Will Pixar's "Inside Out" Be Cool Narrative About Growing Up or A Sexist Trainwreck?

Will it be an innovative, interesting little film, or will it be another pile of sexist schlock about girls, growing up, and emotions?
Publish date:
August 13, 2013
movies, growing up, blah blah feelings blah

Pixar has a new and quite ambitious project slated for release in 2015: “Inside Out.”

You might be wondering why I'm writing about a movie that isn't coming out for two years, and that is a totally fair question. The answer is that they're starting to get some buzz going around it, which means that we're seeing teaser footage, stills, and other promotionals, and the creative team is talking about what they're doing. I happen to think it's pretty interesting.

Start from the top: Riley is moving from Minnesota to San Francisco at the turbulent cusp of adolescence where everything suddenly becomes hard to navigate as you're not quite a kid, definitely not a grownup, and often shunted off into a corner because people don't know quite what to do with you. So, great, another coming of age story with a side of implying that cities are more cultured and worldly than those backward flyover states, but.


The twist is that part of the story is told inside Riley's head, with her emotions personified and playing roles of their own: Anger (Lewis Black) is a short angled dudebro in fire engine red; Disgust (Mindy Kaling) is a little green monster; Fear (Bill Hader) is willowy and purple; Joy (Amy Poehler) is a yellow fairy; and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) is a mopey blue lady.

At the same time that we see drama happening on screen to the characters as they interact with each other, we'll also see narratives in their heads, including the stories of Riley's emotions. So it's a constant metacommentary, a Hamlet's monologue for the modern set, if you will, where each scene can be seen through a number of different lenses and interpreted in a lot of ways. Motivations are transparent, or are they?

I'm already intrigued by the narrative style, but it's more than just that. The casting decisions, and who represents which iconography, are also important, because they reflect on how we think about emotions in the real world. If we were to imagine emotions personified, springing out of the ether, what would they look like?

I can't be the only one who remembers being handed the little chart with illustrations of different emotions and told I needed to “develop my emotional vocabulary.” Those charts are printed out by the thousands for psychiatrists and counselors the world over, I think, and I always struggled with them. Is that guy mad, or just having a gas attack? What's that lady's face doing?

It's possible I may have missed the point of the exercise just slightly. Or that I actually got the exercise perfectly: I'm bad at reading emotions.

Anger seems like a gimme; of course we would depict anger as male, since it's such a masculinized emotion, and of course it would be a throbbing, edgy, jarring red. Naturally, too, Joy would be a fluffy yellow fairy who reminds me of a Disney fairy godmother -- big surprise there, Disney owns Pixar.

But what about casting fear as a man? I feel like just as masculinity is burdened with a lot of really disturbing narratives about anger, there are also a lot about fear: namely, that men are not supposed to be afraid. Using a male voice actor and avatar as the personification of fear is really interesting to me as a larger commentary on how we talk about men, their emotions, and processing emotions in healthy ways.

Boys learn from a very young age that they can't and shouldn't be afraid, that if they are afraid, they must not show it at any costs. That tends to create a kind of hardness that often takes on a sharp edge which can turn into anger, because sometimes the only way to conquer fear is to try to run from it harder than it's running towards you. And often that means lashing out with a machete to clear the way, and too bad for anyone who gets hurt.

While purple may be associated with effeminate characterizations, this is most definitely a masculine personification of fear, and I dig that. It's nice to see the tables turned in a way that will hopefully surprise viewers, spark interesting conversations, and, critically, change young minds before they're too set in their ways.

Likewise, I'm intrigued by Sadness; I feel like moping and the Eeyoreish characters of the world are often left to men (women never mope, they're just needlessly whiny), and it's a bit of an interesting play to have a woman play the role. Mindy Kaling as Disgust should be interesting to see as well, because the role could end up tremendously stereotyped and gross, playing on sexist attitudes about girls, or “Inside Out” could end up flipping assumptions.

As a narrative tool in a film about growing up, using personified emotions and internal monologues isn't exactly new, but I'm interested enough in “Inside Out” to stick around and see if the execution matches the premise. Will it be an innovative, interesting little film, or will it be another pile of sexist schlock about girls, growing up, and emotions?