Guest writer Allan Verth braved Pixar’s latest offering because, frankly, Amy & Amy couldn’t think of anything worse. With a trailer which enforces an out-dated concept of family, and indoctrinates kids with stereotypes like the football-mad Dad or the hopelessly romantic Mom, is it any wonder the film was a bowl of horseshit? Man-bashing isn’t the epitome of feminism, despite popular thought to the contrary, and we’re more than happy to call it out as BS.
I had no real desire to go and see Pixar’s Inside Out, due to some very specific neuroses:
- I’d seen this idea years ago in a comic strip called the Numbskulls (in the pages of Beezer) and it freaked me out.
- It reminded me of George Lucas’ interfering with my beloved Star Wars (Midi-Chlorians anyone?)
- My fear of religion and its insistence that our thoughts and actions are not our own. Rather, they’re the whim of a bearded cloud dweller with nothing better to do than to guide us to keep ordering Domino’s Pizza.
However, having read several reviews that applauded it, I changed my mind (at least I think it was my choice) and now I’m at odds, as it was probably the most depressing, pessimistic depiction of growing up I’ve seen since Big (one of the few Tom Hanks’ films I can stomach). I tend to inhabit a position described as professional misery and a lot of my joy comes directly from schadenfreude, yet I took no pleasure in a family dynamic that depicted an outdated and offensive representation of patriarchy, masculinity and fatherhood (not to mention its problems with the depiction of its female characters, and reinforcement of heteronormative family structures).
THE BASICS OF PATRIARCHY ON FILM
The plot of Inside Out is fairly simplistic. A family moves from happy idyllic life in the country to miserable, worry laden existence in the city. Living space, cultural differences and climate merge to create disequilibrium. The emotional development of Riley (our vessel) is personified in five animated emojis: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger (I’ll come back to my concerns over Anger being gendered as male later). The architect of this conflict is quite clearly ‘Dad’ in his insistence that their family is uprooted from home and displaced on the other side of the country to meet the needs of his career. Why did Pixar, who orchestrated such an interesting representation of fatherhood in Finding Nemo, think that recycling an anachronism from Uncle Walt’s patriarchal, conservative, capitalist past would be applicable as a contemporary depiction of family? (Unless it’s a lost-in-transatlantic-translation criticism of the ideology of America’s Mid-West versus the progressive attitude of San Francisco?) I mean, I’m a fairly selfish person but you’d have to be advanced level selfish to move everyone you care about hundreds of miles just make to more money for yourself. Maybe this proves that American capitalism is a very different abomination to British capitalism, and that the wellbeing and happiness of the family is secondary to career in the land of the free (where nothing is free).
BECAUSE MEN ARE THE BREAD WINNERS – THAT’S JUST WHAT THEY ARE
Within the family, ‘Dad’ is the disciplinarian, the decision maker, the bread winner, the absent minded husband, the clowning buffoon and, if the daydreaming of ‘Mom’ is an indicator, not very good at fucking either. It’s not even a stereotype, it’s a dinosaur from the 1950s that defies modern masculine representations. I suppose I should be grateful that he wasn’t an estranged or absent father unable to deal with the responsibility of growing up. I did, however, begin to wish that Riley’s Dad would suffer the same fate as Andy’s Dad in Toy Story and be present only via the disembodied voice of Tom Hanks or as an out of focus old photographic reminder.
ALL MEN LIKE SOCCER, RIGHT? RIGHHHTTTT?!
There’s a scene at the dinner table in which Riley is struggling with the emotions of her first day at a new school under the gentle questioning of ‘Mom’, whilst ‘Dad’ is daydreaming about football. It’s jarringly odd because it’s totally unbelievable and quite clearly a scene altered for the international market. Why would ‘Dad’ who’s already been positioned as having a love for Ice Hockey be daydreaming about Soccer? Ok, I’ll admit it, Archie Gemmill’s goal for Scotland against Holland in Argentina ’78 does pop into my mind more often than it should, but never when I’m listening to my kids tell me how miserable they are. It’s this lack of understanding of Riley’s emotions that seems to be the central theme of Inside Out and it constantly hammers it home, to the point where I was actually questioning my understanding of my children (a feeling of inadequacy only quelled by a sense of relief that I’m not as shit as Riley’s ‘Dad’ at being a Dad). As if having the cartoon-equivalent of Don Draper as a father wasn’t bad enough, Riley’s negative emotions of fear and anger are gendered as masculine, and every ill-judged decision she makes is driven by anger and supposed male impulses as if to suggest that all mistakes in life are the direct result of the misfortune of being a man. Given my own experiences, that may well be true but I’d much rather see a glimmer of hope that I’m not entirely useless than an affirmation of my idiocy being a catalyst for disaster.
WHO WORE IT BEST? WHICH FILMS DID IT BETTER?
I tend to set the bar impossibly high when watching family movies by comparing all texts to Henry Selick and Neil Gaimen’s Coraline. Similar in theme (displacement, isolation and parental selfishness are all present), Coraline balances itself out with an understanding of the external pressures of adulthood, by treating all family members with equal regard. Don’t get me wrong, the investment in the emotional wellbeing of an 11 year old girl and the complexity of her development from baby to pre-pubescent is both touching and totally insightful in Inside Out, yet without the same attention to detail in the characterisation of her parents, the film feels contrived and one dimensional.
Having read other reviews of the movie, there appears to be a popular consensus that this lack of detail is due to the fact that we, the audience, are experiencing life via the mind of Riley and, as such, the complexities of parenthood (and all those adult worries you protect your children from) are hidden. That might be the case, but it smacks of laziness on the writers’ part. Sure, our kids are subjected to stereotypes and false expectations daily, but without exploring further the ways in which children and young people deal with the labels they’re given, doesn’t the film simply reinforce stereotypes rather than examine them?
IN CONCLUSION, WE’VE REGRESSED
It’s not just ‘Dad’ that’s a cardboard cut-out. ‘Mom’ has literally nothing at all to do or say of any worth whatsoever. Whilst Dad is busy practicing his Homer Simpson impression, Riley’s ‘Mom’ is there purely to service the needs of her husband and, then, her daughter, in that order. She apparently has no opinion on the move from Minnesota to San Francisco, no complaints as to the cultural challenge facing them, and acts as a mediator between daughter and father, fulfilling a bizarre ‘Dad Apologist’ role. As a representation of parenthood, it’s a close call who comes off worse: 1950s Dads or Stepford Wives. There’s also a certain amount of irony in personifying the emotions of Joy, Disgust and Sadness as female and then applying none of these to ‘Mom’ (Editors’ note: We’re simple creatures, yo!).
The only time I became more engaged was when Joy and Sadness travelled through Riley’s mind and discovered the area of abstract thought. Yes, it was very Simpsonesque, but also quite inventive, switching between 3D animation, 2D and surrealism. I began to wish that the entire narrative had been a Fantastic Voyage style adventure inside the thought processes of a child rather than the film it was. It’s confused the hell out of me. My ten year old daughter enjoyed it, but is that a good thing? And what has she learnt from it? Try harder next time, Pixar. On the plus side, at least there were no fucking minions.
(Editors’ notes: We had similar thoughts of hate and despair watching Despicable Me 2, which undid all the great work of its predecessor, in pushing its two-parent-heteronormative-family politics on us. Ugh.)
ABOUT THE WRITER: Allan Verth is a Media Theory lecturer with an interest in representations of masculinity, pre-school television and pedagogy. Oh, and he’s an awesome DJ and lover of comics. His blog, Rants & Raves, is here.