Thursday, May 7, 2015

[DC010] Pixar's Woody: Normativity in Toy Story

Previous: [009] Azuma vs. Kaiyodo: Technology, Capital, and Toys

                Having looked at Azuma's periodization against Kaiyodo's history, I would now like to do a case study of a particular Kaiyodo product: Sci-Fi Revoltech Series No. 010 Woody.  I will trace the history of the figure through three distinct phases.  First, I will briefly examine Woody in Pixar's Toy Story (1995).  Second, I will examine Kaiyodo's Sci-Fi Revoltech Series No. 010 Woody, and the Revoltech brand in general.  Third, I will examine how international consumer created new narratives using Revoltech Woody by recombining Revolver Joint elements into the so-called “Creepy Woody.”

Pixar’s Woody

                Toy Story was first released in 1995, the year of the Aum Shinrikyo terrorist attacks and the end of Evangelion. Although the movie was not released in Japan until 1996 and its Japan box office came in only at 1.5 billion yen, Toy Story 2 (2010) saw a much higher box office at 3.5 billion yen and Toy Story 3 (2010) would go on to have the 23rd highest-ranking Japan box office of all time.

                Although Toy Story was released well after 1989, the year Azuma gives for the worldwide rise of the Era of Animalization, it has a surprisingly strong social narrative. Specifically, it deals with a fictional society of toys and the morality of play. It deals with the “rules” that govern interactions between toys and with their owners.

                This is not an explicit contract (a “10 Commandments of Toys”) but rather an underlying set of assumptions that the fictional toys for granted. Toys have two primary needs: the need for self-preservation (i.e., to remain alive, to retain their physical integrity) and the need for recognition by the owner (in the form of “play time”). This play time is the metric by which toys judge their personal worth. As such, attempting to artificially increase one’s amount of playtime is viewed as a moral transgression.

                Toys are also expected to hide their ability to talk and move of their own volition when humans are around, although they seem to do so instinctively as well as intentionally. The movie does not explain why toys must hide their secret lives, though the rule against artificially influencing their owner's opinion of them may be one explanation.

                The story follows the adventures of the toys belonging to a child named “Andy.” Chief among these toys is Andy's favorite, a cloth cowboy doll named “Sheriff Woody.” Woody functions as the leader of Andy's toys. As a sheriff, he functions as a sort of Commander-In-Chief, organizing the toys, enforcing the Grand Narrative moral concerns, and even commanding the armed forces (in the form of green plastic army men). Once Andy gets a new toy named “Buzz Lightyear,” a power struggle ensues in which Woody must deal with Buzz's position as Andy's new favorite and Woody's resulting loss in social status.

                Right from the start, Toy Story feels more like something from the Era of Fiction. We are given a fictional toy society with a fictional Grand Narrative that governs morality and a toy's place in the world. While these rules are not explicitly stated in the form of a constitution or code of laws, we can gain a sense of the rules by examining deviant behavior.

                For example, about midway through the movie, the conflict between Woody and Buzz Lightyear leads to a physical altercation in which Woody pushes Buzz out of a window. When Woody pushes Buzz out of the window, he is committing three crimes: first, he threatens Buzz's physical integrity (the other toys accuse him of being a “murderer”); second, he “cheats” by taking independent action to secure Andy's attention; third, his actions risk exposing the toys' true nature. These crimes undermine the laws, the social contract, which “Sheriff Woody” is supposed to enforce.

                The actions of users are also defined in moral terms, most explicitly seen in the contrast between Andy (Woody's owner) and Sid (the boy next door). Andy's positive behavior allows for a certain amount of transformative play - he uses a plastic T-Rex as a bank robber and Slinky Dog as a “force-field.” While this play is partially transformative in that Andy assigns his toys new roles and personalities (new identities) during playtime, it leaves their bodies and true identities intact once playtime is over.

                This is parallel to how Andy manipulates his own identity.  During playtime he dresses up like his favorite toys, temporarily assigning himself a new identity before returning to the real world of family and friends. In this way, the relationship between toy and owner is reciprocal: both have fluid identities during play, both find meaning and enjoyment in play, and both base elements of their own identities on the other. Andy wears a cowboy hat in imitation of his toy, Woody finds status and identity in having Andy's name written on his foot.

                Sid's play, however, is highly unbalanced. He too takes on new identities during play, but these identities are antagonistic and superior to the identities he assigns his toys. Sid casts himself as an enemy soldier throwing explosives at an action figure, as a torturer interrogating Woody, and as a rocket scientist strapping Buzz to “the Big One.”

                While Andy puts up posters of his toys, identifying himself with them, Sid has posters of rock bands and does not engage in imitative dress up.  In other words, Andy views his toys as affective objects and engages in a mutual exchange of affection and recognition, while Sid views his toys as mere objects to impose his destructive desires upon. Andy upholds the rules of toy society and Sid breaks them.

                The most significant example of this is Sid's deconstruction and reassembly of his toys. Sid does not temporarily alter his toys' identity by imaginative play, he uses tools to physically dissect them and switch their parts with other toys. These hybrid toys lose the ability to speak, even with other toys. Their communicative ability is destroyed when Sid physically imposes his own artistic expression on them. While this is portrayed as a loss of self for the toys, we might also question whether this also represents a replacement of the corporate narratives expressed in an unmodified toy with a consumer narrative expressed by a modified toy.

