The Trouble With 'Toy Story 4' and Its Disability Narrative

Toy Story 4-little girl-Publicity Still-H 2019
Walt Disney Pictures
Gabby Gabby is a charming villain, but she continues a trend of disabled characters seeking to "fix" themselves.

[This story contains spoilers for Toy Story 4.]

The Toy Story franchise has never been about disability, yet as a disabled film critic who writes about the topic regularly, I've found the Pixar series has always dabbled in that arena in some way. Plot devices such as Buzz Lightyear’s broken arm in the 1995 original film to Lotso Huggin Bear’s limp in Toy Story 3 (2010) have opened the series up to questions of disabled representation. The same can be said for the fourth installment, which contains a plotline that continues a disturbing trend in disabled narratives in cinema.

Toy Story 4 sees Woody (Tom Hanks) and the gang going through a carnival in a city called Great Basin, where they reconnect with old friends, like Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and make new ones along the way. Woody’s main antagonist in the film is a doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks). Created in the 1950s, Gabby Gabby has been living in a local antique shop hoping that the store owner’s granddaughter, Harmony, will notice her. Gabby believes Harmony won’t ever love her because she’s been “defective” since her creation, with a voicebox that doesn’t throw out quippy catchphrases. When Gabby Gabby meets Woody, himself a toy from the '50s with a voicebox that still works, Gabby becomes determined to take what she needs from the toy cowboy.

Toy Story 4, Shazam! and a number of this year's big films have had characters with disabilities in them, but they haven’t explicitly been about disability in general. Is this indicative of Hollywood’s changing mores regarding disabled representation? Is the industry moving away from treacly stories about overcoming disability and finally letting characters exist who happen to have disabilities? Yes and no. Movies don’t have to be about something to be coded in a certain way, and with disability so often ignored in cinema, disabled audiences notice ableist coding. Such is the case with Gabby Gabby’s character.

Despite being a delightfully charming villain, Gabby Gabby is one of several villains this year whose reaction to disability is to fix it by any means necessary. She perceives herself as being unworthy of love, specifically Harmony’s love, because her voicebox doesn’t work. And because she has been defective since her inception, it’s furthered her isolation within the antique shop. For her, the only solution is to replace the parts of her that are broken by taking them, through force if necessary, from a healthier (or workable) toy. Body swapping has been a common horror trope for decades when it comes to disabled representation and coding, seen in early horror movies (such as 1942's The Ghost of Frankenstein and 1962's The Brain That Wouldn't Die) from which Toy Story 4 seems to have taken its inspiration. But in this case, the resolution ends up doing more harm than good.

Toy Story 4 brings up this concept of “what constitutes perfection,” a trope that’s popped up already in two other features this year. In Shazam!, sidekick Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a young disabled boy who, upon receiving superpowers, is no longer disabled. As the film’s narrative lays out, the powers allow an individual to reach their “full potential,” which apparently means physically and aesthetically perfect. The same technique pops up in Detective Pikachu, wherein villain Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy), upset with being in a wheelchair, has plans to fix himself, and humanity alongside him, by placing them in the bodies of a better species, the Pokemon. These issues are problematic as they rely on the idea that every person with a disability has one goal: to fix what is perceived by society (and the character) as a problem.

In both Shazam! and Detective Pikachu, it’s important to note that both characters are male, and Pikachu's Howard Clifford apparently became disabled later in life. For them it’s presented as having experienced life as able and thus being struck down by a terrible lot in life they must change.

Gabby Gabby is different in this respect, being a female (a rarity in disabled narratives) who mentions she’s been defective since she was created. She has lived this way her entire life and really her isolation is self-created. She’s aware of how society would treat a broken toy and avoids that. Woody ends up giving Gabby Gabby what she needs, but upon finally having her interaction with Harmony, it backfires. Harmony still doesn’t want Gabby Gabby, despite what the doll has done to apparently fix herself and make herself perfect. Gabby Gabby’s problems, unlike the goals in Detective Pikachu and Shazaam, are firmly rooted in her own identity. She has no desire to change the world, just herself, yet this comes at the risk of hurting another person (in this case, Woody).

And what’s worse about this misplaced desire to find a cure for Gabby Gabby’s disability is that there is a disability-positive character within Toy Story 4’s own narrative: Bo Peep. She is presented as living on her own, taking care of herself and being happy despite having an arm that comes off. This severed arm never stops Bo from doing anything, and she actually has the ability to laugh at her situation, tricking Woody into believing he’s broken her. And yet when Gabby Gabby needs to hear that she’s still worthy of love despite everything, it isn’t Bo, a female toy with a lived experience similar to Gabby’s, who gives her the pep talk. Instead it is Woody, a male character with no idea how Gabby feels. It is up to the able-bodied toy to act as the superior person, teaching the downtrodden disabled person to lift their head high and go on.

Despite these problems, Gabby Gabby is an interesting addition to the franchise who should be seeing a far bigger uptick in marketing and support than she’s gotten. She’s a flawed character who makes up for it in compassion and intrigue. She’s frightening, fun and just zany enough to be memorable. And from a disabled perspective, she certainly helps me think that perhaps some representation is better than none at all.

Kristen Lopez is a freelance pop culture writer.