Pixar teased a reimagined, empowered Bo Peep this week in promotional material for the upcoming Toy Story 4.
Up to now, Bo Peep’s whole reason to exist seemed to be to flirt with and kiss not one, but both of the series’ two male protagonists. Now, in a new character poster, she holds a determined stance, her poofy dress now repurposed as a superhero-like cape, her old bonnet gone. She holds her shepherd’s crook behind her back like a weapon, like she has spent the last decade scavenging the desert planet of Jakku.
There’s an eleven-second video, too, in which Bo terrifies both Buzz and Woody by busting through a wall (if not a glass ceiling). It’s an action-adventure entrance straight out of Tom Cruise in Minority Report.
I am glad to see artists at Pixar making efforts to improve one of their most problematic characters. But this new marketing material does little to convince me the animation studio has fundamentally changed since its #MeToo moment.
This is the studio that recently fired creative chief John Lasseter over multiple sexual harassment allegations, the studio Rashida Jones told the New York Times has “a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice,” and yes, the studio I once loved so deeply I made nearly 150 podcast episodes about it.
I want to believe you’ve changed, Pixar, but it will take more than putting porcelain in a pantsuit before I believe it.
Both Lasseter and Jones were heavily involved in Toy Story 4’s troubled history: Lasseter was the film’s original director, and Jones was one of the film’s original writers. She left the project over “creative and, more importantly, philosophical differences,” which she and her writing partner then identified as the studio’s sexist and racist culture.
Toy Story 4 was originally announced as a deeply personal story for Lasseter, the main plot being a love story for Woody and Bo Peep based on Lasseter’s own relationship with his wife, Nancy.
Toy Story 4 was pushed back a year (its slot going instead to Incredibles 2 last summer), and when the news broke about Lasseter’s alleged misconduct, I thought it might be scrapped altogether. Instead, it’s moving forward, taken over by director Josh Cooley, the man responsible for Riley’s First Date?, a gender-stereotype-laden short based on what had been Pixar’s best film for women to date, Inside Out.
In a press release, Cooley described New Woke Bo Peep™ as having “taken control of her own destiny,” and he asserted that “while Woody was watching Andy grow up, Bo gathered dust until she took it upon herself to head out into the world.”
I take some exception to this characterization. In both Toy Story and Toy Story 2, Andy gave Bo Peep plenty of attention and playtime — it was the filmmakers who had no good ideas about what to do with her when she was alive. From her very first scene, she existed solely as a romantic and sexual object:
Later, when Buzz Lightyear appears, her attractions switch over to him briefly, and she vocalizes a desire to be trapped in close, dark quarters with him (“I found my moving buddy!”).
In Toy Story 2, Bo stays behind when the gang of toys venture outside Andy’s room, but she does kiss Buzz before he goes (and tells him it was directed at Woody — what?)
The character is treated with arguably the most care in Toy Story 3, where she has been written out completely, but is referred to in a single line that carries weight as Woody looks like he misses her (for a second).
When I fell in love with these movies, I wish I had been more tuned in to the fact that it was a problem how little thought was given to her.
The new marketing materials ignore this character’s non-presence thus far with the words “Bo Peep is back!” like we are supposed to feel like this is a return rather than a first attempt to give her any real life. We are supposed to accept this reimagining in good faith and just hope that — wait, is she pole-dancing?
I somehow don’t believe that this move is Pixar’s sex-positive promotion of stripping as a form of art, employment or exercise. Maybe instead, it’s that a bunch of men who can’t help but see women as objects are still calling the shots.
This week, I spent some time transferring my archives of The Pixar Podcast, and I came upon an interview I did in 2011 with Dylan Brown, the creative lead of the short-lived Pixar Canada studio. I was curious what he has been up to recently, so I googled his name. I was dismayed to find the headline, “Paramount Fires ‘Amusement Park’ Director Dylan Brown Over ‘Inappropriate’ Conduct.”
Finding that story brought to mind Cassandra Smolcic, whose harrowing account of what she faced as employee at Pixar is a must-read for understanding the systemic nature of sexual harassment and sexism — that it is not simply a story of “one bad apple.”
Smolcic writes in disillusioning detail about what happens to a company when its leader is allowed to be a gross misogynist for many years:
I was a graphic designer at Pixar during the second half of my 20s. I know people are saying that the climate there wasn’t “that bad.” I’m here to tell you that it was, and more than likely still is. …
Dismantling John’s legacy will take more than just replacing a single executive or releasing an article about the female contributions to a given film. Such deeply ingrained biases require deliberate, conscientious effort to identify and dismantle. Disney and Pixar must recognize that women and underrepresented minorities are just as capable, talented, complex and dimensional as the white fraternity of men who have monopolized animation thus far. Female narratives are worthy of world-class storytellers, and women deserve to be treated as respected equals in any creative community.
