On Inside Out and the Necessity of Sadness

(This is not actually a review or critique of Inside Out. It might be one or the other of my emotional state. Spoilers abound)

Inside Out

Inside Out

Last night I saw delightful children’s film, Inside Out, which just opened in Ireland. The twisting knife it jabbed joyfully into my insides has been working through me ever since.

Anyone who grew up with Disney and later Pixar cannot really claim to be surprised by the occasional emotional gut punch delivered by way of colourful children’s entertainment. I suspect Mufasa’s fall was my particular initiation but whether you first encountered it in Bambi or Finding Nemo, the existential tragedy of mortality has been Disney/Pixar’s stock in trade for generations.

Up, for instance, is perhaps the best example of this. Just think about that film, and you will find ghosts fluttering in the vaults of your memory. I think of my grandmother who died about six or seven months before I saw it. The first ten, fifteen minutes of Up stand as a mission statement for Disney/Pixar’s capacity and willingness to provoke distress. A friend of mine recently commented that Up is perhaps the most harrowing, honest short film about mortality ever made; the last hour is just sleight of hand to cheer us up. Wall-E, the ‘cute’ robot film, is not so much concerned with literal death, but it is still littered with stark images of decay, abandonment and isolation. The Sisyphean monotony of his task, as well as his heart-breaking optimism and crushing image of his loneliness conspire to present a bleak, melancholic view of our reality. The child viewer might, and I stress might, be assuaged by the ultimately happy resolution, but the older we get, the more we are forced to deal with unspoken, tragic vision of existence that lingers around the fringes of these narratives. We begin to recognise Wall-E’s wasteland in the inhabited world all around us.

Inside Out continues that proud tradition of ripping out your emotional heartstrings and playing with them for fun, even waving them gleefully in your face.

The story of Inside Out involves an eleven year old girl named Riley as she moves from Minnesota to San Francisco where her father is starting a new software company. Much of the plot, however, takes place inside Riley’s head, played out in the interactions between her anthropomorphised emotions. These emotions inhabit a control room inside Riley’s mind and are shown to be responsible for her daily interactions, and reactions. Irish and UK folks might be familiar with The Numbskulls from The Beano/Dandy, which operates on a similar concept. Let Amy Poehler (the voice of Joy) explain it much better than I can:

The plot largely revolves around the competing stresses placed on Riley as she negotiates the move, starting a new school, fitting herself and her needs into a new situation. The action plays out in the necessarily map-cap adventure undertaken by Joy and Sadness as they attempt to get back to Headquarters after getting lost in Long-Term Memory. We also get glimpses inside the heads of other characters, to see their emotional make up. For instance, while Joy is the ‘lead’ emotion for Riley, Sadness and Anger take point for her mother and father respectively.

If the deck seems stacked in favour of emotional distress, you can believe me when I say I was prepared for that. I didn’t quite expect, however, that days later I’d still be picking it over, examining myself and my new (and/or suddenly exposed) neuroses. I have spoken a little, here, about my particular sense of self, and while Inside Out hasn’t quite provoked a crisis of identity, it has certainly encouraged me to starkly examine some realities I generally rather leave to hang around the edges of my consciousness. I imagine it is hard to watch the personified antics of the Emotions, without at some point finding yourself wondering about your own emotional make-up, which leads quite directly to wondering about your emotional health.

This act, perhaps, is innocently curious for a child. The question, “Who Am I?” is fundamental and foundational, after all. As we age, I feel like it becomes increasingly fraught with terrors and disappointments; the edifice on which we build ourselves becomes infinitely more prone to fracture as it solidifies. In this respect, the challenge of self-examination presented by the film becomes more emotionally charged. Indeed, for adults, I feel like each of these films carries a darker, bleaker undercurrent. When my sister brought my younger cousins to Toy Story 3, she bawled crying (as so many of us did), during that particular scene in the rubbish incinerator. My cousins, the children, the supposed audience, saw this as standard film threat, soon to be resolved. For my sister, for us adults, it is not the threat of death, but the toys’ resigned resilience to it that engenders our reaction. It is the sight of them as they reach for one another, joining hands, in the face of certain death, that brings us to tears. We wonder, I suppose, if we will face our ends with such composure? If we will be lucky enough to be in such fine company when our time runs out? If we will, as we secretly suspect, be alone when our day comes? We know, with certainty, there is no Claw coming to our rescue.


