We Can Dream: A Marginalized Peoples Version of ‘Inside Out’

Crucial concepts in marginalized peoples' minds that should be portrayed in film

Posted Jul 07, 2015

‘Inside Out’ is the nation’s #1 movie. Critics and audiences are raving about it. Adults cry because of it. Even scientists applaud its scientific accuracy. But how reflective is it of marginalized peoples’ minds and lived realities? What would it look like if the ‘Inside Out’ movie explored the inner workings and psychological experiences of marginalized peoples? Read on.

(Warning: There might be some spoilers)

 The Walt Disney Company
Source: Source: The Walt Disney Company

As many writers, film critics, movie lovers, and even scientists have raved, Disney Pixar’s latest animated film – ‘Inside Out’ – does an excellent job of dramatizing super technical, daunting, and potentially boring scientific processes and presenting them to a general audience in an understandable, age-appropriate, palatable, and entertaining manner. ‘Inside Out’ can serve as a nice conversation starter with kids about stressors (e.g., life changes), emotions, and coping. In this sense, the movie can serve as a useful parenting, and possibly even therapeutic, tool.

As a lover of animated films who also happens to have training in clinical psychology, the many messages that the movie tries to impart – such as how our personalities or identities are complex and may be composed of various crucial parts (i.e., islands), how our emotions can “color” our perception and interpretation of the world, and how shutting out and not experiencing sadness is not really the best way to be psychologically healthy – makes this easily one of my top 10 favorite animated films of all time (again, I LOVE animated films, so this is saying something).

However, as a brown-skinned Filipino American man who grew up in colonized Philippines and colorized (or racialized) United States of America, I think my “inside workings” were (and still are) very different from Riley’s – the 11 year-old white protagonist in the movie. This “train of thought” led me to wonder about how my Filipino and Athabascan children’s internal world may be different from Riley’s as well. Then, I thought about all of the different types of peoples who identify with a particular social group (e.g., racial, ethnic, cultural, sexual orientation, etc.), and whose social group is an important part of their identity and personality, but whose social group is often inferiorized, discriminated against, othered, or marginalized by society.

What would ‘Inside Out’ look like for us?

And so I started dreaming about something that will probably never happen, at least not in the forseeable future; I began wondering:

What would a mainstream, popular, major studio-backed animated, kid-oriented movie that explores the salient components of marginalized peoples’ psychological experiences look like?

So to this end, I discuss some concepts below that are central to the psychological experiences of marginalized peoples, concepts that I think should definitely be a part of the plot if there ever is an ‘Inside Out’ movie for us.

How Stereoypes and Prejudice are Formed

A marginalized peoples’ version of ‘Inside Out’ must include a dramatization of how humans form stereotypes – a type of cognitive or thinking error characterized by overgeneralizing a certain trait to all members of a group. Relatedly, the movie should also creatively portray how we form prejudices – attitudes (positive or negative) that are attached to members of a group due to the preconceived traits that the group are assumed to have.

Research suggests that we begin to notice basic differences between people (e.g., skin color, hair color, etc.) by the time we are 2 years-old, and when we are around 3-4 years-old we already begin to make overgeneralizations about certain groups of people and to begin attaching societal messages (positive and negative) about them and the characteristics we have learned to assume that they have. In other words, stereotypes and prejudices, which some cognitive scientists may conceptualize as mental schemas or general patterns of organizing the world into categories and the relationships between such categories, tend to develop quite early in our lives.

It is important to note at this point that how we perceive the world is shaped by our experiences in the world, a message that the ‘Inside Out’ movie does a nice job of conveying. Even further, the movie also creatively sends home the scientific fact that our experiences significantly shape us and our personality. This “our experiences shape us” concept is definitely true for marginalized peoples as well, but our version of ‘Inside Out’ would take this further and focus more on how our stereotypes and attitudes (positive and negative) about different groups of people – including our thoughts and attitudes toward ourselves and the groups we belong to – are learned based on the experiences we have and the messages we receive from our environment. We are not born with biased thoughts and attitudes about certain groups of people.

