Friday, July 23, 2010

Toying With Us

A couple days ago, I posed the question of why 3-D movies have become so popular of late. I don't plan to answer that question here. But writing that post made me start thinking more generally about the cultural function of children's fantasy films such as Toy Story 3, and so I thought I'd take a stab at addressing that question. As someone who finds that fantasy plays a vital role in expressing and exposing social beliefs, ideals, and anxieties, I think it's worth examining what the Toy Story series tells us about ourselves.

To tackle that question, I'm going to enlist the aid of film scholar Richard Dyer, whose 1977 essay "Entertainment and Utopia" is, in my opinion, one of the smartest investigations out there of the social role of fantasy. Dyer is particularly interested in a single form of film fantasy: namely, Depression-era film musicals. (That's how I first encountered his essay, when I was researching The Wizard of Oz for my 2005 book Framing Monsters.) But even though the Toy Story films don't fit those narrow parameters, I still think Dyer's analysis works for them (they are, after all, lineal descendants of Snow White and all the Disney animated musicals that followed). And really, as Dyer's title indicates, his true interests are broader than a single film genre; he's interested, instead, in the utopian--the fantasy or wish-fulfilling--quality of all mass, popular entertainment.

Dyer begins his analysis by insisting on the "cultural and historical specificity of entertainment"--the fact, that is, that particular forms of entertainment are related to the particular social contexts within which they are produced, and accordingly that entertainment gives us insight into those contexts. If, then, as he goes on to argue, entertainment possesses a utopian quality, offering its audiences or consumers "the image of 'something better' to escape into," the specific form that such escapism takes should give us clues to the specific problems and anxieties with which a society is wrestling. But it's not quite so simple as that, because entertainment--in this case, film--is not only a social practice but also an industry, and as such it has certain vested interests to protect--primarily, though not exclusively, the interest in having people patronize its products and thus generate profits. So it's not a free-for-all, where entertainment simply offers to fulfill whatever fantasies and satisfy whatever wishes its audience asks it to; at the same time, entertainment labors to control what counts as fulfillment and satisfaction--or even what counts as fantasies and wishes--in such a way as to serve the interests of its producers. As Dyer writes:

"[Entertainment] responds to real needs created by society. . . . [Yet] while entertainment is responding to needs that are real, at the same time it is also defining and delimiting what constitute the legitimate needs of people in this society. . . . The categories of the [utopian] sensibility point to gaps or inadequacies in capitalism, but only those gaps or inadequacies that capitalism proposes itself to deal with. At our worse sense of it, entertainment provides alternatives to capitalism which will be provided by capitalism."

This model applies perfectly to the Toy Story movies. All of them--and especially the second and third--are concerned with a "real need" that has become particularly prominent in contemporary U.S. society: the need to remain perpetually young, to deny or defeat the aging process. This need is almost certainly not a universal one, but rather a need that is historically and culturally specific to our own time and place; most traditional societies, for example, accord great respect to the elderly and accept aging as a natural and necessary part of life. But for the past generation or so, and with increasing hysteria as the years have gone by, U.S. society has represented the aging process as an absolute evil to be resisted at all costs, through drugs, cosmetics, surgery, diet and exercise regimens, and so on. The Toy Story movies mine this social anxiety via a typical fantasy displacement, as Cowboy Woody and his fellow ageless toys struggle not with their own aging but with their owner's, a process that, they fear, will eventually leave them unloved, useless, locked in attic storage at best, consigned to the dumpster at worst. In the climax of Toy Story 3, the group is very nearly incinerated at the local waste disposal plant, a too-intense-for-the-tykes scene that resolves happily only thanks to the last-minute intervention of a grappling hook that descends from on high and bears them to safety. The visual imagery--salvation from the fiery hell of junkyard obsolescence--perfectly captures the fear of aging, abandonment, and death that the film so powerfully taps.

But though this fear is certainly a real one, it is not, as I've already suggested, a "natural" or inevitable one. Rather, the cultural obsession with aging that films such as Toy Story 3 express has itself been created, in large part, by the very industries that promise release from its terrors: the cosmetics, diet, plastic surgery, and, not least, entertainment industries. As such, though Toy Story 3 ends with seeming acceptance of the aging process, as the toys' college-bound owner makes the mature decision to give up his fantasy of perpetual childhood and donate his toys to a neighbor's child, the utopian wish survives in two principal forms, one internal to the film and the other external: first, in the toys' chance at a second life with a new, youthful owner, and second, in the cavalcade of product tie-ins that promises, if not perpetual youth, at least the perpetual fulfillment of desire through consumer fantasy. We may not always be able to stay young, the Toy Story movies tell us, but at least we can always buy new products, shiny new toys that can instantly be replaced by yet shinier and newer toys should they ever threaten to decay or displease. In this fashion, through the surrogate timelessness of disposable merchandise, the consumer's needs--and the producer's--are both met. The aging process is defeated in fantasy, while in reality, the junkyard from which Woody and his pals were rescued grows and grows.

Which just goes to show how dangerous fantasy can be. And how we toy with reality at our own peril.

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