male gaze alert: ‘Toy Story 3’ short “Day and Night”

Anyone who’s seen Toy Story 3 knows that it opens — as Pixar films typically do — with a delightful animated short film. This one is called “Day and Night,” and it’s a personification of, unsurprisingly, “day” and “night” as vaguely human-shaped blobs moving about the natural world. Day, for instance, wakes up in the morning and takes a deep breath, and we see that as wind blowing through trees. It’s pretty earthy (no pun intended): As Day has a morning pee, we see and hear a rushing brook. The juxtapositions of nature and what we would consider human behavior is surprising and amusing and unexpected…

Until there comes a moment when Day gets all wound up at the sight of a girl in a bikini sunbathing (it being a bright sunny day and all: this is the kind of thing Day might expect to see). And then Night has to horn in on Day so Night can see the girl, too (because from Night’s perspective, the girl is gone, as she would be, since the sun is gone too). It took me aback and took me out of the film. I thought: “What?! Night and Day are male? What kind of sense does that make? How do Day and Night have gender?” And the maleness — and not just the maless but the horndogness — of Day and Night become a running joke through the rest of the short.
Now, I get it. I get that this is riff on the whole Tex Avery thing (as PaulW noted in the comments following my review of TS3), the bulging eyes and ayooga as some sort of parody of sexuality. But, you know: Tex Avery was working in the 1940s. Have our ideas about sexuality not moved on at all in more than half a century?

They haven’t, in fact. Why the personifications of Day and Night had to exhibit any kind of sexual response is a bit of a mystery to me, but if this is what the Pixar animators wanted to do, this was the only cartoon shorthand they had in their box of tricks. Day could have come across a cute buff guy sunning himself and gone crazy at the sight… except that couldn’t happen, because that would have been “gay,” because the default gaze in absolutely everything that we are fed in our culture is male. It would simply never occur to a viewer — or at least to the men who create the vast majority of our entertainment and other media products — to assume that the default gaze could be female. So while women are forced to watch a cartoon such as “Day and Night” and are expected to be able to accept an amorphous blob as male and sexually attracted to a cute woman — and so, by extension, that we the viewer, male or female, should understand the shorthand for “sexy” — male viewers are never asked to do the converse. Anything presented to an audience is assumed to be from a male perspective, so looking at an attractive man must be ”gay.” What else could it possibly be?

Think about what constitutes cartoon shorthand for “sexy”: it’s all about what men think is sexy in women. Curves. Boobs. Long legs. Long eyelashes. Long hair. That’s not shorthand for “what straight men find sexy in women” — it’s shorthand for “sexy,” full stop. In fact, I’m sure that if there had been any notion in the minds of the Pixar animators — be they male or female, gay or straight — that perhaps Day and Night could have been female, the amorphous blobs meant to represent them wouldn’t have been amorphous: they would have been hourglass shaped and had long eyelashes, at a minimum. The “male” amorphous blobs are truly amorphous, however: they don’t have cartoonishly exaggerated pecs, or beards, or giant penises, or any of the outward sexual characteristics of men. They don’t need to, because our culture trains us to see anything as, by default, male.

I’m not blaming the Pixar animators for working with what they had to work with. I still think “Day and Night” is a lovely little film. But I do think we need to point out these perceived notions — and how unjustifiable they really are — when we see them. It’s the first step toward moving away from them.

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