Inside Out and the Politics of Feeling

As pretty much anyone who’s ever met me can attest to, I have a lot of feelings. About everything. I have a lot of feelings about reproductive rights, education policy, the environment; I cry at the end of happy movies and sad movies and at emotionally charged scenes in the middle of movies; since the birth of my niece I even occasionally cry at commercials featuring babies. I’m not quite at Kristen Bell levels of emotional lability, but I’m pretty close. Traditionally, having an abundance of feelings has been associated with a lack of rational thought. Calling someone “emotional” is a hair’s breadth away from calling them “hysterical”; it signals an inherent “femininity,” an inability to think straight. “You’re being emotional” is used to dismiss women, whether they are calling out sexism or arguing about whose turn it is to clean. There are other variants on this theme: “Calm down,” “you’re just overreacting,” and my personal favorite, “is it that time of the month?”

But Pixar’s latest film, Inside Out, makes the best argument I have ever seen in mainstream media for the importance of emotions. The main “characters” of the film are the emotions of a cheerful 11 year-old girl, Riley, as she goes through a difficult transition in her life. Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) has been at the helm of Riley’s emotional “control center” since birth, but when the family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith) begins to take over.

(Warning: Spoilers ahead. If you haven’t yet seen Inside Out, go watch it. Bring a pack of tissues. Then come back and keep reading.)

Image from @PixarInsideOut / Twitter.

Image from @PixarInsideOut / Twitter. Inside Out is filled with clever visual gags and references to psychology, including a literal “Train of Thought” and “The Room of Abstract Thinking.”

Throughout Riley’s childhood, we see the way Joy, Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black), serve their purposes. Joy guides Riley happily through most of her life. Fear keeps her safe, Disgust stops her from being poisoned – physically or socially — and Anger both alerts Riley to what is unfair and gives her hockey game its verve. But over and over, Sadness is relegated to a corner; on the first day at a new school, Joy gives out assignments to the other three emotions, then draws a chalk circle, ordering Sadness not to leave. But in the tumult of the move, Sadness oversteps her bounds and puts her hands on some of Riley’s “core memories,” turning them from a joyful yellow to a melancholy blue. Sadness doesn’t mean to do any harm, she just does.

Joy and Sadness wind up in a tussle over these core memories, and the two of them are sucked up in a memory storage tube – one of Inside Out’s many clever literalizations of the inner workings of the mind — leaving Fear, Disgust, and Anger at the helm. Without Joy or Sadness, Riley becomes listless, irritable and withdrawn. She cries in class and hates herself for it. She snaps at her parents. In a misguided attempt to help bring Joy back into the fold, the three remaining emotions implant the idea – with a light-bulb, of course – of running away back to Minnesota (well, Anger and Disgust do. Fear wisely protests, but holds no sway over Anger). As Riley goes through with this plan, however, they realize their mistake, and try to get her to turn around. But, in a beautiful metaphor for depression, the controls no longer work. Riley is completely divorced from emotion, and in being so, is also completely divorced from reason.

Inside Out is a thoroughly researched film: director Peter Docter consulted at length with two well-established psychologists, Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman. In a New York Times article titled “The Science of Inside Out,” the two UC Berkeley psychologists make a case for the importance of emotion:

“Emotions organize – rather than disrupt – rational thinking…emotions guide our perception of the world… most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation.”

Of course, we can get over-emotional, but at their core, emotions alert us to what is happening in the world, and help us navigate our way through. Anger tells us when something is unfair to us, and can drive our sense of justice in the world. Without anger, we are complacent. Fear keeps us from doing things that might get us killed, and without it, we are reckless. Disgust alerts us to foods that might be poisonous, or social behaviors that might isolate us. Joy keeps us going. Of course, there are more than five emotions, but Docter wisely chose to keep the number of central characters low rather than try to achieve full psychological accuracy. The question at the heart of the film is “what does sadness do?”

In their efforts to get back to Riley’s control center, Joy and Sadness fight and separate; Joy falls into the abyss of lost memories. While stuck down there, carefully guarding her bag of core memories, she examines one of her favorites – Riley, buoyed on the shoulders of her hockey teammates, cheering wildly. But when Joy replays the memory (which she does by swiping  – apparently, our memories operate on touchscreens), she sees blue, not yellow. She sees the moments leading up to Riley’s joyful rally with her friends; a forlorn Riley sits on a tree branch, head in her hands. Her team had just lost a big game, and she thinks it’s her fault. First, her sadness draws her parents to her, and then her team.

The people Riley loves and who love her are drawn to her sadness; because of her sadness, they protect her, they lift her up, they bring her joy. This is consistent with what many scientists believe is the evolutionary purpose of sadness and its teary manifestation.

In an earlier moment, Riley’s former imaginary friend Bing Bong is crying candy tears, too overwhelmed with mourning to help Joy and Sadness to the Train of Thought. Joy tries everything she can to cheer him up; she tickles him, she makes funny faces, all without success. Then Sadness sits down next to him. She doesn’t try to cheer him up. She doesn’t tell him not to be sad, or that things will be okay. She just acknowledges how he feels. She acknowledges the very real pain that comes with Bing Bong’s realization that he is no longer part of Riley’s life. She just lets him feel what he needs to feel. Soon, he feels okay again – despite the continuing sad circumstances which lead to his ultimate sacrifice – and is able to help Joy and Sadness on their journey.

