For 24 years, Toy Story fans have grown accustomed to a Bo Peep who exists to lift Woody up when he needs a boost. "She's always been this kind of quietly strong character,” producer Jonas Rivera told MTV News. “Every time Woody gets kind of turned upside down a little bit in the story, she's the one to say, no, look at your boot and remember who you are."
She fulfills that role that women are so often given — the one that solidifies the idea that a woman’s duty is to be there for her man, the one that implies a woman needs a man. We see it from the very first time we meet her, in Toy Story’s opening scene: Bo Peep was caught in the middle of a stick-up. Mr. Potato Head was maniacal, holding all the toys hostage as he plotted to make it out of the bank with a sack full of loot. Bo pleaded for someone to help them — she certainly wasn’t equipped to save the day with her fragile porcelain skin and perfectly puffed frock. And right on cue, Sheriff Woody arrived on the scene to play the hero. Bo was, at least in this early iteration of Andy’s fantasy, the epitome of a damsel in distress.
When playtime ended and Andy left the room, the toys regained their sense of autonomy. Bo wasn’t as seemingly helpless, but she wasn’t a main player in Toy Story and Toy Story 2. She didn’t even show up in Toy Story 3; her only mention was a brief throwaway line that explained she had been separated from the group.
Toy Story 4 answers the glaring question Toy Story 3 left us with: What happened to Bo? She was given away to a new owner many years ago and never really found a permanent home. She spent some time in an antique shop before busting out and living the rugged life of a lost toy — and that’s when her life really began.
It's clear that through that experience Bo gets that very specific type of confidence that comes when a woman stops trying to be who she’s learned to be, and embraces all the possibilities of who she can be. “Toy Story has mostly been a boy's club,” Annie Potts, who voices Bo Peep, said. “Bo just busted that club wide open.” For the first time since we’ve known her, Bo is the one in control and making the plan.
No longer quietly strong, now Bo is assertive, capable, and necessary. “Our goal is that, if you took her out of the movie, the movie would fall apart,” Rivera said. In the movie, Bo and Woody reunite after Woody happens upon her old antique shop, gets caught in a situation with the toys in charge, and loses Forky — new owner Bonnie’s favorite toy — in a hostage situation. Bo is instrumental to Woody getting Forky back and making sure Woody’s ragdoll frame doesn’t end up destroyed by the shop cat. Even more importantly, it’s Bo who delivers the lesson of the movie, widening Woody’s narrow worldview of the meaning of (a toy’s) life.
Not only is Bo’s attitude different, but she has a new look to go with it. Bo’s skirt and bonnet weren’t feasible for her new lifestyle living inside a remote control car and operating a body shop for toys in need of little fixes, so she got thrifty, refashioning her clothes into a look that allows her to be more mobile. Her pantaloons became pants, the frills on her top have flattened and disappeared; her bonnet functions more as a headband now, and her skirt is really whatever she needs it to be — a cape, a parachute, a bag, or, yes, still a skirt. Her porcelain won’t hold her back anymore. It turns out, actually, it can’t. A broken arm is made fully functional again with a bandage.
Bo went from being a proper lady to a woman who works with what she’s got. “I think she's been through some rough spells. You have choices in that. You can sink under the weight of that, or you can summon every cell of courage you have and push it off and move on,” Potts said. “I think that that's, obviously, the choice that she's made.” It took Bo exploring life on her own before she really found her identity as a woman who could create space for herself in the world. “She is not a damsel in distress,” Potts said definitively. “She's a dame in charge now.”
Seeing Bo act as a leader is empowering. Bo has a level of self-assurance that Woody could never have, because men — even toy men — like Woody don’t need that self-assurance to survive when they have women like Bo to give it to them. Whereas a man is expected to get things done, a woman’s role is to look pretty, clean messes, and soothe emotions.
That’s been seen in Disney movies over the decades. Early iterations of the Princesses all looked a certain way, were expected to act a certain way, and weren’t whole until a man came to save them. Take Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora as examples. Later, Disney inched toward female autonomy with The Little Mermaid’s Ariel and added diversity with Aladdin’s Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan.
Eventually, Disney gave us Lilo & Stitch, for the first time leading with a girl who looks like a normal girl. Lilo isn’t willowy or with perfectly blown-out hair. She’s a girl who relates more to an alien than other girls her age. Then we got female protagonists like Brave’s Merida, who specifically didn’t want a suitor. We got Frozen’s Elsa and Anna, who put sisterly love above all else. We got Moana, who is destined to rule her island and still ventures into the ocean alone because she knows that there’s something out there for her.
Because Bo Peep has been around for almost two and a half decades, we see a similar progress in her — and that’s in no small part due to the dedication of the group lovingly dubbed “Team Bo.” Made up of people from story, art, animation, characters, and cloth, Team Bo was an interdepartmental team-up that was unlike anything the producers had ever seen before.
Among the 300-or-so people working behind the scenes on Toy Story 4 were a group of young adults and women who grew up watching Toy Story, offering a sense of connection that isn’t typical of most movies. Not unlike Bo herself, they weren’t afraid to take the reins when they were on a roll. “They'd kick us out of there. They'd go, ‘No, no, no we're going to take her,’” Rivera said. “And they'd throw flags on the field. They would even say things like, ‘That's what a dude would think a girl would say.’”
In the end, Bo became a woman who learned that she doesn’t have to prescribe to a certain vision of herself just because that’s what she’s told to be. She isn’t there to just say “Aw, Woody,” tap his hat, and brush his cheek; she’s there to be heard.
To see this change in a character who you knew way back when she was a damsel in distress is inspiring; it means that we are all capable of finding ourselves, even when things challenge us and rip us away from what we know, love, and think we need. “I think women in general are making those choices now. Not waiting for anybody, and we're taking our transformations seriously,” Potts said. “I believe that everybody else will be taking our transformations very seriously, too, because transformation is just growth. And if you aren't growing, ain't nothing happening and you aren't going anywhere.”