.

    To Pam (It wasn’t you who said “relax,” it was Heather way earlier. And it showed up on another blog discussing this:

    Anyway, I am not interested in approaching movies as art (oh, heresy!). I know that is the favored approach, to value the production quality, the writing, the camerawork, acting, etc. But it is a chosen stance, but not the only one we can take with the movies. If we get rid of the aesthetic analysis (thumbs up-thumbs down, as I like to call it), and if we get rid of political analysis (which is what Wilson’s article does), then we can actually take the time to listen to what people really do with the movies.

    An anthropological approach, which I am obvious promoting, values this: paying attention to what real people actually say and do in relation to the movies. Most people are confused about why this is a useful approach so I suggest this: go through a day paying attention to references to the movies. They pop up everywhere and all the time. Listen, really listen to real people. It is fascinating.

    Now, critics would say, “well, all those people are dupes of Hollywood, mindless idiots who are taken in by the media.” I don’t think so. They never sound mindless to me. They are unaware of the powers of mass media to disseminate images and ideas. What they are doing is using those things in their own way. This kind of analysis is not as sexy as making bold headline statements accusing everyone of sexism, racism, domination, brainwashing, etc. But it is truthful to how the world actually works.

  42. I’ll direct your attention to the upcoming 2012 Pixar film “Brave” (formerly “The Bear and the Bow”), which is centered on a female character, the daughter of royalty, who rallies against “princess” stereotypes and wants to become an archer to save her father’s kingdom.

  43. snobographer says:

    I’d like to know how it became Ken’s Dream House. For all Barbie’s issues – body-image for instance – she’s one of the very few places in kids’ pop culture where a female character is centralized and has her own stuff rather than being a token accessory or tag-along for male characters.

    For Melanie and others with the old “it’s just a kids movie” chestnut, read the post past the first paragraph.

    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.

    There are citations in there and everything!

  44. Correction: my last entry should say…”they are NOT unaware…

  45. maricela latina says:

    todos hablan de lo machista que es the move ts3. pero no se les olvide que andy es un ninho y que son los juguetes de un nino
    barbie a sido etiquetada como fribola y sin pensamientos todo el tiempo , de hecho barbie era un juguete sexual en sus inicios antes de que la compania matel desidiera fabricarla. ken siempre ha tenido la sospecha de ser gay, solo que nadie lo decia y , por ultimo, critiquen de feministas a todas esas peliculas acerca princess que tambien son de disney , porfavor , no todos los hombres latinos son malos ..

    gracias. y si no entenden sorry, tengo derecho a no hablar ingles.

  46. “Reading every word on this webpage, I have to admit that I’ve found more reasonable arguments made in the comments on the article rather than in the article itself.”

    Swish and score. I completely agree.

  47. This is an interesting discussion, and I don’t have much to add, except to mention that one of Bonnie’s prominently featured toys is a large plush Totoro from the animated feature, “My Neighbor Totoro.” This is Pixar’s nod of appreciation/tribute to Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, an animation studio known for having an astonishing number of strong lead female characters headline its films. Disney is handling the dubbing and distribution of the movies in the US. Ghibli’s next movie is a feature based on “The Borrowers.” More info on Ghibli here:

  48. And in many Disney films the main character is male and the mother is gone, dead or killed during the film (Bambi).


  1. […] Según un artículo de la revista “Ms”, su autora Natalie Wilson manifestó que “la película es divertida, pero Pixar no ha abandonado su heterocentrismo”, señalando que la cinta confirma la postura machista y “homófoba” de sus guionistas, al resaltar características negativas femeninas. […]

  2. […] di dollari incassati, apprezzato dal pubblico e dalla critica, viene attaccato da Natalie Wilson su Ms Magazine che accusa il film di essere sessista e […]

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