Let’s face it, most fan theories suck.
It’s fun in our heads to come up with a lot of ideas about the universes we love so much. I’d love to imagine Finn and Poe from The Force Awakens having a gay relationship while Rey does her own thing.
Maybe she even does solo-poly or some shit.
But I don’t dedicate entire blogs to it. I mean…I could.
…But I don’t!
Sadly, we don’t get the same courtesy from James Douglas who wrote an article back in 2015 (credit to Joel Schlosberg for finding it!) called The Pixar Theory of Labor. At first I was happy it wasn’t such a long article because I thought that might make it easier for me to read and I’d have less things to analyze, etc.
So basically I was looking at it from a slacker perspective.
Shocking, I know.
Well, it ended up being the case that the length of this article is its biggest downfall.
It’s simply too short to really make its case that the entire Pixar universe is unified by a common theme of glorifying work at the expense of anything else. And some of its examples are just laughably short. Brave is a pro-work movie because the daughter has to work out issues with her parents? And because to do that she has to prove her independence?
Look, just because someone has to do something doesn’t make it work. Just because characters are put into roles or are put on quests or whatever else doesn’t mean the movie is about work. More generally, the definition that Douglas is working here at times jumps from one place to another.
First a movie is about work because it glorifies competition through “taking it easy” (more on this later, this is actually one of the better definitions for the record), another is because it relies on employees trying to be good at their jobs, another is because a character has issues taking it easy during retirement, etc.
The last example is possibly the most insulting example, the movie being discussed there is Up.
Now to be clear, I am all biased as all get out. I cried three times during Up and I would sure as hell watch it again. I quote Dug, the talking dog in the movie, who says, “Hello, I have just met you and aI love you!” all the fucking time.
So yeah, I’ve got some bones (no pun intended) to pick.
Really, to reduce the movie to how “even elderly widowers must find a new vocation” is overly-simplistic to say the least.
Elle, Carl’s wife tells him to go on a “new adventure” not to “go back to work” and taking up a vocation shouldn’t be confused with work either. Having a new hobby or something that animates your life isn’t necessarily the same thing as work. Hell, it’s often the opposite of whatever you happen to be doing for a living.
And this…this argument is just ridiculous:
In Finding Nemo and Brave, Pixar even managed to render family dysfunction as something more like a Human Resources issue. Both films represent an emotional crisis between parent and child as a managerial problem: Wayward child Nemo wants to venture out into the Great Barrier Reef, but anxious father Marlin wants to keep him at home; wayward teen Merida want to venture out into the moors of Scotland, but strict mother Elinor wants to keep her in the castle.
Each conflict is resolved when the parent witnesses their child’s independent capabilities outside of the domestic sphere. Is there anything about these stories that couldn’t have been short cut by handing both parents this Business Insider article on the “8 Habits of Highly Effective Google Managers”? (“Empower your team and don’t micromanage.”)
Well of course a Business Inside article could fit snugly into a Pixar film. It could fit snugly within almost any film because those kinds of lists/clickbait articles often can! And that corporate empowerment quote could as well. That’s what it’s supposed to do. Corporate speak is often newspeak and doesn’t have to necessarily relate to anything in particular. Which leads for the precision of it to be, of course, determined in large part by those in charge.
So Douglas is just giving even more power to the concept of work here. He’s giving the bosses what they want in some sort of fan-theory enabled attempt to give Pixar the finger. And it just doesn’t work in most of the places.
There’s a few places where Douglas absolutely nails it.
And these moments, while few and far between, are the moments that really make the article for me.
Here’s one of them:
As do other techgiants (and the less so), Pixar positions working at the company as something more like a lifestyle choice than mere employment, with a corporate environment that houses a constellation of “perks” geared to ensure maximum employee satisfaction.
On a visit to the Emeryville campus for a company profile for the New Yorker, Anthony Lane describes a weights room, cardio room, massage room, breathing room, free cereal bar, and two secret cubby holes, Lucky 7 and the Love Lounge, which are accessible through a passage concealed by a bookcase and a mini door that visitors must crawl through, respectively.
Headquarters also house Pixar University, where employees can take courses in filmmaking and other skills.“Why are we teaching filmmaking to accountants?” is the rhetorical question former Pixar University head Randy Nelson poses to Lane. “[I]f you treat accountants like accountants, they’re going to act like accountants.” Accountants must not act like accountants; Pixar expects its employees to not merely deliver on the jobs they have been contracted for, but also to provide something more.
This excess, epitomized as the complete entanglement of an individual’s private life with their employment, is at the core of Pixar’s conceptualization of what it is to be a person: In every Pixar film, the protagonist’s arc is oriented toward the ultimate goal of being an efficient, productive worker—whether employment has been thematized as being a father, princess, robot janitor, toy, ant colonist, harvester of screams, adventurer in South America, or otherwise.
For Pixar, to live is to work.
Cars is a film about an ambitious racecar who is forced to chill out and not be so competitive, except he really just learns that chilling out and not being so competitive is the key to being an even better competitor.
This is coming from a workplace culture that, under the guise of compassion, has erased the distinction between free time and labor time, and expects their employees not to notice that they working that much harder. After all, free cereal! That means you can start work early enough for breakfast.
