Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Hidden Mickeyisms 4: Disney/Pixar’s Toy Stories and Parent-Child Separation

From Hans Christian Andersen, Disney successfully borrows the story of "The Little Mermaid" and converts it into the first of a new generation of very successful Disney animated musical motion pictures. It appears that Disney also gains from Hans Christian Andersen the inspiration for the first in a new genre, the computer-animated motion picture. Where does Disney find the central germinating idea for its hits, "Toy Story," "Toy Story 2," and "Toy Story 3"? The answer is suggested in Disney's "Fantasia 2000." One segment of "Fantasia 2000" pertains to the Disney version of Andersen's "The Staunch Tin Soldier." According to the Andersen classic, after "all the other tin soldiers went back into their box, and the people in the house went to bed . . . [t]he toys now began to play games--visiting, fighting, dancing." This is almost precisely what occurs in the Toy Stories of Disney. My son, Tristan Lindsay, corroborated my hunch that Toy Story owed its inspiration to the Hans Christian Anderson classic in his critique of Toy Story at “It started out as just a pitch, an idea to expand the animated short ‘Tin Toy’ into a Christmas special. The mad computer animation wizards in a company called Pixar Animation Wizards had decided to call it ‘A Tin Toy Christmas.’” With these allusions to tin toys, it seems unmistakable that Pixar was inspired by Anderson’s Tin Soldier. My son Shane Lindsay comments: “The Andersen fairy tale . . . probably inspired . . . Babes in Toyland . . . . But Fantasia 2000, as its name suggests, came out in 2000. Toy Story came out in 1995, and Tin Toy was released in 1988.” The tin soldier in Anderson’s classic was missing a leg. In the Toy Stories, broken toys (suggesting some sort of physical handicap)--such as a non-working squeaker in Wheezy the Penguin and a separated arm on Woody—seem to offer a justification for parent-child separation. Children easily interpret the child (Andy) as a parent who takes care of his toys, which are easily interpreted as Andy’s children. If Andy (or his mother) discards any toys, that act becomes the moral equivalent of child abandonment. The evil child who lives next door to Andy, Sid, actually intentionally handicaps and damages his and his sister’s toys. This makes Sid a villain on a par with the Wicked Witch of Snow White. He becomes a parent from whom children (i.e., toys) would be wise to flee.

Rhetoric, for Aristotle, involves finding in any situation "the available means of persuasion" (Rhetoric 1.2.1). Poetics, on the other hand, involves mimêsis or imitation. Disney's Toy Stories fall most easily into the category of poetics rather than rhetoric. Yet, until the watershed of Plato, Greeks possibly did not conceive a separation between rhetoric and poetics. We should find some persuasion in poetics. For example, in a text that is clearly in the poetics category, at the end of Act 2, Shakespeare has Hamlet say: "I'll have these players play something like the murder of my father before mine uncle: I'll observe his looks . . . the play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king." Surely, Shakespeare sees persuasion in poetics. If we study the ways in which poetics persuade we are studying "implicit rhetoric."

The greatest hit song of Kenneth Burke's grandson, Harry Chapin, was "Cat's in the Cradle". Chapin's lyrics tell the story of "my child" who "arrived just the other day," but upon his arrival found that his father had "planes to catch and bills to pay." The boy's learning to walk and talk occurred during the absence of his father, but the boy promised his father, "I'm gonna be like you, Dad." There is little if any explicit rhetoric in Chapin's song. Yet, the implicit persuasion is abundant. The song appears to implicitly champion close relations between parents and children. The problem that exists is a father who—due to his career--is separated “too much” from his son.

The Toy Stories supply a tragic-comic entelechy. In his original draft of "Form and Persecution in the Oresteia," Burke informs us, "the matters considered . . . were immediately preceded by . . . a section designed to show that . . . mimesis" is best understood "through [Aristotle's] concept of the entelechy, with its peculiar stress upon `fulfillment.'" (LSA 125). Burke states: "By entelechy, I refer to such use of symbolic resources that potentialities can be said to attain their perfect fulfillment" (DD 39). Burke has in mind something like Aristotle's Poetics with its perfect tragic victims—“those who are near and dear to one another.” (50).

The Aristotelian word Dorsch has translated "those who are near and dear to one another," Burke translates "intimates." He understands that there are "family tensions" in human patterns of experience that might best be perfected in the tragic "father-kill." Burke goes to some length in Dramatism and Development to assimilate both Aristotelian and Freudian views into his concept of entelechy. He sees Freud's interest in Oedipus as evidence that Freud considered these "family tensions" to be primal. Never mind that the primal father-kill is non-historical. Burke argues in Freud's behalf that even as a "hypothetical" pattern, the principle of the "father-kill" is a useful tool in analyzing psychological structures. This is an important observation for our purposes. While the tragedy genre typically addresses civic and social tensions in adult art forms, the basic family tensions envisioned by Aristotle and Freud more nearly represent the use of the tragedy genre in child art forms. The Toy Stories are about family tensions, not civic and social tensions.