That is not to say, however, that adults and children have wholly irreconcilable experiences of these films. Disney’s continuing commitment to plumb the depths of emotional turmoil actually provides fertile ground for mutual understanding. For parents/guardians/teachers or even simply adults who are willing to engage with these concepts, they can provide excellent tools. While a child is busy following the bouncing giddy adventures through these lavish imaginary landscapes, they are also developing the vocabulary to discuss mortality, death, loneliness and tragedy. This is healthy, and indeed helpful. Both communication and society are built on the foundation of shared vocabulary. In the case of Inside Out, it seems clear that the creators (Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, Jonas Rivera) have done an amazing job creating a largely accurate template by which adults and children can engage with their emotional structure. You can read more on that here, here, and here.

Of course I cried. Of course I did. I’ve never hesitated to cry for unreal worlds, imaginary people. In real life, in my real life, when these moments come there is so often so much, too much, to be done and there’s no time for tears. I know I cried for my grandfather, in the dark outside the pub after his funeral, when I lied and went to smoke a cigarette alone so no one would see. My grief doesn’t belong to anyone but me.

It is so much easier to cry for fiction.

There are moments of supreme sadness in Riley’s story throughout Inside Out. As adults we’re probably quite familiar with the elements of loss that pervade the narrative; her friend Meg, left behind in Minnesota; the (thankfully brief) collapse of her love of a particular hobby; and interestingly, the loss of her “goofball” aspects. Watching these pieces fall into oblivion, and seeing how that warps her reactions in the real world, I can’t think of any more appropriate response than grief. We’re not simply responding to Riley, of course. In many respects, we’re also drawn into considering the aspects of ourselves that have been shed, abandoned or destroyed in the march to maturity. For Riley, these tragedies are worked out positively by the narrative, but the film never strays too far into fantastical optimism.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Inside Out is its concern with the concept of sadness. Not just grief, but the more pervading, engulfing, lingering kind of sadness. The film has a remarkably mature attitude to Sadness. We live in a cultural and social construction where sadness is often framed in a particularly negative context. There is a pressure, which we all sometimes unconsciously collude in, to be happy. Be careful, when reading the word sadness, not to conflate it with depression; depression, as much I can condense something so vast and poorly understood, is perhaps differentiated from sadness by a sense of emptiness. It is marked by its hopelessness, pessimism, guilt, a sense of worthlessness, helplessness, mania and/or fatigue.

Sadness is not this.

We live in a damaged, broken world, and we are damaged, broken people. It is all right to mourn, from time to time. This is something that is not merely neglected by our mainstream, utterly consumerist society; you are not meant to be unhappy. If you are, there is a solution. There is a product. A distraction. There is something to consume. “Why are you not happy?” you are asked. “Well here then!” you are told.

Sadness is often considered as a selfish act, particularly in public. Who among us hasn’t demanded, or begged, either ourselves or another person to cheer up, to put on a brave face? I am certainly guilty of both. However, sadness is not easy, and comes with specific and awful burdens. It is a great strength of Inside Out that its resolution revolves around the acceptance of sadness.

I want to note here that there is a lot of symbolic importance in making Riley female, as girls and women often face more explicit societal calls to police their emotional responses, and to perform happiness publically. There is a mountain of reasoning behind having “Goofball Island” be the first personality trait to crumble as Riley negotiates growing up. Riley’s turmoil extends from the fact that her parents need her to act “happy” while her father deals with the stress of setting up his new life. Riley doesn’t want to make it any harder, but in denying her authentic emotional response her repression leads to frustrated, explosive bursts of erratic behaviour and upset. When she finally explains to her parents that she misses home, and articulates her sadness, she also begins to function emotionally again. Both Joy and the audience are expressly invited to examine how Sadness is necessary, how it can be useful, and that there is often a profound need to experience it. When Riley cries, for instance, her parents comfort her; but more explicitly, metaphorically, once Sadness is returned to the control room and allowed to act, Riley’s internal workings begin to function again.

