Part 2: Inside Out's Feminism, and Other Imaginary Friends
Turning Inside Out Upside Down

New here? Check out the table of contents or start at Part 1. Wondering why this review is so critical? Well, everyone else has already written plenty about why Inside Out is awesome, so I'm going to be focusing on aspects that need some more attention.

Welcome back to my series on Inside Out! Today we'll be looking at the tendency of some viewers to refuse to engage with feminist criticism of the movie because it has female characters and/or is more female-centered than other movies, to the point that this installment might as well be called Excuses for Sexism, Pathetically Low Standards Edition.

We're supposed to be satisfied with WHAT, now?!

One of the common responses to the uninspired gender roles in Inside Out is the defense that since Riley and three of the emotions are female, it is apparently unfair to criticize the gender dynamics in the rest of the plot. It's this sort of thinking that leads to defending the film with excuses like:

And the emotions in a prepubescent child are mixed female to male in a 3 to 2 ration [sic].

Oh, my! A three-to-two ration, you say?! Dude, there are five emotions. FIVE. As in, literally three are female and two are male. Because three plus two equals FIVE. You can't get two equal sets of integers from an odd number (because it's, you know...not even). This isn't female predominance--it's as close to parity as it is mathematically possible to get! A 3:2 ratio is not statistically significant with a sample size of FIVE.

Contemplating this level of innumeracy causes me actual physical pain.

It is a testament to how dismal female representation in movies is when we're expected to cheer the fact that a female main character is only entitled to a statistically-insignificant female majority INSIDE HER OWN HEAD. And, no, I don't buy the argument that it's only because she's "prepubescent" that she has mixed-gendered emotions, as all the other kids her age have emotions that correspond to their own gender. Instead, I would argue that Riley's internal gender split (as much as I thoroughly enjoyed both Lewis Black and Bill Hader's performances) is a reflection of our cultural bias that anything female-centered is exclusively "for girls" whereas male-centered casts are considered general interest.

But more importantly, Inside Out's framework of having dynamic and interesting female characters inside Riley's head while the "real world" component of the film is firmly rooted in regressive gender stereotypes leads to some very insidious and pernicious implications. Since the world of the mind in this movie is so experimental and fantastical (and let me be clear, the parts of the film that take place inside Riley's head are *awesome* and the creators have my genuine respect for how imaginative it is), the "real world" has to be as normal and understandable as possible to orient the audience so they understand the action between these settings. The audience intuitively grasps this, and this unfortunately asserts that the family setup in the movie--a stay-at-home mom and a dad whose career determines the family's priorities--IS what we as a society see as normal. In this sense, the movie not only coasts on us recognizing this family dynamic, but it also actively reinforces this as the social norm. In many ways, the movie plays brilliantly with the contrasts between the fantastic mindscape and a grittier reality, but when the engaging female characters are exclusively in the former the movie implies that an effective female manager is just as surreal as a memory vacuum tube.

The movie is basically saying to young girls that they may be fascinating, original, and brilliant people in their own minds, but that the real world has no place for that vitality and shows no effects from it. (Of course, I hasten to add that the movie doesn't INTEND to say this, but the thing with unconscious biases is that they have a nasty way of inserting themselves when a creator is being thoughtless. So, please spare me the defense that Disney-Pixar didn't intend this sexist message. I know. That's what "unconscious" means.) The lack of meaningful female empowerment in the "reality" section of the movie means that the portrayal of cool female characters inside Riley's head comes off as tokenizing and insincere. This subtext becomes actual text in the scene where Riley's mother praises her for being happy, explicitly insofar as it is useful to support her father. This undercuts Inside Out's fantastic world of the mind and its characters, because while it is showing girls that they have great potential and depth within themselves, the outside world will value that only within certain narrow confines.

Similarly, while Riley herself is a great character (and I do give Pixar props that they not only made her a girl, but gave her a believable blend of traditionally-girly and tomboy interests, and even portrayed a pretty sympathetic and funny view of a young girl's understanding of boyfriends), the movie seems to imply a dead-end for her individuality in adulthood. It would be one thing for a movie that focused on children to the point that the parental characters were not fleshed out enough to see what they are like, but here we very clearly see women limited to stereotypical mothers and teachers. The tendency to accept little girls being as free-spirited as they like while remaining uncomfortable with nonconforming adult women reinforces a nasty cultural tendency we have to rigidly assign socially-constructed femininity along with puberty, a trope so recognizable it has its own Onion spoof, Teenage Girl Blossoming Into Beautiful Object.

