Updated: Apr 29
I am SO looking forward to taking my oldest daughter to see the Pixar film Inside Out tomorrow.
We have only taken her once before to see a film in a movie theater but she fell asleep 10 minutes in. Not exactly the experience I had anticipated and built it up to be.
Okay, so the image in my mind might have been close to the scene in Annie when Mr. Warbucks takes her to see the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall.
I admit—I may have been overreaching in my expectations. I think she may have gotten more out of the buildup than the actual viewing experience. Moms of nap-boycotters will understand that I took it as a victory that at least she got a nap in (Amiright?!)
She’s now a good year older and as a Mom I’m again eager to share the excitement of going together to the movie theater. This time, I have more realistic expectations but I’m still admittedly hoping for some small fireworks-type gleam in her eye when the previews come on. She’s already excitedly chattering about the popcorn we will eat when we go, what the seats will feel like, whether the theater will be dark, and was practically salivating watching the movie’s trailers online: “Can we go today, Mommy? Please can we? Canwecanwecanweeeeeeee, pleeeeeeassse !?!!?”
As a counselor and promoter of feelings expression, my inner nerd (okay, who am I kidding, my outer being is pretty nerdy too) was stoked about the idea of a film exploring the importance of ALL emotions. A storyline that emphasizes the role each of our emotions has in regulating our experiences. In helping us cope with, learn from, and enjoy life. How freaking cool! Nerd alert. Nerd Alert!
As a feminist, body image activist, and Certified Eating Disorders Specialist, I’ve been conflicted about introducing certain movies to my daughters; namely, the Disney princess movies. My concerns lie in 2 main camps. First, the subtle and not-so-subtle messages about the role of women:
To have value is to get the guy.
To get the guy, a woman must rely on the guy, be awoken by a kiss, give up her voice, say very little when one does have a voice, be rescued, be patient, be kind, be helpful, be sexy but demure, be weak, and not have many positive relationships with women, if any at all.
And, second, the not-subtle-at-all messages about body image, shape, and size: To get the guy, a woman must have small feet, small waist, a big bosom, oval face, large eyes, smooth skin, red and plump lips, move gracefully, be wearing a dress…oh, and (most often) be white.
Increasingly, there are examples of princesses that defy some (but certainly not all!) of these requirements. Yeay for progress! But....it’s l.i.k.e. m…o…l…a…s…s…e…s.
And with some of the newer films, it seems that progress is made in one area while being diminished in another.
One more comment on body posture. Take a look at how Disney princesses have traditionally stood or sat. Each are in a position of implied weakness. Heads tilted, bodies in a swayed, coquettish posture. This is in contrast to images of the Disney princes, typically standing boldly, with squared shoulders, sometimes flexing and ready to jump into action if needed; a position of implied strength.
Notice that Disney princesses when pictured together are rarely making eye contact. Peggy Orenstein discusses the reason for this in her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter and in the hyperlinked article:
“To ensure the sanctity of what Mooney [Disney bigwig] called their individual “mythologies,” the princesses never make eye contact when they’re grouped: each stares off in a slightly different direction as if unaware of the others’ presence.”
Heaven forbid women authentically see or know each other!? Better for them to remain isolated or in competition, no?
Listen, I don’t want to be THAT mom. Ya know, the one that is trying to enact a social experiment on their child. I’ve already majorly failed at several of these attempts. Recently when the live-action Cinderella came out, my daughter saw the trailer on the television multiple times and was enamored with an (obviously digitally altered) image of the character in one of my magazines.
After the umpteenth time she had blissfully exclaimed “oh Mommy, she’s so pretty,” I stridently decided that THIS was the moment. I MUST say something to make sure she’s AWARE. I MUST be a killjoy!!! I pointed out that the magazine had cut out part of her waste to make it smaller.
Total. Mommy. Fail.
For a few days following, she asked question after question about “why would those bad people want to cut off her body? How did they do it? What did they use? Did it hurt her? Was she bleeding?”
Mommy needs to work on her delivery sometimes!
And when my daughter asks “why do all the other girls my age at the pool have the Barbie mermaid dolls and I can’t?” I need a better answer than “Because Mommy is a feminist who believes in equality, body diversity, health at every size, empowerment of women, and I don’t want you or your sister to develop an eating disorder.”
I know what you’re thinking. Playing with a Barbie doll is not going to cause her to have an eating disorder. Believe me, I know. I’ve worked with courageous women who were rail thin, practically on their death beds and equally courageous large women and men working toward accepting their bodies in a world that communicates to them “You are wrong to exist the way you do.” Yes, I know playing with a Barbie doll is not solely going to cause someone to have an eating disorder. It’s not that simple. Eating disorders are complex mental health disorders with genetic, biological, behavioral, psychological, and sociocultural factors. Several of those factors,
I can’t do anything about.