So one of the core messages of the marginalized peoples’ version of ‘Inside Out’ should be that stereotypes and prejudices are learned. This message needs to be established early in the movie, as it sets up how the rest of the plot will unfold to convey other main lessons from the film, one of which is that if we can learn to hate ourselves and other peoples, then we can unlearn (or get rid of) such hate (more on this later). Even better, if we can learn to hold negative perceptions and attitudes toward ourselves and others, then we can learn to replace such ugliness with positivity and love instead. Captivating.

How Social Group (Racial, Ethnic, Cultural, Gender, etc.) Identity Develops 

By Pixar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Pixar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An ‘Inside Out’ movie for marginalized peoples will need to portray how social group membership is an important part of marginalized peoples’ identity. First, many ethnic and cultural minority groups (actually, most of the world’s cultures) are collectivistic, meaning their social group plays a much stronger part in their lives than how social groups impact people who are from individualistic cultures (e.g., United States). So, many marginalized peoples become aware of their social group and their connection (some might say obligation) to their group almost right from the get go.

Also, as discussed in the previous section, research suggests that by the time we are 3-4 years-old, we have been exposed to the world enough to already begin to internalize what the world teaches us about others and ourselves. This makes me wonder why Riley – who is 11 years-old in the movie – didn’t have a “White people island” as one of the significant parts of her identity. Is it because research suggests that White people very rarely think about racial identity, if at all, or at least not as much as people of color? Is it because research shows that White youth and youth of color are on very different developmental timelines in terms of racial identity development?

I’m not sure, but anyway, in contrast to Riley (and perhaps many other White youth), research shows that for most people who are part of marginalized social groups, our social group is an important part our “selves” – this is our collective self – and the salience of our social group membership to our identity begins as early as 6 years-old. So in addition to a Family Island, a Hockey (or basketball, football, or others) Island, a Friendship Island, an Honesty Island, and a Goofball Island – the different islands of personality that define Riley – marginalized peoples may also have a Filipino island, a Native American island, a Black island, a Mexican island, an Alaska Native island, an Islander island (wait, what?), a Women island, a Gay island, a Transgender island, an immigrant island, or something else that define them and is a significant part of their identity.

For brevity, let’s just refer to such islands as “Social Group Islands,” and they will be a crucial component of the marginalized peoples’ ‘Inside Out’ movie. For one, the demands, expectations, and desires of our social groups may sometimes be in conflict with what we personally want and value as an individual. Even further, for many marginalized peoples, one of their social groups’ (e.g., being American) values and behaviors may be clashing against the values and well-being of one of their other social groups (e.g., being Muslim). Tension.

How Oppressive Experiences Shape Psychological Experiences

In the ‘Inside Out’ movie, the different islands that make up the significant parts of Riley’s identity are powered by core memories, and memories that Riley builds as she experiences the world continue to feed into and strengthen or weaken (and perhaps eventually destroy) the related islands – again, the defining parts of Riley’s personality and identity.

We can continue this same concept for the marginalized peoples’ ‘Inside Out’ version in that, for individuals who are members of marginalized groups, research shows that they experience racism, heterosexism, sexism, or ableism quite frequently – these are stereotypes and prejudices in action! Thus, marginalized peoples’ corresponding social group island may be constantly fed with inferiorizing, belittling, unpleasant – even traumatic – memories.

Even further, some marginalized peoples’ social group island may not even be fed at all, as it may be very difficult to find any kind of information regarding their social group because of extreme marginalization, small surviving numbers, or history have mostly erased them (e.g., some colonized groups who have experienced cultural genocide). In such cases, the lack of memories to feed the social group island may eventually make it break off into the memory abyss, completely gone and forever forgotten.

