Pixar’s Charming ‘Inside Out’ Torpedoes Some Gender Roles, Reinforces Others

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Inside Out, Pixar latest animated film, is as lovely and sophisticated as it is full of contradictions. It both derives its “inside the brain” premise from our era of hyper-technological organization — and undercuts that with its ultimate embrace of inner chaos. Similarly, the film reinforces a white-bread and hetero-normative version of family, while also creating a wild, female-centric road-trip adventure story, a groundbreaking Thelma and Louse for kids that celebrates difference.

How does it do these things at once? By inhabiting two worlds. One is the external world of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, who faces her first real crisis when her family uproots her from ice-skating paradise in Minnesota to San Francisco, home of hills, new classmates, and (yuck!) vegan pizza. The second world exists in Riley’s mind. Inside Riley, five characters sit and man the control tower: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black), and Fear (Bill Hader). But when the onset of adolescence and sudden change rock the boat, Sadness starts taking more control. A tussle between Sadness and Joy, who has been dominant for 11 years and reminds us a lot of Leslie Knope, leads to both primal emotions being sucked up and deposited far away from the control room. The other three emotions are left in charge as Joy and Sadness take a journey back, through realms unknown, and with the help and guidance of Riley’s imaginary friend, a creature known as Bing Bong (Richard Kind) who is the Puff the Magic Dragon figure of the story’s narrative. Riley, meanwhile, is steered into danger because Anger is at the wheel.

It would be easy to say something very cynical about a technologically innovative West Coast entertainment company envisioning the inner workings of a young girl’s head as a factory of sorts, with a control panel, conveyor belts of “memory marbles” whirring up and down, and endless machinery. But to say Inside Out reduces our thoughts to technology is to undercut the film’s strange and wonderful vision. The “technology,” the apparatus of the mind, continually expands, adding realms and realms — a cave-like subconscious, a chugging train of thought, a dream studio that’s a Hollywood lot, and the playful “imagination land,” all populated by their own characters — that make it seem less like a factory and more like a fantasy. Within each realm are visual wonders and gags for the kiddies, and wry observations about memory and thought processes for the adults.

And in between these realms, Poehler’s Joy and Smith’s Sadness go skipping, moping, and leaping past the Bechdel test, learning from and aiding each other as two very different female archetypes. Their relationship and story is important — because, while inside the head of little Riley the world is a post-gender paradise, outside it’s as typical as can be: a work-addled dad whose inner mind is revealed to be obsessed with sports, a sympathetic mom who dreams of an old boyfriend, and so on. Except for Riley’s love of playing hockey, this is a very old-fashioned conception of a family. But their bland shell contrasts with the Wonderland-like inner workings of Riley.

And this, as they say, is where the magic happens. Poehler’s character Joy has to learn, on her heroine’s journey, that as life grows more complex, sadness has a role to play, and isn’t something to avoid or shut down. Indeed, the film makes the obvious assertion that shutting out sadness leads to fear and anger. Yet beyond this pop psychology, Inside Out makes another, more subtle point about how women and girls are expected to be the providers of happy emotions. Riley often decides to put on a bright face and let Joy take the lead in her mind, because she feels like her family relies on her being their happy girl. This sounds a lot like the beginning of gender conditioning — as does Joy’s horror at the idea of any of Riley’s memories receiving a permanently melancholy tinge. Yet sadness, even moodiness, are as much a part of Riley’s inner workings as joy, and that’s OK. As typical as Riley is, focusing on a girl’s negative emotions for nearly two hours still feels revolutionary.

Inside Out skirts up to, but avoids directly talking about, puberty and self-esteem. Feminist psychologists have long studied the ways that girls lose their self-esteem rapidly from about Riley’s age onwards, which will give older female viewers who remember losing some of our unselfconscious joy around age 11 or 12 an extra layer of meaning. At the very least, one can hope that this clever, sweet, and thought-provoking film will get people talking about how to preserve girls’ self-worth as they get older — without thrusting the burden of all our joy on their small shoulders.