Reviews 2015

Pixar's Boy Stories: Masculinity in a Postmodern Age

Pixar's Boy Stories: Masculinity in a Postmodern Age. Shannon R. Wooden and Ken Gillam. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014. 157 pages. $83.00 (hardback).

Since the release of Toy Story in 1995 Pixar Animation Studios has produced fifteen feature films that enjoyed a great commercial success (thirteen are among the fifty highest-grossing animated films of all time) and critical acclaim (winning twelve Academy Awards and six Golden Globes). Critics and viewers alike have praised not only the ground-breaking visual effects, but also the unprecedented and multifaceted storylines. In Pixar's Boy Stories: Masculinity in a Postmodern Age, Shannon R. Wooden, Associate Professor of English at Missouri State University, and Ken Gillam, Director of Composition at Missouri State University, examine male characters in fourteen feature films produced by Pixar Animation Studios and their influence on boys' identity formation. Even though much academic attention has been paid to the impact Disney films have on girls, Pixar's Boy Stories is the first academic book devoted to a similar issue concerning boys and Pixar. It consists of a theoretical introduction and six chapters exploring distinctive aspects of boyhood and masculinity depicted in Pixar films released between 1995-2014. Wooden and Gillam pay attention to a wide range of issues including performing hegemonic and non-hegemonic masculinities, the relationship between certain body types and bullying, parenting, and consumerism.

In the introduction, titled "A Feminist Approach to Boy Culture," the authors explain why they decided to focus on boys in Pixar's films. They review the research on the impact of Disney on girls and claim that even though until Brave (2012) female protagonists have not been present in Pixar movies, Pixar's girls are usually much more complex and powerful than the boys. Next, they introduce the research on boyhood, arguing for the crisis of boy culture as "children's media mimic the simplistic, hegemonic masculine hierarchies that define boy culture and demonstrate an uncomplicated pecking order of winner and losers and thus reinforce the structures that enable the bully society" (xxiv). Wooden and Gillam constantly highlight the relationship between feminism and boyhood studies and state that they are not only scholars, but also parents of two boys. Hence, they "offer this book as a contribution to a conversation about boy culture in media that...makes a difference in the world of our boys" (xxxv).

The first chapter, "Postfeminist Nostalgia for Pre-Sputnik Cowboys," is devoted to the nostalgia for masculinities of old. The authors use Susan Faludi’s and Michael Kimmel’s works on American masculinity to analyze contradictory masculinities performed by Woody and Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story. They argue that "the conformist, domestic male" (xxxi) is privileged not only in Toy Story, but also in The Incredibles (2004) and, albeit symbolically, in A Bug’s Life (1998). Wooden and Gillam's claim that "Pixar's boys seem to be losing something...the right to be fully themselves – their hyperbolic, energetic, brilliant, kinetic, performative, Davy-Crockett selves" (27) is particularly thought-provoking.

In the next chapter, "Superior Bodies and Blue-Collar Brawn: 'Real' and Rhetorical Manhoods," the authors show how in Pixar's films certain body types are oppressed while others are favored. By comparing masculinities performed by characters of diverse body types in The Incredibles, Monsters films (2001, 2013) and Cars (2006), the authors argue that Pixar's masculinity is essentialized. Certain body types are celebrated and viewed as superior, while others are associated with inferior non-hegemonic masculinities. Wooden and Gillam argue that in Pixar's films only stereotypical blue-collar workers with athletic bodies are able to succeed.

The third chapter, "'I am speed': Athleticism, Competition and the Bully Society," further explores the aforementioned relationship between athleticism and bullying. Because some bodies are superior to the others, in the world of Pixar (especially in the Monsters films) it is impossible to threaten the hierarchy that allows bullying. Boys who are physically weak and effeminate always fail. The authors also trade hidden elements of symbolic "gay-bashing" in Cars 2 (2011) and Monsters University (2013).

The analysis in the fourth chapter, "'Hey, double prizes!': Pixar's Boy Villains' Gifts and Intensities," is the most thought-provoking part of the book. The authors focus on the villains in Pixar's films and show numerous similarities between them. The antagonists are always stereotypical nerds and technophiles. Thus, knowledge and advanced technology seem to be the attributes of a typical Pixar's villain. Moreover, creativity and individualism always lead to failure. The study of Sid, the main villain in Toy Story, is especially challenging. Wooden and Gillam claim that "Pixar takes a bright, talented exuberant, imaginative kid and ostracizes him" (94). In the fifth chapter, "Consumerist Conformity and the Ornamental Masculine Self," the authors analyze the relationship between self and possessions, showing that Pixar's boys are frequently objectified and commodified. Moreover, as argued by Wooden and Gillam, only Pixar's villains "challenge commodity and the ideology that gives it value" (121).

After focusing on boyhood and masculinity, in the last chapter, "'She don't love you no more': Bad Boys and Worse Parents," the authors pay more attention to parenting. They challenge the depictions of strong fathers and weak mothers and claim that Pixar's motherhood is very conservative, because in most of the films mothers stay at home or do low-paid caretaking work. It also appears to be impossible for single-mothers to raise stereotypically masculine boys. They always need the help of strong fathers or father figures. Pixar's villains and bullies always come from dysfunctional families because it seems that there is "no hope for children of bad parents" (137).

Pixar's Boy Stories is an important contribution to boyhood and childhood studies. Wooden and Gillam show that Pixar's features reiterate traditional and often misogynist forms of masculinity. The authors find some interesting patterns in presenting stereotypical jocks and nerds, often overlooked by critics and the general public. The book is well-written and captivating, but does not seem to be strictly academic. Hence, I believe that a paperback edition should also be published to make this study more available to parents and teachers. However thought-provoking, some counterintuitive interpretations seem to be a bit far-fetched. Some readers may also find the constant use of "our boys" problematic, since Pixar's boys are white and middle class. On the one hand, we ought to discuss the impact hidden ideologies can have on children, but on the other hand, we should remember that they may be invisible for children, just like some of them were invisible for me before reading Pixar's Boy Stories.

Mateusz Świetlicki
University of Wroclaw, Poland