What “Inside Out” Has to Say About Gender Roles

Warning: Once you get past this intro paragraph there will be plenty of spoilery talk about the new Pixar movie “Inside Out.” We saw it on Friday and I can’t stop thinking about it, and specifically how it presents the emotions with regards to gender. So I’m going to write about it and talk about it right now. You have been warned. And if you haven’t seen the movie for some reason, go see it right now! Then come back and read this and we can have a discussion.

In the new Pixar movie “Inside Out,” which I know you have seen because I specifically told you in the intro to go see it before reading any more of this lest you be mildly spoiled, we get the story of the 5 controlling emotions inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. Those emotions are Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. There are actually 7 distinct emotions which we can recognize universally by their facial expressions, and the two that Pixar left out were Contempt and Surprise, which I can only assume was because Billy Eichner and Ellen Degeneres were unavailable. Seriously, how great would they be at Contempt and Surprise?

So anyway, we’ve got 5 core emotions in Riley’s head, and three of them (Joy, Sadness, and Disgust) are female, while two of them are male (Anger and Fear). This, as it turns out, plays right into our cultural stereotypes about gender. Did you know that when a baby is crying, we assign intent based on gender. Crying boy babies are more likely to be assumed to be angry or upset, whereas crying girl babies are assumed to be sad. And of course none of this is true, but it is what we believe to be true. Anger is masculine, sadness is feminine. And like a self-fulfilling prophecy, our actions as we grow and mature reinforce these stereotypes until women believe themselves to be sad! And men believe themselves to be angry! Even when they are actually just sad.

So we get a peek at the emotions of a child, led by Joy and immersed in a kind of gender fluidity that will no longer be universally accepted once she hits that puberty button. We know that this bi-genderedness will no longer be there, because the film then gives us an inside look into the minds of the parents. Yes, I know this is a Disney movie, but for some reason she still has both of her parents. You will notice that her mother’s mind is full of the same five emotions as Riley, but they are all female. Her father’s emotions are all male. When did this happen? Did they start out with mixed gender emotions, but over time came to solidly identify with one gender identity? Had they always been all male or all female? They are stereotypes after all. The mother is all domestic, all worry and concern, and the father is all work, and business and protection. Maybe that’s just who they are.

John Lassetter assumed that this was the case, that Pete Docter the director was telling us that as we age, we gel into a more specific gender identity, but Docter said in an interview that he really just did it for clarity. So maybe it doesn’t mean anything at all. But is sure is interesting, isn’t it? It fits right in with what we already think, so even if it wasn’t intentional, it absolutely conforms to what we assume subconsciously. Hmmmm. Irony?

Of course once you get past the realization that her parents have all been reduced to a single mental gender, you also will notice that Joy is no longer in control. And if you have been paying attention this whole time, you can probably guess who is. Riley’s mother is controlled by Sadness, and her father is controlled by Anger. Joy no longer sits at the center of the console. Isn’t that interesting? And we see Riley herself moving towards Sadness by the end of the film. If Riley had been male, would the movie have steered toward Anger instead?

Of course at the end of the day, it’s just a cartoon. It is fiction. It is just some people’s ideas of how things work. But the thing is, it’s brilliant. These are good ideas. And whether they meant to or not, the filmmakers have made some powerful, and possibly true, statements on the nature of, and relationship between, gender and emotion in our culture. As the credits roll, we get some fun looks inside of some of the other characters in the movie. We see the bus driver, and his head is full of only anger! How does that happen? Is that an intentional choice made by the writer, or is it just a one-off gag? Hard to say. But there are just so many places to go and ways to explore this world that they have created, that this is one film that I am already eagerly awaiting a sequel announcement for. That puberty button is just sitting there waiting to be pressed, and I am very excited to see where they might take it as we see into the mind of an adolescent.

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Posted in Anger, Disney, Fear, Inside Out, Irony, Pixar, Sadness.


  1. Pingback: 7 Puns You Might Have Missed From Pixar's 'Inside Out' - Ceylinks

  2. Actually, we see the cool girl who most likely is the same age as Riley has emotions all of the same gender while the (young adult) Pizza shop girl has a mixed genders, so maybe it is similar to the idea that gender is like shades of grey and not black and white and it varies per person.

    We also see the different characters are led by different emotions. Riley has Joy, Her mom has Sadness, Her Dad has Anger, Her Teacher has Joy, The Cool Girl has Fear, The Clown has Joy, The Bus Driver has Anger, The Pizza Girl has Disgust, etc. It seems to vary per person.

    I keep seeing these complaints, but the end of the movie and the bonus clip really tied up these questions. The movies really focused on the family unit, and the end bit has a lot to take in pretty quickly.
    This common complaint that the article discusses is quickly debunked by the source material itself and makes me wonder if you truly cared about this topic and researched it or if this is a sensationalized article where the writer doesn’t care and it was meant to be ‘clickbate.’

    • Hey, thanks for commenting. As I said, I am not faulting the movie for what I saw as the focus of the gender roles. Pixar is far more progressive than most. I am more concerned with our culture in general, and how it was reflected in the movie, rather than the film itself, which I loved and thought was probably the best thing I saw this year. So to clear up your wonderings, yes I researched, yes I care deeply about this topic, and yes I want to bait people into clicking on my stuff. 🙂

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