As a Mom of girls, that flipping scares me.
But some of those factors, I have a small modicum of influence over. It’s not JUST playing with a Barbie doll that makes me nervous. It’s the onslaught of messages girls (and boys) receive from every direction. It’s the continuously reinforced message that, in order to be good, valuable, worthy, lovable, etc., one must look a certain way.
And if you don’t fit in the prescribed parameters, you should feel shame, self-loathing, sadness, and despair.
After reading up to this point, it may surprise you that, though she doesn’t know it, I just ordered a Barbie mermaid doll for my daughter for the pool. I know, I know, I know.
Listen, I don’t want her to miss out on the games the other girls are playing, the fun of having similar toys, the giggles as they use their imagination to create complex story lines. Like Orenstein described in her book, I’ve vacillated between staunchly wanting to proclaim that MY daughters won’t be exposed to all of the princess culture and pink, girly toys and remembering the joy and excitement I experienced as a child playing Barbies or watching a Disney film. My favorite was The Little Mermaid and I can still recite…ahem, off-key…every word of “Part of Your World:”
Look at this stuff…isn’t it neat…wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete….?
No, I don’t want to be THAT Mom, I described above. The one that keeps their children in a plastic bubble, preventing exposure to any and all possible negative influences (although, having such a bubble during germ season wouldn’t be that bad!!!). The one that so over-controls their children’s experience that their children end up either scared of the world or feverishly seek out the dangers their parents sought to keep away.
But I DO want to teach my daughters to be critical consumers. To engage them in conversations. To draw their attention to all aspects and encourage them to consider alternative possibilities. I DO want to encourage them to be discerning and to consider the beauty in diversity in ALL its forms. I’m not saying I’m an expert in how to do this. Just that I want to be better at doing it. I DO want to prepare them as much as is possible for a world that will tell them their most valuable characteristic is what they look like.
So have I lost you yet? What does this whole rant have to do with the film Inside Out?
Like I said earlier, I’m eager to see it tomorrow. It’s one I would likely want to see even if I didn’t have children. My disappointment lies in how the film makers chose to physically portray the emotions of Joy versus Sadness.
I get it. They needed to physically represent emotions in a way that an audience could quickly connect with and attach to. One of the beautiful parts of the storyline I’m excited to learn more about is the idea that Joy and Sadness are BOTH important, valuable emotions that must find a way to work together to “get back home” and to achieve homeostasis for their teenage owner. For the story line, the film makers needed to contrast the two emotions. I imagine the dialogue within the design meetings: “Apart from their voices, mannerisms, color, etc., how do we do that? Boom, let’s make one fat and one skinny!”
For the purposes of this article, I won’t get too far into a whole other discussion of how they also gave Joy the characteristic of Caucasian skin and Sadness the characteristic of colored skin. Yes, blue makes pretty easy sense for sadness but the subtle implication that Joy has the characteristic of Caucasian skin, contrasted with all of the other (less positive) emotions having colored skin is concerning. If colors are going to be used to express emotions (a brilliant idea and one often used in counseling children and adults!!!), why couldn’t Joy have been a bright yellow color instead of what appears to be Caucasian flesh? Why is Joy the only one (perhaps apart from her blue hair) that looks stereotypically “normal?" And why does "normal" include Caucasian skin? sigh....
The not-so-subtle message is clear. Being fat, short, frumpy, wearing awkward glasses and pants all represent Sadness. Being tall, skinny, limber, and wearing a dress represent Joy. Got it. Messages received. I would agree with Pixar. These are “successful” designs---without knowing the assigned emotions, I would have easily been able to pick out which emotion corresponded to which figure. I would venture to guess that my 3.5 year old could probably do the same. Successful design.
The bummer here is that the successful design could have still been achieved without assigning Sadness the characteristic of Fat and without assigning Joy the characteristics of Skinny and White. If I was a talented artist, I would attempt to redraw the 2 characters to illustrate (haha—literally) my point. But I’m not. So, you’re just going to have to use your imagination.
Imagine we gave the fat, short body of Sadness to Joy AND made Joy bright yellow like the sun. Imagine we left Sadness her blue color but gave her a tall, skinny body. And hey, just for fun, let’s imagine we gave Joy the glasses too. But let’s leave all of the other characteristics the same. So, Joy is now a short, fat, bright yellow figure, smiling big, sitting confidently. Sadness is now a tall, skinny, blue-colored figure, frowning, and slumped over.
What do you think? Would you still be able to identify and connect with the requisite emotion? Or would it have been too difficult? Are fat people the only ones possible to see as sad? Are White, skinny people the only ones possible to see as joyful? If your answer to those last 2 questions is “yes,” why is that? And are you open to trying to challenge that thinking? Are you open to considering how that thinking may be harmful to yourself and others?
