• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Mothering at Mid-Career: Taking a Summer Movie Seriously


This is my 100th blog post for Inside Higher Ed, if my naming conventions for the almost-weekly posts can be trusted. So in a perhaps self-indulgent celebration, I’m musing here a bit on some favorite family movies.

June 28, 2010


This is my 100th blog post for Inside Higher Ed, if my naming conventions for the almost-weekly posts can be trusted. So in a perhaps self-indulgent celebration, I’m musing here a bit on some favorite family movies.

For Father’s Day we took my husband to see Toy Story 3-D. We’ve been fans of the series since the first film, way back in 1995. Then, my daughter was not quite six: clearly in the demographic for the movie. When the second came out in 1999, she was almost ten, with a two-year-old brother. He might have been a bit young for the movie, but the rest of us enjoyed it anyway. Mariah had a “Woody” doll; Nick had Buzz Lightyear. Lines from the movies (“you are a sad, strange little man”) have peppered our conversations for years. Now, however, our kids are older, and I worried at first that they might resist my plan to go to the movie together. Is Pixar too “babyish” for a pre-teen and a twenty-year-old? Hardly.

We have enjoyed the Toy Story movies because they do what all good children’s entertainment does: they refuse to talk down to children, instead relying on a good story and well-developed characters to engage an all-ages audience. They also raise philosophical questions about identity that, while they may not be recognized as such by the target audience, speak to anyone who thinks seriously about what it means to be human.

The first movie, in which the old-fashioned cowboy toy Sheriff Woody is displaced by a plastic astronaut toy, tells a story of acceptance: Woody needs to learn that those he fears (Buzz, the misfit toys cannibalized by the next-door neighbor Syd, and the alien toys from Pizza Planet) actually have something of value to share with him. Toy Story is a classic Hollywood “buddy” movie, in which two disparate characters find common ground, usually (as in this case) via a shared quest. It also begins to raise the questions of identity that haunt all three films — in this case, through Buzz Lightyear, who is dismayed and confused to discover that he is not actually a space ranger, but, as Sheriff Woody informs him, “a child’s plaything.” “What, if anything, grounds identity?” the movie seems to ask. Is it what we are called, what we do, or some mysterious essence that we can only posit without grasping?

The second story, in which Woody discovers that he — like Buzz — is a spinoff from a TV show who is now more valuable to collectors than to children, returns to the complex story of identity begun in the first film. When Buzz confronts an aisle of identical Buzz Lightyears in Al’s Toy Barn, he comes face to face with another fundamental question: Can we really posit a unique identity, when so much of what we are is shared with so many others? Woody — stolen by a toy collector for sale to a toy museum along with other toys based on the same TV series — faces another, similar, question: what is value? In the toys’ case, the question of value has to do with being played with or being displayed. In true existentialist fashion, the film suggests that doing — in this case, participating in play — is more authentic than simply being on display in a toy museum.

Toy Story 3 returns all our old favorite characters and raises another set of serious questions. Woody and Buzz’s owner, Andy, is about to leave for college: what will happen to the toys? Will they be stored? Donated? Or simply discarded? Here again the primary questions are existential, perhaps even theological. What does it mean to belong? Can we determine our own purpose, or are we subject to the demands of others?

If Andy is the god of the toys’ world, he is a careless and capricious one. He has forgotten about his toys for years, and only returns to them when forced to clean up his room before leaving for college. In a parody of the Calvinist concept of “election,” he chooses only Woody to take with him, consigning the other toys to the attic — or worse.

When they end up in a daycare center, though, as part of a donation box, the toys begin to believe that they are in paradise. A paradise of children and play, a place where they can truly be what they are meant to be. Perhaps they, not Woody, are truly elect.

A central conflict in the film is between the notion that one can make one’s own destiny (as the daycare toys are trying to do) and the notion that destiny is given or predestined — the position embraced by Woody, who believes it is their duty to return to Andy rather than to join the community of daycare toys. The Pixar folks stack the deck a bit, here, by having the daycare toys ruled by ruler far more capricious and cruel than Andy — but then come down on the side of self-determination when the toys choose themselves a new owner, one who will play with them, one who will allow them to achieve fulfillment as toys. Yes, as others have noted, there is an irony in all this: the movies make us feel good about child’s play by allowing us to watch fake children play with images of vintage toys. There’s perhaps a further irony in the fact that the “real” adventures the toys have when their owners are out of the picture are far more exciting than any play the children do with them. Still, I think the movies celebrate imaginative play as constitutive of identity, in a way some of the best children’s stories also do (think of the Alice books, or Peter Pan, or, more recently, Where the Wild Things Are or The Cat in the Hat.

What does all this have to do with mothering at mid-career, and the larger questions of the Mama, PhD blog? As always, I’m juggling here: family fun morphs into my research on children’s literature and entertainment, and vice versa. The story also speaks, of course, to the place I am personally right now: my daughter is just back from, rather than headed off to, her first year of college, so in some sense I’m Andy’s mom’s contemporary. Part of me is sorry we don’t see more of her in this film; then again, if you really want to see a film about an approaching empty nest, perhaps Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give would be a better choice. Toy Story 3 is, after all, at least nominally for kids — so the mom’s story takes a deserved back seat. I can live with that.


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