Pixar is one of the most universally adored animation studios on the planet. They’re created modern classics such as Finding Nemo and the Toy Story trilogy that are bound to be loved and revered for generations. They also have a female protagonist problem.
It’s not pretty, but it makes sense when you realize that the studio was founded by and is currently run by a bunch of men. People write what they know, which explains the male driven content that Pixar put out from 1995’s Toy Story until 2012’s Brave, the first film from the studio to feature a girl in the lead. For those of you keeping track at home, that’s seventeen years of animated testosterone. There’ve plenty of strong, well-developed female characters along the way, but the films have largely remained male centric. This is why the company’s newest movie, Inside Out, is so exciting to me.
The film, which opens June 16, takes us inside the mind of a young girl named Riley and shows us how her emotions work together to guide her through life. The main character of the film is Joy, a spritely bundle of cheerful energy who is dedicated to keeping Riley happy at all costs. Joy’s foil and companion for most of the film is Sadness, who’s a little mopey but always there for you when you need a good cry. When these two opposites are ejected out of the headquarters of Riley’s mind, they must work together to get home and save their girl, all while learning lessons about embracing your emotions, dealing with change, and even loss of innocence.
Inside Out stands out by fully acknowledging and respecting Riley’s emotions. It’s a sad fact that in most media today, emotional males are deep and emotional females are annoying. But not here. Riley is moody and conflicted. She cries in class and snaps at her parents and acts like any other kid her age would. Instead of scorning her, though, the filmmakers validate her and acknowledge that she’s just a normal. The same goes for her emotions. Joy and Sadness, despite each representing individual feelings, go through a range of feelings and use their feelings to inform their choices. Nobody in this movie is the emotionless badass society wants “strong female characters” to be. They’re just real.
Another thing that makes Inside Out special is its message about mental health. Joy’s main mission in the film is to get back to headquarters and make Riley happy, but we come to learn that Riley really just needs to come to terms with her negative emotions and find support from family and friends. As someone who has struggled with mental health my entire life, it was so refreshing to see a film emphasize that it’s okay to not be happy all time. I also like how it subtly shows the difference between feeling sad and being in a state of depression. There’s a huge difference between the Riley who just lost a hockey game and the Riley who is literally unable to feel happiness and it’s the most on point depiction of mental illness I’ve seen in a film like this. This film is explaining mental health to kids in a way I would’ve loved to see when I was younger and based on the media response, it looks like a lot of people feel the same way.
So, what’s next for Pixar’s feminist breakthrough? The first thing they need is female directors and lots of them. Pixar’s main set of directors has served them well, but if we want more female stories, we need people more likely to tell those stories. Another thing Pixar needs to do is address the issue of diversity in their movies. When’s the last time we saw a non-white woman in a Pixar film? I can’t even think of one. Feminism is pointless, after all, if it only acknowledges a group that can’t possibly represent the experiences of all women. With those simple elements, Pixar can avoid another streak of male-centric movies and make a new set of timeless classics that everyone can identify with. Until then, we have Inside Out (and Brave) to give us hope.