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What ‘Toy Story 4’ Revealed To Me About My Own Disability

toy story 4

After my first viewing of Toy Story 4, I confronted a lot of the movie’s themes on a mostly surface level. I followed Woody’s journey to its completion, and I reckoned with some of the more basic, obvious lessons the film imparts when it comes to realizing our purpose later in life, reexamining long-held worldviews, and letting go of the past in favor of new possibilities.

But this is Pixar, so there are of course even deeper lessons to confront and maybe even challenge. I came across a noteworthy line of criticism from film critic William Bibbiani, which takes aim at the film’s handling of our main antagonist, Gabby Gabby (voiced by Christina Hendricks).

Warning: spoilers for Toy Story 4 follow. If you have not seen the movie, I recommend you come back after doing so. You will be spoiled on parts of the ending, otherwise.

From Bibbs on Twitter:

Bibbiani brings up an interesting point here about ableism and identity, specifically as it relates to Gabby Gabby. You could argue that his point also concerns Forky, but he’s not a character trying to change himself so others will love him. He simply decides to accept a new role as a toy because he’s already loved for simply being himself.

No, it’s Gabby who has the more complicated turn as a character. She calls herself “defective” right out of the box because her voice box doesn’t work, hence she tries to steal Woody’s, all for the sole aim of gaining the love and affection of Harmony, a child in the antique shop. Ultimately, she succeeds in repairing her voice box after rationally pleading with Woody, who voluntarily gives it to her. But…Harmony still rejects her.

As Bibbs points out:

I jumped into the conversation, as well:

This is an intriguing perspective from Bibbs because ableism is one of the least-recognized downsides for a lot of films, usually because filmmakers don’t understand or think about these implications when telling stories about people with disabilities. By his estimation, Toy Story 4 stumbles in how it unintentionally (at best) sends a message about kids needing to change their flaws in order to be accepted and loved.

At this point in the conversation, I was unconvinced either way. I could see Bibbs’ point, which is one I’ve personally recognized in a lot of other films that handle these ideas carelessly. So I rewatched Toy Story 4 with this criticism in mind, ready to come out with a fresh perspective.

The result? Now, I see Toy Story 4 in a new light. Because it’s saying something surprisingly relevant, at least when it comes to my own disability. Let me explain.

I was born with a genetic hearing disorder. Basically, the bones in my ears have been bad at vibrating sound since I was a baby, so as I’ve gotten older, my hearing in both ears has harshly deteriorated. If I can hear you, I probably have no idea what you’re saying, or I might only catch half the words. It all sounds like a garbled mess to me, and the ringing in my ears doesn’t help.

toy story 4

In a lot of ways, I’m about as “defective” as Gabby Gabby. I’ve had a lot of trouble over the years connecting with people, mainly because I can’t hear them. And few will give me the time of day because they either think I’m ignoring them, not listening, or am just aloof. It’s the kind of disability where people don’t realize you have it unless you explain it. My version of getting a new voice box was getting hearing aids for the first time. They changed everything for me.

So while watching Toy Story 4 the second time, I nearly broke down as Gabby explained this to Woody. She felt like deep down, her identity was a connection based on being herself, or how she feels she’s supposed to be. I was equally blindsided by the moment when Gabby is still rejected by the person she’s yearned to be loved by for years. Without getting too personal, this has happened to me multiple times on a similar level.

Toy Story 4 isn’t a movie about changing yourself for others. It’s a movie about lending validity to what you truly want out of life. If you want to be loved, you deserve to go through whatever it takes to bring your true self to others, using any advantage you can acquire, as long as it doesn’t harm others (Gabby learns this thanks to Forky explaining Woody’s backstory to her). If you want to help people and devote your life to service, that’s OK, too. Woody learns this lesson about it being OK to change your mind about your purpose later in life, rejecting long-held fears of becoming a lost toy.

My disability isn’t a monolith. Not everyone should interpret this movie as a validation of feeling like you need to be “repaired” if you don’t want to be or think you need to be. Woody doesn’t want to change himself in order to become Bonnie’s favorite toy and thus relive the Andy days. He simply moves on to a group of people who love him for him. And losing his own voice box doesn’t make him a lesser toy in anyone’s eyes.

If anyone told me that I shouldn’t have gone through what I did in order to get hearing aids simply because people should just love me for me…well, I’d politely tell that person to mind their own business. Granted, that doesn’t have to be the same response for someone else with a different disability. But that’s the point. The beauty I saw in Toy Story 4 was in its embrace of other worldviews as plausible and worthy, and the fact that not everyone will want the same things you do in life is a hard, but useful lesson to learn.

In the scene where Gabby is eventually accepted by a lost child, they are indeed at least partly connected by the voice box working. But I see this as a wonderful moment, because for the first time, Gabby is heard for who she truly is. Sadly, not everyone can easily fix something like this. Woody can’t force Bonnie to love him like Andy did. Eventually, he stops trying because he knows she’ll be OK without him, and he’ll be OK without her.