Specifically, in terms of family/civic/social tensions, Burke understands Aristotle's concept of tragedy to involve the perfect victims (intimates), and takes catharsis to be a "purgation by symbolic victimage," wherein the audience "identifies" with the victim. This identification occurs not through the perfect "identification" of "love," but through what he considers to be a "surrogate of love," namely "pity." The tragic "pleasure" takes place when the one with whom the audience has "identified/shared pity" is "killed." Since "identification" has produced "consubstantiality" between the audience and the victim, it is as if in a sense the audience itself has died symbolically. Hence, the audience is free to take on a new identity; the old identity has been "purged." This new identity would be the (perfected?) identity that the audience member has sought. Thus, the tragedy has gratified "entelechy"--a sense of perfection (telos) within the audience. In the Oresteia, once again, Burke observes that "Greek tragedy was 'cathartically' designed" for the purpose of relieving "civic tensions" (LSA 125). He again discusses how fear is transformed to pity (as a surrogate for love). He develops at length his choice of "'pride' as the third major motive involved in tragic catharsis," to modify/explain "Aristotle's famous formula . . . 'pity, fear, and like emotions'" (LSA 125).

Of course, there is no specific father-kill in the Toy Stories. Yet, from a child's perspective, there is a type of intimate-kill. When, in Toy Story 2, the cowgirl Jessie is abandoned by Emily, her young owner (children understand: mother), at a (Goodwill) donation center, not killing but "something else of the kind is actually done." Similarly, when Andy's real mother places Wheezy the Penguin in the Yard Sale, we have a type of intimate-kill (children understand: grandchild abandonment). Certainly, when Andy (children understand: father) considers discarding Woody the cowboy because he has found a new favorite toy in Buzz Lightyear, the action serves as a type of intimate-kill. Children experience something similar to this parental abandonment when a new child comes into the home or when there is a divorce. Hence, children are able to identify with the victims. They have consubstantiality with Jessie, Wheezy, and Woody.

The Toy Stories, however, are not exactly tragedies. Disney stories have a tendency to follow a tragic-comic literary form. This formula may be best exemplified by the Christian gospel story. The intimate (Jesus) is abandoned by his human family. He is crucified by humans. Yet, he is resurrected to a new life with his family. Disney uses this formula in many if not most of its films. Sleeping Beauty is in a simulated state of death until she reawakens. Pinocchio dies saving Geppetto and comes back to life as a real boy. Snow White dies from the Queen's poisoned apple, then revives. Baloo the bear appears to die, but revives in The Jungle Book. The Beast appears to die, then becomes a handsome prince in Beauty and the Beast. Similar deaths and rebirths occur for King Triton in the Little Mermaid, Simba's father, Mufasa, in the Lion King, Robin Hood in Disney's version, and Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story. Although the Toy Stories are technically Pixar and Disney productions, they follow the tragic-comic formula with which other Disney films are identified.

Jessie never returns to her first owner, but receives a new "mother," Andy's little sister. Woody (Wheezy's "brother") risks his own life to save Wheezy from the Yard Sale. Wheezy thus returns to the family. The entire family of toys mobilizes to save Woody who has been "kidnapped" in Toy Story 2. Indeed, the two antagonist-stars of the Toy Stories, Woody and Buzz, frequently reciprocate in saving/rescuing each other. All toys are restored to a loving relationship with their "father," Andy. Familial love becomes the resource that saves the day, just as the kiss of true love wakes Sleeping Beauty. Pinocchio's unselfish love saves Geppetto. Beauty's love saves the Beast. This recurring entelechy permeates Disney's tragic-comic formula: True, unselfish love saves. Of course, the Christian gospel message is quite similar. The Disney entelechy owes much to the Jesus entelechy. In the Jungle Book, at the apparent death of Baloo the bear, Disney actually has Bagheera, his loyal panther friend, quote John 15:13: "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

So, what tension is purged in the Toy Story tragedy? Children are not concerned with civic tensions. If, as Burke observes Greek tragedy is cathartically designed to relieve civic tensions, Toy Story tragedy is designed to relieve family tensions. These tensions occur due to selfishness in its various forms. One type of this selfishness is sibling rivalry. Another type is the rivalry among peers in combined families following divorce and remarriage. Yet another type is the tension that exists between child and parent when the child feels abandoned by the parent. In whatever way a child viewing Toy Story interprets the relationship between Woody and Buzz, it is clear that they are both "children" of Andy, and both vie for Andy's affection. After Woody and Buzz respectively risk their lives saving each other, the triumph of unselfish familial love is clear. Andy learns to show love equally to Woody and Buzz. The family tensions between siblings (or between children in combined families) in the young audience are cathartically purged through the first Toy Story tragedy. To a lesser extent, the family tensions between parent and child are cathartically purged through the tragedy of Toy Story.

