A sad, strange little review of the new Toy Story movie in Ms. Magazine has kept me busy blogging on their site. You can see my responses to the conversation going on there but I thought I would expand some of those ideas here.

The premise of that Ms. Magazine article is that Toy Story 3 “displays the same careless sexism as its predecessors.” My problem was where to start with just this sentence. “Same careless sexism”: what does that mean? The same sexism as TS1 and TS2? Those were sexist movies? What bizarre definition of sexism is being used here? And why is this sexism “careless” rather than deliberate? I claim that movies cannot be sexist, that sexism is a quality only people possess, people who hate women and don’t want to see them as valuable being. I can’t possibly think how a movie does what only people can do.

It seems that the basis for all the accusations of sexism is a headcount: the deep concern about this movie is that there are less female characters than male, that the female charaters act less heroic (my term), and that Ken (yes, that Ken) is depicted as a closet homosexual. Human and toy characters are counted male and female, as if they were all human. Is a toy female the same as a human female? Is Lotso, a bear that smells of strawberries, counted as male? Is Barbie female? Are some feminists now embracing Barbie because they can add her to the body count?

Let’s start with Ken and Barbie. I had a Ken doll growing up (in the 1960s) as well as Barbie. I still have them. Despite all the fears of this movies critic and many others over the years, I nevertheless became a feminist. Go figure. But I am not a count-the-numbers feminist because that approach is simply awful, as that review of Toy Story 3 demonstrated. What weird balancing act does this author want: every time a male character speaks, a female character has to speak? Every time a male toy enters the room, a female toy has to stand up and be counted? That’s not a story, and it’s not Toy Story.

Back to Ken, my Ken. Ken, we noticed very early on, had problems. Ken’s arm always fell off so we made him a war veteran. But  also, he had no genitals (or body hair for that matter). Ken was then and is now not a closet homosexual, he’s a eunuch, and we loved him for it! Ken was Barbie’s best friend (like Ned in Nancy Drew) and he loved fashion as much as she did. Like the other guys we liked in the 60s and 70s (hippe-types, Alan Alda, the Beatles) he had a style sense that was not based in macho posturing (ie, G.I. Joe). So the Ken in Toy Story 3 is not depicted as a closet gay, he is Ken in all his genital-free glory (with a great closet too!). Does he count in this odd version of feminist analysis as male or female? My point in starting with Ken is that this very outdated approach to analyzing the media (counting male vs female characters) is just pointless and even with toys (or especially with toys), impossible.

The author of the Ms. Magazine article, Dr. Natalie Wilson, points to research supported by the Geena Davis (yes, that Geena Davis) Institute on Gender and Media to support her claim (and this is an old claim long ago refuted) that having more males than females in our media makes us “internalize stereotypical ideas of what men and women are supposed to be like.” Two questions that as an anthropologist I have to ask: what is your definition of stereotype, and why do you think this is “internalized?” All the arguments in this article and in the Geena Davis website fall back on pop-psychology. They all see media as a magical machine that injects ideas into our heads and bodies, like a virus that is hard to shake.

I, as an anthropologist, instead see media (tv, radio, movies, books, games, etc) as MEDIA, as forms or vehicles  for conveying stories. What is interesting is what people do with these stories and this in not an “internal” act: it is a cultural exchange. The mistake Wilson makes is that she thinks she can tell us what Toy Story 3 really means (as if we were too dumb to see the “truth” ourselves). I, instead look at the conversations that a movie evokes, the emotions is inspires (I know many people who cried at Toy Story 3: does that make it less or more sexist???). I look at how people wrestle with the contradictions in a movie, the rules it sets up and breaks, the metaphors it tries to inspire, the symbols it uses correctly and incorrectly, the way characters set up one expectation but fulfill another. People refer back to movies all the time because they offer us a common reference for options, a fictional example we can use to inform our realworld lives.

As Woody would say, “YOU ARE A STORY! YOU’RE NOT FROM THE REAL WORLD! YOU ARE A CHILD’S PLAYTHING!” As stories, movies have no obligation to match or support reality. Instead they give us an alternative reality that shows how cultures and humans and politics and everything else works in these different fictional conditions. If movies teach us anything, it is that we need them to make sense of all our possibilites in the actual world because it is impossible for most of us to have enough expereinces with different cultures to know what the other possibilities are. This is why we love movies like Toy Story. Even with the inhabitants of the world being toys, we get to see how characters make judgments,what makes them valuable and trustworthy, how important friendship and love are, what family means, what it means to be human.

