Social work and Toy Story 4 – Bowlby and Attachment


Is Disney and Pixar telling a tale of about children in the care system and showing us how social work should be done? In doing so they provide us with a beautiful near perfect example of Bowlby’s attachment theory.  A bold statement I hear you ask or is this writer ridiculous? perhaps both are true but before you dismiss this let’s as they say in through the keyhole look at the evidence.

At the beginning of the film we are introduced to Woody, for those who have lived in a cave for 20 years Woody is a toy, a stuffed cowboy, and the once favourite toy of the previous owner Andy. In Toy Story Three Andy grew up and passed his toys to a new owner Bonnie.  In Toy Story Four we are re-introduced to Woody, who, for once appears to be struggling, as he is no longer a favourite toy and as a direct consequence of this, he appears to be constantly looking for positive approval.

This is our first introduction to Bowlby’s attachment theory in this film and there are many more which I will endeavour to explore. Before I go on this may be a good point to point out the basic principles from Bowlby’s attachment theory.

Bowlby’s attachment theory

Attachment is an emotional bond with another person.

  • Bonds formed by children directly with their parents impacts on them throughout their life. Attachment serves to keep the child close to the parent, therefore increasing the child’s survival chances. (harder to be eaten by a sabre tooth tiger if with mam)
  • Children have an instinctual drive to form attachments with parents.
  • Natural selection (had to throw a bit of Charles Darwin in here) increases the chance of survival of the genes of those children who bonded with their parents as they survived to have children of their own, those children who could not make that bond were less likely to reach adult hood. Therefore, those who could form attachments had a much-increased chance of passing their attachment genes on to the next generation.

It could be fair to argue that, for many children, this idea is a little bit obvious. Of course children attach to their parents anyone who has been a child is aware of this? Bowlby’s research, looked at the impact of when this attachment has been damaged, and the effects that can have on the child and the later adult.

Back to Toy Story Four

Woody had a strong attachment to Andy he felt loved and as a result felt he had an important role with the other toys. Woody had made his attachment to his parent figure Andy. He had developed an identity of himself. He was dependable, trustworthy and he felt secure and confident in his affections from Andy. This was despite a few wobbles with the introduction of Buzz light year, the space ranger. In the context of social work we can comfortably say that the introduction of Buzz was representative of an impressive new sibling coming into the household.

So, the Woody we find at the beginning of the Toy Story 4 is a Woody that has lost his family home and he, along with his siblings (the other toys) has been fostered to a new family. Woody is not mistreated or neglected in any way, but he has lost his role as the main toy. Bowlby would then suggest that Woody demonstrates classic behaviour by attempting to form another parental attachment to Bonnie. However, to Bonnie, he is one toy of many, and not a special toy, which is a big contrast to his relationship with his previous owner or ‘parent’ Andy. Woody appears to be able to rationalise this as he appears to be an older ‘child’ and at an age where he is finding his way in world but still needing that parent he attached to. In some ways in the movie, you could say his behaviour is attention seeking and he appears desperate to please and replicate the attachment he had with Andy. Now, put yourself in Woody’s shoes (or cowboy boots!), once loved and doted on, and then rejected and ‘fostered’ out to a new family. Woody is obviously struggling and desperately needs to regain the attachment that he once had.

This leads us to the monumental efforts Woody will go to replicate this attachment. He is unable to lose his previous image of himself and looks to reaffirm this self-view by over increasing his role in this family structure with the vain hope of finding the same attachment that he had with Andy as this is all he has ever known and it has been removed from him. When Bonnie Is anxious about her first day in nursery school Woody grabs an opportunity to justify to himself that he deserves this attachment and he smuggles his way into her backpack. He actually goes a step further to justifies his actions and, as she is feeling low, he gives Bonny rubbish out of the rubbish bin, and she puts some plastic and pipe cleaners together along with other caste away items and creates a toy.  This Toy becomes self-aware and Disney introduce us to a fascinating character called Forky (as he is made out of a fork, genius!)

