ON BULLIES AND NERDS: READING PIXAR’S BOY STORIES

I have now read Shannon Wooden and Ken Gillam’s Pixar’s Boy Stories: Masculinity in a Postmodern Age (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014) and feel even more disconcerted than I did last week about the boys in the audience for animated children’s movies. Interestingly, Wooden and Gillam are not only academic collaborators but the parents of two boys, their inspiration for writing the volume. We are all used to the idea that Disney is conservative and its filmic products a way of teaching little girls to stay within the confines of patriarchal heteronormativity (which is a biased view, as Amy M. Davis shows) and to the complementary idea that Pixar, bought by Disney in 2006, is the more progressive studio. Much to my surprise, Wooden and Gillam do a terrific, though controversial, demolition job of Pixar’s production until 2013 (Brave, A Bug’s Life, Cars, Cars 2, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Monsters Inc., Monsters University, Ratatouille, Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3, Up! and WALL-E). Possibly only Coco out of the rest (Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, Finding Dory, Cars 3, Incredibles 2, Toy Story 4, Onward) contradicts their main arguments.

Wooden and Gillam establish, to begin with, that there is a worrying situation concerning boys as, the more girls advance, the more boys retreat. This is not because girls are actively pushing them out of any area but because American boys identify any area in which girls excel as a girlie area, which is slowly but constantly erasing their presence, out of their own accord, from many. This is a phenomenon we know well: the only degrees with a majority of young men are those in Engineering, which does not seem to interest girls so much. In the rest, the girls are the majority and still gaining ground. Borrowing their theoretical framework for masculinity mainly from sociologist Michael Kimmel, Wooden and Gillam paint a bleak picture of contemporary US masculinity, split between the bullies and the nerds (as I noted in my previous post). The patriarchal ‘boy police’, which consists not only of direct bullying but of general social pressure to avoid anything connected with femininity out of a combination of misogyny and homophobia, is preventing American boys from receiving the right guidance to become well-adjusted adults. Wooden and Gillam candidly grant that whereas girls are now well liked “At the heat of the boy crisis, it seems, is the hard truth that we don’t like them very much anymore” (17, original italics). I was surprised to read that this extends to some US couples actively trying to select the sex of their babies, preferring girls.

Using Jesse Klein’s The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America (New York: New York UP, 2012), Wooden and Gillam try to make sense of what has happened to boys for US society not to like them. I am not sure that I agree with all their arguments but the changes in masculinity, they say following Klein, have to do with the emergence of the concept of “body capital”, which has facilitated “the jock cult” (and on the side of the girls the cookie cutter looks of the teen influencers). Whereas in the past any classroom would afford social acceptance to a variety of boys, from the popular jock to the socially awkward nerd, passing through the geek, the super-achiever and the B-grade boys, now all classrooms are radically split between the jock and his cronies and the rest, all pushed into the nerd category by the jock’s bullying. This is a sort of revenge of the jocks: told in the 1990s that body matters more than brain by the combination of shallow lad/frat guy culture and celebrity culture, the jock demands a position of prominence he never had by demeaning those who do not possess his body capital. What he sees in society, with the cult of male sports celebrities, confirms his view of school social hierarchy. The boy that excels in matters which are not sports learns to conceal his abilities so as not to attract the jock’s bullying. The boy that has no special qualities tends to side with the bully, either overtly or covertly for “even young boys know how to read bodies as signifiers of social status” (35), and the one with the ‘right body’ is, definitely, the jock with the six-pack abs.

According to Wooden and Gillam, “The Pixar films, for all their wholesome surface messages, do nothing to rewrite the bully script by which many American kids suffer” (80). Their narratives register, in fact, “disapproval of the extraordinary” (22). They endorse the homesteader ideal of the past which “privileges self-effacement, obedience, and emotional stoicism, hardly healthy values for contemporary boys” (15) and preach that “Maturing out of boyhood requires suppression and conformity” (25). By joining in the “traditional celebration of physical brawn” they “tacitly endorse the social hierarchy that perpetuates our rampant bully culture” (52). This is done mainly by presenting the “gifted and talented” as “ludicrous, creepy, or downright dangerous” (96) and by characterizing them, not the jocks, as the villains even from childhood. The model, they hint, is that of the Columbine High School massacre: the child nerd, or geek, is ostracized and bullied, and left with no parental guidance, and he grows up to be a resentful teen school shooter seeking respect in real life, and a villain (or a loser) in the Pixar films. Wooden and Gillam also note that the worst villains are the guys that disrupt the workings of the market on which companies like Pixar and Disney depend. “Rather than asking the community which values should be taught, the corporation teaches the community those lessons that work in its favor” (130), they conclude.

