Pictured: JOY. ©2015 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
Pictured: JOY. ©2015 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

I sat in the movie theater yesterday, my cheeks stained with dry tears, creating constantly flooding rivulets that soaked into the corners of my mouth.  My shoulders drooped, and I leaned my head back on my chair, trying to remember that little people don’t actually exist inside my head, and that Disney-Pixar’s latest “Inside Out” was just a fantasy, simply an allegorical story, intending to teach children about the complexity of emotion.

While I enjoyed the movie immensely, finding a plethora of relevant points for connection, I couldn’t help but feel an inner dissonance throughout the movie.  While there were moments where my connections were so visceral that I could feel the little people in my head screaming in Fear, overflowing with Joy, or drowning in Sadness, there were other points where I felt perplexed, confused, and wondering if this was, in fact, the most accurate depiction of what it’s truly like to feel and manage emotions. Was the movie trying to tell us that we are truly incapable of both controlling and responding to our emotions? Or did it simply normalize and unite emotions, meanwhile helping to enrich our understanding of personal growth and the human condition?  But even more than these important questions, I felt my dissonance burn when I began to wonder about gender.

The Boy Who Cried

Growing up, I was always the boy who cried a lot.  I cried when someone hurt my feelings, I cried when I was in trouble, and I cried when I got a bad grade.  My emotions were antonymous to masculinity, synonymous with femininity, and a source of shame.  And even today, I find myself still identifying with this feminine emotional stereotype and still talking myself out of the shame associated. And as a result, the gendered depiction of emotions within the movie were quite striking to me.

At first glance, it seemed that Riley, the little girl who houses all of these emotions, had a head mixed with male and female emotions, potentially sending the message that emotion itself is absent of gender. However, as the movie progressed, I noticed more.  I noticed Anger, guised as a short and stocky man with a deep, gravelly voice, constantly flying off the handle in the stereotypical male fashion. Similarly, Disgust, dressed in cute clothes and made up from head to toe, was reminiscent of your typical high school “mean girl,” sending strong messages about emotions in female adolescence.  Moreover, Fear, the wimpy and ninny-like skinny man, frequently served as comic relief.  And most notably, Joy and Sadness were personified as two markedly different types of women, capturing the idea that relentless optimism and sensitive empathy are synonymous with the female emotional condition.

inside out
Image: Courtesy of Forbes.

Were these the result of coincidence or conscious choice?  I wasn’t–and still am–not quite sure.  Because these are not represented as such in every character in the movie.

Gender and Emotion in Adulthood

The complexity of the interplay between gender and emotion became all-the-more apparent when we began to see the emotions of other characters, specifically the mother and the father.  Interestingly enough, these personified emotions clearly became gender unified in these two adults.  The mother had a team of dignified ladies controlling her responses to emotions, looking as though they were sitting at a book club gossiping, while the father had a posse of men running a militaristic command center.

While the depiction of their respective “command centers” is gender stereotypical enough, I found it interesting the contrast between Riley’s mixed-gender emotions and the adults’ same-gender emotions.  Was this sending the message that gender becomes fixed over time?  Or was it sending an alternative message, that we all, regardless of gender, are united by our emotions?  I’ve entertained this idea because in this part of the movie, the portrayal of each of the emotions is remarkably different than those of Riley.  In these instances, all emotions, including joy, sadness, and fear, were personified as both male and female; it just so happened that in adulthood the gender identity of the adult was aligned with the gender of each of the emotions.

Perhaps it’s possible that all of these choices were conscious, intended to show children that emotions are complex, an intricate mixture of both masculinity and femininity.  But I think it’s also possible that these were unconscious choices, filtered and distilled into this charming adventure story through the sieve of implicit cultural norms and gender stereotypes. Sure, I maybe overanalyzing, and I may be reading way too far into a rather innocent and well-intentioned movie.  And it may cause you to wonder: Is this even an important discussion?  Is it possible, Paul, that you are overthinking this?

Of course, it’s entirely possible that I’m overthinking this.  But I’m overthinking it for a reason.

Gender and Emotion in the Classroom

Like I said before, I was one of those overly sensitive boys growing up, and today, I still am one of those overly sensitive men.  The only difference is now, as an adult, I see the power in my sensitivity.  It makes me whole, it makes me who I am, and it gives me superpowers in my classroom, as opposed to the defeating feelings that plagued me as a child and young man.  Now, as an adult and an educator, I want my students to feel the same superpowers I feel as an adult.  I want to normalize emotion, free it of its gender stereotypes, and show my students that feeling is a part of life, that Sadness should be valued just as much as Joy, and that through expressing emotion, we can provide ourselves the therapy, self-soothing, and validation we all desire as human beings.

No matter what, I think “Inside Out” is a social-emotional masterpiece, and I would not hesitate for a second to use this movie in my own classroom.  But with a more critical eye, it could help raise interesting questions about how we, as a society, can liberate ourselves and our emotions, regardless of gender or gender identity.

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5 thoughts

  1. You weren’t alone in your reaction to this movie. I felt the same way. It reminded me so much of when my local grocery store installed self-checkout lanes. As long as I was doing everything right, a sweet female voice interacted with me, but as soon as I momentarily leaned on the scale a stern male voice loudly said, “Unscanned item in the bagging area!” I marveled at the though process that went into the binary: woman’s voice for service, man’s voice for authority.

  2. You weren’t alone in your reaction to this movie. I felt the same way. It reminded me so much of when my local grocery store installed self-checkout lanes. As long as I was doing everything right, a sweet female voice interacted with me, but as soon as I momentarily leaned on the scale a stern male voice loudly said, “Unscanned item in the bagging area!” I marveled at the though process that went into the binary: woman’s voice for service, man’s voice for authority.

  3. I haven’t seen the movie, but my first exposure to it included my oldest son pointing out to my youngest son that the main character in the commercial was a girl–with his same name. All three of my sons have names that are increasingly common choices for either gender… I’ve met students and adults of both genders with my sons’ names (Evan, Grayson, Riley…some variations in spellings).

    I’ve seen before that it seems like the only acceptable emotion for men in our culture is rage, and the only time it is okay to cry is when your team wins the championship. I try to be very mindful of the lessons I teach my sons about emotion, but the challenge is that I’m trying to impart into them habits and norms that are very much contrary to how I was raised (being told not to cry, being called a “soft touch” for my sensitivity, being told to toughen up) with how I want them to be able to balance themselves. The prospect of having to help these three little guys figure themselves out when I barely have myself figured out is daunting…

    1. While I’m not (yet) a dad, I totally understand what you’re saying. I find having to balance that with my students is difficult, too! I think that’s why it’s most important to teach kids what vulnerability is and how to process their emotions.

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