It disturbs me that the Geena Davis Institute tells people to go count the number of times men vs women speak in a tv show or movie and to report it back to them. What is the point of that? It is based, apparently, on some research that says that the more media a child watches, and the more “stereotypes” are in that media, the more that child will believe and act in a stereotyped manner. Well, I hate to put it this way but, Duh! Of course the little idiots who sit in front of the tv all day will act like tv characters because they have not been exposed to the wonderous variety of human activities. Movies and tv can give us some glimpses of these things but they need to be just part of the flow of everyday life that also includes playing baseball, riding a bike, putting on costumes, taking a photograph, playing a board game, reading a book, making a bracelet, walking in the ocean, running in the rain, listening to music, looking at the sky, visiting a museum, following an ant, flying a balloon, digging a hole, eating ice cream, working in the garden, playing hide-n-seek, watching a parade, talking to someone old, knitting and sewing, making Mr. Potato Head look weird, and yes, dressing Ken in a dress.

Has anyone ever met these kids who were exposed to so much tv that all they did was act like the stereotypical (whatever that is) females on tv? Don’t these kids have aunties who take them fishing and grandpas who take them shopping and teachers who read to them and neighbors who teach them how to whistle? Doesn’t that break whatever stereotypes they may be seeing on tv? Or does real experience not count? For you see, in this mindset that claims to seek sexism, what it really is seeking is an excuse to blame all sorts of media for everything that is actually a normal part of human life.

Media is just one tool a culture uses to convey its stories, its values, its rules, its expectations, its rituals and symbols. Kids can learn things from media and they can unlearn them just as easily. Instead of wasting time counting heads on tv, taking your kid to Toy Story 3 (or TS1 or TS2) is a much better lesson in what happens when we forget what is important, why friends are cool, or when to let go of the past and face a new future. In short, this movie has nothing to do with sexism and everything to do with the wonders of life. And yes, damn it Ken, that is one nice townhouse you got there…


I spent a great deal of effort avoiding the pre-release hype surrounding Avatar. I didn’t go to the Comic-Con session about it or read any of the online buzz or previews or reviews or interviews. The reason I did this is because I wanted to give this movie a chance to win me over when I finally got to see it. I wanted it to work. I really did.

I have found the critiques of Avatar fascinating. As The New York Times described on its front page, people are reading all sorts of messages into the movie, from the most socially conservative to the most philosophically radical. This, I think, is the measure of a good movie (that is, a movie that is good to “think with”). This kind of flexibility is not a weakness but a gift, the kind good movies give us: the excuse to talk about things that need to be talked about.

As I describe to my students (in a course called “Anthropology and the Cinema”), the meaning of a movie does not reside in what is actually shown on the screen. The meaning of a movie is only created by our using it: thinking about it, talking about it, imitating it, critiquing it. Avatar isn’t about the White Man’s Burden (or white guilt or the Messiah complex, or whatever you want to call it), or about ecology, or about the evils of militarism and capitalism. We can certainly use it to talk about these things and even though much in Avatar is heavy-handed (“unobtanium,” anyone?), it is still good to think with.

How does it do this? One way is to use a familiar story. Many critics and viewers have expressed concern about the “stolen” story of Avatar. They note that this supposed original take on an alien encounter sounds awfully familiar, like Dances with Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, Pochohantas, or other movies that include oppressed Native Americans rescued by sympathetic white men. But there are no original stories that would resonate with the large audience Avatar has attracted and it is precisely because it is a “stolen” story, one that our culture tells over and over, that it has been popular.

The story is not just one of military vs science, or military vs natives, or commerce vs nature, or animism vs monotheism (that one is from the Vatican). It is actually all of these and more: it uses one of the most common and general themes of American narratives: what happens when we encounter something that is different. How will we act, what will we think and feel? Will we honor our core values or betray our deep fears? Will we be honest, kind, understanding? Will we be open or closed, mean or helpful? We constantly, daily, endlessly test this in our selves and our culture. The movies offer us endless scenarios for testing this out in a virtual universe that has different parameters (blue people instead of some other color, an alien planet instead of next door) and a lot less real-world repercussions for our testing.

