Is it right to complain about lack of diversity in Toy Story 4? Parents respond
Earlier this year I saw Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse with Roma, which was great. Alongside saying how enjoyable the film is, I penned a piece remarking how refreshing it is to see a multicultural hero on the screen in the form of Miles Morales, Peter Parker’s successor and protégé.
With a Puerto Rican mother and African American father, Miles has a biracial background. So speaking as a mixed race man with a dual-heritage daughter, I personally felt this was a big step forward in terms of cultural representation, rather than rebooting yet another Peter Parker story and said as much in the post I wrote.
Someone felt the need to comment on my write-up to say: “Come on Zen, you’re better than this pandering.”
Who precisely was I pandering to? Myself? These were my thoughts. Pandering suggests my readership craves cultural diversity and I was simply trying to feed into that for the sake of it, which obviously isn’t the case. My audience comprises parents. And the post was simply that, my thoughts as a dad, a reflection on growing up without diversity on screen and how important a development it is that will be a different story for Roma. But, you know, trolls will be trolls.
Still, in terms of cultural representation in animated films, the topic resurfaced recently with the release of Toy Story 4. I saw it with Roma last weekend when it was released and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Although Toy Story 3 seemed like the perfect way to end the franchise and I had my doubts about the necessity of a fourth based on the trailer, I can safely say that it doesn’t disappoint.
With old characters like Woody and Buzz, Bo Peep as she’s never been seen before and newcomer Forky, there’s more than enough nostalgia included within to engage old fans while also revitalising it without forgetting where it came from, which means plenty of heartfelt messages about friendship and fitting in.
However, a film critic lambasted the Disney Pixar production as she said: “Seriously, it’s 2019! What on Earth are Disney doing having a film that has no leads that are black characters?” She also complained that the black actors who provided voices for the film, Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, were playing plush characters with green and yellow fur. “How can they possibly think that it’s alright now?” Maybe because the characters they’re playing are a stuffed chick and bunny? What should the characters they’re voicing look like exactly?
On the back of the racial-themed review-based rant, one mother of three and lawyer made her way onto Good Morning Britain declaring how let down she was that Toy Story 4 missed an opportunity to showcase some cultural diversity. “Entertainment must always have a moralistic value,” insisted Shola Mos-Shogbamimu. She claimed that with children being taught about sex education and LGBT in schools “because it’s the right thing to do,” she went on to say “Why in God’s name would you expect less from cartoon characters which are meant to imbibe human characteristics for a reason?”
Perhaps because they’re cartoon characters that have long been established? Countering her argument, fellow mum and journalist Afua Adom said: “I think people have missed the point of Toy Story, right. It’s a story about toys.” She also insisted the real thing we should be focusing on, if anything, is live-action films where just a fifth of lead actors are of colour and only a third are women.
Here’s the video:
I disagree with the diversity argument in this case and the thought didn’t once cross my mind as an issue. The first Toy Story was released in 1995, at which time there wasn’t nearly as much diversity in the entertainment world as there is now. So it stands to reason that the franchise, which already has established characters, won’t suddenly shoehorn in characters of different nationalities for the sake of it. Oh, and one more thing – the characters are all, for the most part, toys.
And in fairness to Disney and Pixar, they’ve come on massively from the primarily Caucasian character base their catalogue used to revolve around. You need only look to Moana and Coco to see they’ve been diversifying to represent different cultures. Aladdin has just been adapted as a live-action film, while Mulan is also receiving the same treatment as we speak.
Of course, I don’t speak for the entire black community. So I asked my friend Rob (this_father_life on Instagram) for his thoughts. “I understand and wholly believe that kids have to see themselves represented but we are in a dangerous space if everyone wants to be represented in every single thing because that’s not realistic either,” he says. “There are massive strides in many areas to tackle diversity and we definitely need to keep the conversation going but I’m not sure Toy Story is the vehicle for that.”
I also picked the brains of my friend Roze (dear.younger.self on Instagram – also the woman who grilled me on her podcast) to see where she stood on the debate, having seen Toy Story 4 with four of her five children. “Seeing this classic and beloved sequel that has blossomed over 20 years hit the humour button and brought to life the familiar senses of the characters,” she starts. “All those toys, their individual personalities, their unique skill sets and shared love for being played with by children was revived and back into the forefront of my children’s minds.”
Roze goes on to detail how the addition of Forky was welcomed by her and the youngsters, as was the character development of Woody. So in terms of the messaging and moral of the story, which Shola was apparently so determined to overlook, in Roze’s view, the lesson from the film is that “Individual happiness is important and all the toys come to an understanding that doing what’s best for you is where true joy lies,” she says. Couldn’t have put it better myself. So at which point is race and diversity required here? The lesson revolves around emotions and personal journeys, which we all need to face regardless of our background.
So did Roze or her children, as a mixed race family, think about the ethnicities of the characters on screen? “There was no point where my kids noticed Bo Peep is still white or that Mr and Mrs Potato Head are still brown and still in a traditional heterosexual relationship – nope, never occurred to them,” she says. “I also didn’t try to highlight it or project what my opinion of how the world is falling behind in diversity and representation. Why? Because although I truly believe reflective representation is important, especially to the next generation, I’m not convinced every piece of entertainment content must meet some unidentified mathematical equation that then qualifies it as representative.”
Roze agrees absolutely that representation on film is an issue but with Key and Peele as well as Asian actress Ally Maki among the voices, she questions why this isn’t satisfactory for some. “How much representation is enough?” she ponders. “Should Bo Peep – who was feministic AF – have changed her character and magically turn Cherokee Indian? Should Bo Peep and Woody be in an open relationship? All I’m trying to say is sometimes our levels of expectation on entertainment can be militaristic and unfair.”
To that end, this brings us back to the point about the film being a story for children, for families, to enjoy. Not some box-ticking exercise to suddenly score diversity points. “Maybe that’s why being a child is so beautiful and innocent, they often come into this world and grow up without all the hang-ups, hurts and biases that us adults try to remind them of,” says Roze. “I truly believe our society is progressing not regressing.”