Yes, I believe Pixar created a successful design. It certainly "works." But I personally think it’s a rather weak design. It doesn’t really challenge the audience to look for the complexity of emotions and how they are physically expressed. It muddles the important characteristics of what sadness and joy really are. It reinforces harmful stereotypes about body shapes and sizes. And, my biggest concern, it teaches children that Fat = Sad.
Now, THAT is sad to me.
Fat is not a feeling.
Nor is it a physical representation of a feeling. Nor are ALL fat people sad. In fact, I could introduce you to some pretty happy, healthy, joyful fat people. I think you’d like them. Nor are all skinny people joyful. I could introduce you to some pretty miserable ones.
But, young children are concrete thinkers. As Joni Edelman poignantly points out in the hyperlinked article, they
“simply cannot discern things that are nuanced. They don’t have the capacity in their tiny brains to say, “Hey Pixar. You are being a bunch of jerks.” They see Sad — blue, fat, glasses on her chunky emo face — and guess what? That’s Sad. You just literally defined Sad for my 4-year-old.”
Through what may seem like innocent associations, children learn to pair certain characteristics with others. If this varied more across films and television shows, the associations may not be so harmful. But, repeatedly, the characteristic of Fat is used to depict negative traits or emotions, including sad, lazy, mean, angry, gluttonous, among others. Picture the Little Mermaid's Ursula, Alice in Wonderland's Queen of Hearts, Mickey Mouse's arch-nemesis Pete the Cat.
Pixar, Dreamworks, Disney, trust us more!
Challenge us more!
Trust our kids more!
Children ARE concrete thinkers but they can also be incredibly intuitive when it comes to emotions. Let them be the incredible observers and empaths that they are without indoctrinating them to believe that Fat is such an awful quality to have. Something to avoid at all costs and feel deep shame if one is.
As I wrote earlier, I’m excited to go tomorrow to see the film with my daughter. And, overall, it looks like a really fun, thoughtful, educational movie. Beyond the pure enjoyment of watching a film together, giggling together, etc., I’m hoping it might lead to a good discussion of feelings, including the idea that ALL feelings are okay AND valuable.
I’d like to say that I have a well-thought out plan of how to address the body size implications. I do not.
Perhaps she won't notice. Perhaps I won't mention it. Perhaps I'll rant about it in another post here.
Or perhaps I may say "Hey sweetheart, tell me what you noticed about their bodies. What does Joy's body look like? What does Sadness' body look like? Can Joy look a different way? Can Sadness look a different way? Can you be fat AND happy? Can you be skinny AND sad? Can you show me with your body what sadness looks like? What does joy look like?"
And maybe she'll consider body diversity.
Maybe some seeds will be planted.
Maybe she'll look at me like I'm crazy.
Maybe she'll say "Mommy, can I go play with my toys now?"
My daughter and I could not have loved the movie more!! We both giggled, cried, and were genuinely touched by Inside Out. There was a moment when she cried out "I'm crying Mommy because I'm happy!" to which the audience around us responded with a collective "awwww." Really, super beautiful movie that I can't wait to see again and again.
So many beautiful metaphors for loss, depression, growing older, etc. and, as I wrote about in my original post above, the importance and value of ALL feelings. My counselor mind is already spinning thinking about how valuable the message of the movie will be for so many who have perhaps felt their feelings were not valid.
Still disappointed that "sadness" was associated with "fatness.” Not because I think fatness is bad. Quite the contrary. If you follow my FB page or blog so far, hopefully you’ll pick up clearly that I support a Weight Neutral, Body Positive, Health at Every Size view. As I wrote about above, having Sadness associated with Fatness did not seem necessary to the overall message and plot of the movie but may inadvertently reinforce the message that “fat” is a negative quality. To quote a comment made by a reader of my article, I am not aiming to make “claims that the film is inherently racist or harmful to body positivity….simply asking us to consider the ramifications of their choices in design….trying to have a discussion on these issues which are still problems in our society.” Yes, bingo. Thanks Reader!!! Let's have a conversation!
Apart from what I wrote about in the above article, the film made so many strides in terms of female empowerment and giving voice to the female experience without coating it with the need to be rescued, partnered, objectified, or minimized. I’ll end with 2 quotes from one of my favorite reviews of the film:
"Pixar successfully sold a movie about a girl's emotions in an industry that doesn't always seem concerned with girls' minds."
“What’s so radical about Inside Out — besides the fact that it maps out an entirely new world inside our brains — is that it’s about a normal girl with normal problems. Her two main personified emotions, Joy and Sadness (Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith, respectively) are also women and spend the film trying to help their preteen host. Will she make the hockey team? Can her friendships withstand her move from Minnesota to San Francisco? Her mind is the centerpiece, and we only get glimpses at what Riley actually looks like. There’s no throne at stake and no noble prince to save her.”