The complaints about this movie being like Dances with Wolves, etc, are not wrong, but they are oh so narrow. This movie is also like Cameron’s own Titanic, The Abyss, the Terminator movies, Dark Angel (on TV), or Aliens. It is like Gran Turino and Atonement and The Reader and Slumdog Millionaire and District 9 and every alien movie ever made, not to mention most buddy movies and chick flicks, and Disney animations from Beauty and the Beast to Tarzan. They all ask the same thing: can you love someone who is different, can you work with someone who is different, can you ever understand someone who is different? I don’t know that we can even find a definitive answer to these and other questions; we are just, as humans, always endlessly looking.

So, is Avatar a good movie? You can apply your aesthetic criteria and get one answer and you can apply your political criteria and get another. But if you apply your anthropological criteria–is it good for thinking about what it means to be human–then Avatar succeeds but not, as Cameron claims, because it is unlike any other movie that has ever existed, but rather precisely because it is so like so many other movies that have gone before.

I am not going off to the annual American Anthropological Association meetings until Friday, and then only for a day. In fact, I have not been to the meetings in years. We are a two-anthropologist family (a dangerous enterprise) and it always seemed more important that my husband go and keep us his contacts since he had the tenured position and I simply floated from one temporary teaching job to the next. Now, don’t get all gender-pissed at me: I can uphold my feminist credential against any onslaught but the fact is, we under-employed anthropologists have to pick and choose how we spend our non-existent conference dollars and how we exercise our minor status. The meetings, quite simply, just make me feel bad when I see so many happily employed anthropologists in one place.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t miss the session at 10:15 that Faye Ginsburg is chairing tomorrow (Friday): EXPLORING THE “BOUNDARIES” OF EXPRESSIVE MEDIA IN ANTHROPOLOGY. This is what I do (I think), in my research and my classes and it will be worthwhile hearing how other people are doing this. The fact is, way too much anthropology for me has become one of two things: an attempt to quantify everything and emulate the hard sciences, or a noble but I think misdirected effort to cozy-up to social work. My research involves talking to people (easy to quantify: today I talked to 10 people) and listen as they tell me how they think their world works. But I don’t feel the need to step in and fix their world or help them see how they can change it. If that condemns me as more of an observer rather than a participant, so be it.

Take offense if you will, but I love applying “old-fashioned” anthropological concepts (worldview, “the Other,” mythology, symbolism, ritual, categorization…) to the most contemporary topics: participatory fan culture, Hollywood blockbusters, and weird everyday stuff like 2012. And this is where the bedwetting comes in. 2012 (the movie) is worthwhile if only as an excuse to really really wreck Los Angeles this time. I saw, with true awe, my old house uplifted on a chunk of expensive realestate and plunged into the sea. The stuff of mythology.

Besides the quiche fiasco I described in my previous blog, there is a framing story that deserves mention. John Cusack plays a divorced dad who picks up his kids for a camping trip. His ex-wife hands him a tote bag that contains “Pull-Ups” (big kid diapers) for his daughter who still wets her bed. This was done in whispers, a shameful thing.

Now what this kid goes through in the next two hours would make anyone wet their pants but she remains fairly calm, protected by a series of heavy-handed symbolic hats. It is not until the end that she announces that she does not need the “Pull-Ups” anymore, thanks dad. I swear, that is the line the movie ends on. Makes you wanna scream, “It’s a damned good thing, kid, because that factory is probably lava-encrusted by now.” Is this the best story we can come up with about what is important at the end/ends of the world (of anthropology?). Maybe it’s a good thing the diaper factory is gone. Maybe we will learn to “Depend” less on the things that make us ashamed to put on our symbolic hats and face the apocalypse.

I told my students at the beginning of this semester that they should email Claude Levi-Strauss. My suggestion was that they tell him that his theories on mythology were still among the most relevant we could use as we were studying American mainstream movies as a form of mythology. They didn’t take me up on the suggestion, but we are using aspects of structuralism as we explore this contemporary form of mythology. It really makes sense to students to search, for example, for the binary oppositions that seem to make up the tension or problems in the stories. Then, looking for the mediating factors in those binary oppositions helps explain the mythological impact of even the most mundane movie blockbuster. So, hats off and farewell to Claude Levi-Strauss who gave us important and useful tools for understanding all aspects of human life, even something as seemingly irrelevant as a Hollywood movie.