Inside out (2015)

Published: Apr 24, 2018 |Updated: Mar 8, 2023


After young Riley is uprooted from her Midwest life and moved to San Francisco, her emotions – Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness – conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house, and school.

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Genre Comedy
Production year 2015
Director Pete Docter

Jung Fun for Young 'Uns

Fear and Anger

Inside Out is hardly an obvious choice of movie to critique for a website focusing on masculinity – and having fished out the colourful animated feature to occupy a sleepy Sunday afternoon, I came to it with no expectations of doing so. Focussing on the trials and tribulations of a bright but inexperienced little girl and two of her key personified emotions – Joy and Sadness (both depicted as female) – it might seem surprising that this gently comedic affair would have much to offer the manly viewer as a source of inspiration.

Life is, however, full of surprises – and since we gents don’t live in a vacuum, and the archetypal shadow we cast is every bit as important for women (and their relationship to us) as it is for us as independent entities – perhaps I shouldn’t have been so quick to jump to that conclusion. It was very refreshing and stimulating to be caught off guard by the curveball this lovely, light-hearted adventure pitched my way at any rate – so much so that I felt it deserved a write up.

I’d like to begin by exploring the movie’s depiction of Fear and Anger. The portrayal of each of these emotions (and only these emotions) as male is highly significant – as together they can be considered to represent the integral instincts of the masculine Warrior archetype. These playful personifications are effectively ‘fight’ and flight’ responses kneaded into (something approaching) human shape – and given that the Warrior drive is predominantly concerned with identifying and enforcing boundaries in order to ensure our survival, we can see that fear and anger play a pivotal role in the expression of this archetypal energy.

Now, I realise that Riley is a girl, and so wouldn’t be expected to manifest a Warrior spirit in the overt way that a boy might, but it’s important to recognise that we each carry within us the instinctual coding of the opposite sex (the ancient Celts, for instance, believed that a man’s soul was female and a woman’s male).

I also want to make it clear that boiling Warrior mode down to these two base emotions is a huge over-simplification – and I’m not suggesting for a second that our literal warrior ancestors were overwhelmingly fearful or angry people.

On the contrary, there is good reason to believe that many of them were considerably more emotionally balanced than we are today – but that this can, in part, be attributed to the fact that men were made hyper-aware of their need to anticipate danger (fear) and respond to it with aggressive vigour (which needn’t be born of anger, but certainly can be). This offered such masculine communities both a sense of purpose and an understanding of their essential nature – traits which are often sorely lacking in men today.

So, depicting a girl’s fear and anger in this way is a tacit (if, perhaps, unconscious) recognition of the fact that as men we are required to offer protection to the women in our lives – remaining ever-vigilant of external physical threats and being prepared to unleash our aggressive tendencies at a moment’s notice when the situation calls for it.

Equally, the portrayal of Joy, Sadness and Disgust as female characters is no coincidence either. Joy and sadness exist at binary ends of the emotional spectrum, and tend to manifest themselves more potently in women. This is due both to the fact that successful child-rearing requires a mother to be more attuned to her emotions and precisely because a father adopts a watchful stance over his family – affording women and children the opportunity to express themselves more freely and without cautious restraint.

Which is not to say that mothers do not offer their children protection, because of course they do – it just typically takes on a different form to that provided by men – and herein lies the evolutionary significance of Disgust. Again, women tend to exhibit a greater tendency towards this than men due to their proclivity for child-rearing – they must remain as vigilant against threats to their offspring’s internal environment as men are to those from their external one (hence typically placing a greater value on cleanliness than us guys – and picking us up on our grubbier habits!).

Father Material

So, that leads us conveniently into a more direct exploration of the Father archetype, as expressed by the movie – and the comparative role played by the important women in their lives.

Not long after the family’s abrupt move we are treated to a highly entertaining scene in which the different priorities and focuses of the two genders are laid bare. Detecting that Riley is unsettled and not her usual buoyant self, her mother – prompted by her own personified emotions (similar to her daughter’s, but all female) decides to ‘probe’ her mental state.

Being attentive and highly attuned to Riley’s emotional responses – and failing to obtain the feedback that they would hope to receive – they conclude that they require support and decide to ‘signal the husband’. This turn of events cracks a window into the mind of the main man in Riley’s life – with hilarious results.

Her father’s emotions (all male, and apparently seated within a military control room – to contrast the professional but softly furnished forum occupied by her mother’s feelings), as it turns out, are sitting around replaying a hockey game whilst this debacle unfolds – causing him to completely misinterpret the situation:

“What did she say? Is it garbage night? Did we leave the toilet seat up? What? What is it woman – what?!” (Father’s Anger)

This failure to pay attention to both moment-to-moment events in the domestic setting and the emotional cues presented by his wife and child prompts a fantastic stand-off between Riley and her father’s respective ‘Anger’s, with dad ultimately going to ‘defcon 1’ and ‘putting the foot down’.

Even these countermeasures are shown to be hopelessly misjudged though – with his wife’s emotions withdrawing to bask in the memory of a former beau (an exotic Brazilian helicopter pilot – and archetypal Lover figure – who is seemingly more in touch with his emotions) whilst his own rabble celebrate a job well done.

This representation of the father is perhaps a little scathing – reinforcing the contemporary perception of men as bungling incompetents that require a woman to take control of situations – but I’m more inclined to accept it as a commentary on men’s more functional disposition played for laughs.

Certainly the following scene – in which this committed patriarch consoles his daughter – mitigates any negative perception of men we might acquire from preceding events. As a father he does possess the capacity to connect with his and other people’s emotions – he just has to be fully present and seriously focussed to pull it off!