As I discussed in Part 1, it's not just happenstance that Riley's father is the one moving the family for his job, and the context of our society's biases against working women makes this a problematic choice. Additionally, the manner in which the mindscape-vs.-the-real-world divide in Inside Out implies limitations for young girls is similarly inextricable from the context of how the "real world" is usually presented to young girls in children's entertainment. And let's be clear: it is DISMAL. An excellent study by seejane.org shows that less than 33% of characters in recent G-rated entertainment were female, and they were roughly half as likely as male characters to have jobs. This means that only 20% of working characters in kids' entertainment are female, so explicit or implied limitations on female characters in this film are tapping into expectations that have already been well-established for kids throughout other movies.

The excuse that the female emotions are positive female characters similarly fails in this context, because a little girl can't reasonably look forward to growing up to be a Joy or a Disgust. While imaginary female characters may be inspiring as a metaphor for female empowerment in a story that took place entirely in a fantasy world, the stark portrayal of the "real world" in this film means the lack of corresponding realistic female role models limits proactive women to the "fantasy" realm. Moreover, there's a major problem when visibility of women is limited to illustrating concepts, rather than characterizing people--see if you can spot it:

The emotions of Inside Out are in many ways the direct descendants of this allegorical tradition, and centuries of this hardly led to meaningful inclusion of women in literature or public life. Now, I should at least acknowledge that Joy, Sadness, and Disgust are all offered the chance to be a little bit more humanized and interesting than the above virtues...

Is this faint enough praise to damn them with?

... but they still exist within a film and a broader literary/cinematic landscape that has scarcely any room for actual women. So, let's see...celebrating mythologized women while real women are expected to stay at home? Where have I seen that before?

Oh hello, Victorian social mores! How'd you get in here?!

Relying on allegorical concepts as adequate representation for women ignores the depth, flaws, and motivations that real human beings have. This is a prime example of benevolent sexism and its pitfalls: while a culture might pretend to love women as it lionizes ideals imagined in feminine bodies, any actual woman is going to fall short of a simplified, idealized portrayal and will therefore be viewed as deficient. This then feeds into the shutting-out of realistic and actually-real women from influence and visibility in our culture's stories and our lives. Like all social injustices, this operates on a systemic level. Therefore, offering an un-critiqued system--where men are the presumed heads of households and economic drivers with women as their support--is not undone by presenting admirable female individuals, especially when they demonstrate no ability or desire to change that underlying system.

Up next, we'll be looking at how these stereotypes affect the story itself...

4 comments:

  1. Hello there!

    I found interesting your analysis of the movie, but I disagree with some of your points. I’m not saying you’re wrong or that your interpretation should be dismissed, but I write this down in order to put our another perspective and to built a dialogue between different points of view. That been said I will try to be schematic and organized on following argumentation:

    1) I was really excited about the mix cast for the emotions when I saw the trailer and I was a bit disappointed when I discovered that Riley was the only one, even between the prepubescents characters . For me an all or a significantly-majority female emotions cast would be a huge mistake, even if the some of the other teenagers minds are full with matching sex (I use this word intentionally) -gender emotions. BUT this is not based on some biological reason, it has barely nothing to do with the hormones or puberty. The idea of mixed emotions that combine a almost equal distribution meant a reference to the idea that gender, gender identity and gender roles are social constructions and a reference to a more related to Queer Theory statement, in which mismatched of sex and gender can and should be approved, more even that the mixture of feminine and masculine characteristics is possible. In other words, that masculinity and femininity (and more categories) coexist in each and every one of us and they are not mutually exclusive, what we decided to embraced depends on more factors that the gens we were born with. As of my point of more adolescents with mixed emotions it has to be with historicity, I don’t say that queer studies and gender questioning haven’t been in the world until recent years, but I’m saying now is more open about diversity as such (we’re not THAT open but it’s better than to say 60’s). That’s why I wasn’t turned down by the parent’s emotions in the trailer, they grew up in world were social context and media weren’t that outspoken. From my point of view this is key, because all female minds controlled only by feminized emotions allow statements such as female nature, obligations and roles. I don’t think I need to explain why this is dangerous. As for the reasons behind this decision, I think they didn’t do it for the arguments I enlist above, and It’s possible that it has something to do with your argument, but I was also thinking in Brave or Frozen for example, which have an female center cast and their target is general audience.

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    1. Hi Maria, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I should say that I don't have a problem with the mixed-gendered emotions themselves...what annoys me is that they're used as an excuse by some commenters for the sexism in the rest of the film. And if everyone had a different gender blend of emotions I think that would be an interesting concept for the movie (with the caveat of course that the genders were consistently the same in each person's head--i.e, Anger always male, Sadness always female--that would be a huge problem for obvious reasons). It's really that it's JUST Riley that tells me it's to make her more relatable, rather than a statement on the complexities of gender.