“How did you do that?” Joy asks. “He just needed someone to talk to,” Sadness replied, “so I listened.”

As we see in the first part of the film, not all emotions – at least according to common perception – are created equal. Inside Out deals with the way in which Sadness tends to be looked down upon – something also touched upon by Allie Brosh in her chronicle of depression, and our own K.H. in her rocky start to graduate school. Like K.H., I have dealt with my fair share of depression; I have also experienced loss, sometimes of people far too young to die, and its accompanying grief. Often, the most well-intentioned people will say things like “are you feeling better?” or offer a well-meaning “chin up,” “pick yourself back up,” “it’s okay” – anyone who has been sad for a prolonged period of time (or, really, any period of time) has heard these things. Whether they come from a desire to make those around us happy or a deep discomfort with negative emotions, these responses can be damaging.

We would do well to take a cue from Sadness. At times, the best we can do for people struggling with difficult feelings is just sit down next to them and say, “I am sorry this is happening right now. I’m sure it hurts a lot. Take your time. I’m here.” Sometimes we need to know that it’s ­okay to be sad, that sadness is a perfectly logical reaction to some things in life. Sadness often responds best with room to be sad, rather than the frenetic distractions offered by Joy. It is only when Joy herself realizes Sadness’ power that she is able to get back to Riley’s control center, hand the reins to Sadness, and save their girl.

While I applaud Inside Out’s nuanced portrayal of Sadness, the movie did not give Anger the same treatment. And when you are a woman, or a person of color, anger becomes very complex indeed. When you move through a world that sometimes seems to hate you – a world that, at best, can make life very difficult for you – anger is, well, a totally rational response. I get angry when men go out of their way to intimidate me on the street, or go even further and grab at my body; I get angry when politicians who will never have to worry about getting pregnant do their best to strip me of my reproductive rights. How else am I supposed to react?

As E.Y. observed in her piece on #distractinglysexy, the policing of women’s bodies – our clothes, our makeup, the way we walk – is racialized in addition to being gendered. This certainly holds true for emotions, as well. The stereotype of the “angry black woman” forces many black women to be ­extra­-demure, lest they get dismissed – or worse – for expressing even the tiniest hint of anger, no matter how justified. In the aftermath of the Charleston shooting, a narrative of forgiveness – a narrative, that is, of not showing anger – dominated the media. Roxane Gay argues that in looking for this narrative,

The call for forgiveness is a painfully familiar refrain when black people suffer. White people embrace narratives about forgiveness so they can pretend the world is a fairer place than it actually is, and that racism is merely a vestige of a painful past instead of this indelible part of our present… What white people are really asking for when they demand forgiveness from a traumatized community is absolution…I, for one, am done forgiving.

On a day-to-day basis, anger (along with fear and sadness) is policed along lines of both race and gender. If you are a woman, and angry, you are irrational. It’s that time of the month. You’re acting like a man (and not in one of the acceptable ways). If you are a black man, and angry, you are a threat. You’re out of control. If you are a black woman, and angry, you risk falling into either or both of the above categories, and getting pegged as an “angry black woman.” Often, it seems that only certain people are allowed to feel, or at least express anger. Of course, those who are allowed to express anger – white men – are not allowed to express “feminine” emotions like fear and sadness.

Our feelings can make us vulnerable, but that vulnerability can enforce a sense of community. And, perhaps even more importantly, without emotions, we are not highly-evolved, perfectly rational Vulcans. We are complacent, we are reckless, we are compassionless. We’re depressed, empty. We need to move beyond the idea that being emotional is “feminine” (as if that’s a bad thing) and weak, and that cold logic is always better. We also need to move beyond the idea that emotions and logic are at odds; one can be both intensely emotional and highly logical.

When Anger and Disgust (Fear is pretty meek) are at the helm of Riley’s command center, they decide she should go back to Minnesota to be happy again. But soon after implanting this idea in Riley’s mind, they realize it’s a pretty terrible one. However, as Riley’s depression worsens, her emotions are no longer able to influence her at all. Despite their best efforts, her three remaining emotions cannot make her turn around. She ignores her mother’s worried phone calls, and on a bus bound for Minnesota, she stares out the window, her face blank.

But just in the nick of time, Joy and Sadness make it back to the “command center.” Joy, having learned her lesson about Sadness’ power, steps back, pushing Sadness towards the controls. As soon as she is at the helm, Riley sits bolt upright, asks the bus-driver to let her off, and runs home as fast as she can, breaking down into tears as she crosses the threshold. At the end of the movie, Sadness saves the day, allowing Riley and her parents to reach a new level of empathy and understanding. Riley continues to be a happy, if slightly more somber, girl whose control center is shared equally by Joy and Sadness (and Anger when she’s on the ice).

Through Joy, Sadness, and the rest of the team, Inside Out provides its young audience with a crucial vocabulary for articulating emotions both celebrated and often unfairly maligned. The ability to discuss the importance of these emotions should not be underestimated—and these emotions, especially anger and sadness, should be divorced from questions of who is “allowed” to feel them.

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There are 5 comments

  1. Pierre Rubison

    Things escalate quickly as her other emotions, fear, disgust, and anger take control and she is reprimanded by her father for being short and, as he perceives, rude. Riley was confused and unsure of what she was feeling and because of this her parents did not take the time to try and help her figure out exactly what it was.

    Like

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