Monday, August 25, 2014

Pixar and Personhood

I don't think it's a secret that media has a tremendous impact on our view of reality. The medium is the message all entertainment contains messages both overt and covert. In many ways, the most impactful messages are the ones the story assumes about the world, not the messages that subtly embellish a clever plot.  Even shows about nothing are about something. 

I recently read an interesting article over at Discover Magazine called "The Hidden Message in Pixars' Films." The author makes an interesting case that Pixar's movies are changing the way the next generation thinks about what it means to be a person - or even what it means to be human:

Popular culture is often dismissed as empty “popcorn” fare. Animated films find themselves doubly-dismissed as “for the kids” and therefore nothing to take too seriously. Pixar has shattered those expectations by producing commercially successful cinematic art about the fishes in our fish tanks and the bugs in our backyards. Pixar films contain a complex, nuanced, philosophical and political essence that, when viewed across the company’s complete corpus, begins to emerge with some clarity. Buried within that constant  and complex goodness is a hidden message...

What if I told you they were preparing us for the future? What if I told you Pixar’s films will affect how we define the rights of millions, perhaps billions, in the coming century? Only by analyzing the collection as a whole can we see the subliminal concept being drilled into our collective mind...

An entire generation has been reared with the subconscious seeds of these ideas planted down deep. As history moves forward and technology with it, these issues will no longer be the imaginings of films and fiction, but of politics and policy. But Pixar has settled the personhood debate before it arrives. By watching our favorite films, we have been taught that being human is not the same as being a person. We have been shown that new persons and forms of personhood can come from anywhere….

Andrew Fletcher, a Scottish writer and politician, is credited with saying, "I said I knew a very wise man [who]... believed if a man were permitted to make all the ballads he need not care who should make the laws of a nation, and we find that most of the ancient legislators thought that they could not well reform the manners of any city without the help of a lyric, and sometimes of a dramatic poet."And a good script writer. 

Please don't misunderstand - I like Pixar's films. The Toy Story series is fantastic; Up starts with some of the most heart-wrenching and beautiful 10 minutes you can find in film; Finding Nemo never gets old; The Incredibles was both entertaining and thoughtful; and Brave - okay, I could have done without Brave.  In general, I think Pixar films have some of the best overtly good messages in the industry.

I'm not even sure I agree with this article's final conclusions. The author may be giving Pixar more power than it's due. Nonetheless, it's a good reminder that those who tell our most winsome and engaging cultural stories  - books, movies, music - are settling our deepest debates in ways we often don't fully appreciate. 


  1. "By watching our favorite films, we have been taught that being human is not the same as being a person. We have been shown that new persons and forms of personhood can come from anywhere..."

    I'll be honest, I'm not sure this is even a bad thing. Angels are people and not human. There may (though I sincerely doubt it) be aliens somewhere who are sentient and have personhood. Personhood therefore may indeed "come from anywhere."

    Now the notion that to be human is to be a person seems correct, assuming the definition of "human" being used is a human being and not merely having human DNA (which our skin flaking off would have). But we must be careful not to say person = human, because the range of personhood is broader.

  2. Well said, J.W. I don't have a problem with Pixar embedding a worldview in their movies. Everyone who tells a story does the same thing. The article was just a good reminder that my life will probably follow that which captures my imagination, often in ways I don't fully appreciate.