      I don't agree that the parents' emotions' genders are the result of socialization in a different time, because we see Riley's emotions fully formed when she is too young to have any self-perception of gender, and they don't change morphology as Riley grows up (but then again everyone else's seem to look like them, so go figure!).

      This is another reason that I don't necessarily agree that female emotions have to imply femininity. Just like being female-bodied and/or identifying as a woman in the real world doesn't require the trappings of socially-constructed feminine behavior, interests, and so on. So I think either all characters' emotions having a blend of genders or all characters having gender-concordant emotions would have both been valid directions for the film.

      Also, I kind of think Frozen and Brave are more female-targeted in their concept and their development, and I've read a lot of guys who just don't get Brave (I actually really liked it). Frozen I think came to be seen as a general audience movie just because it's damn good so it expanded beyond the market originally created for it.

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  2. 2)Concerning to the analysis of the “real world” vs. “mind world”, where the inside world has engaging and strong females and the outside world has them as plain stereotypical characters, I think is decontextualized. We don’t get to see much of the interaction between the “real” people surrounding Riley’s life, there is not character development for any of them, not for the male not for the female, we don’t see how their lives are when they are not around Riley or what they did for living before San Francisco. I fully agree with you, it would be interesting to see the mother with a successful career and a male teacher to mix things up, but it doesn’t mean these are the only ways in which stereotypes can be broken. I’m saying this not because you implied such a thing, but because I think it’s interesting to see, even if it’s not mayor part of the movie, that in most of the memories of Riley her dad is present (and not in the sitcom dad's way) in the “children’s care” which is usually a women’s task, demystifying a "only for one gender" role is also a fight for equality. It’s necessary that Hollywood diversify in the portray of people who subscribed to the woman gender among other categories, in which they fail, but it’s also necessary to shake it off (and to put it in cultural products such as movies) that we need a gender specific guide, who can show us how to be a empowered woman in the “right way" because she is a female. For me self empower (and femininity empower as I will explain in point 4) moment in “real world” is determined in moment Riley cries and is sincere with her parents.

    3)The key point of the movie is the acknowledge that all feelings matter and a critique against a society, which keep pushing us to believe that is possible and desirable to pursue a state of perpetual or almost perpetual happiness and if feel different you are sick or wrong. But for me it has a deeper and more complicated background, the dichotomy between rational and emotional, where rational is put out in the public sphere and the achievements in that field (successful career, academic degrees, etc.) are the one that counts, because they are useful to the economic system and its underlying ideology, emotional is reserved for the individual´s life (not family or friends, but inside) and needs to be handle to not interfered with the first one. So I’m putting this on the discussion in relation of the mother’s speech about Riley being happy and supportive to her father, it’s not about exemplifying a submissive and supportive “ideal” woman in the patriarcal way, it has to be with the fact that now that women participate more in macroeconomic productive part of society, they are target to emulate the meaning and the representation of rational success, that includes being joyful all the time. The proof for me that is not about the patriarcal way is the fact that at the end she´s accepted and not in the "it’s ok you feel like that not that’s not your place” manner by both her parents when she finally verbalized her feelings.

    4)Finally, Why I say expressing the feelings is a femininity empower? simply because in the patriarchal occidental dichotomy feelings belong to this category. Feelings are for feminine and acknowledge that they matter and they necessary for everyone’s life. Maybe it would cause more impact if the protagonist was a male gender character but I’m not going to complain about a Main character who identifies as a girl, because as you pointed out the portrayed of strong not cliché female character in cinema is dismal.

    Sorry for the long post.

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    1. 2) I think in a lot of movies the parents are more decontextualized than they are here. For instance, in Toy Story I can't remember seeing enough of Andy's mom to know what she does and that's fine for that story. And, as I mentioned in the piece, if characters like Joy and Sadness were in a movie that took place entirely in a fantasy world, I would think they're great. The problem is that we know just enough about Mrs. Andersen to know that Dad is the one with the business, Mom sees her role as supporting him, explicitly encourages Riley to do the same (this isn't just absence of evidence of empowerment, it's evidence of absence of empowerment), and EVERYTHING else she talks about is domestic/maternal.

      I'll be writing quite a bit about Riley's dad in the rest of this series, so check back when those posts are up and we can talk some more.

      3) I'll get into this a bit more in part 3 of this series, but for now I'll just say that the way it's written as focusing on the dad and his needs is a problem. Also, the expectation that women be happy and a source of emotional support for men was actually stronger in the Cult of Domesticity era, and CERTAINLY its revival in the 1950s. I think joyfulness is less expected of people with economic ambitions, compared to more competitive emotions like disgust or anger.

      4) I absolutely agree.

      Thanks again for your comments and please keep reading, as I'll be going into a lot of these issues in more detail in the rest of this series...

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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!