There are few better ways to discredit and silence a woman than to suggest that she is being ‘emotional’. Cultural narratives surrounding the experience and display of emotions are extremely limited and often tinged with shame: Emotions are irrational. Emotions are weak. Emotions are feminine. To quote from the excellent show Futurama, ‘Emotions are dumb and should be hated.’
Inside Out the latest movie from Disney Pixar utterly refutes these ideas. Instead, it works on a far more positive philosophy: that emotions are good and exist to take care of you.
The central premise of Inside Out is simple. 11-year-old Riley Anderson has just moved from Minnesota to San Fransisco with her family. She has had a happy childhood, thanks in no small part to the involvement of Joy (Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation), the personification of happiness who lives in Riley’s head. Joy is accompanied by four other primary emotions: Sadness (Phyllis Smith, The Office), Anger (Lewis Black, The Daily Show), Disgust (Mindy Kaling, The Mindy Project), and Fear (Bill Hader, Saturday Night Live). Together, they guide Riley through the trials and tribulations of everyday life, but all agree that Joy is in charge. Joy is determined to keep Riley happy through the tumultuous moving period, but after a disagreement on how Riley’s mind should be run, Joy and Sadness are accidentally flung out of ‘Headquarters’, leaving Anger, Disgust and Fear to run the show in their absence. As Joy and Sadness struggle to return to the control tower of Riley’s mind, we see Riley’s emotional landscape thrown into disarray.
Inside Out shows the many ways emotions steer us through our daily lives, both positive and negative. Fear helps us deal with danger. Anger defends our opinions. Disgust keeps us safe from harmful things, both social and physical. But the two most important emotions are joy and sadness, and this is the crux of the movie.
Early in the film, Riley’s mother asks Riley to keep a positive outlook and remain happy, in order to support Riley’s father during what is undoubtedly a stressful time for him (the family has relocated for his work). Joy, and by extension Riley, takes this very literally: they must remain happy at all costs, for someone else. But while being emotionally supportive to someone else can be a good thing, it can also be exhausting and difficult, especially when one’s own emotional needs are not being met. Joy tries so hard to remain positive she fails to see that what Riley really needs is time to mourn the loss of her home, friends, and hobbies. I think this is something many women can relate to. We are so often called upon to facilitate others to our own detriment. We are told to smile, to support, to be present for others but are discouraged from showing how that strain affects us emotionally. Most women can name at least one time we’ve been told by a stranger to ‘smile’ because ‘whatever it is can’t be that bad’, as if our emotions exist purely for the gratification of others – and that when they do not, they are a social inconvenience that deserves to be shamed.
(WARNING - SPOILERS)
At the end, it is Sadness who rescues Riley. Sadness who allows Riley to grieve and move on. Sadness who understands Riley’s worries and relieves them. And Joy learns that a healthy emotional landscape is not one dominated by happiness, but one in which all emotions are recognised and validated. Inside Out dares to say that emotionality is not just a good thing, but a healthy thing for people to experience. And more, it suggests that our emotions are valid things to feel for ourselves – we should not force ourselves to feel one way or another to appease others. Emotions assist us in our decision-making, they guide us through difficult times, and they support us in our growth. Expressing our emotions, rather than bottling them up, is an important part of mental health.
Inside Out is an excellent film, a true return to form for Pixar after a few less-than-stellar outings over the last few years. And this article would not be complete without mentioning how excellent the marketing campaign for this film has been. Despite a majority female cast, the film’s marketing has been distinctly gender-neutral, no pinkifying or princess-ifying to be seen. When so many children’s films are loudly and specifically gendered, it’s great to see a film that doesn’t talk down to kids about restrictive gender roles. And that’s important because developing a sophisticated vocabulary to talk about emotional experience is an important skill for every child to learn.
Inside Out wants to remind us that emotions are not irrational, weak, or ‘girly’. They’re real and powerful and important, and the sooner we understand that the healthier we’ll be.