I am not sure that I completely understand what Wooden and Gillam are arguing, for I do not see the alternative they propose and I do not see the boys in the audience (are the Pixar films for the bullies? Do they go to the cinema? Is going to the cinema nerdish?). If I follow them correctly, the authors want for the boys what studios are beginning to offer the girls: stories in which being outstanding following positive values is rewarded and which offer a lesson in how to mature into being a well-adjusted woman (man in the boys’ case). I am just wondering whether this is indeed what girls are being offered…

Take Frozen, the biggest hit with girls in recent years. Princess Elsa has a unique gift by which she dominates ice but she is forced to conceal that gift because her power is presented to her as a danger to the persons in her circle and to the community. Elsa almost becomes a villain, as she is in the original fairy tale, but learns to ‘let it go’, turn her fear of herself into a positive understanding of power, and enjoy the love of her sister Anna. For all that she is rewarded and becomes the respected, celebrated Queen of Arundel. Yet, in Frozen 2, which I initially loved but now I have serious misgivings about, Elsa feels again unhappy as, somehow, her powers are too constrained in her new role as Queen. The story leads to her gradually shedding away any duties she has towards her community, including passing the crown to Anna. Elsa moves elsewhere to a place that looks very much like Superman’s fortress of solitude to do… what? I thought she was going to enjoy complete freedom but now I read that as solipsism. Or even worse: social limbo. I recently read that, originally, Elsa died at the end of the film, which is very scary for even though this is a Disney film it responds to the Pixar model which Wooden and Gillam criticise: whoever is different needs to be isolated or suppressed. There are happier films with girls, like Disney’s Moana (2016), but Frozen also needs to be read from this dark angle.

I think that the Pixar film that most worries Wooden and Gillam is Monsters University, which most clearly corresponds to the ‘bully society’ pattern they describe, with Sulley as the jock and Mike as the bullied nerd (though my impression is that this is a much inferior film to Monsters Inc., in which Sulley learns valuable lessons about parenting and friendship). I find, however, that children’s animation moves on very quickly and the gaps noted by Davis in relation to Disney and by Wooden and Gillam in relation to Pixar are no longer there. We need to consider, besides, the DreamWorks films (Shrek, Trolls…) and other studios such as Blue Sky (of Ice Age fame).

Anyway, Wooden and Gillam make little of some of the Pixar films that have a happy end for the nerdish male character and I mean here specifically Ratatouille written by Brad Bird (also the director) from a storyline by Bird himself, with Jan Pinkava (also co-director) and Jim Capobianco. I am not very sure about how to read this film, which tells the story of how, defying patriarchal authority, the provincial French rat Remy manages to fulfil his dream: cooking in an haute cuisine Paris restaurant. He does so by establishing a singular partnership with the hopeless garbage boy, Linguini, who little by little learns to appease the bullies in the kitchen, be his own man and, of course, interest the strong female character, aspiring chef Colette. The message here is that, um…, even if you are the lowliest of the low as rat or boy you do have a right to fulfil your dreams which does sound positive to me. The bullies are put in their place and even charmed and, in short, the nerds here triumph. And we love it.

Coco (2017) is even clearer in its anti-bully, pro-nerd message. There have been very serious concerns about whether this film by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, from a story by them with Jason Katz and Matthew Aldrich plagiarises the Mexican film The Book of Life (2014) directed by Jorge R. Gutiérrez, from his own screenplay with Doug Langdale. Unkrich and Molina have claimed that the films just overlap in their visual treatment of Mexican popular culture but I have my suspicions that there is much direct borrowing of visual motifs. The plots, however, could not be more different. The Book of Life tells an embarrassingly cliched story about Manolo, a young man whose father wants him to be a bullfighter but who wants to be a musician and who is involved in amorous competition with his manly rival Joaquín for señorita María. In Coco Miguel, a younger boy than Manolo, also wants to be a musician against his family’s wishes but here the similarities end.

That his family are shoemakers instead of bullfighters is a relatively unimportant matter; what matters is that Miguel’s bildungsroman passes through understanding who the bully is in his personal story and through paying homage to a nerdish ancestor. Since he is universally celebrated in his native Mexico Miguel deduces for a series of wrong reasons that the late star singer Ernesto de la Cruz must be his great-grandfather, when in fact he turns out to be, once he meets him in the land of the dead, a most horrendous bully. The long-lost father that Miguel’s abuela Mamá Coco misses so much is a very different man, and actually a direct victim of Ernesto’s violence. The film is called Coco because what is at stake how the abuela’s gradual loss of memory makes Miguel’s identification of his real great-grandfather so complicated. The title tries not to spoil the film’s surprise discovery of who her father and Miguel’s great-grandfather really was but it might as well be called The Lost One. Talented Miguel, who has inherited his musical gifts from this man, not only vindicates him but also gets rid of his own bully, his Abuelita, who wrongly believes that her grandfather, the lost man, deserted his wife and daughter (Mamá Coco). Coco teaches boys in the audience, in short, to oppose the bully and stand up for themselves, which is what Wooden and Gillam find missing in the other Pixar films.

I haven’t seen yet Pixar’s most recent film, Onward (2020), about two elf siblings in search of their lost father but an enthusiastic IMDB spectator praises the studio for “providing rich a brotherly relationship” as Frozen did for girls. What I am wondering is whether the boys are there, getting the message, or elsewhere… perhaps playing videogames…

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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