Fun with the Boys

Before deconstructing the movie’s (highly satisfying) overriding message, I would just like to zoom in on a few of the other male characters highlighted throughout the film – and the significance of the roles that they play. Firstly we have Bing Bong, Riley’s loveable, absurdly silly and somewhat calamitous imaginary friend (he’s part dolphin, don’t you know).

Joy and Sadness meet him bumbling around one of Riley’s secondary mental facilities – not yet buried within her subconscious but apparently relegated to a position of lesser importance than he was once afforded (he’s surprised that Joy and Sadness even recognise him).

Acting as their guide within this level of the girl’s mind, Bing Bong most prominently evokes the masculine Magician archetype (he even has a cardboard rocket that’s fuelled by ‘song power’ – what could be more magical than that?). What’s far more interesting, however, is the way in which this affably daft character winds up going full bore Warrior.

Initially delighted by Joy’s assertion that she will prompt Riley to remember him when the cheerful emotion returns to headquarters – Bing Bong ultimately sacrifices his own life – allowing his whimsical form to be swallowed by Riley’s subconscious in order to safeguard her future happiness (simultaneously completing the archetypal quartet and demonstrating his chops as Lover and King too – as each of us does when we summon all of our strengths in the service of a greater good).

A close parallel exists here with the behaviour of Riley’s far less developed imaginary boyfriend. His defining attribute being his assertion that he ‘would die for Riley’ – he too proves willing to surrender his (admittedly two-dimensional) existence to rescue her from depression. In isolation each of these examples could be considered anomalies – but combined they drive home a key point – that such sacrifices are required of men, and are intrinsic to the value women attribute to them.

The final ‘character’ I would like pinpoint is little more than a momentary cameo squeezed in at the end of the movie. At the advent of puberty we’re offered a brief glance into the mind of a gawky boy as he encounters Riley.

To my mind the funniest scene in the entire production (and it seemed to illicit the most laughter from my friends as well – suggesting that this snippet resonates strongly with viewers of each sex) – we see all hell break loose amongst his hapless and ludicrously unequipped emotions – as emergency lights whirl and sirens wail – “GIRL! GIRL! GIRL!”.

I felt it significant to mention this scene because – amongst all of the talk of ‘male dominance’ and ‘male privilege’ within our society (which I don’t believe is unjustified – there are simply more exceptions to the rule than the dominant narrative would have us believe) it is often forgotten that women have the capacity to arouse a mind-bending terror in us gents that’s truly unparalleled.

Again prompted by evolutionary necessity (if we are rejected our social standing within the tribe is diminished – and we may lose the opportunity to procreate altogether) this fear is extraordinarily primal – and frequently continues to impact our relationships with women throughout our lives (it also being the source of misogyny and the desire to control women amongst those immature men who never acquire the resources to deal with it appropriately).

Conclusion: One and All

…And so to the crux of the movie – which exhibits a magnificent universality – equally applicable to men and women, boys and girls.

Consumed by depression – a state that differs from sadness in that it’s defined by a persistent and despondent paralysis of emotion, rather than an appropriate response to upsetting stimuli (note that Sadness is lost in the recesses of Riley’s mind at this point – and as such is as incapable of affecting the little girl’s psychological condition as Joy is) Joy suddenly realises the pivotal role Sadness plays in securing their avatar’s mental health.

Having spent the entire film attempting to keep Sadness from touching anything within Riley’s internal environment, Joy discovers that it is the acceptance and successful mobilisation of her comrade’s blue disposition that holds the key to Riley’s salvation. Sadness acts as an emotional release and a call for help from the rest of the tribe.

This is a truly beautiful, poignant and incredibly powerful expression of the need for each of us to engage in Jungian ‘shadow work’ to become whole and happy – so much so that it brought tears to my eyes. Rather than keeping our supposedly negative emotions at bay, we must journey into the dark chasm of our subconscious minds and engage with our own ‘theatre of dreams’ (both of which are wonderfully depicted in the film) in order to befriend those parts of ourselves we are afraid, or otherwise unwilling, to confront.

We must be willing to fully embrace sadness – and learn the lessons it seeks to impart to us – to avoid emotional petrification and allow Joy to take the controls once more. In the world in which we live – one in in which pleasure-seeking behaviour is imagined to pave the road to happiness and where we’re discouraged from provoking or displaying undesirable emotions at all costs – this is a tremendously important message; and the fact that it is so aptly and ably wrapped up within an appealing package for children gives me hope for the future.

Clearly we are changing – and those changes are manifesting themselves within our collective cultural landscape in a myriad of surprising ways. To utilise language befitting of such an innocent, tender-hearted romp – thank fuck for that.

Powerful ideas from Inside out

  • Men are emotionally configured to protect their family, their tribe, their partner and their children from external threats – and to provide for their physical needs
  • The willingness to sacrifice one's self – for the greater good and to protect the women and children in his life – is a fundamental expectation and primary responsibility of an archetypal man
  • Women are most attracted to men when they combine this self-sacrificing, protective Warrior spirit with the emotional sensitivity and responsiveness of the masculine Lover archetype
  • Men often have trouble being present and aware of subtle emotional cues in social/familial situations – but we can do it when we focus our attention!
  • Girls can evoke an abject terror in boys that are attracted to them – a response that girls are often oblivious to – but which frequently continues to affect our relationships with women for the rest of our lives!
  • In order to become whole, integrated – and to learn to contend with the challenges life throws at us – we must engage with our subconscious minds, confront our fears and be willing to embrace our negative emotions

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