Friday, November 14, 2008

The Wonders of Pop Psychobabble

WARNING: The following post contains elements of Freudian psychobabble related to some of your favorite Pixar films, and could offend/ruin your Pixar-watching experience forever.

So I spent a very enjoyable afternoon in the library reading an article in the Journal of Modern Film and Television entitled "Post-Princess Models of Gender: The New Man in Disney/Pixar." The article discusses the emasculation of men in recent Pixar films, specifically highlighting Toy Story, Cars, and The Incredibles, and how they move from "alpha male" characteristics of domination and aggressiveness to embracing more of their feminine sides.

Although I originally started reading the article because I was interested in what they would say about Pixar and wanted to see how they defended their thesis, I was soon drawn into the article, my reading only broken by helpless fits of mirth at the sheer absurdity of many of their claims. The first bit that really made me start laughing was this:

“Emasculated” is not too strong a term for what happens to these male protagonists; the decline of the alpha-male model is gender coded in all the films. For his community service punishment, Lightning is chained to the giant, snorting, tar-spitting “Bessie” and ordered to repair the damage he has wrought. His own “horsepower” (as Sally cheerfully points out) is used against him when literally put in the service of a nominally feminized figure valued for more “feminine” orientation of service to the community. If being under the thumb of this humongous “woman” is not emasculating enough, Mater, who sees such subordination to Bessie as a potentially pleasurable thing, saying “I’d give my left two lug nuts for something like that.”

Seriously? Bessie is a symbol of being put under the thumb of a woman? Only women serve the community? Mater thinks such subordination would be "pleasurable"? But this is only the beginning. Only a few paragraphs later comes this gem:

From the beginning power is constructed in terms conspicuously gender-coded, at least for adult viewers: as they watch the incoming birthday presents, the toys agonize at their sheer size, the longest and most phallic-shaped one striking true fear (and admiration?) into the hearts of the spectators. When Buzz threatens Woody, one toy explains to another that he has "laser envy."

Wait, why does everything come down to phallic symbols? Oh, that's right, this is Freud talking (or maybe Jung). And things only get better (or worse):

The “mistress” tempting Mr. Incredible away from his wife and family is not Mirage at all but Buddy, the boy he jilted in the opening scenes of the film (whose last name, Pine, further conveys the unrequited nature of their relationship). Privileging his alpha-male emotional isolation, but adored by his wannabe sidekick, Mr. Incredible vehemently protects his desire to “work alone.” After spending the next years nursing his rejection and refining his arsenal, Buddy eventually retaliates against Mr. Incredible for rebuffing his advances. (bold added)

Now this is just getting ridiculous. Were the authors never kids themselves? Did they never idolize someone for their own sake, and not in a warped homosexual way? But this next section, right here, is the pinnacle of the ridiculousness. Read closely, because there's a lot of psycho-jargon in this bit, but it's worth the time you take to read:

Sedgwick further describes the ways in which the homosocial bond is negotiated through a triangulation of desire; that is, the intimacy emerging “between men” is constructed through an overt and shared desire for a feminized object. Unlike homosocial relationships between women—that is, “the continuum between ‘women loving women’ and ‘women promoting the interests of women’”—male homosocial identity is necessarily homophobic in patriarchal systems, which are structurally homophobic. This means the same-sex relationship demands social opportunities for a man to insist on, or prove, his heterosexuality. Citing Rene Girard’s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Sedgwick argues that “in any erotic rivalry, the bond that links the two rivals is as intense and potent as the bond that links either of the rivals to the beloved”; women are ultimately symbolically exchangeable “for the primary purpose of cementing the bonds of men with men.”

This triangulation of male desire can be seen in…Toy Story particularly, where the homosocial relationship obviously shares a desire for a feminized third. Buzz and Woody compete first, momentarily, for the affection of Bo Peep, who is surprisingly sexualized for a children’s movie….More importantly, they battle for the affection of Andy—a male child alternately depicted as maternal (it is his responsibility to get his baby sister out of her crib) and in need of male protection (Woody exhorts Buzz to “take care of Andy for me!”).

Did you catch that? Not only is Andy apparently a female archetype, and the primary purpose of women in a patriarchal society is to allow men to show their non-homosexuality by pursuing heterosexual relationships. Wow. . .

The article does make the valid point that the men in all of these Pixar films go from being domineering alpha-males to more gracious leaders, more appreciative of their families and friends, and much less arrogant. But unfortunately they put all this in terms of their "emasculation" and "acceptance of [their] more traditionally 'feminine' aspects," when in reality this is an embrace of biblical masculinity. No one said that just because alpha males exist, that's the definition of masculinity. In reality, that's the perversion.

But of course, it's not worth thinking too hard about this article, which has far too much nonsense in it to be taken seriously. Just enjoy it for what it is: a microcosm of modern feminist Freudian psychobabble.

And try not to let it ruin Pixar for you, too.


tangentry said...

Oh... my... goodness! Fighting so hard to not be self-righteous, but that is just hilarious.

Allison said...

That is very, very funny! :) And sad. Very sad. But mostly funny :)

Praelucor said...

Welcome to post-Freudian literary criticism. :-P I can't tell you how many essays and articles I've had to read in the same vein on various famous works. Hilarious. Frustrating. More than a little scary. And usually right---a little bit. :-) Thanks for sharing! Everybody here is asking when you're coming home so we can dupe you into another Turban Day. ;-)