This article contains spoilers for Toy Story 4.
Toy Story might well be the only animated franchise in which each sequel surpasses the original film. Even Pixar agnostics like me, who tire of the studio’s insistence that childhood is magical and growing up is a tragedy, must admit that the second and third installments of the series are exceptional portraits of existential anxieties about the end of innocence and play. Toy Story 4 doesn’t quite reach the twin summits of its immediate predecessors, but it, too, takes the franchise to wonderful new places. Pixar is betting that a new character, the unwilling toy Forky—a deliberately ugly spork with mismatched googly eyes that feels like the studio parodying its own MO of endowing inanimate objects with emotions and baby-deer peepers—will be the film’s breakout star. But it’s an older character—Bo Peep, a ceramic shepherdess in a yearslong flirtation with Sheriff Woody—who’s the film’s greatest delight and most original creation. Voiced by Annie Potts and finally developed into her own person, Bo invigorates the Toy Story franchise by being the rare female character expanded in a sequel whose journey doesn’t feel secondary.
Franchise filmmaking has recently diversified by a series of small degrees, but this diversification has followed a depressing formula. If a movie about a (white) man or two is a hit, studios generally repeat the plot, or reboot the premise, with female characters (or characters of color). Sometimes the method works. Charlize Theron’s Furiosa and her righteous feminist revolt gave Mad Max: Fury Road an unexpected resonance, and The Last Jedi’s female characters helped deepen our understanding of the Resistance while finally bringing gender balance to the Force. But the past few years have been littered with sequels, reboots, and spinoffs that made women wait their turn: three male-dominated DC movies before Wonder Woman, 21 male-dominated Marvel movies before Captain Marvel, Mr. Incredible’s work-life issues before Elastigirl’s, 11 men robbing a casino before eight women get to loot the Met.
There’s certainly some merit to the argument that greater inclusion in Hollywood’s most widely distributed stories (i.e., its major franchises) is a step in the right direction. But the continual relegation of stories about girls and women to sequels, spinoffs, and reboots—films that are almost by definition derivative, ancillary, and inessential—can’t help but cement our cultural bias that male narratives are primary and female narratives supplementary. Moreover, such sequels and reboots imply that female characters are only worth paying attention to so long as they are in relation to boys and men, by either providing a high contrast to or being fundamentally interchangeable with male characters in traditionally male situations.
Toy Story 4 has these kinds of gender-flipped characters, too. Woody, who watched his beloved owner Andy grow up, leave for college, and give away his toys, finds himself, like the audience, unable to become emotionally invested in Bonnie, his new owner, but more accurately, the boy’s replacement. Gabby Gabby, the franchise’s first female villain, fares much better than Bonnie, thanks to a disturbingly placid performance by Christina Hendricks. But ultimately, she, too, is just a warped-mirror version of Woody—a doll that’ll do anything to be held and cherished, with the determination and charisma to command the toys around her to carry out her wishes.
Bo began the franchise as a run-of-the-mill trophy for male cinematic heroism: a blond, blue-eyed, delicate, and conventionally beautiful female who existed to be rescued and to reward Woody for his heroic acts with chaste kisses. But in Toy Story 4, she gets a welcome personality transplant, not to mention a makeover to match. (Who knew a shepherd’s hook could be such a versatile weapon?) This fourth chapter, in contrast to the second and third, posits that toys can evade the tragedy of obsolescence, and that a domesticated lifestyle of emotional dependence on a child’s whims is essentially a gilded cage. And it’s Bo who expresses this idea most clearly. After some years as an unwanted product in an antique store, she escapes to become a “lost” toy free of human attachments—and is transformed into the person she was seemingly always meant to be. Once the Smurfette of Andy’s room—the only girl character in a village of men who was only there to do stereotypically feminine things—she founded her own crew of misfit toys, sought to give them a full life, and in the process became far braver and worldlier than Woody. In the end, he needs her far more than she needs him. The sounds of her ceramic feet running on concrete underscores her courage and independence, as does her shrugging nonchalance when her arm falls off. Her current existence is very possibly precarious, but it’s hers to lead.
So refreshing is her new lease on life that, when Woody is forced to choose once more between her and his old kid-centric life—which was, as the prologue reminds us, the only thing that mattered to him—it’s a bit of a shame Bo ends up with such a neurotic prig. Her role in Toy Story 4 is to show Woody that there’s happiness to be found in a post-Andy world, but you also get the sense throughout that she’d have been just as happy if they’d never reunited and she’d dedicated the rest of her days to rescuing other discarded toys from hopelessness. I suppose there’s always Toy Story 5.