public domain
Source: public domain

Inside out is one of those films that all my friends—who are more avid-movie goers and review readers than I—insisted “You must see it.” So I did but only after it was available at Redbox. It’s not that I’m not a fan of animated films, Pixar’s, in particular, but I had a really bad feeling about this film after reading a couple reviews and seeing a trailer or two. My trepidation arose from, what for me, was the central message of the film: “Riley needs to be happy.” Aside from her anxious parents, Riley is surrounded by an emotional bodyguard whose sole occupation is to assure that she is never unhappy.

Before turning the film inside out I need to set the stage. First, I’m an anthropologist and as such, I don’t believe that any human behavior can be understood strictly as a psychological or biological phenomenon. Culture plays a profound role in organizing the way we understand things like a “normal childhood.” That is, what is “normal” and “good” in one society may be seen as aberrant, strange, even harmful in another society. Our society, in particular, has been called out as an extremely “weird outlier” and, hence, one of the worst subpopulations one could study for making generalizations about “normal” behavior (1).

I now invite the reader to revisit my earlier post “What Price Happiness.”  

The basic message of that post was that our society is one of the very few in the world (and in recorded history) that is committed to the idea that children’s normal state is happiness and that any deviation from that state commands intervention. To quote from that post:

After all, children are inarticulate, weak, they don't know much, their social status is very low, they suffer from continual hunger and illness. Why should they be happy? As Heather Montgomery reports from her study in a Thai village, there is "..,no concept of any golden age of childhood…children are pitied because…they are everybody’s nong (younger sibling/inferior)." (2)

Unlike most of the rest of the world’s children, ours are free from any responsibility for maintaining the household, caring for younger siblings or supplementing family resources. Corporal punishment—virtually taboo in the West—can be expected following failure to carry out these responsibilities. (3) I could extend this list of threats to the village child’s happiness almost indefinitely but the amazing thing is that anthropologists, sometimes with surprise, consistently report that village children are exuberant, active, playful and happy!

Trying to vaccinate and protect the child from unhappiness may have negative consequences. For one thing, the more that society projects the mandate of perpetually happy children—a complete myth according to Firestone (4)—the greater the likelihood that even small breaches of this nirvana will provoke unhappiness and even serious mental illness.

Another and very serious threat arising from this obsession with child happiness is thoroughly discussed in Frank Furedi’s book Therapy Culture. Here are a sampling of his remarkable insights:

“If children as young as 4 are seen to be legitimate targets for therapeutic intervention, it is not surprising to hear of a growing demand for expanding such services for babies. In the US, infant mental health has become an established professional specialism.” (5)

“The belief that there is a deficit of the elementary emotional attributes required for child-rearing and that therefore third-party therapeutic intervention is called for in the parent and child relationship is a widely held assumption of parenting ‘experts.’”(5) ”…resulting in a tripling of youth on anti-depressants since 1993.” (6)

“Recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury has claimed that therapy was replacing Christianity in western countries. According to Archbishop Carey, ‘Christ the Saviour’ is becoming ‘Christ the counselor.’”(5) In Marx’s terms, therapy has replaced religion as the opiate of the masses.

Furedi sees “a decline of an ethos of public responsibility and the sacralisation of self-absorption. Contemporary culture continually promotes the ideal of fulfilling your own needs and the primacy of expressing yourself. Feeling good becomes an end in itself—and the individual relationship to a wider moral or political framework threatens to become an insignificant side issue. Questions of right and wrong become arbitrary matters to a devotee of the cult of feeling. Instead of right and wrong, there are only different ways of feeling about the world.” (5)

And now the film. Inside Out was released in 2015 and is an Oscar nominee. It received critical acclaim and has earned—to date—nearly a billion dollars. The action takes place on two stages. First, we see (animated) scenes in which Riley grows from toddlerhood to pre-teen in the protective care of her middle-class family and life-style. For example, at the appropriate age, Riley begins to participate in the almost obligatory organized team sport—in Minnesota this is ice hockey.  The second stage is inside Riley’s brain. This is an extremely colorful world—in fact, the aesthetic I would describe as “Toys R” Us for 5-year-olds or Barbie’s Xanadu. And the characters inhabiting this world are of a piece…diminutive but with relatively large heads and very large eyes (this trait of prolonged juvenile appearance is called neotony and is thought to provoke a positive, nurturing response from others).