Forky represents a child that is the opposite to Woody in the care system. Woody is fostered to a new family and was loved and well cared for. Forky appears to be have been from a family who would have multiple social problems as he defines himself as ‘rubbish’ and from ‘rubbish’. He is suddenly thrust into a world of shine and Disney sparkle, and, to top it off, he is unconditionally loved by Bonny. Forky has only made an attachment to his lived experience which is cleverly represented here as ‘rubbish’. His attachment is to ‘rubbish’ which is so different to all this wonderful shiny new world where he is loved in only a way Disney can portray. Forky has no attachment to this and his brain is saying to him ‘this ain’t your world mate we have lived all our life in the rubbish and that’s where we are safe.’

Let’s take a step out here and consider how this fits into Bowlby’s theory.

Forky like every child has formed an attachment. This bond is strong and remember, this bond is so strong because it was used as his only way to survive as a baby. If he didn’t create this bond his brain is convinced he is sabre tooth tiger bait. For some reason this bond has been separated.  He is thrust into a world where his life, from our perspective, is so much better because he is loved unconditionally. The attachment he has created is in the primitive part of his brain and according to his brain his survival depends on this. So why should we be surprised when he rejects this perfect world that has been created for him? Let’s think about this in the context of social work.

Before I venture further and give you a demonstration of brilliant social work by Disney (that’s a sentence I never thought I would write)

Let’s compare the theory to the two main characters I have written about,

Attachment  formedYesYes
Attachment removedYesYes
Looking to reaffirm
the attachment lost

Both characters are behaving in way directly as a response to the loss of their attachment. For Woody it is not a great stretch to form an attachment to the new child Bonnie as the conditions are very similar. Forky comes from a very different background and his new world is alien to him. Forming an attachment in this environment is a very difficult step. So, what does Forky do? Every available opportunity he attempts to run away and back to his old way of being. By doing this he is placing himself in very series danger. He is throwing himself out of moving vehicles and trying all he can to return to how things were. Woody tries to contain him and even restrain him however the more he does this the more Forky fights against this and tries to run away, does this sounds familiar to how we practice. However what other choice do we have, we need to keep the child safe.

This is where Disney shows us what good social work is. When he finally throws himself out of a moving car Woody does not say to his manager, ‘we tried everything, we give him the perfect life and he threw it in our faces, residential care system for this guy, we cannot place him.’ No! Woody did not do this. What he did is talk to him and worked with him and stuck with him. Woody realised that you cannot affect change in this primal part of the brain that has formed an attachment overnight. This work can be intensive, and yes, Woody was continually rejected in his social work role by Forky. However, he kept at it and eventually was able to help Forky and ‘avoid residential care’.

Let’s say Forky was not a toy. Let’s say he was real, taken from his home as a result of serious neglect. He was placed in a world he did not know, he had adults loving him who he had not attached with, he was given everything. However, what was his brain saying to him? “You’re in danger! We do not know situation! Get back to who you attached to and the lifestyle you attached to.” He was shown this sparkly world and when he thinks of his past what does he think? He thinks that this past is him. It is how he identifies himself and this fluffy clean world makes him feel bad about himself. So, he rejects it. He continually runs away and spurns the love he is shown.

As social workers do we say placement breakdown? Or do we stick with him? If we stop the work we are doing and close our involvement what have we done? Reaffirmed to Forky that he is ‘rubbish’ and made him more resilient to the next social worker. And where does this stop when he is in his 40’s perhaps and he has found something that meets the need we have failed to meet? When he has found something he can finally successfully attach too that sadly mat be negative, such as drugs or alcohol and then adult social work is continually rejected by him, because rejection is all he has ever known. Do we stick with him when he is a child and make the difference that Disney showed us?

Jamie Scorer

Jamie has worked in social care for 30 years. He is a qualified social worker, and worked in a local authority as a senior social worker in a MCA/DoLS team. Jamie is now a lecturer at Sunderland University.

1 Comment on “Social work and Toy Story 4 – Bowlby and Attachment

  1. I really enjoyed this one and finally found something that teaches my curious son about attachment theory.

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