A post by James Douglas July 15, 2015 on The Awl website last week titled ‘The Pixar Theory of Labor’ (link) made some interesting connections between the ethos of Pixar movies (Toy Story, Wall-E, Brave, Monsters Inc., and the new Inside Out, for example) and a productivist culture. What was really interesting for me reading this post though, was how much Pixar’s movie motives are shared by physiotherapists.
Douglas’s thesis (and it’s well worth reading the whole piece because it’s very funny as well as being very insightful), is that Pixar trades on characters that are striving to achieve;
Pixar has created a stable of films for children that is founded on narratives of self-actualization—of characters branching out, embracing freedom, hitting personal goals, and living their best lives. But this self-actualization is almost exclusively expressed in terms of labor, resulting in a filmography that consistently conflates individual flourishing with the embrace of unremitting work.
Nothing wrong with that you might say. But Pixar’s stories almost fetishize work and employment as the principal measure of human worth;
Is there any other production house operating today that is more obsessed with narratives of the workplace and employment? The basic Pixar story is that of an individual seeking to establish, refine, or preserve their function as an instrument within a system of labor. The only way Pixar is able to conceptualize a protagonist is to assign them a job (or a conspicuous lack of one) and arrange the mechanisms of plot to ensure that they fulfill that job.
Douglas gives ample evidence of this in the narratives from all Pixar movies. What is interesting about this argument is how much Pixar pushes ‘how bad retirement is, and how awful it is to be made redundant.’
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.
And here is where Pixar’s ethos comes closest to a rehabilitation philosophy so valued by physiotherapists. Death and obsolescence for Pixar are played out through almost every one of their movies as a problem to be overcome. As in therapy, those who cannot work must be brought back to normal so that they remain a functioning member of society (or at least not a drain on resources);
Pixar conceptualizes death not as the end of existence per se, but as the state of becoming waste. Waste does not work. Waste does not have a function. Waste is obsolete. Waste is undifferentiated. For Pixar, the model individual represents usefulness in their own unique way. A virtuous accountant can’t just be like all the other accountants—they have to be their own special kind, they have to be the lead in their own story.
At its bottom, this is the logic of pure capitalism. In an economy structured around limitless growth, dynamism must become the natural state of things. Idle capital is unproductive capital and an unproductive worker is a waste of resources. The virtuous citizen cannot only consume but must produce, an imperative that finds its current (and particularly American) incarnation in the entrepreneur, the boot-strapper, the rags-to-riches hero, who is too busy pulling themselves up by their laces to notice that there’s no top to reach. The natural and profitable ideological by-product of this fixation is an abhorrence of collectivism—and therefore organized labor. To be collective, to be one among many, is to no longer be a special individual producer, which is its own kind of death. This is why Toy Story 2 abhors the idea of Woody becoming part of a box set.
For us, disability, deviation from the norm, difference, luxurious idleness, non-compliance, abnormality, less than optimal health, a lack of personal responsibility for one’s own conduct, bad habits (smoking, drinking), being out of shape, obese or unfit, are all expressions of waste that must be rehabilitated.
Whilst it would be churlish to suggest that physiotherapists should not strive to help people return to ‘normal’ (even if we could agree what that meant), it would be nice to think that physiotherapists recognised that their work was deeply rooted in capitalist notions of productivity and value, and recognised that sometimes these things are privileged over such notions as patient-centred care, which is what we like to think our audience comes to see.