Part 1: Actually, Inside Out's Gender Norms Are A Major Problem
Turning Inside Out Upside Down

I honestly do love the vast majority of Inside Out ... despite the fact that this post is going to be all negative stuff--sorry! I've had to admit to myself that the dominant emotion at my Headquarters control console is probably Disgust...

...Snarky and Nitpicky? Perfect!!

At first, I got a little annoyed in the theater that the family seems to be picking up its life and centering all its goals around the Dad's job, but I told myself at the time "Some parents get really great opportunities they can't pass up. People move for jobs. That is A Thing that happens, and it doesn't have to imply male-centric social norms."

BUT.

The movie still reinforces that social norm: Dad is portrayed as the one having the big ideas for the family, being the central provider, and Mom has no job that I could make out, and seems to do the majority of the child-rearing and home-and-hearth stuff. And BLEGH. Even the whole speech Riley's mom gave her about how they appreciate how positive she is came with some rather squicky undertones about the womenfolk needing to fall in line with the Man of the House's goals. Amanda Marcotte seems to think the film offers a critique of the gendered expectation that women be the positive emotional support, but I honestly didn't see that in the work itself. While Marcotte's critique is definitely spot-on for a lot of real women and girls' lived experiences, I don't think that in-universe the movie actually criticized or challenged these gender norms, or even understood why this is problematic.

Frankly, I don't believe for a second that the scriptwriters of Inside Out simply flipped a coin as to which parent would be the one starting up the new company. Rather, I find it vastly more likely that those writing the story (mostly men in the key development positions, although half the second-tier story team were women) simply went with the cultural default of the father moving for his work, perhaps not even realizing that this (like everything in the world) represents a political choice. However, even if the choice to have the father be the ambitious one was pure happenstance...

...unlikely...

... it still reinforces harmful social norms, all the more so because it is completely unquestioned.

And let's make no mistake, unquestioned social norms in media have huge effects on how people perceive the world, what choices they make, and what they believe is "reasonable." That which we see reflected in fiction affects how we interpret normal in real life. Or, in other words, representation matters. (And no, I don't have any patience for those who claim "it's only a movie!" or "it's just fiction!" Frankly, if humans were immune to obviously-fictionalized portrayals affecting our behavior, the entirety of advertising simply Would. Not. Exist. So before you try that line of argument, please remember that an industry is making $166 billion annually in the US alone off the fact that you're wrong.)

So, when yet another piece of media presents the Man of the House moving for a job opportunity, it doesn't happen in a vacuum. It happens in a culture where women are routinely expected to place a higher value on their family's needs than on their own career advancement, so a woman who wants to move her family for her career is seen as an aberration who is making an unreasonable demand because this situation varies from our unquestioned assumptions about gender dynamics, as reflected to us yet again in Inside Out.

This norm may also affect women's economic potential in indirect ways, with employers assuming women won't accept positions involving relocation and just not offering them in the first place, or employers being reluctant to promote a women in case she leaves the firm should her husband want to relocate for his job. Showing men as the ones who "normally" move for their jobs can also have some pretty major adverse effects for the men who do go along with a wife/girlfriend who has a professional opportunity requiring relocation. What's more, the unquestioned portrayal of the man as the mover and shaker behind a startup has real consequences for unconscious biases regarding who is seen as a legitimate candidate for venture capital funding and thus who becomes successful and influential. Let alone the fact that this story takes place in San Francisco, what with Silicon Valley's well-documented problem with bro culture (yes, every single one of these is a different example).

It is in this setting, it is not enough that Inside Out simply has no overt political message about the gender dynamics of startups and relocation. Tacitly reflecting the dominant norm IS a political message, and a harmful one. Furthermore, what makes it even more frustrating is that NONE of this tacit sexism is even necessary. Literally NOTHING about the main crux of Inside Out's plot would have to change at all if Riley's mother were the one pursuing a career opportunity. It wouldn't even need to be a plot point: she could simply be there as a taken-at-face-value role model for young women, just as much as the current Dad is a taken-at-face-value representative of the status quo. I do acknowledge, however, that if handled clumsily the rest of the movie could read as "look what happens to kids when Mommy neglects them for unwomanly career ambitions!" To prevent that unfortunate implication, the movie could have presented both parents as working on a startup together--all it would take is a teensy little line indicating Mom is the software engineer and Dad is doing marketing and BAM, gender stereotypes upended and positive role models created! It would even become a great example of coequal spouses working together and supporting each other, a dynamic that we see WAAAY too rarely in movies in general. This would also have the advantage of letting the parents' screen time be taken up with jointly fretting over their business venture, which would be a hell of a lot more plausible than some of the inexplicably bad parenting they demonstrate in the movie, which is another topic for later in this series...

Stay tuned!

Do you think you have an excuse about why this set up totally has no social implications? I probably debunk it in this sub-series. Part 2 of the Inside Out review resumes here.

7 comments:

  1. So... because the writers didn't choose to do what all TV sitcoms do, and make the male a blithering idiot and the female a model of calm, grace and intelligence, and instead gave the ambitious working role to the father, and the caring empathetic role to the mother... they're sexist. When did it become unacceptable for a woman to follow the path of motherhood and caregiving? When did it become unacceptable for a man to be intelligent, driven and successful?

