Toy Story 3: Environment and Frontiers

Reduce, reuse and recycle” seems to be at the heart of Toy Story 3‘s “environmental” theme. This is the second of 3 posts that considers how this theme is worked out in the third of the Toy Story saga.

In the last Toy Story 3 post I tried to show how Lotso’s character can be seen as a stand-in for the capitalist logic that sustains the environmentally disastrous cycle of mass-production, mass-consumption and waste. In this post I want to discuss the values the film promotes through its association of Woody with the frontier of wilderness, and Buzz with the frontier of space.

I’ll start with my understanding of the hopes and fears America has historically thrust upon the frontier. Particularly interesting is Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1983 Frontier Thesis. Turner’s argument suggests that the encounter of pioneering settlers with environments wildly different from those they had experienced in Europe was central to the development of the American identity. The further west they travelled, the more they threw off the shackles of rigid European traditions, and the more American they became.

The problem with Turner’s thesis is that America only had a finite amount of frontier. If, as Turner proposed, the American identity was founded upon its dynamic encounters with new environments, what would happen to its identity when there was no new environment to interact with? However, answering this question has been somewhat postponed because when the Western frontier closed the space frontier opened: “Space: the final frontier”.

In other words, the frontier has featured rather prominently in the formation of America’s cultural identity. It is not surprising then that this is sometimes reflected in one of America’s biggest cultural industries—Hollywood film. With this historical backdrop in place, I’ll consider how Woody and Buzz participate in America’s frontier identity.

Woody and Buzz’ outfits align them respectively with the Wild West and space. And a quick look at the opening sequence of the film reveals that they, and the frontiers they stand for, are both associated with the ideals of liberation, justice and freedom. This scene plays out (if you’ll pardon the pun) one of the film’s themes: the maniacal pursuit of money and power is threatening the integrity of the American identity.

Here’s a way of representing the opening sequence that foregrounds this perspective. The cow-hide chap-wearing cowboy and cowgirl, and the sleek-lined white-suited astronaut are on the side of good. (Their outfits help to subtly secure these associations: Woody and Jesse (the cowgirl) are draped in natural materials, aligning them with nature, which is typically coded as good, and Buzz is predominantly dressed in white, which is also typically coded for good.) This is coupled with their admirable aims to save the orphans, reprimand the criminals and restore law and order to the land. It is also worth noting that “Team Good” all seem to be white, Anglo-Saxon protestants (WASP). On the other hand, the one-eyed, pink-convertible driving bandits are on the side of evil. (As with the “goodies”, the outfits of the “badies” reinforce their evilness: bodily disfigurement is commonly used as a metaphor for a character’s moral corruption.) This is coupled with their despicable aim to get more money by any means, as well as their strategy to violently dispense with those who foil their attempts. “Team Evil” has a more multicultural mix made up of literal aliens and Yiddish accented potato heads, who don’t in anyway seem to “blend in” with the natural canyon setting.

I’d like to make special mention of those eye patches. They are not just pirate-inspired, fear-inducing battle masks, in the context of the opening mise-en-abyme (story within a story) they are integral to the identities of the characters: he’s not simply named Bob, nor she Betty, he is One-Eyed Bob and she is One-Eyed Betty. And what is that one eye firmly planted on? That’s right, “money, money, money!” The bandits forgo all considerations of other things—freedom, liberty, and civility—to pursue their desire for more money. Their single-mindedness symbolically represented by their single vision.

Here a potential conflict emerges in the suggestion that the film encourages the viewer to see “Team Evil” as not belonging in the American frontier (the crucible of the American identity) because the accumulation of personal wealth is a hallmark of the “American way”. The tale of rags to riches is celebrated in countless “new world” stories about individuals who triumph over personal hardships to attain social status and power by making money. (Admittedly, generally not championed through ill-gotten gains.) However, I think the film elides this potential conflict through the racial coding of the characters. The badies do not fit the stereotypical representation of “real” Americans, and because of this, their vision of the American dream is distorted by their singular desire for money. On the filpside, the good guys do fit the stereotypical representation of “real” Americans. They realise that the way to maintain the American dream is to protect its traditional core values of freedom, liberty and justice, and to keep stretching the limits of the frontier “to infinity and beyond” as the foundation of continued American prosperity.

However, and this gets back to the original problem of the frontier thesis, all the limits of the land frontier have been reached, and space exploration hasn’t revealed the path to endless resources or habitable planets, so the dilemma remains—how to stake an American identity that is not solely founded on capitalistic gain? When the frontiers have disappeared and the resources they produced used up, does waste become the dominant metaphor for the American identity? (This last idea comes from Cyntia Dietering in her essay “The Postnatural Novel: Toxic Consciousness in Fiction of the 1980s” in The Ecocriticism Reader).   The film proceeds to negotiate these questions after the close of the opening sequence, whose storyline is never resolved, and, which, significantly is a bit of memorabilia, a video taken by Andy’s mum so that his childhood would not be forgotten, now replayed to remember dreams which no longer exist. His childhood, like the dream of the frontier, has vanished. Yet, the racial/ethnic antagonism between the characters seen in the opening sequence quickly disappears as they all work together as a united team against the beast at the heart of America’s ills—the big bear of big business, Lotso!

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