Since the good ole days of DSL and dial-up internet, I’ve been obsessively tracking rumored or upcoming Disney and Disney/Pixar films. I remember in the early 2000s hunting down information about Disney’s version of Rapunzel (which of course became Tangled in 2010); the early version of Rapunzel’s story was plagued with problems. At one point, it was called Rapunzel: Unbraided, which followed a very Enchanted-like story arc where two modern day teenagers were transported to a fairy tale realm and essentially took up the mantle of Rapunzel and her prince.
I devoured any and all information about Disney’s adaptation of The Snow Queen back when it was a darker, more faithful-to-the-original tale scored by Alan Menken before it became Frozen, the Tale of Two Sisters; Snow Queen rumors date back to the Walt-era, who had trouble adapting what is probably Hans Christian Andersen’s most intricately woven fairy tale.
When Disney officially acquired Pixar in 2006, I had a whole new landscape of animated films to obsess over, including Inside Out, which was known for years in the Disney Blogosphere as The Untitled Pixar Movie That Takes You Inside The Mind.
The concept of the film is excitingly fresh, even for a studio who produced groundbreaking films about washed-up, retired superheroes (The Incredibles); a rat who became the chef of a French restaurant in Paris (Ratatouille); a garbage-compacting robot whose sole task was to clean up Earth after humans completely ravaged all the natural resources (because we’re currently doing that right now) who single-handedly saves humans from a life of obesity by finding plant life on Earth (Wall-E); an old curmudgeon who sets out in search of adventure after his wife’s passing (Up!); one father’s ocean-wide trek to find his kidnapped son (Finding Nemo); and a rag-tag collection of personified toys in search of the true meaning of friendship and fulfilling their life’s purpose (the Toy Story trilogy), among others. Inside Out is the story of the emotions of an adolescent girl, main character Riley, which promises to take viewers inside her mind to the emotional command center of the brain and showcase how emotions drive her.
And just as quickly as my excitement came, it went. And I facepalmed. Despite the ingenious creativity behind the idea, the gorgeous and colorful animation, and the rich world Pixar created, the trailer showcases the most dated views on gender that I’ve ever seen. Not only is it horribly stereotypical, but it’s reductive black-and-white representation of gender is, quite frankly, offensive.
Take a look:
The beginning of the trailer starts out promising. As an older brother, and the eldest cousin in my family, I know how moody teens can be. One minute, they’re sunshine, and the next minute, they’re plummeting down a hole of deep despair and taking you with them, all because you asked them how their day was. I like the prospect of a film diving into the emotional complexities of a pubescent teen; it’s different and daring. So far, so good.
Then we dive into mom’s brain.
Gender Offense #1: It’s minor, yes, but the cast of emotions looks like the ever-rotating cast of women on The View. They all look like various versions of 1950s housewives, equipped with pearls and coffee cups at the ready. Still, the female emotions represented inside mom’s brain are shrewd observers and rational thinkers, able to assess the situation at hand. Even mom’s version of “anger” is cool, calm, and collected. So, like I said, it’s a minor offense.
They decide that, in order to get through to daughter Riley, they need to signal the husband for support. This is a great job of representing the necessity of dual parenting, yes, but then…
Gender Offense #2: This one is a big one. The wife “ahems,” and of course the husband is not paying attention at the dinner table. Instead, he’s replaying a soccer game in his head, more focused on anything other than his wife and daughter. His emotions, much like mom’s, resemble that of 1950s working Ad men, complete with pornstaches.
Then it becomes clear that the husband isn’t paying attention because he actively “tunes into” his wife, as if she’s a form of entertainment that he was selectively listening to. Then, his “anger” emotion somehow “rationalizes” that she’s irritated with him because he “left the toilet seat up,” because all major marital fights are rooted in urine on toilet seats, not something more important like, I don’t know, caring about the emotional state of your child…
Gender Offense #3: Once inside Riley’s mind, the viewers meet her five emotions, and two out of the five are male. This is wonderfully progressive and shows that gender is more blurred and that it’s not just the black-and-white (all women are inherently and innately 100% feminine/all men are 100% masculine) gender tropes. However, this doesn’t jive with the depiction of mom and dad’s emotions and the stark contrasts between the two. Is Pixar implying that, as we age, we become more male or female? Is it meant to imply that children are more malleable when it comes to gender association, and that adults are set in their gender-specific ways? And more importantly, do the emotions in gender-specific child all start out proportionately, as depicted with Riley, and then spontaneously change gender? Is Pixar boldly setting out to define gender expectations?
It’s a tall order to assign gender to emotions. It’s a risky move, no doubt, to label “anger” as a male-dominated emotion and design the character as a hot-headed, suit-wearing, mustache-growing male. It’s reductive and boxing. It’s also absurd to say that emotions like “joy” and “disgust” are inherently feminine (even these emotions in dads brain look a bit effeminate…or maybe I’m just reaching.) This just perpetuates stereotypes of women that have persisted in media for decades now.
Had the gender assignment of these emotions been more varied and the design of the characters been progressive instead of redundant, then I wouldn’t be writing this piece at all. The problem is that we, as a society, Hollywood and seemingly Pixar included, are still so set in our antiquated notions of how gender seems to indicate and/or equal identity. However, blockbusters like The Hunger Games quadrilogy, Divergent, and even Disney’s own Frozen have striven to showcase strong female writers and directors, as well as heroes in Katniss, Tris, and Elsa, respectively; Marvel and DC are preparing to do the same with their respective heroes Captain Marvel (Black Widow, as an Avenger, was already a huge step forward) and Wonder Woman. I think there is a responsibility to NOT reinforce destructive stereotypes, to do better. Women deserve better. Men deserve better. But really, it’s the children growing up watching these films that deserve better; they deserve to see caring fathers and mothers who aren’t housewives, so that they might be able to one day realize their true potential lies outside of the confines of gender construction.
Identity has to be about more. Because it is about so much more that pinks versus blues, suit-and-ties versus, and penis- versus vagina- driven stereotypical behaviors.
I’ll reserve full judgement for the rest of the film, which I’ll still see opening weekend, as I do with every Disney and Disney/Pixar animated film. But I’ll definitely view it with analytical eyes, hoping that this trailer truly wasn’t indicative of the nature of the film. Pixar has, in fact, always been on the cutting edge of story telling and character development and going against the grain. I look forward to seeing if and how Inside Out fits into their groundbreaking canon.
What do you think about the trailer? Am I nitpicking? Or do the gender lines seem a bit too reductive? Sound off the comments below!