    The longer the so-called "stereotypes" are regarded as oppressive, the less women will want to become mothers. And sorry, but how long have men been demonized as child molesters? I hope we plan to change that stereotype before there's nothing but stay-at-home daddies.

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    1. Pulling together as a family should mean putting the family first, not ignoring the wants and needs of the rest of the family members for the benefit of one. Which is what we see in this movie. Only dad matters, everyone else shut up and act happy. Meh. I'm not sure we can expect much more from a modern kid's movie other than "be cheerful" but it would be nice.

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  2. "Literally NOTHING about the main crux of Inside Out's plot would have to change at all if Riley's mother were the one pursuing a career opportunity. It wouldn't even need to be a plot point: she could simply be there as a taken-at-face-value role model for young women, just as much as the current Dad is a taken-at-face-value representative of the status quo."

    Why can't Dad's success and ambition be a taken-at-face-value model for boys?

    "To prevent that unfortunate implication, the movie could have presented both parents as working on a startup together--all it would take is a teensy little line indicating Mom is the software engineer and Dad is doing marketing and BAM, gender stereotypes upended and positive role models created!"

    Why? That would create a very depressingly believable reason why the kids were... well, spoilers. Both parents not paying attention because they're too wrapped up in work is something we all see. I don't think kids want to go to a Disney movie to be reminded that their own parents are never around. By introducing an under-credible reason for the plot's motivation, children can focus on relating to the adventure instead of the plight of the characters.

    But I guess we're growin' our kids up at 4 years old now. We have to teach them about sex so that we can teach them what homosexuality means. Because apparently we have to, now that it's being shoved down their throats at school. We have to teach them about child molesters and stereotypes so that we can try to make our kids avoid them. And we wonder why the most recent generation of kids are completely socked in the brainpan.

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    1. 1. Boys already HAVE a shitton of role models. Especially white boys. Seriously, make a list of all the movies you loved as a kid, and tally up how many had: a white male lead, a white female lead, a nonwhite male lead, a nonwhite female lead. For added depression, separate those "nonwhite" categories into Black, Pacific Islander, East Asian, Native American, Central Asian, South Asian, and Middle Eastern. Look at how much rarer it is for the primary character to be anything other than Straight White Dude. What we need now are more female role models, and more PoC role models, because they're being drowned out by all the Straight White Dudes everywhere.

      2.

      Here is the sum total of what 4-year-olds are ever taught about sex (except in the case of molestation, which is a separate issue):
      - Your body is yours, and no one else's. The only times when it's ok for somebody to do things to another person's body against their will is to bathe someone who can't bathe themselves, or to
      - Your private parts are just that--private. Don't mess with them in public, and if anybody tries to mess with them, they are doing a bad thing and you need to tell a grownup you can trust RIGHT AWAY.
      - Usually, men fall in love with women, and women fall in love with men. But sometimes men fall in love with other men, or women fall in love with women, and there's nothing wrong with that.

      Not mentioned: where babies come from, how to have any kind of sex with anybody, or gruesome details of how molesters groom their victims. Fancy that. Oh, and by the way, most of those things I mentioned aren't taught in schools at all, because the push against teaching teenagers how reproduction and contraceptives work has bled into "children are all super-duper innocent and should NEVER EVER learn anything remotely sex-related, even if it could protect them from harm."

      "now that it's being shoved down their throats at school."

      As opposed to the rampant homophobia and sexism that are shoved down their throats by the TV? The only kids who're completely screwed-up nowadays are the ones whose parents don't TALK TO THEM about coping in the world, how the media is not a Guide To How Everything Should Be, and that their bodies, and the weird ways bodies can feel sometimes, really are OK just the way they are.

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  3. So, we have a movie where the three main protagonists: Riley, Joy, and Sadness are female. The emotion that is most take-charge and proactive in the absence of Joy is also female (Disgust). And the emotions in a prepubescent child are mixed female to male in a 3 to 2 ration. And the female child is a great hockey player. So, that movie is sexist because the Dad has the great job offer and within days of moving to San Fran, mom hasn't gotten a job yet? Wow. Talk about tunnel vision.

    Also, graphics behind text is a horrible design choice. It makes reading the text difficult. As does the huge animated gifs which are distracting.

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  4. I came here from Shakesville. Interesting read, thanks!

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  5. To Andrew and Michael: Wow, that is A LOT of bullshit to unpack! I will be replying to each of you in standalone posts.

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About the Author

Satiricalifragilistic grew up during the Disney Renaissance, and The Little Mermaid was the first movie she ever saw in theaters at age 3. Her mother flatly refused to let her leave the theater when Ursula got huge and terrifying, and maybe that explains her troubled psyche.

While she'll admit to being an inveterate nitpicker, she firmly believes in loving a piece of art even while criticizing it, and in the importance of engaging critically with what she loves. She has special contempt for anyone who tries to claim the politics in Disney films don't matter because "they're just movies," because she knows exactly how much the Disney Canon influenced her little gradeschool self—for good and for ill!

She loves art, design, music, dancing, movies from Hollywood's Golden Age, and British comedy...expect a lot of these to turn up in her reviews and mashups!