These family tensions between parent and child are more clearly purged through the tragedy of Toy Story 2. Andy's mother had consigned Wheezy to the Yard Sale because his squeaker was broken. Eventually, after Woody is kidnapped in the process of saving Wheezy, then saved by his sibling toys, Andy's mother finds a new squeaker for Wheezy and restores Wheezy to full health. Emily, Jessie's first "mother," abandons her. Yet, Andy's little sister adopts Jessie and purges those family tensions. Woody envisions being discarded by Andy since his arm is torn. Yet, Andy sews the arm back and continues to cherish the toy cowboy.

What, then, can we say about the development in Toy Story 3, which ends with Woody “giving up” all of his toys to an new, younger owner? It must be based upon a rationale for those times when “adoption” is the course of true love. While Jessie’s abandonment—resulting in adoption by new "mother," Andy's little sister—is presented as a regrettable adoption entelechy, Toy Story 3 presents Woody’s “reasonable” decision to adopt out his “children” as the appropriate decision.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Hidden Mickeyisms 3: Disney and Parent-Child Separation

Among the most common situations (or exigencies) for which Disney offers entelechies is that of parent-child separation. What should children do when they are separated from their parents? Bambi’s mother dies. Tarzan is orphaned at birth and must be raised by animals. Mowgli (from the Jungle Book) is lost by his parents in the Indian jungle at birth and must be raised by animals. Hercules, the son of the Greek Gods Zeus and Hera, loses immortality as an infant and is separated from his parents, abandoned to Earth, and must become a true hero in order to reclaim immortality. In The Lion King, Simba’s father Mufasa dies, and Simba believes he is responsible, so he runs away. In Finding Nemo, Nemo accidentally gets lost from his father. His father pursues him. The Little Mermaid grows up and falls in love with someone from another species; hence, she leaves her home. Pinocchio is enticed by fame and pleasure to run away from Gepetto, but eventually risks his “life” to save his “father.” Snow White runs away from home to avoid being murdered by her stepmother. Toy Story 3 eventually finds Andy giving up his toys for adoption. And, in the most recent film, Rapunzel is abducted at birth and spends her life discovering her true identity. She ultimately finds her way back to her parents.

How do children cope with parent-child separation? Frequently, they rely on the entelechies available to their memories. Disney typically draws plots from classic children’s literature, but modifies the plots/entelechies to reflect a more contemporary set of cultural assumptions (or epideictic topoi), values, and psychological perspectives. Even so, Disney is frequently criticized. The goal of this commentary is not to prescribe changes to the Disney films. They are what they are. The goal is only to analyze the entelechies—to see what type of rhetorical medicine Disney is prescribing for children who may find themselves in one or more of Disney’s parent-child separation scenarios. Some of the implicit rhetorical strength of children's literature lies in the fact that children have fewer entelechies from which to choose than do adults. The Walt Disney Corporation has consistently produced literary entelechies with enormous appeal for children.

When Kenneth Burke describes literature as equipment for living, beginning in Counter-Statement (183) and Attitudes toward History (68), he has in mind some very basic appeals of literature. Calling a specific piece of literature a Symbol, he states:

“The Symbol is perhaps most overwhelming in its effect when the artist’s and the reader’s patterns of experience closely coincide. . . . A Symbol appeals: As the interpretation of a situation . . . By favoring the acceptance of a situation . . . As the corrective of a situation . . . A the exerciser of ‘submerged’ experience . . . [and] As an ‘emancipator.’”

Before a symbol accomplishes the task of interpreting, favoring acceptance, or correcting, however, it begins by naming the situation in which the child finds himself or herself. In Philosophy of Literary Form (300), Burke comments:

“A work like Madame Bovary (or its homely American translation, Babbitt) is the strategic naming of a situation. It singles out a pattern of experience that is sufficiently representative . . . .”

For children who have experienced parent-child separation, one of Disney’s Symbols—Bambi, Tarzan, The Jungle Book, Hercules, The Lion King, Finding Nemo, The Little Mermaid, Pinocchio, Snow White, Toy Story 3, or Tangled, for example—may begin by naming the situation/s in which they find themselves. Once the child has identified his or her personal pattern of experience as being represented by the pattern of experience described in the Disney Symbol, the Symbol appeals as an interpretation of his/her own experience. If the child has lost his or her mother to death, Bambi might favor “the acceptance of” that situation. If a child discovers that s/he was abducted at birth (as in various baby-stealing cases in contemporary society) or even adopted, Tangled might serve as the “corrective of the situation.” Alice in Wonderland or Pinocchio might engage the mind of a child who seeks parent-child separation—the chance to “run away.” Hence, these Symbols might serve as “the exerciser of ‘submerged’ experience.” The Little Mermaid might appeal to some children “as an ‘emancipator,’” suggesting that it is acceptable to voluntarily leave all of the cultural mores of one’s inherited culture.

To illustrate the principles of how entelechy operates within the Symbol, the Toy Stories of Disney will be considered, in-depth, in up-coming commentaries. Kenneth Burke's analytical methods will be illustrated in the analyses.