We will know this summer whether Bo Peep has been given that kind of world-class treatment. I’m not holding my breath.
Thanks for reading,
On my radar: Feb. 1-7, 2019
To put something good on my radar, please get in touch.
Friday, Feb. 1
🎨 Provo, Utah: Susan Krueger-Barber: The Uses Of Sorrow (Opening Feb. 1, show runs through February) — A really terrific artist is opening a show at one of my favorite places in Utah, Writ & Vision. From the event page: “Susan is a Provo-based performance and installation artist who occupies alter-egos to inflate, expand, and pop tension inherent in discussions of gender fluidity, urban planning, and the status quo.” More info.
📺 Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (New episode @ 9 p.m., CW) -- The final season continues!
Sunday, Feb. 3
🎭 Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical (One show only, Times Square) — Forget the Super Bowl. This year, Skittles is spending its ad money on a 30-minute live Broadway musical. Somehow the company is actually charging people to see it (and I didn’t get a ticket before it sold out), but apparently the money’s all going to the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS charity. In any case, I fully support any effort to draw attention away from football and toward musical theater. More info.
Monday, Feb. 4
🎬 New SparkShorts program from Pixar shorts on YouTube -- Pixar is expanding its short film program with a series of upcoming shorts that will play on the Disney•Pixar YouTube channel. The first of these, Purl, hits the channel on Feb. 4, followed by Smash and Grab on Feb. 11 and Kitbull on Feb. 18.
Thursday, Feb 7
🎭 Seth Meyers Writers: Crate Night w/ Set Fires (UCB Hell’s Kitchen) — The writers of Late Night With Seth Meyers will perform live! I recently saw them perform jokes that had been written for and cut out of their TV show, and I still think about it. Amber Ruffin is a wonder to behold. More info.
📺 Brooklyn Nine-Nine (New episode @ 9 p.m., NBC) -- I finally caught up last summer after falling behind, and I am really enjoying the new season.
📺 Broad City (New episode @ 10 p.m., Comedy Central) -- The final season continues! I have only recently (finally!) started watching this show... and it's AMAHZING. Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson have created a comedy masterpiece. Their depiction of city life and friendship is insightful and hilarious. I am so glad I get to take in this (final!) season as it airs, and I already know that whatever projects either of them do in the future will automatically be On My Radar™.
🎬 The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (In theaters Feb. 8, early access Feb. 7) -- I am ready for more anarchic, meta joy that only Lego movies can bring.
🎬 What Men Want (In theaters Feb. 8, early access Feb. 7) -- Never saw the Mel Gibson version (and never will), but this gender-swapped remake starring Taraji P. Henson looks like much more my thing.
🎬 Catching up on Oscar noms -- By my count, there are 52 Oscar-nominated films this year, and so far, I've seen half of them. I've got some work to do.
🎬 They Shall Not Grow Old (Now playing) -- Peter Jackson has made a documentary based on old World War I footage.
🎬 Free Solo (Now playing) -- An Oscar-nominated documentary that promises to show footage of people climbing rocks in dangerous situations.
Visit the full list for my complete listing of upcoming movies, TV shows and more.
ADDED THIS WEEK:
📺 Shrill (All episodes drop March 15, Hulu) -- Aidy Bryant is finally getting her own show. Trailer.
📺 The Twilight Zone (Two episodes drop April 1, with weekly episodes to follow beginning April 11, CBS All Access) -- Jordan Peele’s reboot of the classic anthology series. Am I going to have to sign up for CBS All Access for this? (Yes.) Trailer.
At the end of each newsletter, I look to -- the past! -- to mention the most most notable pieces of culture I've been paying attention to, whether they were previously on my radar or not.
🎭 Superhero (Off-Broadway, in previews) -- Second Stage Theater has debuted some of my favorite Broadway shows, including Spelling Bee and Next to Normal, and now the theater has a new musical with a score by Next to Normal composer Tom Kitt and a book by playwright John Logan. Listen to a preview clip.
I was lucky enough to be in the first preview audience for Superhero, and I really enjoyed it. The score is rich and inventive, and I like a lot of what the show has to say. Falling somewhere between Next to Normal and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the show doesn’t quite reach the heights of either of those two.
But I love the ambition of the show, as well as the laser-focus on the emotional truth of each of the characters. The supporting characters have depth, and the conflict feels authentic.
Thanks for reading! What's on your radar? Get in touch to let me know! And look for my next letter to go out on Feb. 8.