This article is part of our 36 Dramatic Situations series.
For 36 days straight, we’ll be exploring the famous 36 Dramatic Situations by examining a film that exemplifies each one. From family killing family to prisoners in need of asylum, we brush off the 19th century list in order to remember that it’s still incredibly relevant today.
Whether you’re seeking a degree in Literature, love movies, or just love seeing things explode, our feature should have something for everyone. If it doesn’t, please don’t put a snake in my boot.
Part 35 of the 36-part series takes a look at “Rivalry of Superior and Inferior” with Toy Story.
The world of Andy’s bedroom is a reality we only dreamed about as kids: a world where our toys come alive when we’re not around. Cowboy doll Woody (Tom Hanks) has lived a peaceful and pleasant plastic life as Andy’s favorite toy, acting as both leader and caretaker of the close-knit community of toys around him. But that serenity and order is disrupted when a shiny new toy named Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) enters the picture, igniting a jealous rage in Woody that leads to an escalating confrontation that nearly takes their lives at the destructive hands of the evil next-door-neighbor, Sid.
“Rivalry of Superior and Inferior” involves “The Superior Rival,” “The Inferior Rival,” and “The Object.” The object, of course, is not necessarily material, but can represent an ideal (justice, vengeance), or the winning over of another agent in the situation. In this case, the object is Andy – or, Andy’s affection and preference, rather – which is notably ironic in this case as the rivalry itself is essentially between two objects: plastic toys.
The elements of “The Superior Rival” and “The Inferior Rival” are set up in Toy Story in the familiar, straightforward fashion one would expect from this recurrent situation, yet it still remains compelling and entertaining despite this. Woody’s existence is perfectly content until it’s disrupted by Buzz, whose gadgetry and newness threatens to push Woody off his throne, thus setting up the relationship of the inferior and superior rivals.
As is typical with Pixar, from their very first feature film they’ve made something that’s appealing to kids, but also addresses some universal adult themes. The situation’s familiarity works in the film’s favor here, as Woody’s pride and narcissism at the threat of something new and supposedly superior is a relatable feeling that no doubt many of us have had: there’s always going to be somebody who seems more appealing or talented than yourself. However, the rivalry in question is one manufactured only by Woody’s insecurities, as Buzz is oblivious to the fact that he is a toy, much less that he is engaged in a competition between toys. He interprets each of Buzz’s unique capabilities as something lacking within himself, a point of comparison he never imposes on his relationship with the other toys (Mr. Potato Head or Hamm, for instance), because he is comfortable with their awareness of the hierarchy and, more importantly, their place within it.
But the paradigm with which this rivalry takes place is reflective of a similar battle within American culture. The mythic cowboy of the Western frontier has long been a symbol not only of American progress and the implementation of those connected values, but also in terms of boyish ambition. However, in the late 1950s and on through the early 1970s, the stability of the cowboy as the imitable ideal of character and maleness became threatened by a new kind of explorer of the frontier: the astronaut (a potent site of ideological meaning-making as Presidents from Kennedy to Reagan addressed NASA and the space program in frontier-exploration terms, capitalizing on cowboy myth and lore). The threat of the astronaut stealing the veneration of the young American male plays out quite literally in the near-apocalyptic dilemmas within the walls of Andy’s room.
Of course, in order for these two giants of American culture to persist, they must reconcile. Woody finally realizes that this rivalry was more an invention of his own insecurities than an actual threat, and embraces the fact that collaboration can bear more fruit than rivalry. He thus befriends Buzz to the benefit of all the toys, coming to terms with the fact that he and Buzz both possess traits specific and unique to their respective selves rather than exist on some comparable plane of judgment (Buzz does what a space explorer needs to do, and Woody does what a cowboy needs to do). This point is further explored in the later films, where Woody is revealed to be a collector’s item (#2) and then later as Andy’s nostalgic favorite (#3) while Buzz can, y’know, speak Spanish and stuff.
Bonus Examples: Amadeus, Heat, The Assassination of Jesse James…
Check out our entire series of 36 Dramatic Situations, 36 Movies.
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