ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: ‘Inside Out’ and Today’s Reductive Emotional Landscape

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: ‘Inside Out’ and Today’s Reductive Emotional Landscape

nullIn 1943, Walt Disney Studios released a cartoon called ‘Reason and Emotion‘ which depicted man’s inner life as a battlefield between sensible Reason, portrayed as an elegant little man with a suit, tie, and glasses, and wild man Emotion, portrayed as a small caveman. In the cartoon, Reason and Emotion battled for control inside a man’s head, seen in silhouette, with Reason confidently driving in front and Emotion dejectedly confined to the backseat. When Reason spies a beautiful young woman on the street he suggests being respectful, while Emotion attempts to take Reason’s place at the wheel by encouraging cat calls and whistles. When the camera zooms inside the young woman’s head, we see a similar scenario, with Reason portrayed as a prim and proper woman with glasses, while Emotion, with her loose hair and short skirt, tries to take control of the wheel, so that she can get dessert, ruining poor sensible Reason’s diet.

It’s clear that our cultural attitude about the role of emotion (as well as gender roles) has evolved significantly since 1943. Pixar’s latest film, ‘Inside Out,’ portrays a world where the emotions—Anger, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Joy—play equal and important roles in helping Riley, the film’s young heroine, navigate the world around her. The film starts with Joy taking the helm, but ends with the express argument that as 11-year old Riley grows up she will need to confront new situations, and that each emotion will play an important role in helping her to navigate this new landscape.

Critics have rightly gushed over ‘Inside Out’—at Slate, Amanda Marcotte notes how wonderfully universal the film’s themes are and also points out the strong feminist undercurrent about how girls shouldn’t be encouraged to mask their feelings and put on a happy face.  Many critics also note the sheer gorgeousness of the Pixar world inside Riley’s head. Anthony Lane at The New Yorker declares, “On the scale of inventiveness, ‘Inside Out’ will be hard to top this year. As so often with Pixar, you feel that you are visiting a laboratory crossed with a rainbow.”

If the world of ‘Reason and Emotion’ portrayed a landscape where emotion was seen as dangerous, the world of ‘Inside Out’ portrays a world where emotional lives are stunningly compartmentalized. Core memories, portrayed as brightly colored orbs, are located at the forefront of Riley’s mind, while older memories are either stowed or thrown away into a vast sea of memories that no longer seem to matter. Riley’s overall quality of life and personality is based on the health of each of her core “islands”—one is based on family, one on “goofball,” another one sports. These islands are surprisingly fragile, completely disintegrating when Riley encounters a situation that is hurtful, or frightening, or frustrating. When Riley’s core memories are threatened after she moves from Minnesota to California, feelings Joy and Sadness must begin an epic quest to place them where they rightfully belong.

Riley’s emotional world in ‘Inside Out’ is portrayed as inherently fragile; her “islands of personality” for example, are portrayed as actual physical islands made of real raw materials that crumble and break and disappear forever when Riley’s trust in those worlds is diminished. This physical representation of memory is shaped by our current cultural moment as much as Disney’s 1940s portrayal of reason and emotion was.  After all, Riley’s increasingly complex collection of memories looks a lot like the way we collect and store memories online today, with happy ones on proud visible display on our Facebook timelines and Instagram accounts, and sad ones minimized, covered up, or pushed to the side.

In ‘Inside Out,’ all of our emotional worlds seem dangerously close to extinction. Each of Riley’s personified emotions is reactive when encountering a new situation. Anger blows his top. Disgust turns up her nose. Fear flails around terrified. The film’s core message, that emotions, even Sadness, who at first seems quite useless, play key important roles in helping to maintain Riley’s emotional stability, seems in some ways to reject the notion of reason whatsoever. When entering the heads of Riley’s parents, for example, we see older, wiser “mom” and “dad” versions of these same five emotions, each of whom, often to comical effect, struggles with many of the same feelings that Riley does.

‘Inside Out’ illustrates how we live in a world that is on the surface much more open to the complexities of our emotional inner worlds than was the 1943 world of ‘Reason and Emotion.’ And yet, in many ways ‘Inside Out’ also reflects just how reductive today’s emotional landscape ultimately is. In today’s current cultural climate we are rarely given the latitude to express a complicated emotional response to something we read and see. The world of social media encourages knee jerk reactions—a like, or dislike, an outraged tweet. We’re allowed to feel the same five emotions that Riley experiences—joy, fear, disgust, sadness, and especially anger, but are rarely encouraged for sharing emotions that are too complex to boil down to a hashtag. We live in a world where emotions are plentiful, but they are also stock responses that don’t allow for very much in the way of nuance.

In the end of ‘Inside Out,’ Sadness saves the day, as Riley is able to express the complex emotions of nostalgia and grief, which are depicted as an intermingling of joy and sadness, and Riley’s core memories are allowed to shift hues from purely golden to shades of blue. But the final scene is a bit more unsettling, as Riley’s emotions consider a far more advanced motherboard, along with a large red button labeled, “puberty” that has yet to be pushed yet. While ‘Inside Out’ presents emotional growth as a natural transition from childhood to adulthood, it also presents a relatively modern cultural attitude that expressing emotion, even emotions that can be upsetting or unpleasant like fear, anger or sadness, can actually be a good thing. As a parable for coming-of-age in a digital world ‘Inside Out’ also suggests that we are still learning how to communicate our emotions to one another in ways that help us establish dialogues, as opposed to emotional battlefields where feelings are often wielded as weapons to protect ourselves or hurt the other person.

Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contestsShe is currently writing her first book.

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