It is possible that Inside Out’s message can operate as a much needed panacea to the Latter Day Cult of Positivity that infects our culture. In one way, this manifests as the aforementioned casual, omnipresent insistence that we preform public happiness, in our social circles, in our work, etc. There are those who consciously press the ideology further, insisting that performed happiness will contribute to real joy, even in private. These are the people who (often innocently) tell you to think positive thoughts. They are those who insist that if you want something hard enough, that if you preform positivity well enough, the universe will provide. Whole industries exist around this dogma, selling “wellness” like it’s a shower gel. Businesses bring in agencies to teach “work-life balance” but essentially operate on the principles of enforced optimism, coerced public happiness. Rather than address the significant issues that threaten public/staff/personal moral, we are trained to buy into the cult of delusional positive thinking. Any sadness, unhappiness, or anxiety that cannot be bought off with material products or expensive mental rhetoric is rendered taboo.

Inside Out affirms the right of people to be emotionally honest, not only with themselves, but with society at large. It affirms the absolute necessity of this act. The most personally profound realisation I had, since watching the film, is the idea that Sadness is most likely my ‘lead’ emotion, that it is my core. It is not that I have realised I am in some way more sad than I had previously believed; I know, with varying degrees of insight, who I am. I still feel like Inside Out provides a new critical tool for measuring my internal structure.

I’m well aware that I struggle with anxiety and stress. I grind my teeth in my sleep to the extent that I’ve literally shattered one of them. My job sucks, I’m broke and I work hard at a long-term solution that eats up most of my free time, leaving me with little or no time to enjoy myself. The best hours of the twenty-four come on either end of too little sleep, either in the swimming pool before work, or reading before bed at night. I’m relatively lucky that I have good friends and reasonably stable support structures, as well as enough money to cover my dental costs. That doesn’t invalidate my problems.

We live in a broken society with a constantly widening gap between rich and poor, continued explicit assaults on every aspect of social progress in the name of austerity. Internationally, xenophobia and racism are on the rise. Cultural, political and social apathy fester like a sore. The pervading socio-political structure seeks to commodity and control women’s bodies and actively, insidiously orchestrates my participation. Dangerous machismo lurks at every turn, offering a place at the foot of a table I don’t want to sit at in exchange for becoming my worst self, in exchange for damaged mental health and a heap of vague but supposedly glittering rewards. Just because I’m privileged enough that many of these issues don’t directly affect me, or affect me less than others, doesn’t mean they don’t impinge on my mental outlook.

I know I’m lucky. I know I’m sad.

Sometimes I am sad about things actively happening my life. Sometimes I am sad because of what I see when I look at the world. And sometimes, even when I am enjoying myself, I know that the entire superstructure of my selfhood is tinted entirely with a morose, pessimistic blueness. I can look at a beautiful sunset and think first of the day the sun will swallow our world, and worry that we won’t have gotten off the planet before it happens. That we might have already wiped ourselves out before ever having a shot at Earth 2.0. That perhaps every intelligent species in the universe grows up alone and dies the same way, never meeting, whole universes and eons distant from each other. That maybe it’s the same for people.

So, yes – I think that Sadness is the primary emotion in my metaphorical control room. I don’t imagine that Joy and Sadness are inherently opposite, and to its credit, neither does Inside Out. Rather than being at war with each other, they have their own specific functions. Sadness runs the show. Fear and Anger act as stalwart lieutenants, providing the heavy lifting, the fuel and determination to exist. Disgust keeps us from trusting broccoli. For me though, Joy will perhaps always be a small, flitting thing, precious and wondrous, but utterly fragile. That is not to say that I am not often happy; it is just small, mixed and tinged with a hint of melancholy. Joy, pure and alone, comes in only the stillest, rarest of moments.

I am a broken thing, damaged and warped by traumas and anxieties and neuroses I cannot even remember or articulate, and I am built of memories and dreams and hopes and responses that come because of and despite this damage. I am formed of the scar tissue left in the wake of my life. I exist as I am because of my experiences, and much like Riley, like all of us, my core is shaped by hurt and loss, disappointment and sadness, as much as joy and love and support.

It is interesting that Riley’s mother’s lead emotion is also Sadness. Yet, she is a fully functioning, caring and committed individual – she is not in any way lessened, broken or damaged simply because of her emotional construction. This, I believe, is the essential message of the film. Who we are, who we have come to be, by way of experience and fracture, is profoundly correct. You are entitled to be angered by this world, its injustices and failures. You can laugh at its silliness and be awed by its majesty. You can mourn it. No matter how you are built, what life has carved into you or how the scars have healed over, you are still an authentic self. You get to choose what to do with who you are.

So I shall fear, and I shall rage. I will have my moments of joy, precious, quiet and still.

And right down in my deepest core, I shall be sad.

And I shall be me.