Thus, many marginalized peoples’ social group island may be mostly filled with negative experiences, if not lacking or empty, if it even exists at all! And if there are no positive experiences that can buffer or protect against the negative, challenging experiences, then the negativity and unpleasantness of the social group island becomes even more dominant; the negativity becomes almost a solidified part of the individual’s personality. In other words, one’s social group identity – if one even still acknowledges it – is solidified as unpleasant, embarrassing, shameful, or something else negative because of the oppressive messages about one’s social group that is ubiquitous in society.

Such a negative regard toward an important part of one’s personality may lead people to separate themselves from their social group, and even discriminate against or reject other people who are part of the same social group. For example, research shows that as early as by 5 or 6 years-old, children of color may already begin to reject their racial or ethnic group due to the inferiorizing messages they receive from society about such groups. In other words, they’ve come to already hate themselves and their social group – a strong sign of a phenomenon called internalized oppression!

These are some of the reasons why having a negative regard toward one’s social group is related to poorer mental health (e.g., depression) and other troubling concerns (e.g., alcohol and drug use, poor school performance, etc.). These social-psychological ills can be what our protagonist and her (or his) family and friends can be struggling with in the marginalized peoples’ version of the ‘Inside Out’ movie. Drama.

How Social Group Connectedness Benefits Psychological Health

The marginalized peoples’ ‘Inside Out’ movie can go on to end in a positive note, and show that knowing, appreciating, and having a sense of belonging to one’s social group have positive benefits to marginalized peoples’ well-being, just like in the movie wherein Riley’s family (one of her social groups) - her connectedness to them and the many positive and pleasant memories she has of them - often served as buffers against stressors and even catalysts to joy. That is, when she faced stressors, her positive memories function to help her “resist” negative consequences. In essence, previous positive experiences with a particular aspect of her life (e.g., skating with her parents or them watching her play hockey) can operate as a protective factor for when she faces challenging and difficult situations (e.g., losing a hockey game) regarding one of her islands (i.e., the Hockey Island) – one of the core components of her identity.

Similarly, research with individuals who are members of various marginalized groups show that the more knowledgeable they are about the history and modern-day realities of their group, the more they participate in their group’s activities and traditions, the more they value their group’s characteristics (e.g., language), and the more connected they are to other people in their group, the better their psychological well-being (e.g., self-esteem, life satisfaction) tend to be and they also tend to experience lower levels of psychological distress (e.g., fewer depression symptoms). Even further, being connected to one’s social group – often referred to as having a strong racial or ethnic identity when the relevant social group is race or ethnicity – has been found to operate as a protective factor against the negative effects of oppression (racism in this case) on well-being.

And finally, right before the final credits roll, the marginalized peoples’ “Inside Out’ movie can end with the protagonist developing a stronger sense of belonging to and appreciation of her (or his) social group, and more and more islands pop-up and gets developed as she (or he) continues her (or his) journey of discovering all of the different marginalized groups of peoples from all over the world, with whom she (or he) can build connections and fight oppression. Solidarity!

We Can Dream

Of course these are all hypothetical, and there really is no marginalized peoples’ version of the ‘Inside Out’ movie. I can’t help but wonder, however, how awesome it would be to have a nice, entertaining, popular, and age-appropriate conversation starter with kids about stressors (e.g., oppression, cultural conflicts), emotions, coping, and other psychological concepts that are central to the lived realities of marginalized peoples.

A marginalized peoples’ version of the ‘Inside Out’ movie might help us talk about racism, sexism, heterosexism, xenophobia (biases and prejudices against immigrants), and other forms of oppression. It might help many of us to finally understand how our experiences as marginalized peoples may affect our mental health and psychological well-being. It may even serve as a palatable way of making the general society become aware of the challenges that marginalized peoples face on a daily basis. In this sense, the movie can function not only as a useful parenting, and possibly even therapeutic, tool for marginalized peoples; it can open others’ eyes and hearts as well.

Yeah, we can dream.

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About the Author

E. J. R. David, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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