I’ve already come across people who find my hearing aids off-putting in some way, even if they try to keep it to themselves. I can’t do anything about that. But with these little devices, I can finally be who I really am around people when I’m not typing away, alone in a room. I can go into a movie theater and stop struggling to understand what the characters are saying. That’s a gift, not me giving something up in order to make other people happy.

All that said, I’m still keeping an eye out for how other people are engaging with this film, for better or worse. A movie can’t be all things to all people, and even the best ones can have messages that need to be analyzed in how they might diversely affect different groups of people. If you had any complicated feelings about Toy Story 4 one way or other, please share in the comments below. You deserve to be heard.


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6 thoughts on “What ‘Toy Story 4’ Revealed To Me About My Own Disability

  1. But I think the belief that disabled people think they have to change to be loved is sadly and unfortunately correct.
    It doesn’t mean it’s right and I don’t think Pixar is saying that’s what they should think but I see it as a comment on not being good enough or “lovable” to society’s standards.

  2. Great thoughts. I was unaware disabilities would be intricately woven into this narrative but I picked up on something rather quickly. It seemed to me Forky had an identity issue which led to self-harm, self degradation, and what might be the equivalent of attempted suicide. This may all sound a bit ludicrous when speaking of a cartoon about toys, but it is Pixar after all.

    By the time the story had reached Gabby Gabby I was watching more closely. All of your aforementioned thoughts were spot on. So I won’t add anything here.

    At the end of the film Gabby Gabby was able to help a little girl overcome by facing the possibility of rejection again. But having “found” her own voice she was the catalyst for helping the little lost girl muster the courage to approach a grown up for help.

    Fantastic film. Pixar did it again. I’m not surprised by that but I was actually a little disappointed when I saw there would be a 4th installment. I thought 3 was great closure, but this was what needed to be said.

  3. You have an interesting take on this.

    I am a speech-language pathologist who works with kids with disabilities (Down Syndrome, kids on the autism spectrum, cerebral palsy, etc), so my initial response to the revelation that Gabby Gabby’s ‘defect’ was congenital was concern for what this was saying. Gabby wasn’t just pursuing a ‘fix’ for her deficit. She was actively trying to steal from and potentially harm another toy for that purpose. Considering the confusion and fear element associated with members of the public who aren’t familiar with people with disabilities I am concerned that the unintended message will just support that fear in some less introspective audience members.

    While I actively work with kids to improve their voices, speech, and overall communication skills and praise them when they make progress, the idea that they aren’t loved both before and after just doesn’t compute for me. I care for them whether they make progress or not. That said, we’re all human, and the kids who display negative or aggressive behaviors (like Gabby does in the movie) need to be guided toward better strategies. Yes, I understand their frustrations, but that doesn’t mean those aggressive behaviors are appropriate.

    I’ve seen some suggestions of having her discard the voice device after her initial rejection and then letting the girl at the carnival have a hearing impairment, but I’m not sure that’s a great solution either. I would never discourage a person from pursuing a personal communication device or cochlear implant or any other approach meant to habilitate in a way they find desirable, but it’s also very very important not to send the signal that they are somehow “lesser” in the meantime. I’m also not sure the voice device works as a real life correlate in the context of the movie, since Gabby is fully capable of speaking to other toys.

    Ever since I saw the movie I have been very interested to hear how other people reacted to this part of it. Thanks for your article!

  4. I’ve been reading alot of articles to try to come acceptance with the ending.. I think your article is the only one which makes me reconsider on not hating the entire movie. But I still hate the ending…

    My feelings are this.
    Buzz and woody are always the last frame in every end of toy story, but not in toy story 4. I felt that the ending could’ve been better developed to prepare woody and buzz fans on the shock. Maybe with woody asking buzz does it make him a bad person for changing his principles (what matters is being there for your kid.)or him asking buzz.. Have you ever got tired of being just a toy.
    just leaving it at ‘Bonnie will be OK’ wasn’t enough for me.

  5. I have cochlear implants…have had them since I was a baby. My parents always said to me” It is not a disability” And to me, it’s not. There was also a child with a cochlear implant but only for a second. More of him, PLEASE!

  6. I thought that Gabby Gabby doll is a sweetheart. I’m an adult with autism and I thought Gabby Gabby made this whole movie very special. If I was in that movie, I fantasizd myself walking up to Gabby Gabby and giving her a kiss on her hand. As sweet as Gabby Gabby turned out to be. I know Gabby Gabby would like that. Instead of doing another sequel to TOY STORY 4. They should do a movie about Gabby Gabby. A story about the little girl who finds Gabby Gabby and she brings Gabby Gabby home and her brother with special needs falls in love with Gabby Gabby. That’s just an idea. Maybe Pixar could title the movie: GABBY GABBY instead of TOY STORY 5 if they ever decide to do it. I just thought of that idea. I seriously don’t think that would happen though. Maybe I could write to Pixar and tell them about that. But I don’t think I’ll tell them that I wanted to kiss Gabby Gabby’s hand. I think I better leave that part out.

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