In his New Yorker piece, Lane talks with voice actor John Ratzenberger, who remarks on the company’s “get up and go to work” ethos. “They really should be running Western civilization,” Ratzenberger says, a sentiment that scans as amusing at first and then sort of sinister.
This nails so many things on the head, it’s hard to know where to start.
So let’s start from the beginning.
When I was five…wait, wrong place…
This conflation of work with lifestyle is something I’ve touched on before with Google. Google wants to make you feel like your job is just a sort of play. There’s nothing of humongous consequence going on. Capitalism is fine. It’s perky and fun and your boss wants you to have fun too! Don’t worry about the taxes that are coming out of your paycheck, stolen from you. Don’t worry about the imbalances of power that exist at work whether your boss extends casual Fridays to Mondays. Don’t worry about the cabal of co-workers who are looking to report you for the least infraction possible, just so they can get themselves up the hierarchy and get more for themselves.
Don’t mind any of that! Why? Because work is fun!
And it’s so fun that you should stay here and study, work out, train to become a part of the company you may never even get the chance to. Accountants should study film! Filmography folks should study accounting! …Actually I doubt that works both ways, but let’s just give Pixar the benefit of the doubt just for the fun of it.
The point is, there’s no room fro a life outside of work for these companies. Whether they’re big tech companies or some of the startups who try to make work as “fun” as possible. And let me be clear, I’m not against whatever you do in your life for money to be a little fun. But it should be fun that’s created for yourself and by yourself.
Having “fun” dictated from the top down is fun that’s not actually intended to make people happier but instead just more productive. What the bosses are doing is replacing their sense of happiness with a sense of purpose. And it doesn’t really matter that the purpose is based on something the workers wouldn’t actually rather doing.
Here’s the next part in which Douglas knocks it out of the park:
With Inside Out, Pixar offers audiences the closest thing yet to a real world version of the stresses that accompany their protagonists’ fixation on work. Riley’s dad uproots his family from a comfortable middle-class existence in Minnesota and moves them to San Francisco for his startup, because that’s where the industry is.
While there, he spends little time with his family, but is constantly running business on his phone, or heading off on errands. Riley is isolated from her friends, and has difficulty pursuing her normal physical activities. Meanwhile, the family’s possessions have been delayed by a wayward moving company. Although he causes all this, and at no small cost to his daughter’s mental health, Riley’s dad is not depicted as a villain.
He loves his family, they love him, and together they work through the deprivations caused by the move. The narrative does nothing to condemn this state of affairs; indeed, it is Riley’s burden to accept them.
Inside Out suggests that accommodating the pressures of capitalism is simply part of growing up.
Now, I don’t know if I agree with his conclusion but I like the rest of the argument. Ya know, in part because it’s an actually fleshed out argument and not a one-liner about a near-universally loved film like Up.
Regardless I did like Inside Out but this point still resonated with me. Did the mother and father ever consider the effects it would have on their daughter? She clearly didn’t get much of a say but why? She lost her friends, her familiar surroundings, her favorite spots to be, her entire existence was changed. I mean, for a company that markets their films to kids it does seem awfully anti-youth to have a move built at its very foundation on not taking their emotions, feelings or perspectives important when it comes down to the big decisions in life that impact the rest of theirs.
It’s even more ironic that this is a film dedicated to taking the emotions of not just children but people as well. It offers a chance for us to appreciate sadness as well as happiness and learn that sadness can be its own sort of joy. It can help us breathe a little easier and live a little more and love longer. Either for ourselves, for others, both or more.
But Inside Out is actually foundationally built on treating someone’s emotions very non-seriously: Riley’s!
And so I actually see the film, from the thread that Douglas is coming at as not only reverberating within pro-work lines (we must sacrifice everything to work, our children’s happiness even!) but also being against youth empowerment in some way. After all, Riley’s thoughts or feelings are never really considered. She’s just said to be “dealing” with the move and “adjusting poorly” and there’s never a serious conversation about how she felt about all of this shown.
And of course, it if it had been shown it would have been a comedy scene. We all know it would have. A child challenging parents authority on such a “high-minded” topic such a geographic repositionining? How could they even have thoughts on that! How could a child ever have anything productive or useful when it has to come to things that involve personal finances, or the changing of locations or anything that the adults have to discuss?
But of course, kids are people too.
This shouldn’t be a goddamn radical statement but it is.
And it’s time society starts treating children like they actually matter. Like they’re often more interesting than adults (and they are). They have so much capacity for love, creativity and energy and we squander all of this when we put them in situations where their voices are unilaterally dismissed because “the adults are talking right now”.
…Sorry, where was I?
Right, so Inside Out is an excellent movie all of that aside. If you can push aside the foundational issues of having Riley’s positions on these matters consistently disregarded then the movie is delightful. And of course I’m sure there were big financial decisions to be made and it wasn’t exactly a situation her parents took lightly.
Still, in the end we must have the tired father who never spends time with his family.
The family who hardly gets a say in what the father wants for the family.
And a company gets to promote itself as forward-thinking in certain areas (mental illness, emotions, etc.) while never owning up to their very conservative (or standard) positions on things like work and youth empowerment.
But I dunno, most fan theories are shit, right?
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