Sunday, July 5, 2015

Through An Introvert's Lens: Inside Out

Beware of spoilers!

Inside Out, Pixar's latest release, tells a surprisingly complex story of what goes on inside one girl's mind as she confronts major changes in her life.  Yet it could also serve as a study of how extroverts routinely undervalue introverts, to everyone's peril.

The movie revolves around an 11-year old girl named Riley who has just moved from Minnesota with her parents to a run-down house in San Francisco (that probably cost $2 million *cough*).  Riley goes from perpetually happy-go-lucky to confused and withdrawn, in part due to the fact that her mental "control room" is in disarray.  That's because Joy, one of her five anthropomorphic emotions and the one who steers her reactions on a day-to-day basis, accidentally got sucked into Riley's long-term memory along with Sadness, leaving Fear, Anger, and Disgust to run the show.  Inside Out chronicles Joy and Sadness's attempts to return to the control room to save Riley from further struggle, and the ultimate acceptance that such struggles are a part of life.

When we first meet Joy, she is perpetually upbeat, almost manic.  She is always trying to make lemonade out of lemons, always wanting everything to stay in the same perfect, golden state, or to dwell on happy memories in the past.  Though well-meaning and fun, she is also domineering, rarely permitting other emotions to interfere, least of all Sadness.

Sadness is introduced as a sad-sack with impulse problems (she can't resist touching formerly happy memories and marking them permanently with sadness), a problem that Joy must solve.  Joy tries to do it by forbidding Sadness from providing input on Riley's first day at her new school (in an "upbeat" way, of course), only for Sadness to slip her bonds and interfere during a crucial moment.  This leads them both to getting sucked into Riley's longterm memory and... you'll have to see the movie to find out.

On one level, this is a movie about our (specifically Americans, though it could apply to varying degrees elsewhere) tendency to prize "happy, upbeat" behavior over inconvenient and messy "negative" feelings like sadness and confusion.  On another level, it could be argued that this is a movie that illustrates society's attitudes toward introverts, and demonstrates how much richer the world would be if introverted behavior were as welcome as extroverted.

That Joy is a stereotypical extrovert is without question.  Talkative, gaining energy through interaction with others, and little focused on her own interior state until she reaches a crucial nadir point in the story.  Sadness comes across as a stereotypical introvert -- or, more crucially, in the beginning, as an extrovert's view of an introvert.  As a refresher, introverts are typically:

  • reserved
  • interested in big ideas rather than small talk
  • need to be alone to replenish after socializing
  • think before they speak
  • prefer to observe rather than be the center of attention

Sadness appears to have many of these traits.  She doesn't say much, thinks it's important to "slow down and obsess over the weight of life's problems," and typically views things in a more circumspect manner (such as when Joy wants to take the shortcut to the Train of Thought).  

To the extroverted Joy, Sadness is such a downer.  Always turning up when you least want her to, whining about life's problems and so mopey that at times, she lies sprawled out on the floor, unwilling to move.  Sadness can't be removed altogether, but she can at least be minimized and ignored.

Yet as the movie progresses, Sadness's persona subtly softens, and we see more of her wisdom and empathy.  During one crucial scene, she comforts a character who has experienced a powerful loss.  By helping him come to terms, rather than ignore the loss and move onward, as Joy would have them do, Sadness helps him find peace.  

I have some quibbles with Inside Out.  Despite portraying Sadness as a necessary part of a healthy emotional life, the story belongs to the extroverted Joy, and largely portrays her journey toward acceptance.  Sadness, to the end, remains an "other" in Joy's story, rather than a complex character in her own right, passively submissive rather than active in her own story.  Moreover, the personification of Sadness being portrayed by an introverted character grates a little.  People are not always quiet and reflective when they are sad, or loud and proud when they are happy.  Introverted does not equal sad.  Then again, an extrovert might take issue with the portrayal of Joy as someone who denies all other emotions, but that's for another blog.

Overall, despite Inside Out falling prey to the same tendencies of much mainstream media -- giving the extroverted character the story, rather than making the introvert and extrovert co-equals -- it at least acknowledges that introverts have a powerful role to play, that their input is just as important as an extrovert's.      

Conclusion

Number of Introverts: One

Is the Introvert Prominent?: Yes

Is the Introvert Active?: Somewhat, though the action is largely dictated by the extrovert

How Do Other Characters Treat the Introvert?: Like an embarrassment that must be hidden, until they (or rather, Joy) learned to appreciate her unique qualities.


The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.