Welcome back to my series on Inside Out! Today we'll be looking at the tendency of some viewers to refuse to engage with feminist criticism of the movie because it has female characters and/or is more female-centered than other movies, to the point that this installment might as well be called Excuses for Sexism, Pathetically Low Standards Edition.
One of the common responses to the uninspired gender roles in Inside Out is the defense that since Riley and three of the emotions are female, it is apparently unfair to criticize the gender dynamics in the rest of the plot. It's this sort of thinking that leads to defending the film with excuses like:
And the emotions in a prepubescent child are mixed female to male in a 3 to 2 ration [sic].
Oh, my! A three-to-two ratio"n", you say?! Dude, there are five emotions. FIVE. As in, literally three are female and two are male. Because three plus two equals five. You can't get two equal sets of integers from an odd number (because it's, you know...not even). This isn't female predominance--it's as close to parity as it is mathematically possible to get! A 3:2 ratio is not statistically significant with a sample size of FIVE.
It is a testament to how dismal female representation in movies is when we're expected to cheer the fact that a female main character is only entitled to a statistically-insignificant female majority INSIDE HER OWN HEAD. And, no, I don't buy the argument that it's only because she's "prepubescent" that she has mixed-gendered emotions, as all the other kids her age have emotions that correspond to their own gender. Instead, I would argue that Riley's internal gender split (as much as I thoroughly enjoyed both Lewis Black and Bill Hader's performances) is a reflection of our cultural bias that anything female-centered is exclusively "for girls" whereas male-centered casts are considered general interest.
But more importantly, Inside Out's framework of having dynamic and interesting female characters inside Riley's head while the "real world" component of the film is firmly rooted in regressive gender stereotypes leads to some very insidious and pernicious implications. Since the world of the mind in this movie is so experimental and fantastical (and let me be clear, the parts of the film that take place inside Riley's head are *awesome* and the creators have my genuine respect for how imaginative it is), the "real world" has to be as normal and understandable as possible to orient the audience so they understand the action between these settings. The audience intuitively grasps this, and this unfortunately asserts that the family setup in the movie--a stay-at-home mom and a dad whose career determines the family's priorities--IS what we as a society see as normal. In this sense, the movie not only coasts on us recognizing this family dynamic, but it also actively reinforces this as the social norm. In many ways, the movie plays brilliantly with the contrasts between the fantastic mindscape and a grittier reality, but when the engaging female characters are exclusively in the former the movie implies that an effective female manager is just as surreal as a memory vacuum tube.
The movie is basically saying to young girls that they may be fascinating, original, and brilliant people in their own minds, but that the real world has no place for that vitality and shows no effects from it. (Of course, I hasten to add that the movie doesn't INTEND to say this, but the thing with unconscious biases is that they have a nasty way of inserting themselves when a creator is being thoughtless. So, please spare me the defense that Disney-Pixar didn't intend this sexist message. I know. That's what "unconscious" means.) The lack of meaningful female empowerment in the "reality" section of the movie means that the portrayal of cool female characters inside Riley's head comes off as tokenizing and insincere. This subtext becomes actual text in the scene where Riley's mother praises her for being happy, explicitly insofar as it is useful to support her father. This undercuts Inside Out's fantastic world of the mind and its characters, because while it is showing girls that they have great potential and depth within themselves, the outside world will value that only within certain narrow confines.
Similarly, while Riley herself is a great character (and I do give Pixar props that they not only made her a girl, but gave her a believable blend of traditionally-girly and tomboy interests, and even portrayed a pretty sympathetic and funny view of a young girl's understanding of boyfriends), the movie seems to imply a dead-end for her individuality in adulthood. It would be one thing for a movie that focused on children to the point that the parental characters were not fleshed out enough to see what they are like, but here we very clearly see women limited to stereotypical mothers and teachers. The tendency to accept little girls being as free-spirited as they like while remaining uncomfortable with nonconforming adult women reinforces a nasty cultural tendency we have to rigidly assign socially-constructed femininity along with puberty, a trope so recognizable it has its own Onion spoof, Teenage Girl Blossoming Into Beautiful Object.
As I discussed in Part 1, it's not just happenstance that Riley's father is the one moving the family for his job, and the context of our society's biases against working women makes this a problematic choice. Additionally, the manner in which the mindscape-vs.-the-real-world divide in Inside Out implies limitations for young girls is similarly inextricable from the context of how the "real world" is usually presented to young girls in children's entertainment. And let's be clear: it is DISMAL. An excellent study by seejane.org shows that less than 33% of characters in recent G-rated entertainment were female, and they were roughly half as likely as male characters to have jobs. This means that only 20% of working characters in kids' entertainment are female, so explicit or implied limitations on female characters in this film are tapping into expectations that have already been well-established for kids throughout other movies.
The excuse that the female emotions are positive female characters similarly fails in this context, because a little girl can't reasonably look forward to growing up to be a Joy or a Disgust. While imaginary female characters may be inspiring as a metaphor for female empowerment in a story that took place entirely in a fantasy world, the stark portrayal of the "real world" in this film means the lack of corresponding realistic female role models limits proactive women to the "fantasy" realm. Moreover, there's a major problem when visibility of women is limited to illustrating concepts, rather than characterizing people--see if you can spot it:
The emotions of Inside Out are in many ways the direct descendants of this allegorical tradition, and centuries of this hardly led to meaningful inclusion of women in literature or public life. Now, I should at least acknowledge that Joy, Sadness, and Disgust are all offered the chance to be a little bit more humanized and interesting than the above virtues...
... but they still exist within a film and a broader literary/cinematic landscape that has scarcely any room for actual women. So, let's see...celebrating mythologized women while real women are expected to stay at home? Where have I seen that before?
Relying on allegorical concepts as adequate representation for women ignores the depth, flaws, and motivations that real human beings have. This is a prime example of "benevolent sexism" and its pitfalls: while a culture might pretend to love women as it lionizes ideals imagined in feminine bodies, any actual woman is going to fall short of a simplified, idealized portrayal and will therefore be viewed as deficient. This then feeds into the shutting-out of realistic and actually-real women from influence and visibility in our culture's stories and our lives. Like all social injustices, this operates on a systemic level. Therefore, offering an un-critiqued system--where men are the presumed heads of households and economic drivers with women as their support--is not undone by presenting admirable female individuals, especially when they demonstrate no ability or desire to change that underlying system.