Modern loneliness in Toy Story 4 and Taylor Swift

I just saw Toy Story 4 (2019) because I’m a parent (don’t keep up with new releases – watch Pixar movies). The depiction of utter loneliness of the Gabby Gabby doll is one of the memorable parts of the movie. She knows that other people are experiencing human interaction, but she has none. Not a single human person notices her or needs her. Can you imagine that being the main plot of a movie made in 1940?

Loneliness is not completely new for humans. In the past, a lonely person might have had extra time to focus on nature, God, or books, or just immediate survival. Today, lonely people can be inundated with images of faces while also knowing that they have no real local friends. The Toy Story toys are like modern rich people in the sense that material survival is far from their minds. The toys can sit on a shelf for decades, awake and alone. No physical needs drive them out to a grocery store or into a service sector job. They have time to obsess over their social status, and the result can be tragic. (The fate of sitting on a museum shelf for years was discussed at length in Toy Story 2.)

Gabby Gabby reminded me of a bleak 2014 song by Taylor Swift called “Wildest Dream”. Swift sings as a female protagonist who sleeps with a handsome stranger knowing that he will leave her right afterwards. Here’s what she is hoping for:

I can see the end as it begins

My one condition is

Say you’ll remember me

Taylor Swift, 2014

She’s concerned that the man won’t remember the encounter at all. That is some malaise, yes? She has no hope at all for a lasting relationship. That is an illustration of one way that loneliness looks in the modern world.

From a male perspective, also in 2014, a similar sentiment is expressed in “Stay with Me” by Sam Smith.

I don’t want you to leave, will you hold my hand?

Again, the singer is asking for someone from a one-night stand to help fill a void of human connection instead of immediately leaving. Swift and Smith wonder aloud if there is some way to at least temporarily feel like they are close to another person.

These forms of loneliness in pop culture resonate with the public. Toy Story 4 yielded over $1B at the box office globally. “Wildest Dreams” was on music charts around the world. These forms are somewhat new, due to new technology and changing social customs. I’m not trying to write the next Bowling Alone (2000) in this blog post, but merely noting some current illustrations, inspired by Toy Story.

I bet a proper classicist could find us some illustrations of old-style loneliness. When I think of ancient loneliness, I think of to-be-King David hiding in desert caves trying to avoid being stabbed by a Bronze Age(?) sword. He chronicled some of those feelings as follows

Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart and free me from my anguish. … See how numerous are my enemies and how fiercely they hate me!

Psalm 25

David is lonely, but he’s also hiding from numerous nearby fierce enemies. So, it’s not exactly like Gabby Gabby who is sad that no one notices her at all. (In fact, maybe it puts our problems into some perspective.)

There is a recent 2020 New Yorker article, inspired by Covid lockdowns, on the history of loneliness. They consider the idea that this really is new. Maybe there would not have been a Gabby Gabby doll in ancient poems. As usual, economics is part of the story.

In “A Biography of Loneliness: The History of an Emotion” (Oxford), the British historian Fay Bound Alberti defines loneliness as “a conscious, cognitive feeling of estrangement or social separation from meaningful others,” and she objects to the idea that it’s universal, transhistorical, and the source of all that ails us. She argues that the condition really didn’t exist before the nineteenth century, at least not in a chronic form. It’s not that people—widows and widowers, in particular, and the very poor, the sick, and the outcast—weren’t lonely; it’s that, since it wasn’t possible to survive without living among other people, and without being bonded to other people, by ties of affection and loyalty and obligation, loneliness was a passing experience. …  to be chronically or desperately lonely was to be dying. The word “loneliness” very seldom appears in English before about 1800. 

The New Yorker, 2020

Lastly, Mike wrote a great piece on loneliness in art last year. He even introduced a formal economic model!

3 thoughts on “Modern loneliness in Toy Story 4 and Taylor Swift

  1. Scott Buchanan January 31, 2022 / 3:18 pm

    Interesting perspective, that pre-1800 or so, normally “… it wasn’t possible to survive without living among other people,”

    Side comment: I think that King David, c. 1000 BC, was just about when the iron age had begun in Middle East.


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