Sometimes it’s a bad idea to think too hard about the things you love. Last week, while we were looking for something to watch between the Tonys red carpet and the actual Tonys, my friend and I settled on a channel showing Toy Story.
Now don’t get me wrong, I adore the Toy Story franchise. However, it’s one of many beloved childhood stories where, if you poke too closely at the seams of the worldbuilding, it starts to unravel into questions that only get more disturbing.
As if you didn’t know, the Toy Story movies follow the adventures of a group of toys in a world where toys are sentient, as they navigate the trials of their owner’s ever-changing affections and eventually, his growing up and out of his toy phase. Okay, so, toys are alive and have feelings. Cute!
Or nah? Thinking through this to its several logical conclusions, it becomes kind of disturbing. First of all, at what point did toys become sentient, and why have they universally agreed to not let humans know about this? Is there some sort of toy governing body that punishes and removes offenders who break this code of secrecy, like Harry Potter’s Obliviators? If not, what dark oral history led to toys deciding to hide themselves in plain sight? These are fully self-aware, adult beings with apparently rich interior lives who are spending their whole existence in terrified, limp servitude to human children, too afraid of revealing their awareness to humans even if it means avoiding horrible abuse or death at their hands. Woody and his friends count themselves lucky to have been given to a kid who treats them well, and who “loves” them, but there’s such a huge power imbalance there that it seems nearly impossible to accept that they can genuinely love him back.
Because they won’t reveal their sentience, this love comes from their kid, Andy, playing with them in a mostly friendly manner and in a way that they feel suits their purpose: e.g., playing cowboy with Woody, or war with the toy soldiers. They’ve internalized the idea that they’re second-class creatures who “belong” to Andy and exist to make him happy. Even Jessie, who at first rejects this belief after the trauma of being donated by her former owner, eventually comes around to being excited about being one of Andy’s toys. One of the only characters to really stick to this mentality is the villain of the third movie, Lotso the bear. After being abandoned by his former owner and then subjected to years of torment by the children in a daycare, he believes it’s impossible for children to truly love toys. His bitterness isn’t validated by the storyline, however; Andy’s toys reject his beliefs and ultimately escape his attempts to make them suffer, ending the movie as the beloved toys of a new little girl. Meanwhile, Lotso suffers an ignominious defeat at the movie’s end, strapped to the front of a garbage truck and doomed to be pelted with bugs and road gunk forever.
Toys apparently don’t have pain-sensing nerves—Buzz, for example, has his arm popped out, and while he does follow up with an identity crisis, he isn’t ever shown to be in any particular pain, and it’s not a big deal to pop it back in. Woody, likewise, rips his arm in the second movie and it’s sewn back together with no fanfare. Toys can survive vivisection and nightmareish transplants, as demonstrated by Andy’s neighbor Sid’s gruesome experiments, and remain alive. However, they don’t seem particularly themselves afterward. None of Sid’s toys talk to Woody while they’re helping him escape, nor do they seem to have distinct personalities. So while they clearly may not have felt the physical pain of being chopped apart and sewn back together by a kid with clear home issues, they’re not immune to psychological pain. Woody fears anyone who might displace him as Andy’s favorite toy, because that’s the beginning of the end where the end is being forgotten or discarded. Buzz’s entire world crashes around him when he discovers he’s just a mass-produced action figure, rather than an actual Space Ranger on patrol, and spends the entire first movie struggling to accept his true identity as a toy. And is anything in the world fucking sadder than Jessie’s ongoing trauma at being abandoned by her former owner or her PTSD about being put in a box?
Toys can also die, and they fear death. Mr. Potato Head accuses Woody of murdering Buzz out of jealousy, leading to Woody being ostracized from their community. Buzz is terrified of being killed by the firework Sid straps to his back, and it’s hard to forget the horrible near-ending of the third movie, in which all our toy friends are nearly melted down in a trash incinerator.
Furthermore, if we want to get really frickin’ existential, what counts as a toy? Toys like the Speak’n’Spell and Etch-a-sketch are proof that it doesn’t need to be humanoid or even have any kind of face to be alive. If a kid plays drums on the pots and pans from the kitchen, is that a toy? Why are Barbie and Ken sentient but the Barbie Dreamhouse isn’t? If a kid goes out and finds a rock they really like and play with it, is that a toy? Would the Pet Rock™ be sentient but a regular rock off the ground not? Do they have to be purchased from a toy store or some retail establishment, or do homemade toys count? Does it have to be something that human people refer to as a toy? Alluding to the wine-mom-esque Facebook meme that “‘Woody’ and ‘Buzz’ are mom’s best friends too”, what about sex toys? Where does one draw the line on sentient items, and how complicit are humans in subjecting them to all sorts of nonconsensual acts? And even if we never do anything to a toy that could count as mistreatment, we’re still being constantly watched by a legion of beings we are completely unaware of.
This is a rabbit hole that I am genuinely afraid to go down, and I semi-regret beginning this train of thought. It leads me to wonder if there were kids who feared their toys after watching Toy Story, in the same way our own Ace feared Santa after discovering that “he sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake”.
How much thinking did Pixar do about the greater consequences of their cute “what if toys had feelings” idea before putting pen to paper? It’s not going to stop me loving these movies, but if it bugs you that there is a Car Pope who rides in a Car Popemobile and therefore Car Catholicism exists based on the teachings, death, and resurrection of a Car Jesus in the Cars universe, maybe Toy Story should weird you out a bit too.
Hear more from Lady Saika on Character Reveal, the podcast she cohosts with BrothaDom!