As I mentioned the “staff” who populate Riley’s brain are all there to aid in making her happy. They manage Riley’s emotions via a free-standing “console” much like a DJ’s (very large) music mixer. JOY is the happiness manager. She is in charge of the console, keeping Riley happy all day long. The “FEAR” character’s main role is to keep Riley safe…constantly on the look-out for potential disasters.

ANGER feels very passionately about making sure things are fair for Riley. He has a fiery spirit and tends to explode (literally) when things don‘t go as planned. He is constantly evaluating the possible dangers, pitfalls and risk involved in Riley‘s everyday activities. There are very few activities and events that Fear does not find to be dangerous and possibly fatal. ANGER’s brief is easily recognized by the growing legion of critics who think parents are over-protective. (7) DISGUST is highly opinionated, and her job is to protect Riley from being polluted by her surroundings, especially her peers. She wants to make sure that people won‘t taint Riley with  their toxic behavior or bad clothing advice. She wants to keep her from being in any situation that‘s unsafe or uncool. The role of DISGUST is played in the real world by mothers in Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence. (8)

SADNESS is a bit of an anomaly and wonders what she’s good for as the whole point seems to be to prevent Riley from ever experiencing negative emotions. Fortunately for her, SADNESS is redeemed in the end when the team discovers that a soupcon of unhappiness/sadness may actually be good for Riley, helping her through a crisis. Minor characters continue the theme of protecting Riley. Bing Bong is Riley’s imaginary friend and, unlike real friends, Bing Bong never competes with Riley, teases her, or says something unkind. He remains innocent, childlike and safe. The FORGETTERS are in charge of removing unnecessary and unpleasant memories from Riley’s memory store.

Everything runs according to plan for the first 11 years of Riley’s very happy life but, then, her father takes a job in San Francisco. As the writers explain, Riley gets her first exposure to cacophonous, gritty urban life. In short, San Francisco is the real world and Riley, having spent the first ten years of her life in a kind of cotton candy cocoon, is clueless and vulnerable. Her team are acutely aware of Riley’s unhappiness, as are her miserable parents. The resolution of Riley’s unhappiness crisis involves the team (SADNESS, in particular) coaxing her into “seeking help” and “expressing her feelings.” (9) This provokes the necessary understanding and succor from her parents helping Riley to accept that not feeling happy 24/7 may not be the end of the world.  But, just in case, the five Emotion Managers get a larger, more complete console to better help Riley as she copes with many more threats to her happiness quota.

As upbeat as the film is, I can take no comfort from its message. Unfortunately, I think it reinforces an unhealthy trend towards increasing children’s dependence and vulnerability. This growing paranoia about unhappiness in children is eroding much of the resiliency, persistence and toughness that they are endowed with from birth and which is critical for later success and well-being. I think the movie tries to convey this message at the end by the idea that a little sadness can be healthy but it is too little and too late to reverse the mostly dysfunctional themes.

  1. Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., and Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioural and Brain Sciences 33: 61–81.
  2. Montgomery, H. (2001). Modern Babylon: Prostituting Children in Thailand. Oxford, UK: Berghahn Books (p. 59).
  3. Lancy, D.F. (2015). The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings. Second edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (p. 397-398).Firestone, S. (1971). The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. London: Jonathan Cape. (p. 31)
  4. Furedi, F. (2004). Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age. London: Routledge.
  5. Zito, J. M., et al (2003). Psychotropic practice patterns in youth. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 157: 17–25.
  6. Skenazy, L. (2009). Free-range kids: Giving Our Children The Freedom we had Without Going Nuts With Worry. Danvers, MA: Jossey-Bass.
  7. Wiseman, R. (2003). Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence.

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