                I would argue, however, that the loss undergone by Sid's modified toys is not simply the loss of a built-in corporate narrative. Too-close identification with the designer's message is seen as Buzz Lightyear's primary character flaw. At first, he truly believes himself to be the galaxy-protecting Space Ranger described on his packaging (introducing himself with a verbatim marketing blurb). It is only when he sheds this packaged identity and takes his “proper place” in a bond of affective identity with his owner that he finds true happiness as a toy.

                So then, a toy's identity has two aspects. One is a base personality at least partially imprinted by their manufacturer (Woody acts as a sheriff, Slinky Dog is loyal). The second is an affective alliance with their owner bestowed by mutual play. Loss of the first aspect by physical modification removes their ability to speak, to communicate effectively as individuals. Removing the second aspect reduces them to clone-like products lacking an individual personality to express. Nature and nurture are both required to make a fully rounded toy.

                Sid's violation of the toy society's unspoken rules is used by Woody as a justification for a toy uprising. In order to save Buzz from being blown up by “The Big One,” Woody breaks the rule against revealing the toys' true nature. He moves under his own volition and speaks with Sid directly.  Although the modified toys cannot speak, they shuffle, zombie-like toward Sid, terrifying him and ending his reign of terror. Transgressive play nullifies the social contract, allowing Woody to take action against a human.

                Woody's story is one of fall from grace and redemption. He starts as Andy's favorite toy, a privileged position which gives him recognition from both Andy and the other toys. He enforces the rules of toy society not by physical force or coercion, but by force of personality. Buzz threatens Woody's privileged position, causing Woody to break the rules for his own benefit. Woody is then ostracized from toy society until he saves Buzz both from the physically destructive Sid and Buzz's own delusions of being a real Space Ranger.

                In doing so, Woody restores toy society to its ideal state: Buzz is saved from physical destruction, learns to form an affective bond with Andy, and the humans (with the exception of Sid, who is now cast out of the social contract) are none the wiser. Once again, this fictional toy society is clearly situated in the Era of Fiction.

                Here we see one of the limitations of Azuma's periodization. While 1989 was an extremely significant year for Grand Narratives, it was by no means the “end” of Grand Narratives in general. If anything, the fall of the Berlin Wall strengthened Grand Narratives in the West, as the fall of Communism was argued to prove the inherent “correctness” of Capitalism. Similarly, while the Aum Shinrikyo terrorist attacks of 1995 certainly had a great impact on Japanese society, it did little to discredit Grand Narratives outside of Japan. 

                This weakness of Azuma's periodization should not come as a surprise. After all, Azuma himself admits that the fall of the Berlin Wall did not end the Grand Narrative in Japan - why should we be surprised if it survived in other countries as well? Since Otaku focuses on Japanese society, it is understandable that he did not make an exhaustive list of when the Era of Animalization began in every country and geographical region. We could debate just when the Era of Animalization began in America (or indeed if it has begun at all), but I think it is sufficient to note that a periodization intended primarily to explain changes of Japanese society requires significant adjustment when working with other societies.

                Let us compare Toy Story with a more recent example. The Lego Movie (2014) also deals with a toy society, albeit one that is much less aware of the existence of humans. The villain of this world, President Business (aka Lord Business) has an evil plan built not around the physical disassembly of toys, but rather placing them in permanent stasis. By using the power of “Kragle” (Krazy Glue), he plans to permanently cement all of the inhabitants of this world into a single, perfect world.

                The toys (in this case, Lego mini-figures) are told to “follow the instructions” not only when building with blocks, but in their daily lives and interpersonal relations. Central to defeating President Business' nefarious plot is using the power of imagination and creativity to create non-standard Lego models which go against the instructions. 

                Humans also appear in this film, but as distant, god-like figures. The two human actors, a father and a son, use Lego mini-figures to act out the parts of hero and villain. The father, who wants to build perfect Lego dioramas which are permanently glued into place, conflicts with the son, who wants to use the Lego pieces for play.

                The affective alliances between these humans and the Lego mini-figures is even stronger than that between Woody and Andy. President Business is an avatar of the father, and the main character Emmet is an avatar of the son. At one point, the father and son literally “speak through” their avatars, as Emmet delivers a speech to President Business which also functions as the son’s emotional appeal to the father. The day is saved when the father, impressed by the unusual models his son has built, accepts the value of modularity as a form of creative self-expression.

                While physical destruction is still a concern for the Lego mini-figures (at one point, Emmet is threatened with melting), physical modification is viewed as liberating and expressive. Emmet even attaches a wheel to his head, using his neck as an impromptu axel for a vehicle. The inability to think creatively, to modify oneself and the world around the self, is seen as the ultimate horror, not disassembly and reassembly. Affective alliances are formed strongly with Lego mini-figures, but their value lies in their modularity, not in creating accurate models of a “real world.”

                These themes would seem to place The Lego Movie closer to Azuma's Era of Animalization than Toy Story. But regardless of when we might place the beginning of the Era of Animalization in America, it is clear that Toy Story was produced with Grand Narrative concerns in mind. Polymorphous perversity, in the form of Sid's physical dismantling of toys, is portrayed as a socially deviant, immoral act. Social norms, fictional social norms at that, are portrayed as binding and legitimate. Pixar's Woody is a product of the Era of Fiction, not the Era of Animalization.

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