Inside Out and The Promise of Happiness


Every summer I work as a reading tutor for a private company called the Institute of Reading Development.  We spend a lot of time in class talking about feelings.  How did the character feel at the end of the book?  If you were the one in the story, how would you have felt when this problem arose?

Usually the kids respond with pretty binary ideas about their own emotions. Events can make you feel good or bad, happy or sad.  Occasionally, an exceptionally bright student will talk about feeling mad or frustrated but that’s about it.

So imagine my surprise when, while writing up their thoughts before an in-class discussion, a seven year old student raised her hand and asked me: How do you spell “disgust?”

Where did you hear that word, I asked.  I was both proud that they were engaging in such a complicated idea and a little afraid to learn how they had been exposed to that language.

It’s from the movie Inside Out, she told me.  And that decided it.  I was headed to the movies.

Inside Out is a clever story about a pre-teen girl named Riley whose conflicting thoughts and emotions are represented by multiple characters who live in her mind.  If you remember the old, short-lived television show Herman’s Head, you know the scenario.

Riley’s family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco and the resulting emotional disruption throws Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust into chaos.  Up until this point, Joy had been by far the dominant emotion that Riley experienced, which made her the defacto leader of Riley’s head.  But as Riley’s need to express her grief over the move and the friends and familiar experiences she lost grows, Sadness becomes more active,  touching positive memories and tinging them with melancholy.  Joy attempts to forbid Sadness from touching any of the controls that govern Riley’s consciousness, but this only makes things worse.  Finally, in a struggle over an important “core memory” (a foundational experience that would shape Riley’s personality in the future) results in both Joy and Sadness being sucked out of their headquarters and jettisoned into long-term memory.  They must learn to cooperate with one another if they are to get back where they belong before the mismanagement of Fear, Anger, and Disgust ruin Riley’s relationships with her friends and family.

One of the things that really struck me about this story was how the manic, pushy Joy (played by the perfectly cast Amy Pohler)  dominated Riley’s other emotions via a combination of manipulation, distraction, and passive aggressive behavior.  Joy wasn’t just working to provide Riley with happy experiences.  She was actively trying to suppress Riley’s ability to feel anything else.  I argue that the film very accurately captures the kind of discourse surrounding happiness identified by Sara Ahmed that is especially directed at girls and women.

One of the most important scenes in the movie occurs when Riley’s mother asks her daughter to take on some of the emotional labor involved in helping her father succeed in the new business venture that brought them to California in the first place.  She asks Riley to be happy “for him.”

Sara Ahmed writes about how, for women, happiness becomes something we do for someone else instead of for ourselves in her amazing book The Promise of Happiness.  According the Ahmed, one of Woman’s primary jobs is to put on a happy face, to act out a cultural script of happiness that is then used as evidence to prop up the raced, sexed, gendered, and classed systems that act upon them.  Magazines, television shows, and movies define a woman’s happiness as a kind of service.  She is most happy when she is sacrificing herself to make someone else happy: a parent, a lover, a child.  Heck even random strangers on the street sometimes demand that the women smile for them as though it is their duty to provide pleasant reassurance to all who pass by.  Only by negating herself can she ever truly fulfill herself.  Furthermore, according to this logic, anyone who isn’t happy with the way society is structured has only themselves to blame.  If they only worked harder and pushed down their own selfish desires harder, they would find the happiness they have been promised.

As Inside Out demonstrates, this idea of cultivating the appearance of happiness is unhealthy.  Fear, Anger, Disgust, and even Sadness are depicted as vital release valves Riley needs in order to have a balanced personality, sustain relationships, and figure out what it is that she truly wants out of life.  In fact, the movie posits that true joy (as opposed to merely the outward facade of joy) is only obtainable when there are other feelings present to rub up against it: Riley’s happiest memory of the support she received from her family and friends was only made possible because it came at a moment when it was needed most: a moment of sadness.

Sadness’s role in the film is a way for Riley to ask for help.  When Riley is busily trying to hide her own distress for the sake of her father’s feelings, she cannot receive the help that she needs.  The promise of happiness as described by Ahmed is a way of re-routing love and support away from women and towards the people they care for.  Inside Out suggests that if we want to make our little girls happy, we need to teach them that it is okay to be sad sometimes.


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